Esotericism of the Popol Vuh by Raphael Girard

Theosophical University Press Online Edition

Chapter 12

Cosmogonic, Astronomic, and Chronological Meaning

In these pages we have been following the development of the Quiché text, together with the progressive evolution evident in all aspects of the culture, we have also been pointing out the advance of knowledge in matters of astronomy and cosmogony that is given out in allegorical form in this famous codex. In those sciences progress follows an ascending trajectory and culminates when man has gained full knowledge of the universal configuration. Astronomy is inseparable from the cosmic mechanism, and both are foundations of the calendar. From then on cosmic harmony reigns and man has complete consciousness of his metaphysical position and his relation with the universal principle. This new conception of the world and of life makes possible his dominion over the forces of nature for the purpose of utilizing them to benefit all people, since control of supernatural forces — to which natural forces are now linked — is achieved through new techniques of magic combined with methods of a scientific character.

But such knowledge does not reach its maturity except when Hunahpú, after overcoming the forces of Xibalbá in the dark and strange regions of the underworld and destroying Hun Bátz and Hun Chouén, takes their place in the regency of the world and personifies the Dawn of Quiché-Maya civilization whose distinctive color is red.

In terms of the Maya calendar, this brilliant image of Hunahpú corresponds to Cib (light, torch) and, according to the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, the epoch that it opens up is the 4 Ahau, the equivalent of the Fourth Age of the Quiché codex.

Recapitulating the series of Regents given us in the Popol Vuh, and comparing it with the lists of the Maya and Quiché calendar of the classic period, we get the following picture:

Chilam Balam --------Popol Vuh----------Color-------------Quiché------------Maya
1 Ahau------------------Ixmucané-------------white hair----------Imox--------------Imix
2 Ahau------------------Camé------------------black---------------Camé-------------Cimi
3 Ahau------------------Bátz-Chouén--------yellow pole-------Bátz---------------Chuen
4 Ahua------------------Hunahpú--------------red----------------Ajmák-------------Cib

We have already established the correspondence between the cultural marks of the Third Age of the Popol Vuh and those of 3 Ahau Katún of Maya terminology. The 4 Ahau has the same parallelism with the Fourth Age of the Quiché document. The Chumayel manuscript in fact says that when the 3 Ahau Katún shall have ended, there will appear the line of the noble Princes and that of their descendants, who were insulted by the rabid of their time, the madmen of their Katún, by the son of evil (note that both sources, Maya and Quiché, equate insanity with ignorance and barbarism).

Likewise the point of departure of Maya chronology is a date 4 Ahau at the end of a Baktún 13, and this date, which is the equivalent of the zero point of the Long Count — and is confirmed because the following Baktún is — has had no satisfactory explanation until now. The agreement of Maya and Quiché sources in assigning 4 Ahau, the beginning of the Fourth Age, as the initial date of the cultural era or historical period of the Quiché-Maya peoples, which the Long Count places at the end of the fourth millennium B.C., brings a solution to the problem.

According to Maya chronology, before that age-date there had elapsed 13 complete Baktúns, or a span of 5,200 years, which embrace the prehistoric period, making their beginnings go back to the ninth millennium or approximately 10,500 years before our era.

Although this figure is probable and adjusts itself in principle to information supplied by other disciplines (Girard, Los Chortís, "Archaeology and History"), we cannot regard it as exact but rather as approximate, taking into account the fact that such a definite notion of time did not exist during the prehistoric epoch. Therefore we must consider the 13 Baktúns which possibly embrace the three ethnic cycles of Quiché-Maya prehistory as hypothetical.


