Mayan Observation of Venus

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Mayan Observation of Venus

Post by solarity »

“With this item you can look at the sun” said the Mexican trinket vendor. He was one among many lining the trails and pathways around Chichen Itza, all selling a variety of Mayan 'artifacts.' While meandering among them we stopped at one whose wares were obsidian artwork: carved figurines, knifes, spear-heads, etc. He showed us a silver-dollar sized obsidian disk, and told us it was used to view the sun. To demonstrate, he held it to his eye and looked at the sun, then handed it to me, and I quickly confirmed it worked. I asked him how he knew this was possible. (“¿Como puedes saber sobre este mirando?”) He answered that everybody knows this. (“Todos lo sabe.”)

Though unknown to me, filtering sunlight with obsidian was apparently common knowledge among the Maya. Although I had never thought about it, I educed several more questions in my mind. Such as, how many past Mayan generations knew of this technique. (Probably dozens, possibly hundreds.) Also, could an obsidian filter be a device that aided the Maya in observing transits of Venus?

This latter question was spawned by an article I had read several years ago which suggested that post-classic Maya were the first humans to observe a transit of Venus.* The article, written by Jesus Galindo Trejo and Christine Allen (T&A), presents effective evidence that the transit of either 1153 or 1275 was observed at Mayapan. Among the substantial research reviewed in the article, they focus on these two dates for several reasons. Principally due to the chronological proximity to other evidence, and that these transits were visible at Mayapan and at dusk.

A dusk viewing was preferred because it would provide for a naked-eye sighting, and therefore would be seen by many scholars. T&A believe that a mid-day observation could have been possible using a camera obscura. But since the setting sun is directly viewable, there would have been widespread observation of a transit occurring at dusk. Curiously, T&A never mention an obsidian filter which was probably understood and available at the time, and which would also have allowed for massive viewing.

How early was the obsidian sun-filter technique known? Obsidian was a very common material for Mayan knives and spearheads. It had been used by them and their predecessors for many centuries. For a millenium, multitudes of Meso-American warriors wandered about carrying such tools. They would certainly have known that obsidian was translucent. And it is very conceivable that many men chanced upon its ability to safely filter the mid-day sun, allowing direct observation. Such a discovery would have rapidly spread, producing a highly probable reason for this technique becoming common knowledge.

Why would they want enable direct, naked-eye observation of the sun?

For centuries, the Meso-American cultures made copious observation of the heavens. The sun, moon and Venus, being the most prominent heavenly bodies, were of special significance. Like most primitive cultures, these bodies were worshiped as dieties. They knew Venus’ period, its ratio to earths period, and that it cycled in about equal periods in the evening then the morning, between which it was unseen for a time. Would they have been curious regarding where it was when it could not be seen?

Venus was of immense importance because it was associated with the major god Kukulkan. One myth about Kukulkan, says he lived as a man, died, and was resurrected as a god! The phases of Venus roughly parallel these cycles. It lives in the evening as a man, disappears for a short period, then reappears at dawn as a god, portending resurrection. Sunrise, after all, being an ancient and traditional time of prayer.

The Maya kept substantial records of various heavenly events which were summarized into several tablets called codices. The Dresden Codex contains both solar and lunar eclipse tables, as well as Venus events, for example. These tables represent the culmination of centuries of research, and prove that Maya made and recorded detail observations, and had processes in place to pass this accumulated knowledge between generations.

The Venus table of the Dresden Codex was compiled around the year 1200. But Venus was important and closely observed much earlier. The table records 65 Venus cycles, using the dates for its phases: heliacal morning rise, occultation, evening rise, occultation. It begins in the year 623, and its practical base is 25 November 934. Because this date binds it closely with the Mayan Calendar, and is the first day of Venus’ rise as a morning star.

These facts indicate that very detail records were probably begun in early in the tenth century. What event might have provoked this effort? A transit of Venus occurred on 23 November 910. (Exactly three inferior conjunction Venus cycles before 934!) Such an event would have been a miraculous observation of the exact day when Kukulkan transitioned into a diety, the exact instant of rebirth!

Interestingly, the concept that a significant event occurred in the early tenth century is also the basis of a hypothesis of Gerardo Aldana of UCSB. His contention was reported on, August 22, 2016:** “The combination of the [Dresden Codex] text and table reflects a sophisticated scientific method of observation at a specific point in time ... in the 10th Century. There’s this 25-year period, a window, when an astronomer could have been making these records. This [was] Mayan Copernicus, whose name is unknown...” The period of this window being the years 910 and 925.

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*"Mayan Observation of 13th Century Transits of Venus," by Jesus Galindo Trejo and Christine Allen, Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union, June 2004

**“The Maya Were Tracking Planets Long Before Copernicus,” by Tia Ghose,, August 22, 2016
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Re: Mayan Observation of Venus

Post by Simon21 »

Venus, as the morning star, was important to many cultures across the globe. Many Koorie clans had ceremonies to greet its rising.
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Re: Mayan Observation of Venus

Post by kbs2244 »

He answered that everybody knows this. (“Todos lo sabe.”)

A classic oral histories response.
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