Saturday, August 16, 2014

Barbara Tedlock, from Time and the Highland Maya

In addition to the counting and interpretation of the 260-day cycle, Momostecan divination employs another major technique: the interpretation of jumping or twitching movements in the blood and muscles of the diviner, movements that reflect, on a microcosmic level, the flashing of sheet lightning over the lakes of the macrocosm. The divinatory interpretation of blood movements has been reported over a wide area of Mesoamerica. In Chiapas and other parts of Mexico, and in Belize, the diviner feels such movements in the body of the client, but in Guatemala they occur in the diviner’s own body. My research demonstrates a clear and direct link between the speaking of the blood and the counting of the calendar within a single divinatory performance and also reveals that blood movements may occur anywhere in the entire body. The meanings of these movements are mapped according to a multidimensional scheme.
The systems of interpretation of the day names (among the Quiché in general) and for the blood movements (among Momostecans and perhaps more broadly) are dialectical rather than analytical in their logical patterns. Although some days are predominantly negative and others are predominantly positive, no one day name is totally negative or totally positive in its possibilities. In the blood system, the paired terms proximal/distal (with reference to the fingers) and flesh/bone are in analytical positive/negative opposition; however, the front-back, left-right, over-under, inside-outside, and rapid-slow pairs are in an interpenetrating, dialectical relationship. The center line of the body is not the place where ambiguity or mediation emerges, as it would be in an analytical scheme, but is rather the one vantage point from which differences appear to be in open conflict.
The interpretation of blood movements poses problems for the anthropological attempt to divide rituals for the exploration of nonpresent time into “divination,” which is a dualistic, analytical system that uncovers private illness within the public body, and “revelation,” which is a nondualistic, holistic system that emphasizes the health of society and nature at large.[1] From this point of view, the blood system would appear to be a species of divination insofar as it proceeds according to binary opposition and is directed to the investigation of private illness. Yet at the very same time, it incorporates dialectical complementarities (a holistic dualism whose possibility has not been seriously considered before), together with metaphors that tie it to the world directional system and thus raise it to a cosmic level. The red dwarf C’oxol, who strikes blood lightning into the bodies of diviners with his stone axe, is not merely an occupational divinity venerated by diagnosticians of illness, but is also a symbol of continuing Quiché resistance to spiritual conquest.
Quiché resistance to the replacement of old customs with new ones is based, in part, on Quiché conceptions of time. As in other matters, thought proceeds dialectically rather than analytically, which means that no given time, whether past, present, or future, can ever be totally isolated from the segments of time that precede or follow it. This does not mean that innovations must be resisted, but that they should be added to older things rather than replacing them…
Even such successive creations and cataclysmic destructions of the world as are described in the Popol Vuh involve no analytical compartmentalization of time; rather, each retains heritages from all previous ages. Deer and birds date from the first age, for example, and monkeys from the third; even gods overthrown in previous ages remain a part of later pantheons. Among the contemporary Quiché, the miniature stone animals and fruits collected for household shrines are regarded as relics of a previous age. On a smaller scale, this cumulative sense of time can be seen in the fact that a man who rises from the status of an ordinary daykeeper to that of a lineage, then a canton or ward, and finally a town priest-shaman does so not by passing from one job to another, but by piling one job on top of another.
Accumulation appears again the list of predecessors that a lineage priest-shaman recites before his shrines, or the statement of one such priest-shaman, that “these shrines are like a book where everything—all births, marriages, deaths, successes, and failures—is written down.” Theoretically, there is no limit to the potential length of such a book. This is an important point, because too much emphasis has been laid on the cyclical, or repeating, nature of the Mesoamerican concept of time, in order to contrast it with Western lineal, or historical, time. From the point of view of the 260-day  cycle and the blood movements, time and events certainly repeat themselves, but when the day Junajpu or a movement on the back of the body points to the deed of an ancestor, as they have pointed many times before, the questions next asked will be directed toward discovering the uniqueness of that deed and the actual name of the ancestor.