On the other hand, there is no reason for rejecting a priori the validity of the age-date 4 Ahau 8 Cumku, which serves as the point of departure of Maya time-reckoning, since it must not be forgotten that in those times the Indian had attained a high intellectual level, formed throughout the three preceding ethnic periods. Moreover, the native is characterized by an extraordinary memory and does not forget even small details over the course of many years. If his ability to reason is not unusually brilliant, conversely to remember information is an innate habit with him, and these mental peculiarities mirror the sources of his education: established doctrine and tradition. It must also be kept in mind that since time immemorial the Indian has known how to use mnemonics, which did and still does enable him to keep accurate accounts.

The Mayas always took great care to link their historic epochs chronologically, with no break whatever, and we have a good proof of this in the continuity of the katún wheels during the Maya-Toltec period in Yucatán, consistent with the system used during the Old Empire, notwithstanding the calendric reforms that altered the timekeeping system (Girard, Los Chortís, "Tzolkín"). When their time-computing method reached its perfection, they fixed the beginning of their historical era in terms of Katúns and also recorded the prehistoric period in the same way so as to indicate that it is incorporated into their chronology as well as their history as part of a continuing process. For that reason the Mayas compute time elapsed, taking into account their prehistoric past — the same system that the Chortís still employ when at the end of each year they add one more knot to their quipu (Ibid., "Ethnology"). This method is reflected in the twists and turns of their language; as discussed in the linguistic part of my larger work (ibid.), the Chortís do not employ the present tense to refer to an action taking place, but rather express it by means of the gerund. Agreeably with the same order of ideas, they tied together the successive ethnic periods, uniting them by means of the Regents which governed each Age, it falling to Hunahpú — the equivalent of Ahau — to close the series.

In no other native American source do we find such detailed information concerning the mythological origin of the cosmic Regents and the explanation of their order of succession. The Mesoamerican tradition has faithfully preserved the recollection of this succession of Regents and of its relative importance, holding the first of the series to be the principal one, even when in their computation they do not use the primary category corresponding to Imix, Cimi, Chuen, Cib. Thus we have the Mexican tradition telling us of the white jaguar — the characteristic color of Ixmucané or Imix — as the captain of the four cosmic jaguars; while for the Mayas the white Bacab is the principal of the four bearers of the sky and the "dominical letter" corresponding to it is ix, the equivalent of jaguar (as shown in the chapter on theogony, Girard, Los Chortís) and the integrating root of the name Ixmucané. In the same way the Chortís begin their static Tzolkín with the sign Imix and follow it with the Second and Third Regent as in the order given in the Popol Vuh. It falls to these two to cover the winter (rainy) period of the Tzolkín, that is to say the dark part of the sky which, historiographically speaking, corresponds to the shadowy period of barbarism. The wheel of the Tzolkín closes with the arrival of the new sun, Yaxkin, which inaugurates the summer season, the time of clear skies, and which corresponds to the coming of Hunahpú.

But there is even more: the Chortí winter series that begins with Imix, continues with the Second and Third Regents and closes with Imix, the same sign that opens and closes the period of the Tzolkín, finally relinquishing the charge to the Solar god. (Cf. details in chapter on Tzolkín, ibid. [Imix, represented by Ixmucané, is the first to inaugurate the worship of the Solar god, her grandchild. — Trans.]) These norms of Chortí ritual correspond admirably with the patterns set down in the Popol Vuh, by which Ixmucané is the First Regent and, after an interlude during which the Second and Third Regents are active, reappears at the end for the purpose of extolling worship of the new sun, just as the Chortí elder continues to do every year in his role as First Regent. In that way the cyclographic score of the Popol Vuh is continually dramatized in the Tzolkín, which invariably begins with Imix and ends in the summer season with the summoning of the Solar deity (Hunahpú). The most surprising thing in this matter is that it is not the Quichés — who wrote the Popol Vuh — but the Chortís who have followed the dictates of the famous codex to the letter, from the beginnings of their culture until the present day.

This affords a brilliant proof of the veracity of the ethnographic reports contained in the chapter on the Tzolkín (Girard, Los Chortís) as well as of the common genesis of the Quichés and Mayas, and at the same time shows that the ritual norms preserved by the Chortís have not varied since the most remote times; therefore, they are the same that took place in Maya ceremonial during the Old Empire.

