Reflections on Spirit

Note 12: Good Medicine/Bad Medicine. 6/10/99

The old man drew me into an extended period, nearly three months in length, during which I spent several hours every day creating a medicine wheel on the floor of a spare room in my apartment. The process itself was simple enough on its face. I used a piece of cord with a loop tied at one end as a compass with the fixed foot held securely in place with a nail hammered into the cement floor under the carpet. The radii of the two concentric circles were marked on the cord by knots tied at the appropriate distances from the loop-end of the cord. When the string was stretched tightly across the floor the circumferences of both circles were measure precisely along a single radius that could be used to measure and mark all 360* of both the inner and outer circle of the Mayan calendar from any predetermined cardinal point in a circular grid. Since there were going to be 20 stones on the outer circle, one for each named position on its circumference, with Ahau occupying the northern post at 0*, Imix would be located 18* toward the east from Ahau's position. In other words, the angle of separation for the 20 stones on the outer circle was fixed at 18* of circular arc. The distance between the two lengths of the radii of the concentric circles was set according to the extreme/mean ratio with the inner circle measured as the lesser segment, the outer circle as the extreme segment, and with the difference between them set as the mean segment.

While any of this geometrical configuration may appear to be completely arbitrary, a series of decisions I made about the shape of time, about the actual space that time itself can be said to occupy, the truth is that nothing at all about that shape is arbitrary or self-directed in any way whatsoever. The Mayas, according to the old man, used this precise geometrical configuration, not just to count time's duration in a calendrical form (the 260-day almanac), but also to apprehend the real relationship between that duration and the absolute space that its passage consumes and occupies.

I must stop here for a brief digression. Comprehending Mayan perceptions of the relationship between time and space is one of the most complex and difficult tasks that can confront any individual inquisitor. This is true partly because no one used to Eurocentric conceptualizations of reality is equipped to deal with the sophistication of the Mayan ideal of temporal and spatial interanimation. The concept is purely animistic and has no parallel in non- or anti-animistic thought. Time and space in Mayan thinking are essentially the same thing with only a single difference making it possible to distinguish them from each other at all: time is a function, as it were, of spirit, time is spirit, time only happens in a spiritual context, time only exists in the spirit world. Because spirit animates everything in the physical world, in the world where human beings live, where everything that is alive lives, it must have a physical form in which to manifest itself in its essential being-in-the-world. Spirit as Time must have a physical manifestation in order to exist at all in the real world. That manifestation is space itself. In other words, space is what time looks like when it leaves the spirit world and makes it presence felt in the real world. Space and time are the same thing in the sense that space cannot exist in the spirit world any more than time can exist in the real world but what you do have is time in the spirit world and its exact mirror-image twin, space, in the real world. In order for this to work, of course, you must have a bridge between spirit and real. That bridge, according to what the old man has been teaching me, is the geometrical configuration of Mayan time that I have partially described above.

What the old man taught me first was how to measure the distance between the stones on the outer circle of the configuration. When I built the first wheel, I used a plastic protractor to measure the 18* angles between the 20 day-name stones on the outer circle because I did not know how to do it otherwise. Using only the basic configuration itself, that is, two concentric circles whose radii are equal to the lesser and extreme segments of the extreme/mean ratio, then, how is it possible to divide the outer circle into 20 equal parts of 18* each? The only tools at your disposal, of course, are a compass and a straight-edge because the solution to the problem is purely Euclidean. I could wait for you to figure out how to do it but the likely possibility is that I won't live nearly long enough for you to solve the problem. The old man showed me how to do it so I can't really claim the solution as my own. The fact is that exactly one half the mean segment, the difference between the length of the inner and outer circles' radii, measures the length of a chord on the outer circle that subtends 18* of circular arc on its circumference.

The connection this physical characteristic has to the Mayan conceptualization of space and time concerns the fact that the Long Count in Mayan calendrics is based on the interval of time known as the Tun, a 360-day period, one day for each degree of circular arc in the circle, as it were, that is divided into 18 months (Uinal) each of which counts 20 days (Kin). After that, 20 Tun (7,200 days) equals one Katun, and 20 Katun (144,000 days) equals one Baktun. In all, there are 13 Baktun in the Mayan Long Count (1,872,000 days) with each day in the sequence being assigned a particular Calendar Round (18,980 days long) designation composed of one day-name from the Haab sequence (365 days long) and one day-name from the almanac (Tzolkin) sequence (260 days long). Curiously, the relationship between the Long Count, which establishes a continuous sequence of days equivalent to 5,200 Mayan Tun, and the Calendar Round, which supplies the names of those days in cycles of 52 Mayan solar years, or 18,980 days per cycle, factors out to having 98 Calendar Rounds (1,860,040 days) plus 11,960 days in the 99th CR counted out before the 13th Baktun reaches completion. This fact is intriguing for two reasons: on the one hand, the difference is equivalent to 46 almanacs and is also, on the other, the exact length in days of the Dresden Codex Eclipse Table. What this may suggest, since there are a number of multiples of 260 that are effective eclipse calculators, is that the union of the Long Count and the Calendar Round, as the primary calendrical system of the Mayas during the Classic Period, probably came into existence at the same time the Mayas began using the Dresden Eclipse Table as a method of predicting their occurrence. This would be perfectly consistent with reality because a calendrical system that attempts to count both lunar and solar periods simultaneously, as the Mayan system does, would almost certainly need to be based on a point in time when moon and sun stood at syzygy with one another in the visible context of being marked by either a lunar or a solar eclipse.

