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The Astrology Podcast

Ep. 419 Transcript: The Mayan Calendar and Mesoamerican Astrology

The Astrology Podcast

Transcript of Episode 419, titled:

The Mayan Calendar and Mesoamerican Astrology

With Chris Brennan and guest Kenneth Johnson

Episode originally released on September 17, 2023


Note: This is a transcript of a spoken word podcast. If possible, we encourage you to listen to the audio or video version, since they include inflections that may not translate well when written out. Our transcripts are created by human transcribers, and the text may contain errors and differences from the spoken audio. If you find any errors then please send them to us by email: theastrologypodcast@gmail.com

Transcribed by Andrea Johnson

Transcription released September 20th, 2023

Copyright © 2023 TheAstrologyPodcast.com

CHRIS BRENNAN: Hey, my name is Chris Brennan, and you’re listening to The Astrology Podcast. In this episode I’m gonna be talking with astrologer Kenneth Johnson about the Mayan calendar and Mesoamerican astrology, which is the astrology of ancient Mexico and Central America. So, hey, Kenneth. Welcome back to the show.

KENNETH JOHNSON: Well, thanks. It’s good to be back.

CB: Yeah, so this is your second appearance. You were actually on Episode 9 of The Astrology Podcast way back in 2013 when we talked about the relationship between ancient Hellenistic and ancient Indian astrology. And that’s crazy how long ago that was, that it was like 10 years ago now. So it’s a nice round number that we’re meeting back up again.

KJ: Yeah, I had thought it was about five years ago. So in that respect it is kind of amazing, yeah.

CB: Yeah, the past three years. 2020 was a bit of a time warp, distorting everything, but here we are back again. So you were the author actually of two books on this topic: the first one is Jaguar Wisdom: An Introduction to the Mayan Calendar, and then the more recent one is titled Mayan Calendar Astrology: Mapping Your Inner Cosmos. So I wanted to talk first a little bit about your background in this area and your story as an astrologer and how you came to specialize and be knowledgeable in this specific tradition. And then maybe we’ll then use that as a jumping-off point to start talking about its ancient history, bringing it up to the practice in modern times. So what’s your background? I guess maybe since it’s been so long since our last time on the show, and I wasn’t doing video versions, where does your story start as an astrologer?

KJ: Oh, as an astrologer my story begins with Western astrology way back in 1973, when I was taking off from university for a while and living in Amsterdam, and then my first astrological work, purely astrological, was a collaboration entitled Mythic Astrology: Archetypal Powers in the Horoscope. I became interested in Hindu or Indian astrology, Jyotish, in the late 1980s, worked with both systems for quite a number of years, but I also at the time was writing a number of books, one a year for Llewellyn Publications, and sometimes I was writing about astrological material, whereas at other times I would just choose a culture and write about the mythology of it. I have written about the myths, legends, and lore of Celtic mythology. With Mythic Astrology, obviously this was Greek and Roman. I’ve written about Norse mythology.

In 1995, I was living on a fairly remote Indian reservation in New Mexico, and I was working at the tribal center as a librarian. So I thought, “Hey, this year why don’t I do a Native American theme.” And I chose to write Jaguar Wisdom: An Introduction to the Mayan Calendar because there was just so much nonsense being talked about, and my intention was to refocus people’s attention on the ancient tradition and how it had survived into contemporary times and how it was being practiced still in contemporary times. The astrology chapter turned out to be important because it was the first time that anyone had ever recorded the contemporary Mayan astrology system in the English language. And some years later, as the 2012 hysteria became more peculiar and bizarre, I was approached by a publisher who wanted to create a second edition of the book and did so, and shortly after it was printed I received a mysterious email. And I say ‘mysterious’ because I did not know this person. I had never met this person.

I knew that she was—well, she told me that she was the only American expatriate, the only Western expatriate altogether, who was living in the town of Momostenango, which has long been renowned for the way it kept the ancient traditions and the way that people still lived by the 260-day sacred calendar. And in her letter, which was very brief, she simply said, “It’s good to see your wonderful book back in print. The elders here in Momostenango feel like it’s time that you should come down and study with them.” So I did, and that ended up being many, many years’ worth of study. I arrived there in early 2010, made many visits. And then early in 2017 I was offered initiation as a ‘keeper of the days’; they say sacerdote maya, which means ‘Mayan priest’. This requires nine lunar months of intense study, which I completed and then was initiated. And by that time, with two editions of the book circulating around, I’d just acquired a reputation as the person who is able to do it and do it well in English.

CB: Right. So it’s not just going back and studying the ancient tradition and what survives from Pre-Columbian times and from the actual Mayan civilization from a thousand to 2,000 years ago, but also that there is a continuing living tradition of that astrology to some extent that both carry some pieces of the ancient versions of it but also some modern developments that are a little bit new; it’s part of a living tradition.

KJ: Yeah, this is true. Actually we are not clear as to whether the Classic Maya even practiced natal astrology. We have examples of dates that were obviously set deliberately, so that gives us a window into their electional astrology. We have their historical world ages, which I guess could be qualified as mundane astrology. And then since they count the days of the ancient calendar, which is their astrological material, they count the days for divination when a person asks a question; this could be considered horary astrology. And we have reason to believe that they were doing this in classic times.

