- Historic Sites
The Mystery Of Time
June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
What gave all of this its particular point was the fact that these various divisions of time were looked on as burdens, and the separate components—the days, the numbers, the years, and all the rest—were held to be bearers of these burdens. The bearers were believed to be gods. Each day was a god, each number was a god, and so was each month, each year, and so on; some gods had beneficent aspects, and some were quite the reverse—some, in other words, were lucky, others were unlucky, and to find out whether any particular day in the ordinary round of living would bring good luck, bad luck, or indifferent luck the priest-astronomer had to go through an extraordinary series of calculations to see just how the scales were going to balance.
All of this came down to the fact that when the Maya looked at time he did not see a flowing current, an unending tide, as we sometimes do; he looked at a whole set of living gods, each one carrying his own particular burden of time, the separate processions interlocking most intricately, each moment in time governed by a diverse set of deities, some of whom could be assuaged or persuaded by special propitiatory sacrifices, some of them impervious to all human appeals. Astronomy was married to astrology. Many relay races were going on, all of the races of different lengths; time was the journey of many different individuals, each one carrying his own special load, and the journey itself was of infinite extent. It went on forever, each day subject to its own combination of influences, each pattern inevitably repeated, sooner or later, in the unending round of eternity.
This was not simply an interesting game. The Maya had a rigid system of predestination, in which he believed devoutly. Any given day in his life was tightly controlled by a whole concourse of divine beings, the setup shifting from day to day but eventually repeating itself. In addition, there were external influences. The position of various planets, the nearness or otherwise of solar or lunar eclipses, also mattered; there were gods of the upper world, gods of the underworld, gods of the four compass points, gods almost without number, each bearing his own power for good or for evil, each touching one special day in the unending sequence. To know whether he should, on any one day in his life, do anything of consequence—get married, plant a crop, name a child, build a temple, make war on a neighboring state, or what-not—the Maya had to consider an exceedingly complex combination of deities.
In the long run, things came out even; the various auspices that attended any one day—today, five thousand years ago, or two hundred centuries in the future—would recur, sooner or later. The past and the future were oddly the same; history and prophecy, looked at over the long pull, were identical. What had once been, even though it might have taken place aeons ago, would some day happen again. To find out what was going to happen to him at any particular time the Maya, whether he was a humble farmer or the head of the state, had to consult the priest-astronomer, who in turn would consult his records and his knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, and the incomprehensibly intricate theology that went with both.
This priest-astronomer, the repository of most of the thinking and all of the not-inconsiderable body of scientific knowledge which the society possessed, had to probe the mysteries of the past in order to see what was going to happen in the future. He was no mere medicine man; by his own standards he was a scientist, rendering an objective verdict on information which he got by using the best knowledge available to him.
“His premises were at fault,” says Mr. Thompson, “but that he did not know, and in any case the same charge can be made against not a few modern scientists who start with the premise that the stone of materialism will satisfy mankind, ignoring man’s far greater need for the bread of spiritual life.”
There was in all of this a queer blend of the very primitive and the highly civilized. In a way, the Maya were blood brothers to the Iroquois and the Comanches and the other tribes north of the Gulf and the Rio Grande; they were stone-age savages, caught up in a blind animism that entrusted the most profound mysteries of life and death to the cynical medicine man. But in another way the Maya were not savages at all. They were more advanced than their European contemporaries; they were better mathematicians and better astronomers, roaming through endless time looking for answers to riddles which puzzle the twentiethcentury American as much as they puzzled untaught red men 1,500 years ago. Nothing in history is more touching than their quest. The same stars that looked down on Judea were visible in Yucatan, and if what the Maya found was nothing in particular, what they looked for and the spirit that drove them to search were as lofty as anything in man’s experience.