The Accession and Death of 18-Rabbit at Copan, Honduras. (01/30/2001)

It has long been assumed that most dates inscribed by the Maya during the Classic period commemorated events in the lives of the individuals who ruled the ceremonial centers where those events occurred (Proskouriakoff 1960). One consequence of this view has been the rise of a general perception among scholars that astronomy played no essential role in date selection in the inscriptions because people are not born and do not die according to prescriptions of time linked to celestial motion. At Copan, for instance, a ruler named 18-Rabbit acceded to the throne of that ceremonial complex at 7 Lamat 1 Mol (Schele and Freidel 1990:29), which corresponds to February 24, 638 A. D. (Julian Day #1954142) in the 12 Lamat Eclipse correlation used in this study to fix the temporal locations of Maya dates in the European Julian Day List. 18-Rabbit's death apparently occurred a little more than 42 years later at 6 Cimi 4 Zec on December 18, 680 A. D. (Julian Day #1969780). This date, however, was not recorded on any surviving monument in Copan itself but was inscribed on several stone monuments at Quirigua (Stela D, for instance), which is a neighboring, and perhaps rival, ceremonial center located approximately 45 kilometers northeast of Copan. According to Linda Schele and David Freidel, a war broke out between the two ceremonial centers and 18-Rabbit was captured during a battle by Cauac-Sky, the ruler of Quirigua who had been placed on that throne with some form of political assistance from Copan's dynastic family some 13 years earlier at 12 Caban 5 Kayab. Cauac-Sky then sacrificed the Copan ruler at 6 Cimi 4 Zec, sealing the date of his death (Schele and Freidel 1990:317). While this reading of these dates may reflect a credible ground of interpretation, there are significant questions that can be raised about its validity when astronomical events in the 12 Lamat Eclipse correlation are analyzed in the context of its calendrical structure.

18-Rabbit, for instance, has been credited with rebuilding Temple 22 at Copan on pre-existing architectural remnants that were discovered beneath its present configuration during excavations conducted by William Fash in 1987 (Schele and Freidel 1990:n23, p486). The Temple, as it now stands, was dedicated at 5 Lamat 1 Zip on November 11, 657 A. D. (Julian Day #1961342), which marked the first Katun anniversary of 18-Rabbit's accession ritual. A unique and significant feature of the Temple's architecture is the existence of a window in its western-facing wall whose central axis line is oriented at +278*25'00", or at 8*25' of circular arc north of true west (+270*00'00"). According to Anthony F. Aveni, the sun sets at this orientation, as seen from the window in Temple 22, exactly 20 days after vernal equinox (and also 20 days before solar zenith passage) in the spring and the same number of days both after solar zenith passage and before autumnal equinox in the fall (1977:9-14).

Aveni also argues that this astronomical configuration was deliberately placed in the architectural structure of the Temple to embody the most probable cause of the unique structure of the Maya calendrical system itself, since virtually every aspect of it depends on counting time in multiples of 20 days (1991:320). The 260-day tzolkin, also known as the almanac, is composed of 13 numerical coefficients and 20 names, where each specific day-name in the sequence is designated by a combination of one sequential number and one name, and where no single day-name can repeat until all combinations of the two elements have occurred (13 x 20 = 260 days). The Maya tun, which is broken down into 18 uinals of 20 days each (18 x 20 = 360), and which is the central element of the Maya Long Count (LC) notation, obviously follows this same pattern. After each 20-day month has been counted (always in the same order), a final group of five days, called Uayeb, is added to bring the count of the days to a total of 365 days. This second interval is the Maya equivalent of the solar year, called haab, and does not include intercalary days for "leap" years. Tzolkin day-names were combined with positions in the haab (always in the same sequential order) to create the interval known as the Calendar Round (CR).