As far as natal astrology is concerned we have much better information from the Aztec civilization. We actually have some hundreds of pages worth which allows the system to be reconstructed in great detail. And the contemporary system among the Maya is part of what I call the Mayan creative renaissance or spiritual renaissance which took place during the dreadful 15-year civil war, which encompassed Guatemala from 1981 to 1996. The contemporary system appears somewhere around 1989. Despite all my efforts, I have never been able to establish a single creator for it; I’m not sure there is a single creator. I’ve established the names and paid visits to several people who are known to have been deeply involved with its development.

CB: Okay. Well, let’s talk about some of the ancient history and set the timeframes, and then we’ll work our way up to the present.

KJ: Okay.

CB: So I wanted to give a shoutout to a patron named Kimberly Schultzer who helped a little bit with some of the research that I did for this episode. And also there was an article titled “Mesoamerican Astrology” by William Burns, in the book Astrology Through History, that was also helpful for me for part of my outline. So let’s define our topic and our timeframes. What’s interesting and unique about this episode that I’ve never covered before is we’re talking about the indigenous traditions of astrology that were developed in Mexico and Central America in its earlier forms prior to the 16th century, which was prior to the invasion by people from Spain and from Europe. So one of our issues is, first, naming it. We don’t really have a good singular name for these traditions, but it goes under many different names. Because we’re talking about a few different cultures and time periods, right?

KJ: Quite a few different cultures. And the timeframe, oh, I had to laugh when I saw that in Kimberly’s notes, in the sense that even 5, certainly 10 years ago, archaeologists would have written in a very authoritative way about the origins of Mesoamerican civilization, and now, within the last decade, everything has been turned upside down. And it is happening so fast that by the time a person finishes a book, and the book goes into production and is finally printed, they will have discovered numerous new factors. For example, we used to say with authority that the Olmecs, around 1000-1100 BC were the ‘mother’ culture of Mesoamerica and that they most likely developed the 260-day calendar. But now we’ve discovered another equally early civilization in the Mexican state of Chiapas, and then several years ago they discovered a religious site, which is clearly Mayan, but which dates back to 1000 BC. And now, just in the past few months, someone stumbled very deep into the jungle and they’re counting now over 400 Mayan cities that date back to 1000 BC. So it’s very difficult to put a timeframe on this.

The major numbers involved, and we will probably discuss why, are 13, 20, 52, and 260. And I don’t know how they do it, but archaeologists are able to figure out the units of measurement that people were using when they built. And now, also in southern Mexico, a village called Paso de la Amada has been discovered where almost all the buildings are built in units of 13, 20, 52, and 260. The village dates back to 2000 BC. It’s just a little farming village, but now the question is open as to whether the 260-day calendar was actually invented as early as 2000 BC. So that’s what I mean when I say by the time you finish a book and get it through the production phase and into print everything could change. It’s moving that fast.

CB: Sure. So roughly to orient people though, let’s say that we’re talking about a timeframe between 2000 BCE for the very earliest stages of civilization in the area that we roughly associate with Central America and Mexico, all the way up until maybe a flourishing period around 250 CE to about 1697 CE. Would you say that that’s roughly for the Mayan civilization correct?

KJ: I would say—

CB: Just if we’re giving very broad strokes.

KJ: I would say 250 CE is what we would call the beginning of the Mayan Classic Period. This is when we find a fully-developed script capable of writing long passages. It was probably capable of writing entire books, although no such book has survived. And 1697 I think is a bit late. The Spanish conquered the Aztecs in 1521 and immediately set to work on the Maya who were basically conquered by 1540. That is the point at which Europeans attempt to destroy all the knowledge.

CB: Right. So they actually went out of their way to systematically try to destroy some of the writings that were around at that time, partially due to religious reasons.

KJ: Yeah, mostly due to, well, religious reasons; yes, in the sense that the Church had such hegemony, such control over what the conquistadors did. But from a conquistador’s point of view it had to be destroyed because the more of their sacred knowledge they retained, the more troublesome, the more rebellious, and the more combative they were. So that was a good reason, practical reason, for them to get rid of it.

CB: Okay. So that becomes then one of the major stumbling blocks for studying the types of astrology and astronomy that occurred in these civilizations, like in the Mayan civilization and Aztec civilizations. So much was destroyed that there aren’t a lot of written sources that survived into modern times, right?

KJ: The Aztecs never really had a syllabary or an alphabet; they worked entirely by way of picture writing. And the Maya are the only ones who had a fully developed-script which could be read like one of our own books, except that the characters represent syllables rather than alphabetic letters. 85% of it, or 90% of it, probably by now can be read clearly. And sometimes archaeology has been very helpful. It was actually in the year 2012 that, at a very small Mayan city called Xultun in Guatemala, they discovered a workshop for scribes; and it turns out that the scribes who wrote in hieroglyphics are the same people who calculated the astronomy. In the scribal workshop we found examples of people who were just simply practicing writing their letters, but we also found on the walls cycles of time obviously based on astronomy which were previously unknown to us. So we now know that scribes, litterateurs, and astronomers were the same people.

CB: Okay.

KJ: And then among the Aztecs there are a number of bark paper books that have survived and some of them are astrological almanacs. And fortunately a priest without any apparent prejudice, Bernardino de Sahagún, recorded everything he could find about Aztec knowledge. It runs to 9 or 10, maybe even 12 volumes, and he wrote it both in Spanish and in the Aztec language of which he was an expert; and thanks to him we have several hundred detailed pages on Aztec astrology and we are able to compare them with the picture books, the pictorial almanacs. And lucky for us there are a couple of the really good almanacs that make an exact match with Sahagún. So, yes, we do have a fairly large amount of material on the Aztec astrology.

