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Venus in Mesoamerica: Rain, Maize, Warfare, and Sacrifice  

Ivan Šprajc

During the last three millennia before the Spanish Conquest, the peoples living in the central and southern parts of modern Mexico and the northern part of Central America evolved into complex societies with a number of common characteristics that define the cultural area known as Mesoamerica and are expressed in technology, forms of subsistence, government, architecture, religion, and intellectual achievements, including sophisticated astronomical concepts. For the Aztecs, the Maya, and many other Mesoamerican societies, Venus was one of the most important celestial bodies. Not only were they aware that the brightest “star” appearing in certain periods in the pre-dawn sky was identical to the one that at other times was visible in the evening after sunset; they also acquired quite accurate knowledge about the regularities of the planet’s apparent motion. While Venus was assiduously observed and studied, it also inspired various beliefs, in which its morning and evening manifestations had different attributes. Relevant information is provided by archaeological data, prehispanic manuscripts, early Spanish reports, and ethnographically recorded myths that survive among modern communities as remnants of pre-Conquest tradition. The best-known is the malevolent aspect of the morning star, whose first appearances after inferior conjunction were believed to inflict harm on nature and humanity in a number of ways. However, the results of recent studies suggest that the prevalent significance of the morning star was of relatively late and foreign origin. The most important aspect of the symbolism of Venus was its conceptual association with rain and maize, in which the evening star had a prominent role. It has also been shown that these beliefs must have been motivated by some observational facts, particularly by the seasonality of evening star extremes, which approximately delimit the rainy season and the agricultural cycle in Mesoamerica. As revealed by different kinds of evidence, including architectural alignments to these phenomena, Venus was one of the celestial agents responsible for the timely arrival of rains, which conditioned a successful agricultural season. The planet also had an important place in the concepts concerning warfare and sacrifice, but this symbolism seems to have been derived from other ideas that characterize Mesoamerican religion. Human sacrifices were believed necessary for securing rain, agricultural fertility, and a proper functioning of the universe in general. Since the captives obtained in battles were the most common sacrificial victims, the military campaigns were religiously sanctioned, and the Venus-rain-maize associations became involved in sacrificial symbolism and warfare ritual. These ideas became a significant component of political ideology, fostered by rulers who exploited them to satisfy their personal ambitions and secular goals. In sum, the whole conceptual complex surrounding the planet Venus in Mesoamerica can be understood in the light of both observational facts and the specific socio-political context.


The Moon in Meso-America  

Susan Milbrath

What is known about the Moon among the ancient Maya of southern Mexico and Guatemala and the Nahuatl-speaking people of central Mexico, especially the Aztecs who lived in the Valley of Mexico and their neighbors in Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley, has been obtained from records related to astronomy and lunar cycles inscribed on Classic Maya monuments dating between ad 250 and 850/900. Modern scholarship focusing on the mathematical units and glyphic writing has helped in deciphering the records. Postclassic Maya codices dating from 1300 to 1500, sent to Europe shortly after the Spanish conquest, also have lunar tables that have been decoded by study of the lunar cycles and glyphs. Painted books dating prior to the conquest in 1521 are also known from central Mexico, but these can only be understood with the help of books that were painted by native artists later in the 16th century and annotated with texts written in Spanish and Nahuatl. These glosses provide information about lunar deities and beliefs about the Moon. Furthermore, knowledge of the Moon in Meso-America is greatly enhanced by ethnographic studies and study of iconographic representations of deities representing different lunar roles and phases.