In a purely practical application, and because of this calendrical structure, days of vernal equinox, window orientation, and solar zenith passage, will always follow the same pattern of occurrence (in reverse order, however, in the fall with solar zenith passage first, followed by window orientation and autumnal equinox afterwards); that is, the 260-day almanac day-name for each will fall on the same designation in the list of names with numerical coefficients advancing by seven (20 - 13 = 7). At the same time, the haab designations for these events, if they do not cross the five "nameless" days of Uayeb, will have the same numerical coefficients in three consecutive uinals. What this means, of course, is that days of occurrence in the Calendar Round (CR) for these positions of the sun are essentially predictable by exact day-names in the CR and LC notation as soon as any of the three days is identified by observation in the same calendar year. To say, then, that the Maya calendar was developed in every essential aspect of it formal structure so that it would count these solar events in precisely this way, which is certainly not an unreasonable assertion to make, also suggests that the orientation marker epitomized by the window's central axis line in Temple 22 at Copan must have been known to and used by Maya astronomers well before the Temple's renovation by 18-Rabbit, since the effect, counting by twenties in a unique calendrical system, cannot precede the cause, knowledge that equinoxes, window orientations, and solar zenith passages, always occur at 20-day intervals in real time.

This fact is actually confirmed by other and related aspects of Copan's architectural alignments and orientations. As Aveni points out (1977:9-11), and drawing from the work of other scholars (Morley 1925; Spinden 1913), a baseline drawn between Stela 12, on the eastern ridge of the Copan valley, and Stela 10, on the western ridge, marks an orientation equivalent to +278*51'00". This baseline was coordinated exactly with the one that exists at the central axis of the window in Temple 22, where the difference between them compensates for the fact that the baseline between stelae does not pass directly over the window itself, so that a person standing in front of Stela 12 will see the sun set behind Stela 10 on the same day that the sun reaches its setting azimuth at the central axis line of the window in Temple 22. By virtue of recorded dates (Aveni 1977:11), at 6 Ahau 13 Mac and 12 Ahau 8 Ceh on Stela 12 and 3 Ahau 8 Yaxkin on Stela 10, it is obvious that Temple 22 was designed by 18-Rabbit to recapitulate the setting orientation of the sun that was put in place some 62 years prior to the dedication of his Temple when Stela 12 was dedicated at 12 Ahau 8 Ceh (on June 2, 595 A. D.-Julian Day #1938534). One thing the doubling of the same orientation tells us is that it would have been difficult, even impossible, for Maya astronomers to misconstrue the day on which the sun set behind Stela 10, since it was possible to make two independent but simultaneous observations of the same event on its day of record. It is also possible, of course, that the original temple, the one 18-Rabbit over-built, contained a structural feature in its design that enabled this same doubling of observation.

Aveni also takes note of the fact that a second orientation, at approximately +276*45'00", can be viewed from the window in Temple 22 when the sun sets behind Stela 10 on the western ridge of the valley (1977:14). This position of the sun always occurs four days before the sun reaches the central axis of the window in the spring, when it is moving from south to north along the horizon, and again four days after it reaches the window's center-line as it is moving from north to south in the fall. This additional orientation, since it "warns" an observer of the sun's approach to the window's mid-line in the spring, and confirms that same position after the fact in the fall, makes it even that much more unlikely that the astronomers of Copan ever failed to identify exactly the days on which these events occurred during the Classic period.

The reason any of this matters, and the probable cause behind the lengths to which the Maya went to codify the precise dates on which these events occurred, concerns the fact that a mathematical quantifier exists in the Maya calendar that can be used to predict the exact days of occurrence for these solar events over long periods of time. The value in question is equal to the number of days counted by 59 consecutive turns of the 260-day almanac at 15,340 days exactly. This same value simultaneously counts 42 solar years (at 365.2422 days each) at 15,340.172 days exactly. Because the differential between these two values is so small in real time, at .172 days, the Maya calendrical interval in the almanac can be used to predict the day-name of occurrence for these solar events six consecutive times before a single whole day of regression accumulates between the event and the day-name that designates it (where 6 x .172 = 1.032 days). Hence, for a period of 252 years (6 x 42 = 252), the same almanac day-name, over the necessary interval of 59 almanacs, always designates the same event (equinox, window orientation, and solar zenith passage) as time moves forward. With regard to the haab designation for these events, an advance of 10 days exactly occurs over each 42-year interval as time moves forward (15,340 365 = 42 + 10), with a corresponding shift of 10 days backward in the haab designation for any back-counted dates.

