Historico-mythical time and space in Mexico

articles History & People

Ronald A. Barnett ©

Mexican History

Most of us take time and space for granted, unless we happen to be philosophers or scientists professionally concerned with such matters. But even scientists cannot agree entirely on the definition of time. Theories of time run the gamut from time as an absolute property that would exist even if the universe did not, to time as a relative phenomenon that depends upon our thinking about it. To complicate matters, our experience of time also depends on our state of consciousness at any particular moment. Depending upon the observer’s mood, the perceived duration of time varies. Some events seem long, others short within the same time frame. The language we speak also influences to some degree the way we perceive time. Speakers of Indo-European languages, such as English, tend to think of time as linear, coming out of the past, pausing momentarily in the present, and passing on into the future. A speaker of another language with a different linguistic structure, such as Aztec or Maya, would experience time differently.

Space does not seem to present quite as many problems as time. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity tells us that time is an integral element of space, the so-called space-time continuum. This simply means that time is a change in space. In three-dimensional space (height, width, depth), time is the fourth dimension. In order for movement to take place in this three-dimensional world, we must have time to go from point A to point B, even if it only takes a fraction of a second. This is of course an over-simplification of the philosophical and scientific problems of time and space. But you do not have to be a physicist or a mathematician to understand the general idea behind the mathematical formulae and the scientific theories. It all seems quite logical and reasonable. However, when we try to apply these concepts of time and space to the indigenous history of ancient Mexico we often find ourselves in a different dimension altogether.

These ingrained linguistic and cultural concepts of time and space influence the way we view history. Moreover, the philosophy of history presents numerous problems, such as the nature of the historical explanation itself, the objectivity of the historian, and the interpretation and presentation of the chronological “facts” of history. Even within the well-established western European tradition of historical writing many questions remain unanswered.

What is history anyway? Most historians who have written about ancient Mexico belong to the western tradition of historiography, which involves both speculative theories and more critical approaches. The former includes the religious belief that there is a divine purpose or forward linear development of human history. On the secular side, attempts to apply scientific method to the study of human history have met with mixed results. More recently the trend has been away from speculative theories and the like to an emphasis on specific persons and events as unique unrepeatable “happenings” in which there is no over-all pattern or linear progression. Here the inadequacy of western historiography in dealing with Mesoamerican history becomes most apparent.

The Mesoamerican concept of time and space in some ways differs considerably from the western or European concept. But whichever theoretical approach they take, most western historians tend to think of history in terms of linear time, past, present, and future, in which events do not repeat themselves. In Mesoamerica, mythological time was just as important as historical time in the western sense. The Maya observed cyclical time through the Calendar Round, in which the Tzolkin or 260-day ceremonial calendar intermeshed with the Haab or 365-day yearly calendar to produce the 52 year cycle so important in Mesoamerican religion. In this calendrical system, an event could be both past and future, depending on one’s viewpoint as you travel around the closed circle of time. In cyclical time, the past and the future are interchangeable. However, the Maya also recognized the need to record linear time as well. Secular or linear time was observed through the Long Count, in which the current era was calculated from a hypothetical date of 3114 B.C. Linear time reckoning was used for practical every day purposes, such as agriculture and the justification of dynastic succession.

Sacred space was also of great importance in Mesoamerica, as the building alignments at famous archaeological sites clearly show. Mound J at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, is a highly refined and complex observatory in alignment with the centre star of Orion’s Belt and other significant celestial bodies. At Xochicalco, Morelos, a duct leading into a cave beneath the site marks the zenith passage of the sun directly overhead. At that time, the sun shines directly through the duct into the cave in which certain ceremonies would have been held. And one of the temples at Palenque, Chiapas, is located so that the sunlight passes directly through a certain opening at a given time in the year. Many other examples could be given to illustrate the Mesoamerican preoccupation with sacred space as well as sacred time.

Mythology is an alternative way of viewing historical events, a poetical means of expressing universal truths. Mythological explanations are not mere superstition or ignorance. Failure to understand this can result in the misinterpretation of historical accounts left by the Maya, Aztecs, Tarascans, and others. Some anthropologists and historians of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations regard this intermingling of historical data with what we somewhat uncharitably describe as “mythology” as a serious obstacle to their interpretation of Mexican history. Yet if we wish to understand – however inadequately – history from the viewpoint of the people who actually lived it, we must adopt a different attitude toward mythology and alternate ways of recording and interpreting historical events.

Mesoamerican historical concepts seem much less strange or “primitive” when viewed in the context of other cultural concepts of history. In ancient Greece, Herodotus is sometimes described as the “Father of Lies” because he not only included seemingly fantastic stories in his history of the Persian Wars, but also believed in oracles. Thucydides wrote a more “modern” kind of history of the Peloponnesian Wars but he also included many speeches in direct discourse that he could not possibly have heard himself or known in such detail. He wrote what one might reasonably expect this or that general or politician to have said under the given circumstances. This is now considered a legitimate form of historical writing. In Celtic history, Irish origin stories are a combination of historical fact and legend. Since the earliest verifiable date is the mission of Palladius to Ireland in A.D. 431, some Celtic scholars argue that “real” history begins only with the written word. But the early Irish sagas contain much historical information that can be confirmed from other Indo-European sources. In ancient India, again the emphasis is quite different. The contents of Indian philosophical works, for example, were more important than their authorship, their dates of composition, or indeed history itself. The Mesoamerican concept of history therefore is simply one more cultural variation of the historical consciousness of a people.