CB: Okay. So reconstructions about all of this is based on some of the literature that survived, some archaeological evidence, and also some anthropological studies among contemporary Native Americans, and all of these seem to point to the idea of the central role that the sky played in their culture. And I have a quote from the Burns article where he says, “Mesoamerican cultures were characterized by complex and accurate astronomically-based calendars as well as a desire for society to mirror a cosmic order,” and he says that this was a highly state-centered form of mundane astrology, especially earlier on in their history. Do you think that’s true, the way they characterize it?

KJ: I think certainly among the Classic Maya it seems to have been confined to the upper classes but at some point it became simply common knowledge. I can give you an example. There is the Mayan creation epic in which the two Hero Twins journey down to the underworld and they battle with the Lords of Death and they triumph; and when they triumph, they break through, back into a new world age. They break through the Belt of Orion and they lay down three hearthstones—which is not the Belt, but it’s the central star of the Belt, as well as Orion’s two feet, so it includes Rigel—and in so doing they create a new world age. And even their journey is could be considered astronomical in the sense that the scholar—really the first one to be initiated by the Maya, as a Daykeeper, incidentally by the same lineage and in the same town as I was—was able to establish that the stay of the Hero Twins in the underworld corresponds to the disappearance of Venus, the invisibility of Venus.

So when they crack through Orion and lay the three hearthstones of a new world, we are seeing the return of Venus from invisibility. And as we were discussing somewhat earlier with the notes for this presentation, the whole idea of Venus, the Morning Star, then the period of invisibility when Venus is in the underworld, then it’s glorious return as a beautiful and magical thing bears a tremendous resemblance to the myth of Inanna/Ishtar. So we have the ‘life, death, and rebirth’ motif here again. By the way, the triangle there in Orion is not an equilateral triangle, but as early as 300 BC in El Mirador, we find temples that are built in that exact triangular pattern, mirroring, as you said, the cosmos here on Earth.

CB: How early, again, did you say?

KJ: 300 BC for that.

CB: Got it.

KJ: And then about a thousand years later in 702 CE, a very famous ruin, which some of your listeners have probably visited, the Upper Acropolis of Palenque, there are three temples, and these also are in the same triangular pattern; they’re still remembering the three hearthstones in Orion. And then on the theme of ‘what is above is mirrored down below’ there are three volcanoes at Lake Atitlán which just happened to be in the same triangular pattern; therefore Lake Atitlán is regarded as the creation place. I’ll have a bit more to say about that in terms of astronomy and astrology very soon. But as for the survival of these traditions, which we’ve now taken to 702 CE, I have actually been in the back of a pickup truck late at night when we were driving over rough dirt country roads in the mountains, and several other guys who were in the back of the pickup truck with me, I don’t know, they were simple manual laborers. I’m not sure if they could even read or write, but they were able to point out the three hearthstones. And Mayan women, when they cook on a wood stove, still put down three stones in a triangular pattern and call those ‘the three hearthstones’ because after all the kitchen is their hearth. And then when I asked about my friend Dona Maria said, “Well, it’s like bringing a little bit of heaven down to Earth.” So here again we have what you mentioned from Mr Burns’ article, the mirroring of heaven upon Earth.

CB: Right.

KJ: So it still survives to this very day. We can trace it back to 300 BC at least, but it still survives.

CB: Okay. So, yeah, that seems crucial. And one of the more interesting things about studying Mayan astrology is the ability to study a culture that’s developing a form of astrology—or at least developing what we might consider astrological notions completely independently of the types of astrology that were developing in Mesopotamia or India or China independently, but sometimes there’s similarities or there’s echoes that are very interesting. So at the very earliest stage though, as with early Mesopotamian astrology, we’re talking about largely forms of mundane astrology and we’re talking about an astrology that’s highly state-centered, and also where the political and social order is being identified with the cosmic order, where there’s elaborate buildings with astronomical orientations and imagery and rituals that are connected to the calendar. This astrology is connected to the political and religious elite, although maybe not entirely, and then it’s partially driven by a need to accurately reckon the days and perform rituals at the correct time. Yeah, so maybe let’s start with that. Or what would you say about that? Basically we can see the parallels with, for example, Mesopotamian astrology. I think you mentioned Chinese astrology may have some political parallels.

KJ: In Chinese astrology, each day in a Chinese astrological almanac is a mixture of different elements and cycles of planets are very secondary, but each day within any given cycle will have its own mixture of elements and other qualities and factors. And Mesoamerican astrology is the same way because they did have a solar calendar of 365 days but it was not used for astrological purposes, and in fact only the 260-day calendar was used in that fashion. And as I said, we’re seeing the increments, like 260, as units of measurement as early as 2000 BC now. But where does this unusual 260 number come from? It may have an astronomical basis. In the tropics we get true solar zenith passages, which we don’t get farther north. And at 15° north latitude, which is the latitude of Lake Atitlán, which I just named as the creation place, it is precisely 260 days between one solar zenith passage and the next. So that may be the actual astronomical origin of this 260-day calendar. I believe once again you were quoting from Mr. Burns that there is an affinity between the sky and the human being. Okay, so 260 is also the number of a human being because they think 260 is 13 times 20. We have 20 digits, fingers and toes, and 13 major joints or articulations in the human body. So the sky is the macrocosm and the human body is the microcosm, as we find in so many other astrological systems.