As noted above, the interval separating the accession of 18-Rabbit and the apparent death date recorded for him at Quirigua is equal to a little more than 42 years (15,638 days exactly). Since it is true that the accession ritual occurred 22 days before vernal equinox (February 24, 638 A. D. as opposed to March 18, 638 A. D.), on the one hand, and the death date fell 90 days after autumnal equinox (November 11, 680 A. D. as opposed to September 19, 680 A. D.), on the other, where vernal equinox is separated from autumnal equinox in the same solar year by 186 days, the solar events at the accession ritual must necessarily have occurred on the same almanac day-names that subsequently marked them at the death date. This is true and inescapable because the difference between the calendrical interval from accession to death and the value of 59 turns of the 260-day almanac, at 308 days exactly, is accounted for by virtue of 22 + 186 + 90 +10 ("leap" days in 42 years) = 308 days exactly.

Data for the events in question are given in the following tables; first for the ones associated with the accession ritual beginning at 7 Lamat 1 Mol, and then secondly, for the same events associated with the death date at 6 Cimi 4 Zec (Schele and Freidel 1990:29). Also included in the tables are proper dates of occurrence for summer and winter solstice, since they also follow exactly this same pattern.

Table 1: Solar Events at the Accession of 18-Rabbit at Copan

Maya Long Count Notation
Universal Date
Julian Day Number
Event 7 Lamat 1 Mol February 24, 6381954142 Accession of 18-Rabbit at Copan 3 Oc 3 Ch'en March 18, 6381954164 Vernal equinox Sun dcl +00*05'06" at sunrise 6 Cimi 19 Ch'en April 3, 6381954180 Sun azimuth +276*56'10" at Stela 10 Copan 10 Oc 3 Yax April 7, 6381954184 Sun azimuth +278*27'09" at window Copan 4 Oc 3 Zac April 27, 6381954204 Solar zenith passage 5 Akbal 16 Mac June 19, 6381954257 Summer solstice Sun dcl +23*36'42" 6 Cib 9 Pax August 11, 6381954310 Solar zenith passage 13 Cib 9 Kayab August 31, 6381954330 Sun azimuth +278*12'17" at window Copan 4 Ahau 13 Kayab September 4, 6381954334 Sun azimuth +276*37'43" at Stela 10 Copan 7 Cib 9 Cumku September 20, 638 1954350Autumnal equinox Sun dcl -00*00'01" at 14:35:46 PM 5 Chicchan 13 Zotz December 18, 6381954439 Winter Solstice Sun dcl -23*36'44"

A second reason for including the dates for winter solstice in this data emerges from the fact that, in this first example, the day of record for it, at 5 Chicchan 13 Zotz, falls exactly 259 days after the sun reaches its setting orientation behind Stela 10 as viewed from the window in Temple 22 at Copan (at 6 Cimi 19 Ch'en).

Table 2: Solar Events at the Death of 18-Rabbit at Quirigua

Maya Long Count Notation

Universal Date
Julian Day Number

Event 3 Oc 13 Ch'en March 17, 6801969504 Vernal equinox Sun dcl +00*01'27" at sunrise 6 Cimi 9 Yax April 2, 6801969520 Sun azimuth +276*52'07 at Stela 10 Copan 10 Oc 13 Yax April 6, 6801969524 Sun azimuth +278*23'12" at window Copan 4 Oc 13 Zac April 26, 6801969544 Solar zenith passage 5 Akbal 6 Kankin June 18, 6801969597 Summer solstice Sun dcl +23*36'34" 6 Cib 19 Pax August 10, 6801969650 Solar zenith passage 13 Cib 19 Kayab August 30, 6801969670 Sun azimuth +278*18'28" at window Copan 4 Ahau 3 Cumku September 3, 6801969674 Sun azimuth +276*43'58" at Stela 10 Copan 7 Cib 19 Cumku September 19, 680 1969690Autumnal equinox Sun dcl +00*00'57" at sunset 5 Chicchan 3 Zec December 17, 6801969779 Winter solstice Sun dcl -23*36'36" 6 Cimi 4 Zec December 18, 6801969780 Death of 18-Rabbit at Quirigua

