Bird-Singing Sees the Jaguar Sky. (11/16/99-09/04/2001)
Learning how to see the sky, even if not exactly the same way the Maya of the Classic Period did, is a task, even a lifelong occupation, that cannot be accomplished without the assistance of spirit. This statement is, in one sense, redundant simply because the objects that make the sky a thing to be looked at (sun, moon, planets, stars) are themselves considered to be spirit and not matter as we are inclined to believe. While it would make little sense these days to argue against a purely materialistic perception of the objects of time, as they spin their regular courses around this or that imaginary foci in empty space, one almost needs to forget reality (hard solid physical space, even if only gaseous) in order to master the intricacies of the Maya vision of the sky. Theirs, of course, is hardly different than the ones other numerous shamanistic people across the world conceived. In other words, every tribal, shamanistic people in the past and in the world today believe that those points of light out there on the fabric of the sky-mother's skirt are spirits one and all.
To be split in half, rendered dualistic, as it were, by birth and education in your cultural heritage, in your belief systems, as I have been, provides you with a unique opportunity to perceive a single, unified reality from two conflicting, if not opposite, points of view. Bishop Diego de Landa in Mexico at the beginning of the sixteenth century believed so strongly that Maya perceptions of time and the sky were a major impediment to their conversion to Christianity that he attempted to destroy every trace of the written record they had compiled of the motion and interaction of those spirits. To Landa, and everyone who follows his cultural bias, those objects of time, in Maya perceptions of them, were demons, devils, and monsters that denied the very existence and power of the single God Landa worshipped and were therefore worthy of eradication from the minds and hearts of the people he thought he was going to save from a just and deserved damnation if he failed. I know exactly how Landa must have felt when confronted by an entire continent of inferior savage people who held beliefs that radically challenged, even refuted, his own. Europeans in 1520, after all, had no compelling evidence of their own that planets and stars were not precisely what the Maya said they were. No one then in Europe had seen them up close and personal the way Galileo did a hundred years after Landa burned the Maya books and destroyed the signs that pointed to a radically different way to perceive the sky, one that did not include the omnipotent creator in whose name Landa acted with such furious dedication to his cause.
I know exactly how the Bishop felt because the old man drove me out into the desert in the dead of night one time to look at a configuration of stars and planets that struck a knife-blade's worth of fear through me that I'm not likely ever to forget. Even death itself won't take that memory out of my life. Looking back on that experience now I wonder at the way ideas build themselves like walls inside a human consciousness to keep the curious in thrall to false perceptions of the real. The fear I felt that night was multiplicity itself. It had so many sides, so many angles, that I cannot say for sure precisely what it was I feared. One aspect of that fear revolved around the absolute certainty Christianity had always held that the belief systems of native people necessarily drew one into contact with the demons and monsters its theologians claimed lived at the center of pagan ritual and belief. Spirit was devil-driven. Spirits were tools of Satan set out along the path of every Christian's life whose purpose was to snare the unwary into a sin so deep and terrible that one could never escape its destructive power. At some level of my consciousness that night I believed my actions were drawing me into a web of misbehavior that was deadly, that I was taking a first step along a path of eternal damnation.
On another level, walking in the desert after dark was mostly stupid unless you have a very good reason for doing it. That is true because rattlesnakes are inclined to do most of their hunting in the dark and the place I went that night had more than its fair share of snakes. I imagined I could hear them moving across the sand, drawn by the warmth of my mammal's blood which must have signaled them for miles around, since I was bigger, hotter than most any other prey around that night, a beacon's invitation to a meal for every hungry serpent Satan ever dreamed.
That was the real source of my fear, of course; the fear that I had freely chosen to walk a path in desert sand, one I could not resist, that was going to carry me no where else but to hell, bring me nothing but eternal death, a pure and final damning of my soul to timeless torture at the hands of a vengeful God. Standing out there in the dark with only snakes for company, even if I could not see a single one and really had no reason to believe any were within a thousand feet of where I stood, gapping senselessly at the sky, as it were, wondering what I was supposed to see, and seeing nothing much except the fact that I was a fool to be there in the first place and might even be treading on a dangerous ground that could open any minute in my head, if no where else in fact, allowing me to fall, like Adam, through a hole in the fabric of a human sin so terrible and profane that it would force the devils out of hell itself, paradise already being lost, to consume every living thing on the earth. There were snakes and venom everywhere inside my head that night and I was spirit-dead even if I got back safely home after all of it was said and done.