The Mesoamerican legacy of sacred time and space is alive and well in present day Mexico. The annual Peyote Pilgrimage of the Huichol Indians is a search for sacred time and space, in which names are changed and confessionals given in order to distance oneself from the everyday world in preparation for entry into the world of the spirit. The journey to Wirikuta, the sacred land of peyote in the San Luis Potosi area to the northeast of Huichol territory, represents for the Huichols both a return to the time of the ancestors and a return to the place where the ancestors originated.

The calihuey (“god house”) is the centre of Huichol ceremonial life. Each community or rancho has its own calihuey, or ceremonial centre. According to one interpretation, the entire region between El Cerro de la Estrella in Zacatecas and Wirikuta is regarded as one immense calihuey with five doors and five altars presided over by a particular deity. The centre is a highly sacred place in which the Huichol gather as part of the preparation for the Hikuri Neirra, the peyote fiesta, which is celebrated in its entirety back at the individual ranchos, or communities. Different areas within this vast region also have their own centres, in which certain rituals are enacted. The individual community calihuey, therefore, is a reflection on a human scale of the vast calihuey of Wirikita, which, in turn, represents the Huichol concept of the universe. For the Huichol, the pilgrimage to Wirikuta transcends time and space, the sacred symbols of which are peyote, maize, and deer. Through ritual transformation, the Huichol pilgrim returns to the sacred time and space of the ancestors.

Teotihuacan just outside of Mexico City, is regarded as one of the most sacred places in all of Mesoamerica. Some years ago I attended the annual Fiesta de las Plantas Medicinales, held that year at Teotihuacan. During the closing ceremonies and contrary to the wishes of the guards and officials at the archaeological site, we held a dance in one of the plazas – a sacred space – facing the Pyramid of the Sun. I have two left feet and never learned how to dance. But the incessant beat of the huehuetl, the ceremonial Aztec drum, the rattling of the conch shells on the ankles of the dancers, and the urging of my friends drew me into the dance circle. At first I felt awkward and somewhat embarrassed. I asked myself what a normally sober researcher and writer like myself was doing in the midst of whirling Aztec dancers, shaman-priests, and curanderos from all over Mexico. I do not know at what point it happened, but a change came over me. I had seen the Pyramid of the Sun many times before as a tourist. This time I was no longer a sightseer. I had somehow became absorbed into the spiritual atmosphere of Teotihuacan and normal time and space had ceased to exist. I looked up at the Pyramid of the Sun, but it was no longer the same. That day I saw it for the first time with different eyes. When the dance ended, we were told we had been dancing for hours in the blazing sun, although we were not conscious of the passage of time. Meanwhile, hundreds of spectators had gathered on the surrounding steps, possibly thinking that they were witnessing a public performance. But when it was all over many of them lined up in the four directions to receive a blessing of copal incense from the priest-shamans and a sprig of sacred sage as a memento of the event. I leave it to others to decide if what I felt that day was a genuine religious experience or simply the automatic firing of synapses in my brain induced by the heat and the excitement of the moment.

Throughout history, people have had different ideas of what history is, or should be. While the emphasis or the methodology may differ, the underlying motivation is the same, namely the human desire to remember the past and ensure that the memory of important events and personages may not perish. Historical writing begins with the recording of these events, usually in some kind of chronological order, although in cyclical time in Mexico, events may be reversed. For example, in the Popol Vuh of the Quiche Maya, the divine hero twins appear at the beginning of time even before they were born. From the Maya point of view, this makes sense, if you think in terms of cyclical time. If you think only in terms of a strict chronological sequence of events and insist on applying “western” logic to the Maya narrative, you will miss the point.

Sacred time and space provided the Maya and other Mesoamerican civilizations with an integrated view of the universe and a balanced way of life that lasted for centuries. This is reflected in the native historical tradition, which includes works by Durán Ixtlilxochitl, Tezozomoc, as well as the Books of Chilam Balam, the Popol Vuh, and the Annals of the Cakchiquels, to name only a few. These primary sources or indigenous works are sometimes dismissed as legitimate historical sources because of the intermingling of “mythology” or legend with sober historical facts. The concept of cyclic time also causes some consternation to scholars trained only in western methods of anthropology and historiography. But even western historians elaborate the “facts” of history and work them into a form of a narrative that will make sense to the reader. The interpretation of the raw data of history depends upon the particular interest or expertise of the historian. Even if strict control methods are used there will always be a strong subjective element in historical writing. The western or European practice of dividing history up into neat time periods makes the job of the historian much easier but may not reflect the experience of the people who actually lived through the events being described.

To understand history from the viewpoint of the Maya, the Aztecs, and other Mesoamerican peoples we must suspend our prejudices against mythology and legend and recognize that these are an integral part of the native historical tradition. As we learn from epic poetry and saga, sometimes what people think about their own history is more important than what actually happened. One might go so far as to say that history is, in general, simply an aesthetic experience that allows one the luxury of perusing the “past” in the present from an omniscient viewpoint.

Published or Updated on: September 1, 2006 by Ronald A. Barnett © © 2006
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