While it might be possible to argue that this calendrical structure is arbitrary and unmotivated by any concern other than the desire on the part of the Maya at Copan and Quirigua to record accurately the days on which 18-Rabbit acceded to the throne of Copan and then died at the hands of Cauac-Sky at Quirigua, a single element in the actual structure of the dates that mark relevant solar events make that assumption highly unlikely and even quite literally impossible. This is true because on April 3, 638 A. D. (Julian Day #1954180) the sun reached a setting azimuth of +276*56'10", which placed it close to the orientation of Stela 10 as viewed from the window in Temple 22. This is the proper day for that orientation at the time because the day of record for the event fell four days prior to the day on which the sun set at +278*27'09", just two minutes and nine seconds of circular arc past the orientation of the mid-line of the window in Temple 22. The day of record for the event was 6 Cimi 19 Ch'en. Following this event, and 15,340 days later as the almanac interval prescribes, the sun reached at setting azimuth of +276*52'07" on April 2, 680 A. D. (Julian Day #1969520), which again placed it very close to the orientation of Stela 10 on the western horizon at Copan as viewed from the window in Temple 22. The day of record for this event was 6 Cimi 9 Yax. Exactly 260 days after this second solar event, at 6 Cimi 4 Zec on December 18, 680 A. D. (Julian Day #1969780), the individual credited with building the Temple from which these setting positions of the sun were observed was executed, according to contemporary scholars, by the ruler of Quirigua, Cauac-Sky, who had captured him during at battle in a war that had broken out 13 years after 18-Rabbit had assisted in his elevation to the throne of Quirigua.

An additional fact that emerges here is that winter solstice always follows the day of the sun's setting orientation behind Stela 10 as viewed through the window in Temple 22 after exactly 259 days. A random survey of dates from 373 A. D. forward to the positions listed here confirms that this interval never varies. As a result of this necessity, of course, it is always possible to predict the day of winter solstice in the Maya Calendar Round as soon as the day of the sun's setting orientation behind Stela 10 is established. 18-Rabbit's death date at Quirigua makes it obvious that Maya astronomers were aware of this astronomical certainty in their calendrical system. It might even be appropriate to argue that the dates for the accession ritual and the death of 18-Rabbit were chosen to illustrate and preserve both the underlying cause of the calendrical system, counting days in groups of twenty to fix positions of equinoxes, solstices, and solar zenith passages, and to create a permanent record of a practical application of that calendrical technology at the same time.

Since it is true that these dates precisely fix a calendrical structure that both demonstrates and preserves two obvious functions of the 260-day calendrical interval, first to count the number of days that always separates the sun's setting orientation behind Stela 10, as seen from the window in Temple 22, and winter solstice, at 259 days exactly, and simultaneously shows the repetition of tzolkin day-names and haab designations for these solar orientations after 59 turns of the 260-day interval itself, any interpretation of the meaning of these dates, and the inscriptions which express them, that does not include their obvious astronomical significance falls well short of telling us what these dates were meant to express. This oversight is especially troubling in light of the fact that 18-Rabbit, whose life and reign these dates define, was the individual credited with creating the very architectural features in Temple 22 that preserve the orientations on which this calendrical structure was based. What we have instead of recognition of the fact that Maya astronomers were able to count and predict the exact days of occurrence for essential solar positions as an integral part of their calendrical system, is a story about a Maya ruler (Cauac Sky) so ungrateful for his elevation to a position of power in Quirigua, by another Maya ruler (18-Rabbit) at Copan, that he initiates a war against his "rival," captures him in battle, and then executes him for that political sponsorship. The point to be taken here is that use of the Goodman-Martinez-Thompson correlation, which supplies a different astronomy for these dates and one which does not reveal these same solar orientations for them, also makes it possible to tell stories about the Maya that may obscure more than they reveal about the actual nature of their cultural imperatives during the Classic period.

In this particular case, especially, the absence of that astronomy is troublesome. What we see instead of the ability to count the exact interval of the solar year over both brief and extensive periods of time as a natural consequence of the Maya calendrical system is an act of savage brutality supported by a questionable motivation on the part of its principal actor (Cauac-Sky) that clearly suggests the people of the Classic period were oblivious to the achievements of their greatest thinkers and architectural planners (18-Rabbit) and capable only of waging senseless wars against their neighbors. A history of that kind may well characterize European experience during the early Middle Ages but it seems highly questionable at best to read that same value structure into the inscriptions that record the accession and passing of 18-Rabbit at Copan, Honduras.