The problem that arose was in the fact that the old man wasn't out there with me like he said he'd be. He sent someone else to take his place. Bird-Singing was the one that came instead of him. I didn't know anything about her then since her appearance that night came nearly half a year before the old man told me who she was. I was walking out alone barely able to see ten feet in front of my face, picking my way through a field of prickly pear and Spanish daggers, greasewood, thornbrush, and desert sage, trying not to trip headfirst into any of that, when I heard a whispered hissing catlike purr of speech telling me how many years had passed since she had seen the jaguar's eyes herself. I nearly dropped dead where I stood. I was easily a mile and a half out in the desert, that far at least from the nearest light I could see in any direction, and a voice I had never heard before, which like the old man's wasn't attached to any body I could see, had just informed me we were out there together to have a look at the jaguar's eyes. There were mountain lions in the area, though as far as I knew they ranged pretty much in the higher elevations 15 or 20 miles to the west and never ventured down on the flat desert floor itself. I knew part of that for a fact, that they lived in the mountains, because I had stumbled across one once about 10 or 15 years before, but had no reason to believe one might be out in the desert where I was that, or any other, night. Bobcats were common. I'd seen their tracks often enough but didn't give that a second thought since they were neither big enough nor mean enough to attack people on an open ground. I had no plans to corner one that night.
Bird-Singing told me I was foolish to be so fearful of a thing I couldn't even see. At first I thought she meant the cat but came around to knowing soon enough she meant herself. Looking sideways toward the source of sound that made her voice a singing whisper in my I ear, I saw a shape transform the night into a denser, blacker space than air itself could be. I would not say she materialized exactly, that she as spirit somehow seized the components of a physical space, whatever they might be, and made a place for herself, her body in the same world I occupied, but it was clear by the way light itself, as little of it as there was that night, seemed to be drawn in to a denser, sharper focus around the space where her voice emerged in time that she was on some edge of being-there in a form more solid than any empty air can be. I could not see anything of substance, not even shadow, just a darker, harder space than any other place around.
I managed finally to fight down my fear enough to speak. "What jaguar are we looking for?" She said, "Look up." We were facing east and just above the horizon I could see the tail of Scorpio, Antares clearly visible in the darkness at that hour. I tracked through Libra, Virgo, and Leo without seeing anything unusual, anything that looked like a jaguar's eyes. I didn't know the constellations very well at the time and so did not really pause at an obvious, but European, possibility in the stars that marked out the Lion. When I got to a point between Cancer and Gemini, I saw the eyes of the jaguar of the night sky. Mars and Saturn were in conjunction with each other just slightly past the local meridian back behind me toward the west. As soon as I saw them Bird-Singing threw her shroud of darkness over me like a net and wrapped me in a band of stellar light so dark and black that everything except the planets vanished from the sky. The earth itself, or so it seemed, fell away beneath my feet and left me floating like a feather in between what passes for some here and there in temporal space.
Bird-Singing, who could not see herself what I was looking at with any eye attached to her own spirit flesh and bone, so to speak, was using me, almost like a telescope, to watch the transit of two spirits as they locked themselves in tandem to create a force in nature that the Maya say has power to transport the sun across the sky it enters after it crosses the western horizon when it sets. The jaguar I was looking at, that was looking back at me, was the one who eats the human heart of sacrifice to keep the sun alive at night. Bird-Singing's eagle-shriek, a sound I'd heard before but didn't understand the day the she-bear knocked me down a mountainside, broke the web of light she'd wrapped me in and put me down again about ten feet beyond the place where I had started out that night to hunt the jaguar of the sky. I don't remember walking there at all. I was simply back at the edge of the desert twenty yards or so from the street where I had chained my bike.
When I got back to my apartment, I began to write the day-names of the 260-day tzolkin in their proper order on a piece of paper: 1 Imix, 2 Ik, 3 Akbal, 4 Kan, 5 Chicchan, and so on to the end. I asked Bird-Singing at some point during our journey together up the night sky what day it was. She said she did not know its name and that I would have to determine that for myself, that the old man believed I was going to be able eventually to solve that very problem, and that she had only been there that night to help me understand the nature of the things I sought. Next to 1 Imix I wrote "Jaguar of the Night Sky, May 12, 1976," and so began the count of the days that did eventually lead to a solution to the problem. At the time, I did not even know that I had seen a conjunction between Mars and Saturn because I could not recognize the planets yet when I saw them in their proper places in the sky. Another thing I missed knowing was that Venus and Jupiter were also in conjunction with each other that same night but on the other side of the sun, as it were, since both were visible in the morning sky about an hour before dawn. While I do not now recall seeing the moon in the sky at all that night, perhaps because Bird-Singing shrouded the sky with her darkness as we eagle-flew the jaguar's path, I certainly should have done because it was full the following night and was eclipsed by the earth's shadow as well.