CB: Right. That seems really crucial. Okay, so let’s talk about the calendar at this point where astronomical time was viewed as a series of interlocking cycles, where the greatest cycles were connected to the periodic creation and destruction of the world. And they accurately measured the solar year of 365 days, but there was also a separate day count of 260 days that was used for divination and used alongside or in parallel of the solar year. And as you just mentioned the numbers 13 and 20 were of great significance to the Mayans.

KJ: Right. Now that part about the solar zenith passage is not remembered. They gave me various different explanations for the 260, none of which were astronomical. But the simple fact that those three volcanoes, which represent the three hearthstones are at the exact same latitude where we have the 260-day solar zenith transit—this does not seem to be accidental or coincidental; there seems to be a link there. But in terms of interpreting a person’s birth chart, they don’t use the solar calendar at all; well, with one exception, the year. Each year has a name, and the year in which you were born has an influence in natal astrology. And this is true both of the Aztecs from the period of the conquest, and it’s true of the Maya today, and yet interpretation of human personality is based entirely on the 260-day calendar. The ‘20’, we would call those ‘day-signs’ and these are really the archetypes of Mesoamerican civilization and the most important factor in any birth chart whether ancient or modern, and the 13 numbers modify the 20 days. For example, let’s say you were born on the ‘Day of the Eagle’. A person born on ‘5 Eagle’ will be extremely different from a person born on ‘13 Eagle’.

CB: Okay. So using this calendar that’s connected with this cycle of 260 days, this is used for mundane astrology, but at some point it starts being used for what we might call natal astrology, which is just the alignment of the cosmos on the day you were born.

KJ: Right.

CB: And in that sense it’s focused on just the day you were born, not necessarily the exact time you were born, right?

KJ: They don’t have anything which corresponds to a rising sign or an Ascendant. No, usually they just take the day. There was one astrologer, a very gifted individual, Carlos Barrios, who has written one of the major books on the subject and that was translated into English. He had developed a way of counting hours—although since there have to be 20 rather than 24, because 20 is what it’s all about, each hour is more like 72 minutes rather than like 60—but it never went into common usage. I had never even heard about it until I ended up, just by accident, living in the same boardinghouse as Carlos Barrios himself, and we had many conversations about astrology. And, yes, he did have a system, but it remains unique to him; it was never adopted by the astrological community at large among Maya.

CB: Right.

KJ: Any number of things that have been introduced, some stick and some don’t. In that sense it’s like any other form of astrology, yeah.

CB: For sure, yeah. I was just curious in terms of broad parallels with the Mesopotamian and the Greco-Roman traditions. So we’re focused on the calendar, this 260-day calendar. And in that context, at the opening of your more recent book Mayan Calendar Astrology, you say that calendar was connected with sacred time. What do you mean by that? Where does that come into play, the difference between sacred and ordinary time?

KJ: Ordinary time is simply the passage of the days—when to plant, when to harvest, when to hold festivals for more rain—just as a way of practical time-keeping. When we say ‘sacred time’ we are talking about rituals. For example, if someone came to me and asked me for a saturacion, which means ‘a healing ceremony’, I would never perform it on a Dog day or a Crocodile day or a Storm day. I would perform it on a Flint Knife day or a Rabbit day because these are the signs that are associated with healing. So it measures sacred time in the sense that it gives us our guidelines for when to perform important ceremonies and rituals. And, yes, mundane astrology now is somewhat different because there we do pay attention to the year of the 365-day calendar. But when we talk about ritual and ceremony, when we talk about divination, when we talk about ritual, one could substitute the term electional astrology. When we talk about the divination—simply asking a question of should I go into business with my brother and then what do the 260 days have to say about it—then we’re talking about horary astrology. And natal astrology, the personality of an individual, is also determined by the 260-day calendar.

CB: Okay, so that’s an interesting thing. One of the things that naturally arises from developing, in the earliest stages, some form of mundane astrology is that cultures eventually then develop the idea that there might be certain days that are more or less auspicious in order to do certain things, which becomes a form of electional and inceptional astrology.

KJ: Precisely, precisely. For example, if you wanted to heal a quarrel between two lovers and make a little magic about it, you would never choose to do so on a day when Venus is retrograde and Mars is squaring it, right?

CB: Sure, in Western astrology.

KJ: In Western astrology. And in much the same way if we wanted to heal a quarrel between two lovers, we would do it on an Aq’ab’al day which has no precise translation. It actually means ‘darkness’. But when they teach you—and they teach you, by the way, by oral phrases because reading and writing is sometimes rare in these Mayan villages. But they teach you that it means ‘dawn’, including the ‘dawning of love’, the ‘dawning of romance’. Or we might choose to do such a ceremony on a day called B’atz’. And B’atz’, in the K’iche’ language has two meanings, one is ‘monkey’, which is how it’s known all over the Mesoamerican world; but in K’iche’ B’atz’ also means ‘a thread that is woven’. So you’re weaving the thread of a good relationship on a B’atz’ day. So, yeah, in that respect it is electional. We would never do a ceremony to bring lovers into harmony again on a Tijax day because Tijax means ‘flint knife’, and a warrior holds a flip knife. And yet they tell you—and this is where it really does begin to resemble electional astrology—they will also tell you that a surgeon holds a flint knife to cut out infections or other things that should not be in your body. So a love ceremony would never be held on a Flint Knife day but a healing ceremony would be.