The investigation of the events of another time, then, involves a dialectic between the cyclical and the lineal aspects of time. The interaction of these same two forces in present time produces a strain along the localized boundaries where one named and measured segment of time must succeed and replace another. The strain is accommodated by treating that boundary as an imbrication, or overlap, rather than an instantaneous transition. The small-scale imbrication of two successive named days is illustrated by the problem of divining the meaning of a dream. Instead of attempting to determine whether the dream occurred before or after midnight, the diviner will question both of the days involved, since one of them “handed the dream over” to the other. In other words, night is a time when the influences of two “successive” Day Lords overlap. The series of permissions sought for the “mixing-pointing” of a novice daykeeper does not get underway all at once but has a partial beginning on 1 Quej and is not considered to be in full swing until twenty days later, on  8 Quej. Further, the end of this series is imbricated with the beginning of the series of permissions for the “work-service.” The latter begins when the “mixing-pointing” has partially, but not fully, come to an end, just as the end of the “work-service” series will be imbricated, in turn, with the time that follows it. A similar process occurs at the boundary between two solar years; the new year is not considered to have finished arriving until its Mam has occurred twice (twenty days apart). That imbrication was a general Mayan pattern is shown by an example (on a still larger scale) from Prehispanic Yucatán, where the idol that ruled a katun (a twenty-day period) had to share its first ten years in the temple with its predecessor; further, it remained ten years after the end of its own reign, to keep company with its successor.[2]
The intervals and imbrications of the 260-day and 365-day calendars are formal and fixed, requiring no ongoing observations of natural phenomena. To track the progress of the seasons, Momostecans watch the comings and goings of stars and the migrations of hawks. During the dry half of the year, achronic and cosmic risings and settings are observed and used in timing agricultural events. The date for sowing corn kernels is determined by a convergence of favorable agronomical, meteorological, and calendrical conditions. Each year, the change of season, from dry to wet and back again, is heralded by the migratory flight of huge flocks of Swainson’s hawks. Since the thermals they ride are created in the vicinity of thunderstorms, the observation of hawk migration accurately predicts changes in agricultural conditions. Swainson’s hawks are also cognitively associated with two important Mayan asterisms: the thieves’ cross in Sagittarius and the hawk, the latter corresponding to Aquila. Each year when Swainson’s hawks migrate southward, in late October or early November, the hawk constellation can be seen at the zenith soon after sunset, with the bent cross in Sagittarius just below it, toward the southwest. Between the disappearance of the actual hawks and the cross, on the one hand, and that of the hawk constellation, on the other, there is a period of imbrication, in which the hawk lingers on as a sign of what has passed.
High-altitude planting of maize begins in Momostenango during March, and in December it is harvested. Mountain maize is sown, as humans are conceived, on a particular day name and number, and plants or babies vegetate or gestate for nine months, ideally culminating on the same day name and number of the 260-day calendar as they got their start. Thus, the growing period of mountain maize, like the human gestation period, may help account for the length of the 260-day calendar. However, given the nature of seed selection and the doubling over of maize stalks, the 260-day calendar may have had a determining role in the development of agricultural practices. On the other hand, since the date for seeding a cornfield and for doubling over the cornstalks is timed by the migration of Swainson’s hawks, and since the southward migration can fall at any point either in October or November, the 260-day almanac can be overridden and the crop allowed time to mature properly. Since the hawks move according to local meteorological phenomena, they provide a mechanism for correcting the agricultural calendar according the actual weather conditions in a particular year…
Further evidence bearing on ancient Mayan astronomy is provided by Mayan directional systems, nearly all of which have both vertical and horizontal dimensions. In all Mayan languages, the terms for east and west indicate a line, or vector, along which the sun rises and sets, depending on the season of the year. The other two directional terms variously indicate the right and left hand of the sun god, the direction of prevailing or rain-bringing winds, highland and lowland, above and below, or zenith and nadir. Mayan directions are not discrete cardinal or intercardinal compass points frozen in space, but rather are horizontal and vertical  lines, sides, vectors, or trajectories that are inseparable from the passage of time. They not only map out the flat world of horizon astronomy, but open the sky to coordinate astronomy as well.
The multimetrical temporal and astronomical observations and rituals described here involve thought patterns that go beyond the simple dialectics of polarization, exemplified by Hegelian and Marxist thought, to include the dialectics of overlapping or mutual involvement. It appears that Mayan peoples once had differing systems of timekeeping for separate areas of their biological, astronomical, religious, and social realities, and that these systems underwent a process of totalization within the overlapping, intermeshing cycles of their calendar.

[1] The separation of divination from revelation has been laid out by Victor Turner, Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual.
[2] Alfred M. Tozzer, Landa’s Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, p. 168.

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