The Tree of the World

The Mayas also studied the movements of the stars, especially those of the Milky Way. The Milky Way was seen as a heavenly counterpart of the sacred tree, the ceiba, which was thus the tree of the world, a veritable path of the spirits that led to the gate of the Kingdom of the Dead. Guarding the gate was a "monster" (the term does not perhaps reflect how the Mayas perceived him), frequently depicted in sculptures and reliefs. The Milky Way and the ecliptic can both be considered as two maximum circles traced in the celestial sphere, which intersect with each other at two points, one in the middle between the Gemini and Taurus constellations, and the other between Scorpion and Sagittarius. The Mayas represented all this by means of a cruciform symbol, in which the ecliptic, arranged horizontally, is portrayed as a two-headed serpent. In some representations, the serpent is shown along with strange figures clambering upon it. These are the constellations of the ecliptic, that is, the Mayan zodiac, which was made up of a division into 13 (not 12 as in ours) constellations (our knowledge of the

Figure 9.4: Some of the Maya constellations depicted in the Paris codex
Mayan Scorpion Symbols

Figure 9.5: The Maya world tree

Mayan zodiac is based chiefly on the Paris codex; see Bricker and Bricker 1992). Among the figures passed down to us, we can identify a couple of peccaries (nocturnal hogs) copulating, to be identified unquestionably with our Gemini, a scorpion (identical to ours and probably made out of the same stars), and then a jaguar, a snake, a bat, and a death's head.

The intersection point between the Milky Way and the ecliptic, which is found in the vicinity of Gemini, slightly above Orion, had special significance for the Mayas. Orion was represented as a turtle with three stars on its carapace, while Gemini corresponded, as stated, to two copulating peccaries. The Milky Way in general and this place in particular were deeply and intimately linked with the Mayan myth of the creation of the world, which we are familiar with thanks to the Popol Vuh, the sacred book that someone miraculously made a copy of, in Latin characters but in the Mayan language, just after the conquest, thus saving it from oblivion. The myth is extremely complicated and replete with astronomical meaning, which allegedly, according to Schele et al. (1995), allude to astronomical events that happen in succession on the night of creation, without particular reference to the year they occurred. I think that it might instead refer to specific configurations of the sky occurring on specific dates. To establish which dates, we would have to take precession into consideration. For example, in the key scene of the myth, there occurs the killing of the "cosmic bird,'' a parrot shown perched on the Tree of the World, at the hands of one of the twins who are main characters in the book. At the foot of the tree is a scorpion, confirming identification of the tree with the Milky Way. However, the bird is usually interpreted as Ursa Major, a dubious labeling, in my opinion, for the simple reason that the stars of the bear are, and have always been, distant from the Milky Way. If, though, the identification of the bird with the region of the celestial north pole is correct (as it seems to be), then one might well deduce that it represents a constellation that has been seen as a bird in many other civilizations—the swan. But the myth of Popol Vuh would then take on an almost embarrassing antiquity, since, as we have already seen, the Milky Way housed the north pole, in the constellation of the swan, as far back as c. 12,000 BC.

Figure 9.6: Killing the "Cosmic Bird"

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