CB: Okay.

KJ: So in that sense, yes, it’s definitely electional.

CB: So it’s like you have a system of 260 overlapping archetypes. Are they pictograms? Can you call them that? But each of them, with the names and words that are used for them, encode some sort of archetype or a myth or knowledge about what that means.

KJ: Yes. Even though the names of some of the days vary between the different cultures there’s some—well, basically the 20 days just are what they are; there’s just a few of them that have different names depending on different cultures. ‘Cause we have to remember that it’s more than a thousand miles from Central Mexico to the Mayan country. And we’re talking about a time frame that starts at least several hundred years BC and doesn’t fall under attack until the 1500s. So there’s differences in time and differences between cultures, but in general the 20 day-signs are the archetypes, indeed. And in fact when I was studying they told me go and read the Mayan creation epic because all 20 day-signs can be found there. And since this is their book of myth, this is one clue that we have that the 20 day-signs are in fact the archetypes. So I read it and went back and I said, “Hey, I did really good. I found 16 out of 20.” And they said, “That’s wonderful. Now go back and read it again till you find the other four.”

Also, the soul, the human soul, is believed to be divided into two parts, which we might call a yin part and a yang part. And the more active yang part which can journey in visions, can journey in dreams, which does not die when the body dies, but instead travels through the underworld and then back into a new incarnation—this part of the soul is also ruled by the day-sign. For instance, I was born on a day called Imox, which has no exact translation. And so, my yang soul, my deep soul, is simply called Imox, and the word for that part of your soul is the same as the word for a day-sign. So here once again we see the very strong identification between the archetypal patterns of the sky, in this case, the 260-day solar zenith passage between the movements of the sky and the archetypes of human personality.

CB: Brilliant. Okay. The next section I wanted to get into is how the ancient Mayan astrologers had a keen awareness of the predictable and cyclic nature of the skies and that Venus was actually very important in many Mesoamerican cultures. So one of the things I thought was really interesting that I was reading about was the Mayan building known as the Palace of the Governor—which dates to the 9th and 10th centuries, or is thought to—is supposed to be oriented to the northern and southernmost rising points of Venus, and was also covered in glyphs representing Venus. And one of the cycles that they focused on was the synodic period of 584 to 587 days between conjunctions of Venus and the Sun.

KJ: Right.

CB: So Venus played a pretty important role for them. We also have another document—one of the few documents that survives that’s known as the Dresden Codex, and this tracks the cycles of Venus extremely accurately. And I think you told me privately that it was better even than some Arabic or European ephemerides of that time period.

KJ: Probably. Some people have characterized it as perfect. It’s a wonderful piece of cultural enthusiasm, but it’s not precisely true. The Dresden Codex is not perfect, but, yes, it is probably more accurate than a lot of contemporary planetary tables from Europe.

CB: Okay.

KJ: It depends on what era we’re talking about. For example, you mentioned Uxmal, which would be somewhere around 1000 CE when Yucatan begins to flourish after the time of the Classic Maya, and the Dresden Codex is probably a couple of hundred years later, around about 1100 or 1200 CE. And now we have found something new, and it is so new that it could not have been in Mr Burns’ book. Like I mentioned earlier, the picture is just changing all the time. There was always a fourth Mayan codex originally called the Grolier Codex because that was the name of the owner, and some scholars thought it was for real and others dismissed it as a fake. It has now been authenticated as real and renamed the Mexican Codex ‘cause it was found in Mexico. Also, of the four codices, it’s the earliest and dates back to around the same era as Uxmal, and it includes the synodic cycles of Venus.

CB: Oh, wow, okay.

KJ: Like I said, this is within the last year that it was authenticated. Now we have yet another example of the synodic tables or tables of the synodic motion of Venus. And the frustrating thing here is because all natal interpretation is based on the 260-day calendar, we have no idea whether they were using these synodic periods for interpretation of human personality or whether this is in fact a very early example of purely observational astronomy.

CB: Okay.

KJ: We just don’t know.

CB: One of the things I thought interesting, one of the myths associated with Venus in Mayan mythology, the Serpent God—how do you pronounce the name?

KJ: Quetzalcoatl, ‘feathered serpent’. Quetzal is ‘a bird’ and coatl means ‘snake’, so therefore ‘feathered serpent’.

CB: Okay. And that god is associated with the planet Venus, and it’s supposed to be a god of wisdom who goes into the underworld and acquires all of the knowledge of the hereafter and the future. And as I was reading that I was thinking if that’s true, that’s a really amazing parallel with Inanna/Ishtar in the Mesopotamian tradition.

