Cultural Perceptions and Uses of Eclipses

The Indians of Mesoamerica (from southern Mexico through northern Honduras) still find eclipses very awe-inspiring. People make as much noise as possible, dogs are encouraged to bark, and pandemonium reigns as everyone tries to frighten away the monster (sometimes a dragon, sometimes a giant ant) who is trying to eat the Sun or Moon (as they believe in some areas) or to encourage the one attacked in a fight between Sun and Moon (as others believe).

Although a total solar eclipse, with the sudden onset of darkness and appearance of the stars is very frightening to many people, it only lasts a few minutes. A lunar eclipse, on the other hand, can last much longer and the Moon often turns a deep red (or sometimes a deep blue-black color) during the eclipse. The Quiche of Guatemala tell myths of Xqiq, "Blood Woman," apparently an eclipsed Moon goddess and of her twin sons (planetary gods), who go to the underworld to conquer the lords of death.

When planets and stars are too close to the Sun to be seen, it seems that the pre-Columbian Mesoamericans thought that they were in the underworld, and one of the most horrifying things about an eclipse must have been to see the land of the dead suddenly shining above in heaven, where the Sun god normally ruled.

One of the ways in which the planetary twins demonstrated their prowess to the lords of death was by dancing in flames, which left them unharmed. DHK suspects this refers to planetary conjunctions at the time of an eclipse, when the planet might be apparently engulfed by the corona yet appear unharmed a few days later as morning star.

Another way in which Mesoamericans conceptualized the movements of the heavenly bodies was as a gigantic ball game. Rubber balls were invented by American Indians, possibly in Brazil, Mesoamerica, or in one of the intermediate zones. With them, they invented a wide range of games. Our sources emphasize the cosmic nature of the ball game. In the major game played by the Aztecs, the players tried to knock the ball through a small ring, high above the court. They had to hit the ball with their head, shoulders, or body, and there were penalties for using arms or legs. Goals were so rare that the Spaniards said that when one occurred, the player was entitled to all the goods that the spectators had with them, even their clothes. Apparently, a goal was a signal for a mass rush to get away, while the winning player and his friends tried to catch as many of the spectators as possible. The goal had a cosmic analogue; a planet was thought of as a ball about to pass the goal at conjunction—that same planet, seen in a corona, was conceptualized as a Twin dancing in the flames. The kind of importance the Maya Indians put on the ball game is suggested by a series of stone sculptures at Yaxchilan, which show ball players and tell of an important game. The day of the game is counted from a base billions of years in the past—far earlier than the presently accepted geological age of the Earth.

In many parts of Mexico, a skull rack was near the ball court to contain the decapitated heads of enemies. Decapitation was one of the forms of human sacrifice practiced in the area, and losers in the ball game were apparently sometimes sacrificed in this way. One of the heroes who went to the underworld in an attempt to defeat the lords of death was identified as the Sun. After playing a ball game with the lords of the underworld, he was decapitated and his head hung in a gourd tree, where it changed into a gourd and eventually impregnated the maiden Xqiq, "Blood Woman," by spitting in her hand. He thereby became the father of the Twins, who did, ultimately, defeat the lords of death. This probably ancient story was, at some point, interpreted by the astronomers to mean that a solar eclipse was followed in the same month by a lunar eclipse and, shortly thereafter, by the "birth" of twins, perhaps, in this context, the appearance of Venus and Mercury as morning stars. Throughout Mesoamerica, decapitation of heroes or gods seems to refer either to solar or to lunar eclipses.

The religious fervor and intensity with which eclipses were regarded may have been a factor in the considerable knowledge of eclipse cycles that Mesoamerican astronomers developed. There is some evidence that they actually understood, at least partially, the physical mechanisms of eclipses.

Such understanding, however, was not possessed by the bulk of the people and does not seem to have been in conflict with their religious views.

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