As explained in the chapter "Theogonic Mechanism" (ibid., see also chapter on religion), the rainy season is compared to a period of struggle and battle, like that through which Hunahpú passed before declaring himself Regent, New Sun or Yaxkin. And this coming forth of the daystar and of the individuality of Hunahpú at the end of the Third Age, after a period during which he did not reveal his name and so did not exist, in the astronomic order symbolizes the awakening of the god-star following its lethargy during the winter solstice. This explains the curious Maya and Mexican legends telling of the halt in the sun's course before it begins its trajectory, legends that mutually support each other. In this regard the Chilam Balam of Chumayel says that in Katún 3 Ahau, the equivalent of the Third Age, the sun was halted in its journey for three months. For his part, Ixtlilxóchitl relates that during the Third Age the sun remained for one full day without moving in its course and resumed its movements when bitten by a mosquito. The Aztecs had a sun ceremony on the day "Four Movement" to commemorate the date on which the star began to move again. And this astronomical phenomenon determines the initial date of the Tzolkín, following the days without name which, as explained elsewhere, symbolize the sun's lethargy. The sun will resume its course because of the magical arts of the elder who throws his darts at it just as the mosquito bit it, pricking the sun to make it wake up and continue its march.

All those legends explain allegorically the origin and initial point of departure of the Tzolkín together with the civil year, at the end of the winter solstice and the unnamed days, the same position preserved for it by the Chortís (Girard, Los Chortís, "Tzolkín"). That calendar could not operate during the prehistoric epoch since its framework rests on the complete series of regents, and only when Hunahpú confirmed himself as Fourth Ahau was the formalization of this perfected timekeeping system possible. From this it follows that the beginning of the Quiché-Maya calendar coincides with that of the historical era. At that time all of the arithmetic elements required for its assembly had been acquired. As noted elsewhere, the baseline of the Tzolkín is determined astronomically by the sun's zenith during its first passage through the parallel, as verified by the position of the Pleiades. The simultaneous ascension to heaven of Hunahpú (sun) and the 400 boys (Pleiades) corresponds with those astronomical events, mythologically expressed by Hunahpú's association with the 400 youths. Concomitantly we have the invention of the vigesimal system of computation (embodied by Hunahpú) and its maximum expression in the number 400 (embodied by the 400 boys), which was at that time the highest exponent of mathematics and timekeeping.

It is well known that Hunahpú, the Solar deity, embodies the primary unit (the kin, sun) or the numeral that forms part of his own name (hun = one, ahpú = sun or blowgunner) which is translated as either sun or day. This number is expressed pictorially by means of a small circle or a sphere, an ideophonetic sign that reproduces the figure of the sun.

But the Solar deity also personifies the cycle, i.e., the greater unit, in the same way as in the cosmic drama it symbolizes the day, the year, or time units of greater magnitude. For this reason cycles, eras, or ages are compared with suns, as is the day or the year. In his very anatomy the Solar deity also embodies the vigesimal unity by his extremities, which total the 20 fingers and toes of his hands and feet, forming One Man; while a single one of his extremities, or better his entire body placed in a cruciform position, expresses the number five, the equivalent of the Solar deity's name (Girard, Los Chortís, "Theogony"). This equivalence stands out better in the names of Ce Xóchitl (One Flower) and Macuilxóchitl (Five Flowers), Mexican deities which as we noted are functional equivalents of Hunahpú. This shows that the mathematical or timekeeping system reflects the native monotheist principle, which is the concept of plurality within unity.