KJ: Right. Just like the Mayan Hero Twins that I mentioned earlier who live in a world where the only light is Venus as the Morning Star, then they travel to the underworld, they go through the death and rebirth experience, then they emerge again and set out the three hearthstones, which I said are still remembered by people in villages. And here again we see the death-and-rebirth cycle of Venus which is so familiar to us from the Inanna/Ishtar myth. There’s another version—yeah, there is one version where Quetzalcoatl does go into the underworld. But the most popular version of his story is that he was a king and a very enlightened one, but then the trickster god Smoking Mirror comes to him, confuses him, gets him drunk, he commits incest with his sister, so he’s cast out like an outcast who can only wander alone and abandoned, so here we go from life to death. And then finally because he was an enlightened ruler, the gods come to him and they transform him into Venus as the Evening Star. So here with Quetzalcoatl associated with Venus and wisdom and all the other things that you mentioned, once again we have that ‘life, death and rebirth’ motif, but we don’t know if it played a role in natal astrology and the delineation of human character.

CB: Right. That whole cycle, like in the Mesopotamian tradition, of Inanna’s descent into the underworld was connected with Venus going retrograde and then going under the beams of the Sun—which was conceptualized as the underworld—and then eventually emerging from the beams of the Sun, where it could be viewed again as a Morning Star in the mornings. And so, there’s probably some sort of similar thing here connected with this notion of under the beams being the underworld astronomically or symbolically.

KJ: Oh, yeah. I think I mentioned it—Dennis Tedlock, the anthropologist, he broke the boundaries of, what would you call it, objective anthropology and became initiated by a Daykeeper in Momostenango. And he counted the days—because they mentioned several days in the 260-day calendar—he counted the days that the Hero Twins were in the underworld experiencing the Lords of Death and then returning to create a new world. And he discovered—he knew the codices very well—that this corresponded to the disappearance of Venus. So, yeah, the idea that Ishtar is in the underworld while Venus is invisible, the idea that the Hero Twins are in the underworld while Venus is invisible, and the fact that they create wonderful new things. Yeah, Ishtar was sometimes considered as a goddess of battle, but after she emerges from the underworld she’s a goddess of love. And people were in darkness before the Hero Twins went to the underworld, and when they emerged and set the hearthstones the Sun for a new world age comes up. So, yeah, those parallels are remarkable, I think. I agree with you there a hundred percent. They are seeing it in the same way.

CB: Does that get to the core of something that’s always interested you, that flows through your work, which is the study of mythology in different cultures, and sometimes the comparison of mythology in different cultures?

KJ: Yes, absolutely. The myths that underlie the Mesoamerican astrology are the real fascination. My teacher always used to tell me that my knowledge of the day-signs, which I called the archetypes of that civilization, “Your knowledge of the day-signs is better than your knowledge of the numbers,” because the numbers are simply an indigenous numerology system that modified the day-signs. But, yeah, it was the myths that kept me going.

CB: ‘Cause the myths are connected with the 20 day-signs?

KJ: Yeah, absolutely.

CB: Okay. Part of what we talked about last time you were on the podcast was you had written one of my favorite books on the nakshatras and you focused very much on the myths surrounding each of them.

KJ: Yeah, because the nakshatras are unusual. Instead of the usual Hindu deities like Lakshmi and Kali and Krishna, they’re all named for deities from the most ancient text, the Rig Veda, and they all take their interpretation from those deities.

CB: Okay.

KJ: Excuse me. I’m just needing a little water.

CB: No problem. To what extent do you feel like mythology is truly a core access point for understanding astrology at a deeper level, based on your comparisons of the mythology that show up in astrology and all these different cultures?

KJ: I would say that mythology probably plays a greater role in Mesoamerican

interpretation than any other culture I know of. And when the first Hellenistic texts began to be available to us, I was very interested but also very surprised at the absence of mythological themes in Hellenistic astrology.

CB: Yeah, that it focuses more on an abstract or systematized, technical construct—

KJ: Exactly, yeah.

CB: —interpretation instead of the myths themselves. Although it is interesting, I did an episode with Demetra on Inanna last month and we talked about how it was so interesting in the earlier Mesopotamian tradition how you had an example of a myth that might be encoding certain core, not just astronomical, but also astrological meanings in that earlier stage of that tradition.

KJ: I think if you look hard enough the myths do appear. For example, it is often said that Saturn is the ‘master of harbors and people who work in harbors’, and yet there does not appear to be anything relating to the Greek Kronos which would explain this attribution. However, if we go back as far as Babylon and Ninurta for Saturn we find that he was the god of water with boundaries, irrigation ditches and so on and so forth. And I’ve often wondered how much of Babylon remains in Greek or Hellenistic interpretation.

CB: Right.

KJ: But in Mesoamerican astrology it’s just right on the surface.

CB: Got it. Okay, so I wanted to talk about how the Mesoamerican cultures also believed in celestial portents, especially or including those of an unexpected or disruptive nature, which to me seems in keeping with most forms of divination that have developed around the world.

KJ: Right.

CB: And in the Burns article they mentioned in particular at one point that the Aztecs who survived the Spanish conquest remembered the invasion as having been preceded by disastrous signs such as a comet and a flaming column in the air.

KJ: Yes, this is true. There are Aztec documents, some of them fairly early, that mention that comet. And I think there was a major eclipse. Eclipses are so often found in this kind of mundane astrology, political astrology; we often come across eclipses. And in the Chilam Balam books—which were written by the Maya during the colonial period in secret so the Spanish wouldn’t know that they were writing this stuff down—for the 20-year cycle, which is called Katun 13, they say, “There will be an eclipse of five days.” Now of course a lot of people could have remembered stories from their great-great-great-grandfathers who had been through the last Katun 13 and they would have known perfectly well that there had never been an eclipse of five days, but this is sometimes used just as a poetic metaphor for the world turned upside down. You know, Pachacuti, or as the Hopi would say, koyaanisqatsi. Eclipses are a metaphor for everything in the world going wrong, out of sequence, out of pattern.