To put this all in perspective: the lunar eclipse I did not see, or know about at the time, turned out to be the second eclipse after the base-day event (May 25, 1975) in the Dresden Codex Eclipse Table that I ultimately began searching for several years later. 1 Imix was not the proper day-name for the event either, of course, which is something I knew for many years before I came to a point where I could actually say what that day's name was. Saying it now serves only a minimal purpose but one that brings me to an important point in the direction this discourse is bound to take; namely, that understanding the nature of someone else's perception of the sky involves so much more than looking at it with your left eye closed and your right eye open, or vice versa, and pressed against the eyepiece of a telescope that touches all the contours of the past, that there is no way to anticipate how far beyond the limits of the strictly real you'll have to walk to get to a place where you can see anything at all. 2 Caban 15 Ch'en was the name of the day Bird-Singing could not say.
Apart from the fact that it is the first day of the eclipse triad in the second position of the Dresden Table, as it would have been written by the Maya had they survived the destructive force of the European invasion of the Western hemisphere, which always occurs 354 days after the base-day eclipse (177 + 177), the spirit powers that rule that particular combination of numbers and names in the Maya Calendar Round are worth mentioning. The number 2, according to Eric Thompson (Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, U of Oklahoma Press, 1970), symbolizes the spirit of death through sacrifice and is associated with an obsidian (a black volcanic glass) knife-blade, which was used in the blood-letting rituals that bring the sun back from the night sky at dawn. I my mind Bird-Singing is just such a blade. The number 15 is composed of two elements: 10, which is associated with the spirit of death, and 5, which is depicted by the image of an old man who is connected to the maternal grandfather in the clan structures of Maya animism. Caban is associated with the spirit of the young moon; while, Ch'en has the opposite signification as the old moon. In this context, because of the lunar eclipse, there is an obvious sense of transition between young and old moon just before and just after it is full. The easiest argument to make in the context of this structure of day-names (Caban-Ch'en) is that the day in question, if one is counting lunar phases from astronomical new moon as the first day of the cycle, must be taken as the final day of the "young" moon's life since this particular 2 Caban marked the day before full moon. The day after the eclipse (May 14, 1976) would then be the first day of the "old" moon's life as it begins to move back to the end/beginning of the cycle at astronomical new moon 14 days later.
While I generally try to avoid making things more complicated than they need to be, there is a considerable impediment to accepting this "easy" interpretation of the relationship between the young and old moon as it is expressed by the Caban-Ch'en day-name complex here. For reasons connected to an analysis of the Maya calendrical notation known today as the Lunar Series, which is a sequence of signs that usually accompanies a Long Count notation in the monumental inscriptions, and gives the "age" of the moon for the date expressed as a numerical count of the days of the lunar phase cycle from 1 to 29, where 1 is the first day of the moon's age and 29 the last day as the Maya perceived it, starting the count at astronomical new moon in this context denies the factual conditions apparent in the sky. The Maya apparently did not specify in any form we can now read which day of the moon's lunar phase cycle they considered to be the first one. Thompson assumes astronomical new moon because that is consistent with European practice. I am compelled to reject the simple explanation above for one considerably more complex in its sense and articulation, not because I reject European ideology out of hand, but because evidence connected to the eclipse sequence the Maya counted during the Classic Period, specifically regarding a full moon eclipse that occurred on the day before the Katun-ending date 184.108.40.206.0 13 Ahau 18 Cumku and which clearly designated that day (13 Ahau 18 Cumku) as the first day in the lunar phase cycle in the Lunar Series notation that accompanies it. In other words, the first day of the young moon's life is the day after full moon and not a day associated with astronomical new moon as scholars would tend to have it now in a Eurocentric context.
Caban, then, as the young moon, in the date designated for the Mars-Saturn conjunction, falls on the 28th day of the old moon's life (the eclipse itself is the 29th day when the earth's shadow actually makes the moon disappear completely, as it were, from the sky) but anticipates the beginning of the cycle two days later when it is "seen" again after the eclipse. In other words, being eclipsed by the earth's shadow kills the old moon which is then renewed, if not reborn, on the first day after the eclipse. Ch'en, in this same context, still points backward, as it were, to the age of the "old" moon on the day before the eclipse made it "new" or "young" again as it reemerges in the night sky after sunset on the following day after the eclipse. When the "month" of Ch'en began, one day before new moon on the day of a solar eclipse, the moon was entering the final days of its lifefor this particular cycle. Put another way: the shadow of the earth takes the moon out of the sky in exactly the same way that Bird-Singing's darkness took me out of time so that I could see any of this with young eyes when I came back into it again.