We have moreover seen that Hunahpú symbolizes the figure twenty in the dances that he performs before the Lords of Xibalbá, in accordance with norms that he exemplifies for the first time and which continue to be observed today by the natives who dramatize their arithmetical and chronological system in dances (ibid., chapter 13). The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel (in the "Book of the Month") places the invention of the twenty at the end of the account of the creations: simultaneously with the appearance of the four Regents, called Ah-Toc, "was the Month created," says this Yucatecan source, giving the list of the twenty names of the uinal which "went to the middle of the sky and took each other's hands. And each getting to know the others, the days said: 'thirteen and seven in a group.' This they said so that their voice would be heard." The text adds that "the relation of the days, day by day, must be read beginning from the east, according to the order in which they are." This natural order is that indicated by the course of the sun, following Hunahpú's triumph.

In both the Maya and Quiché sources, concretely in the first, allegorically in the other, we find the elements of the mechanism of the Tzolkín with its internal articulation based on the numbers 20 and 13, whose origin is attributed to the Solar god. We have also a record of this in the traditions collected by Fray Gabriel de San Buenaventura in his Calepino, where he says that the first to find the letters of the Maya language and to make computation of the years, months, and ages and teach all this to the Indians, was an Indian called Kinchahau (Maya Solar god) and by the other name of Tzamná (Maize god). Both these functions are brought together by Hunahpú, the prototype of the True Man. This connection between the civilizing hero and the invention of arithmetic and agriculture appears as well in the system of measurements of the milpa which is based on the unit called hun winik (one man), derived by multiplication of the figure 20 (20 x 20 = 400). Here we see the method used by the Mayas for obtaining the cabalistic cipher 400 which intimately links the Pleiades to the Solar deity.

In the Book of Chilam Balam of Maní there is a list of the twenty days of the month, with their attributes and prognostications. Each day is a dawn or yahalcab, which A. Barrera Vásquez translates literally as "the awakening of the world." The same expression appears in the Chumayel document which says that "the Month was created when the earth awoke." These are eloquent references to Hunahpú's double function as god of Dawn and symbol of chronological unity.

In the Maní list, which is astrological in character, we find references that can only be explained in terms of the Popol Vuh. Let us take for example the day Cimi (equivalent of Camé) — whose sign is an owl (the messenger from Xibalbá) — whose augurs are dullness, the assassin, and the destiny of a very bad man — characteristics descriptive of the cultural state of the Third Age (ignorance, human sacrifices, wickedness). Conversely Chuen, whose sign is an artisan in wood (recall the Age of wood) and of weaving (female industry invented by woman during the matriarchal cycle), has as its prediction: to be Master of all the arts (Hunahpú's older brothers are described in the Popol Vuh as great artisans). (According to information supplied by A. Barrera Vásquez.)

The numbers 13 and 9, associated with the 20, are inseparable from the Tzolkín. Thirteen already appears in the list of the 12 gods which in union with the central deity form the thirteen-complex. With regard to the 9, we know that this number represents a feminine concept (cf. Girard, Los Chortís, "Religion"). The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel confirms this in the following terms: "These nine gods manifested themselves in nine faces of king-men of the mat of the second time, which arrived within the 3 Ahau Katún. The nine gods will close the cycle of 3 Ahau Katún." The relation of the 9 with the Third Age could not be more clearly expressed. Furthermore, we cite the transcription of Juan Martínez Hernández (mentioned by Genét) regarding the 9 gods: Bolón ti kú (god-Nine) created women who had no parents (ix-maymob), and who, with no husband (ix-machiamob), give their lives to the ah-numeyaob (the people who suffer).

Basing ourselves upon the teachings of the Popol Vuh, we can reconstruct the history of development of the Maya calendar as follows:

Ixmucané and Ixpivacoc, equivalent to Oxomoco and Cipactonal of Mexican mythology, create the lunar calendar during the matriarchal-horticultural cycle. Both because of the legal position of the male who had not then become a "true man" and the description of the imperfect creature of that epoch who had no extremities, we are unable to think of a calendar based on the vigesimal system, the paradigm of the great True Man with his twenty fingers and toes which were a center of interest.