CB: Yeah, I wanted to talk about ‘cause actually one of the pages of the Dresden Codex, which I found an image from on Wikipedia, talks about eclipses. So eclipses are in the Dresden Codex and eclipse prediction was one of the important goals of Mesoamerican cylindrical science. And I thought it was interesting that eclipses were also in the Mesoamerican tradition considered to be heralds of disaster, which is a pretty interesting parallel with Western practices that also tended to view eclipses negatively as well.

KJ: And even the poetic metaphor of the five-day eclipse can be found in Hindu mythology because when the heroes of the Mahabharata, the Pandava brothers, when they lose everything in a game of dice and are cast out as refugees, no longer kings, there are many celestial portents surrounding this, including a five-day eclipse.

CB: Okay.

KJ: Which we also find as a metaphor of things gone wrong in the Chilam Balam books of the Maya.

CB: Okay, got it. There was at least some sort of tradition of omenology which was similar to Mesopotamia and other cultures of seeing signs in nature, of nature providing signs about events in the present or implying something about the future.

KJ: Oh, yeah, and there still are. For example—what was it? 10 Iq’? 11 Kej? Okay, at one time the Mayan solar year can only begin on one of four days. Different cultures used different groups of four days. Nowadays they use Kej, the Deer, followed by E’, the Road of Life, followed by No’j, which means ‘thought’, followed by Iq’, which means ‘the wind’ And early in my travels in Guatemala, I went to a family home ceremony in which we said farewell to the year 10 Iq’ in the solar calendar and said hello to the year 11 Kej. And the predictions of what the year is likely to be like are directly related to the name of the year, the four names, and the 13 numbers that accompany them. In other words, the year 11 Deer, which I participated in the ceremony for that year, would be quite different from the predictions for the year 5 Thought. So they still do it, yeah, to a certain degree.

CB: In the Mesopotamian tradition, in terms of the conceptualization of that, I came across years ago this cuneiform tablet that Francesca Rochberg had translated and it said, “Sky and earth together produce omens; each is separate but not divided. Sky and earth are interconnected; a sign which is bad in the sky is bad on earth, and a sign which is bad on earth is bad in the sky.” Is there a similar conceptualization of some sort in the Mesoamerican tradition?

KJ: I haven’t done a huge amount of study in the mundane astrology because I’m more focused on the natal, but I would suspect this is true. When I look back in my mind over the way that the Maya simply think about things in life, I would have to say, yes, this is probably true.

CB: Okay. So that brings up the natal astrology and at what point did the Mesoamerican cultures develop a concept of natal astrology. Do we have evidence that it was from before the connection with Europeans?

KJ: Oh, yes, yes, yes.

CB: Okay.

KJ: Okay, we are unclear as to the Classic Maya from 250 CE to roughly 900 CE. And I mention this because that’s where we find the largest number of hieroglyphic texts, so this is where we would expect to find it. And to the best of my knowledge there are a lot of scholars who say, “Oh, everybody was named after the day that they were born in the calendar.” Well, this was true in the Nahuatl language, and I will get into that in just a minute, but with the Classic Maya we simply do not know. We know that they chose particular days to dedicate public buildings or to crown a new king, so there’s the electional again. And what I call the horary, the divinatory aspect, seems to be also very, very early in the game.

Even though we have a very large text about the life of the king of Palenque, Pakal, the Great, which tells us his whole life story, anybody who had cared to study this text would have known from the very beginning that the Maya did not believe the world would completely end in 2012 because they say that in this text that he will be reborn and take the throne again on a particular day, which is in 4772 CE. But in the beginning when they describe his birth and the ceremonies that his parents did for him, there is no mention of his horoscope except that they note that he was born on a particular day, 8 Ahau, but he never took that as a name. Now the Aztecs did indeed take calendar names. And this is one point where I cannot entirely agree with Mr. Burns because he said it was only for royalty and aristocrats, you know, the higher level of state administrators and rulers. And yet the individual who experienced the Virgin of Guadalupe—

CB: Which was what?

KJ: The Virgin of Guadalupe.

CB: Sometimes I try to not take it for granted that the audience knows anything we’re talking about.

KJ: Okay, yes. For those of us who live in states with a lot of Spanish-speaking people, the apparition or appearance of the Virgin Mary as the Virgin of Guadalupe is so common that you see it everywhere. Just walk down the street to any grocery store in certain neighborhoods, so it’s very common. But this was a vision that appeared to a peasant in ancient Mexico just a few years really after the Spanish conquest. And they had Christianized him by force and baptized him by force as Juan Diego, and so they always called him. But we know for a fact that he was named after the day that he was born in the calendar, Ce Cipactli, 1 Alligator, and we are therefore pretty certain that even common people practiced Aztec natal astrology before the conquest. How far back does it go? It might go back quite a long ways.