Did I mention the fact that Bird-Singing is blind?
The most important lesson I learned from my trip into the realm of the jaguar's sky, even if it took nearly five years for that message to sink down deeply enough in my consciousness to become a useful and practical knowledge, was how impossible it is to comprehend Maya astronomy in its calendrical articulation if you do not employ the whole day-name structure of the calendar. Using only tzolkin day-names in their proper sequence, at 260-day intervals, never gets around to telling you much of anything about how the Maya perceived the regular motions of the sun, moon, planets, and stars. If you do not take your quest to the next highest level in their technology, to the Calendar Round, combining tzolkin and haab day-names in the sequence of 18,980 days, you cannot see the sky the way they saw it. I bring this issue up here for two reasons. Paul Goodman, and everyone who now follows his lead, chooses to look beyond the fact that the Maya in Guatemala in the 1930's were using only the tzolkin day-name sequence in their count of the days. To argue from that fact that they were practicing a Classic Period Maya calendrical astronomy is simply only half right and therefore incorrect. Maya astronomy formulates itself in 18,980 days and does hardly anything at all in only 260 days. When you talk about a single position of Venus in the context of a single interval of 260 days, as Goodman insisted one must do because that is what the Maya were doing in 1930, instead of one that can occur only at intervals equal to 32.5 average synodic periods of the planet (18,980 days), you are not looking at much of anything at all. If you insist on the validity of looking at it in that way, you are not capable of seeing more than a tiny, mostly misleading, fragment of the Maya sky.
What was, and remains, so compelling about the Mars-Saturn conjunction I saw that night (May 12, 1976), and a fact or two about Maya astronomy I did not even begin to understand until nearly 24 years had passed, concerns the fact that solar and lunar eclipses were always connected to, and associated with, Mars-Saturn conjunctions by the people who created the Maya calendrical system in the first place. 16 days before the lunar eclipse, on April 27, 1976, the first day of the Maya "month" of Ch'en occurred in the count. 0 Ch'en, as it is designated by the Maya, is a special day-name in the haab interval by virtue of the fact that it marked the day on which the World Tree was raised by the planetary spirits in the ancient astronomical sequence that began on 220.127.116.11.0 4 Ahau 8 Cumku (April 29, 3171 BC in my correlation). The day in question fell 542 days after the count began and shared its spirit-place with 13 Ik in the 260-day tzolkin. Hence, 0.0.1.9.2 13 Ik 0 Ch'en was the day the World Tree was raised. This date was inscribed in the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico during the reign of Pacal II, who built the Temple. While the count of time began 542 before 13 Ik 0 Ch'en, life itself was not possible until after the World Tree was raised. In the modern count, 2 Caban 15 Ch'en, which designates the day-name of the night on which I saw the Jaguar's eyes in the sky, the night of the Mars-Saturn conjunction, occurred just 14 days after 13 Ik 0 Ch'en. Since paired day-names in the tzolkin and haab occur only after whole intervals of the Maya Calendar Round, only after 18,980 days have passed, there must be an even number of them between the ancient designation for the raising of the World Tree and the day-name that was counted 14 days before the Mars-Saturn conjunction. In fact, the interval from the first to the second designations at 13 Ik 0 Ch'en counts exactly 99 Calendar Rounds. Also true is the fact that a solar eclipse occurred 2 days after the anniversary of the raising of the World Tree on April 29, 1976, a day designated by 2 Kan 2 Ch'en in the modern count.
Being of two minds then, one European, if not scientific, and the other native American, I can say two completely different things about this calendrical circumstance. On the one hand, it is a coincidence that has no meaning or significance whatsoever. At the same time, however, and even with the same breath, I am compelled to assert that the old man drew me out on the desert that night to see exactly everything I needed to see if there was ever to be any hope at all that I would refashion the bridge connecting this world to the spirit-world. In that part of my consciousness that recognizes the voices of the spirit-world, the 5,148-year long interval between one 13 Ik 0 Ch'en and the next, give or take 14 days, amounts to little more than the distance in space and time it took Bird-Singing to craft the vision of the eyes of the Jaguar of the Night-Sky. That the old man managed to get me out on the desert that night, even against my subliminal fears of doing so, only testifies to the determination, and perhaps to the precision, with which any of this motion between one world and the other works itself out across the bridge in time.