This can be proven by recourse once again to comparative ethnography, inasmuch as peoples who preserve the Third-Age culture govern themselves by lunar computation. Aside from the information collected by the author among the Taoajkas Indians of Mosquitia, we know that the Talamancas used the system of lunations to measure time, and the period during which the cadaver had to remain in the air during the initial phase of the secondary burial consisted of nine moons. Lunar mythology characterizes the culture of Arawak peoples. Among certain groups of the Tupi-Guaraní family the mourning period lasted for one lunar cycle (Arthur Ramos, Las Poblaciones del Brasil, Mexico, 1944). We could add to these references, but the above suffice for our purpose. The linkage of the cabalistic number 9 with the lunar calendar, an association that is carried on in Maya computation, should be noted. The number 9 was the beginning of the framework of the tun, divided into 2 series of 9 uinals.

This was because, as we have several times repeated, Maya culture incorporates and reinterprets elements from previous epochs. On formalizing the Tzolkín, just after the coming of Hunahpú which corresponds to the advent of agriculture and the patriarchal regime, the ancient calendar combines itself with the solar count to form the new system of lunisolar computation. Thus the primary form of the calendar continues to maintain itself throughout the whole of Maya history and comes down to our time. We have powerful testimony of this in the inscriptions in stone, in the lunar series in the Dresden Codex, and in the actual practices of the Chortís (see Girard, Los Chortís, "Tzolkín").

As happens during the first phase of all great discoveries, the lunar calendar was an imperfect system for determining the time for preparation of the soil, the burning of the fields, and the date for sowing — operations that were the practical cause for the invention of the calendar and of astronomical observations. With creation of the Tzolkín, a great step forward was accomplished because this instrument allowed prediction with complete exactitude of the dates on which those serial operations had to take place in the milpa.

But the Tzolkín has its roots buried in the deep subsoil of Maya prehistory and, when it appears in its initial form, it already possesses its essential features as an instrument with which to calculate the time for preparing the fields and to perform an astrological function. This is demonstrated by the preservation of those features in cultures corresponding to the prehistoric horizon. We have already noted that the Talamanca Indians, like the Chortís, believe in days of evil shadow, those that in the Maya calendar are represented by black numbers (Girard, Los Chortís, "Ethnography"). Among peoples that preserve Third-Age cultural practices concerning foretelling the future, astrology and curing the sick are the business of wizards or medicine men. These same functions are carried out by the Maya or Chortí elder, the sole interpreter of the Tzolkín as well as the doctor (chac) of the community. Thus it is that the primary forms of the calendar as well as the Mayan institution of elders (chan) go back to the cycle of their prehistory, which is that of history for those peoples that did not progress along with the Quiché-Maya.

The Tzolkín is the point of departure of the complete time-recording system of Mayan and Mexican chronology. And that system is founded upon the method of combining and elevating to greater power the series of this religious-agrarian calendar (see demonstrations given in the chapter on the Tzolkín, ibid.). Such time periods were conceived as closed cycles like those of the prehistoric epoch which always terminated with an apocalyptic catastrophe. For this reason it was believed that the end of the world could come about at the end of the cycle, an idea that has endured until this day in some Mexican quarters. Only the Mayas freed themselves from this fear by creating a practically infinite cycle.

In the same way, the system of changing calendric Regents to mark a historic point of change had its inspiration in the function of the first Regents, which pertained to distinct ethnic periods. We have seen elsewhere that the successive slippage of Regents that occurs in the Maya calendar of Yucatán expresses distinct historical situations.

The series of Regents that the Popol Vuh gives us is, as said, the one that corresponds to: Imix, Cimi, Chuen and Cib of the Maya count, whose cycles invariably terminate on an Ahau day and therefore begin on Imix, the day that follows Ahau. Those Regents marked the divisions of the Maya and Quiché calendar, while these peoples shared a common culture and did not have to record any historical event of importance to one or the other of them.

Chapter 13