General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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Professor Anthony Aveni

Question for May 2008

Is it true the Aztecs learned the cycle of Venus from the Maya? Asked by Redriff Primary School. Chosen and answered by Professor Anthony Aveni.

Dresden Codex (Maya), pp. 24 & 46, with (left) b/w reconstruction by J A and C A Villacorta, from the ADEVA facsimile edition (Graz, 1975)
Dresden Codex (Maya), pp. 24 & 46, with (left) b/w reconstruction by J A and C A Villacorta, from the ADEVA facsimile edition (Graz, 1975) (Click on image to enlarge)

We now know that the references to Venus in calendars from Central Mexico look the same as those of the Maya. It’s likely that’s where they came from, but we have no proof.

These pages from the Dresden Codex - click on the picture to enlarge it! - form part of a Maya Astronomical Table designed to chart the course of the planet Venus. Each 8-day interval preceding morning heliacal rise (when the planet first becomes visible above the eastern horizon at dawn) is followed by a (middle) picture showing the male Venus deity flinging spears (omens), which represent the dazzling rays of light that accompany his morning star appearance, at victims (lower picture). An offering to the deity is made in the top picture. The left-hand page is a user’s manual consisting of a multiplication table and entry dates.

We could be looking here at at an attempt to create a perpertual Venus calendar, accurate to one day in 500 years!

Taken from Professor Aveni’s book ‘People and the Sky’, 2008, p. 139.

One of a series of recent children’s questions on astronomy, all kindly answered in brief by Professor Aveni. The others are:-

Q. Did the Aztecs think the earth was round or flat? A. The Aztecs were not interested in the shape of the earth because they didn’t descend from the Greeks. Different cultures have different issues & that wasn’t one of them.

Q. How many planets did the Aztecs believed existed? A. We can be sure that the Aztecs recognized the motion of Venus. I think they surely were aware of Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn because all are bright & move noticeably among the stars, but we have no documents that prove the case.

Q. How did Aztec people tell the time? A. The basic “unit of currency” was the day. They didn’t break the day into hours, minutes, etc. There was a “town crier” in Tenochtitlan who drummed out the time when an important civic event was scheduled to occur.

Q. Do we know when the cycles of the sun, the moon and Venus will next come together? A. Venus and the sun realign every 8 years. Throw in the moon and it’s 99 years.

Q. Did they have a highest number (in their calendars/counting systems)? A. There are no really big numbers in Aztec documents. Chroniclers after the conquest say the Aztec creation periods were measured in millions of years but we can’t be sure.

Q. Did the Aztecs know of different star constellations to the ones we see today? A. The Aztecs recognized the Pleiades. They called it the Fire Drill, which was used to create new fire every 52 years. They had a Scorpion, which may have been comprised of the same stars as our own, a Ballcourt, equivalent to our Gemini and a few others are pictured that we are still trying to identify - and no doubt many more.

Q. Why were they so into Astronomy? A. If you want to anchor human and natural events together no part of the environment is more reliable than the sky. First rains may come late, flowers may blossom early, and the time a hibernating animal emerges from sleep may vary, but sky events happen with extraordinarily precise regularity. Try looking up and you’ll find out.

Q. Were the Aztec day signs related to our star signs? A. There were 20 day names — after plants, animals, forces of nature; e.g. flower, jaguar, earthquake. Ours are named after Nordic versions of the old Greek Gods.

See each answer in a little more detail in the following months...

Professor Anthony Aveni has answered 7 questions altogether:

Is it true the Aztecs learned the cycle of Venus from the Maya?

Did the Aztecs think the earth was round or flat?

How many planets did the Aztecs believe existed?

How did Aztec people tell the time?

Did the Aztecs know of different star constellations to the ones we see today?

What sort of gadgets did the Aztecs have?

Why did houses have no windows?

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