Getting back to the geometrical configuration itself, and by extension to the reason the extreme/mean ratio comes to play a role in the development of this calenrical technology in the first place, one can make the observation, furthermore, that the relationship between the 260-day Tzolkin and the 360-day Tun, in a strictly numerical sense, rests firmly on the same exact ground that delimits and epitomizes the geometrical configuration which counts it. This is true because in the process of counting out the day-names, and assigning them to fixed positions in the Long Count, relative to the first 360-day interval, 260 Tzolkin names are assigned to the first 260 days of the Tun. When the second group of Tzolkin names are added to the first, in order to reach the completion of the first Tun, 100 days from the second Tzolkin are consumed. This leaves a total of 160 days in the second Tzolkin before it is exhausted by its extension into the next Tun. The ratio between 100 and 160, which is marked exactly by the calendrical transition from the first to the second Tun, as it is counted by the Tzolkin, is precisely the same as the one established by the extreme/mean ratio itself (0.625 as opposed to 0.61803403). There is a real difference here of 0.007 between one value and the other, between real-space and spirit-time, as it were, in the way the Mayas perceived the relationship between this world's space and the spirit world's time. To say that the two are identical is the same as hedging a bet against 0.007% of anything.

When one considers the fact that the Mayas developed this calendrical system from a long series of astronomical observations, and chose their numbers, and chose the relationships that naturally occur between and among them, on the basis of which ones best expressed the actual temporal durations of celestial motion, it becomes clear, even inescapable, that the extreme/mean ratio formulates the best expression of how the periods of sun, moon, and visible planets are related to each other against the fixed sky of the stellar background from the surface of the earth. What this suggests in turn, of course, is that the forces which control and determine celestial motion, such as the mass, distance of separation, and velocity of the objects involved, even gravity itself, can best be understood in the context of extreme/mean ratio geometry. That the Mayas discovered this fact, even if they were not aware of concepts like gravitational force, is obvious in the relationships that exist between and among the numerical values they employed in the creation of their calendrical system.

The old man, then, had me construct a geometrical grid that linked almanac day-names to almanac numbers along the radii of the two circles, and by extension along their diameters, that divided the two circles into 20 equal parts. An important concept that exists here in this structure concerns the fact that the calendar reverses the relationship between the degrees in a circle and the number of days in the uinal. As the numerical stones (1-13) are moved around the inner circle, covering space, as it were, in 20 18* leaps, the actual count of the days progress by 18 20-day periods or uinals. At the end of the process both counts come back together at the prescribed total of 360. At that point the 5 nameless days (Uayeb) are added to the count to transform the Tun into the Mayan equivalent of the solar year at 365 days (Haab) before the process begins again. The inversion between 18 months of 20 days each and 20 divisions of a circle into 18* each to accomplish the desired goal of 360 rests, as I have suggested above, on the conceptualization of space and time being mirror-images of each other that occupy their respective places at either end of a diametrically defined straight line passing through the center of the two concentric circles. Each diameter is actually best thought of as a mirror which contrasts real space (everything in front of its reflective surface and therefore only two concentric half-circles) against spirit time (everything that is only the reflection of the real in its mirror-imaged spirit context). One thing that must be emphasized here is that, because there is no inherent hierarchical structure in native American thought, making a necessary distinction between a real physical object and its spirit-reflection in a mirror, does not imply that one is superior to the other, or that one can lay claim to an existence that the other does not simultaneously share.

When the old man had me begin work on the wheel, it would be fair to say that while he had explained most of this to me over a period of several months, I had no clear grasp of any of the concepts he had expressed. I truly had no idea what he was talking about. At the time, I was still mostly Christian Eurocenrtic in my skin. The first part of the wheel the old man had me build was the eastern quarter centered on the day-name Chicchan at the eastern point of the world directional compass. I built the image of the rattlesnake with the pieces of red quartzite I had recovered from the desert. This act of "creation," of course, reflected a profound reversal in the proper order of reality, a fact I was not completely aware of at the time. According to the old man, the inversion was necessary because of the role coyote had played in my hunting for the stones. The serpent I made with pieces of red stone actually dwelled in the western quadrant of the sky/earth, which is signified by the color black, since I had encountered him on the mesa that was located in diametrical opposition to the place where I had recovered the stones, which was due east of where the wheel was being built, in my apartment, at the center of that diametrical opposition, geographically speaking.

The old man's strategy, having me build the image of the serpent first in the quadrant of the sky/earth that represented birth (of the sun), just a day after he had exposed me to the death-dealing strike of a real rattlesnake, was meant to pull the traditional Christian associations of the serpent in paradise to the surface of my Eurocentric thinking so that I could begin the long and torturous process of (dis)assembling the complex of ideas that constitute the ideology of European perceptions of reality. Since the serpent in the Myth of Eden is associated with Satan, I was brought to a place where I was forced to confront the inevitable possibility that the old man was somehow connected to the devil, that the bridge he wanted me to build between this world and the spirit world, was nothing more nor less than a way to let the very daemons of Hell loose on the earth again after they had been defeated, and banished from human life, by the sacrifice of Christianity's one true Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I cannot really say that I believed in the possibility of such a thing but I was on such bizarre and strange ground that I could not be certainly sure that wherever I was going with the old man's voice in my ear was anywhere I wanted to be.

When it finally came time to open the bridge, I was in a living terror of Hell itself, literally terrified at what was going to happen. As it turned out, of course, all that terror was the by-product of Eurocentric fear of the other, all of which was baseless nonsense and profanity against the truth of animistic belief and practice.

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