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Mayan astronomers were well aware that small cycles lead inevitably to bigger ones. Their codex seems to have been a mechanism for predicting not when the first crescent moons of the future could be sighted, but which full moons would be eclipsed and which new moons would eclipse the sun. It must have taken all of a century or more, which means several generations of perceptive astronomical observing, for specialists in skywatching to work through to a conclusion that their Chinese and Babylonian counterparts also had arrived at, i.e. that once a lunar or solar eclipse occurs, it is not possible to have another ( of the same kind) until six, or more rarely, five months pass.

Of the long-range Moon cycle in the Dresden Codex, this much is certain: First, it was used to gain control of astronomical time; and second, it was a time cycle derived from the observation of eclipsed and uneclipsed moons of the past, which could be used as data to generate a model for anticipating the occurrence of future lunar eclipses – powerful knowledge in the hands of the rulership.

Is the Dresden Codex a record of eclipses in part intended to warn of possible future eclipses? And, if so, what kind of eclipses? There seems little doubt that the Mayas sought to predict eclipses because of the disaster that they believed threatened them on such occasions. The omens in the table look ominous enough, at least to us. Of course, predictions must be based upon recorded observations of actual eclipses that occurred in Yucatan when the Mayan priests did their work. Though scholars are not in agreement over which particular set of eclipses (lunar or solar) was being observed, there is enough evidence to support the hypothesis that the Dresden Eclipse Table was devised for warning of the possible occurrence of such phenomena.

What kind of eclipses? My own opinion is that both lunar and solar observational eclipse data can be utilized to construct a semblance of the Dresden Table. The hypothesis that lunar data were actually used seems much simpler. In the course of the thirty-three years spanned by the table, the number of such eclipses observable in Yucatan would have been significant enough to enable a single priest to draw up the table. If we assume that solar eclipses alone were used, and this certainly cannot be ruled out, we must extrapolate the base of observations backward many centuries in order to derive the relevant intervals.

Precisely what do the eight pages of the Moon table of the Dresden Codex tell us? A chain of numbers across the bottom line of each page translates into a time packet of lunar synodic intervals. There are clumpings of six lunar synodic months (178 days) followed by one set of five (148 days). Each bunch of five moons is followed by a picture. A close look at all of the pictures together gives very strong clues about what the Mayas would do, parcel out a chain of 405 full moons over more than three decades. The answer is that Mayan astronomers were attempting, apparently quite successfully, to predict eclipses. Some of these illustrations depict half-light, half-dark disks with lunar crescents opposing the kin glyph, symbol of the Sun ( kin means sun and day as well as time in the Mayan language). A serpent devouring the Sun and a dead lunar goddess hanging by her hair from a segmented serpent who represents the sky also appear in the pictorial portion of the table.


Dresden Codex segments


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