Each new capital of the Mesoamerican world was described, depending on the dialect, as Tula or Tollan. And the word ‘Toltec’ as in ‘Secret of the Toltecs’, ‘Magic of the Toltecs’ and all these other New Age books that you see comes from the same root. The Toltecs were the original people of Tula, and the Aztecs always claimed that they were following the Toltec wisdom. Now were there any historical Toltecs? There is a site called Tula Hidalgo, and the archaeologists used to say, “Oh, they were just basing all of this on Tula Hidalgo,” yet there was another camp who said, “No. No, it looks like every place, even places very far away from Central Mexico were calling their capital cities Tula.” And now we have figured out, thanks to, David Stewart—he’s the linguist and epigrapher who deciphers Mayan hieroglyphs for the Smithsonian Institution—he figured out from a text in a Mayan city in Guatemala that the great, huge enormous city of Teotihuacan near Mexico City was also called Tula, and that the original Toltecs seems to mean ‘the people from Teotihuacan’. And this takes us back to around 200 BC. So it is probably fair to say that natal astrology in the Nahuatl language, which was the language spoken by the Aztecs and probably in Teotihuacan, dates back to probably almost a thousand years before the conquest.

CB: Okay.

KJ: For screen-sharing I sent you a page which is—let me see what the exact title is. Borbonicus page—do you have that with you?

CB: Here’s the full page that shows up better. So what are we looking at?

KJ: What we are looking at is an actual almanac from Aztec times, and in the upper left, as you are facing the page, the large square shows the deities associated with the 13-day period, and then you will see little dots for numbers from 1 to 13. And if you can bring up the—I don’t know if it even came through. Yes, that.

CB: This one?

KJ: Yes. There we see how they would have interpreted for someone born on the day 3 Deer. We can see in the bottom panel the number 3. And then somebody who spoke Spanish after the conquest had written in the word venado, which is the Spanish word for ‘deer’, 3 Venado. So this is a pictorial representation of a person born on 3 Deer, and we see the deer, and we see the deity who is associated with that particular day-sign and who gives his or her characteristics to the person. And then above we see a rather mysterious factor called the ‘Lord Of The Night’. And we’re not sure exactly how these were calculated or interpreted but in terms of interpretation it is commonly believed that they represent the challenges inherent in your horoscope. And since there are 13 day-signs in a 13-day period, but there are only nine Lords of the Night, they overlap. So it’s possible to be born on an excellent day but have a Lord of the Night who is very, very difficult and represents the challenges in your horoscope. It’s also possible to be born on a good day, like 3 Deer, with a Lord of the Night who is a very helpful god or goddess and therefore simply enhances your horoscope.

And the little bird who was shown above the Lord of the Night—we’ve identified all the birds now and there’s 13 of them; there’s a different one for each day-sign—and they also play a role in establishing a person’s character. In many ways this is a very simplistic newspaper form of Western astrology, but when they say that Taurus people—talking Sun signs of course—when they say that Taurus Sun people are slow but dedicated and usually peaceful but prone to temper and so on and so forth, they are of course interpreting the person’s character in terms of the animal associated with the sign of the zodiac.

And in Western astrology this is of course simplistic to a point that some of us might find it painful. But on the other hand, in Aztec astrology, the bird that goes with your sign is interpreted differently in the sense that your character has to do not only with the day-sign but with the bird, and then there’s the influence of the deity who rules the day-sign and the Lord of the Night. So we have at least one, two, three, four—and if we count the 13-day period—at least five factors that we know about that were used in ancient astrology in the Nahuatl language possibly going back to 200 BC with Teotihuacan, and certainly surviving to a limited degree at least after the Spanish conquest because we do know the name of the peasant who had the vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe We know the day that he was born, therefore we could interpret his horoscope.

CB: Okay. So that brings us to another thing I wanted to talk about which is that I was reading that Mesoamericans linked astrology and medicine, and that the Aztecs in particular viewed the body as a microcosm of the universe in a way that’s very similar to some of the practices in Mesopotamia and other areas. They connected the heart with the Sun, gold was also related to the Sun and was used in medical treatments, and there was also potentially an Aztec version of the ‘zodiac man’, or what’s known in Western astrology—

KJ: Oh, yeah. It’s found in a codex called the Codex Vaticanus.

CB: Here it is.

KJ: There it is. As you can see each portion of the human body is associated with one of the 20 day-signs. And this has lasted throughout time. Even though the Maya now give different attributions, for the most part, the day-sign associated with the heart and sometimes with the Sun is still the same. The day-sign associated with the genitalia, the Serpent, is still the same. Others have changed over the years but that was another thing that you have to learn. Oh, and do they have—yes, they do. The Dog is associated with the nose because the dog has such a remarkable sense of smell. They still have this. This is the survival, yeah.

CB: Since this is one of our first really clear images that has the 20 day-signs, would you mind walking us through in order each of the day-signs, what the names are for these symbols? So it looks like number 1 starts over with the Deer on the bottom left, right?

KJ: Yes. Okay, so there’s the Deer.

CB: So that’s day symbol number 1? Are these listed in correct order?

KJ: These are not in order is the thing.

CB: The issue, okay.

KJ: That’s the issue, and I don’t know the Aztec symbols as well as I know the Mayan ones.

CB: So maybe this wouldn’t be a good illustration to use to do that.

KJ: Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to do it.

CB: Okay, no problem.

KJ: Not completely. Yeah, because this not Nahuatl tradition is no longer practiced, and I was only taught what is practiced.

CB: Okay, no problem. So maybe then let’s just round out talking about these medical assignments. I was seeing conflicting things, that these may have existed from Pre-Columbian times, these body part assignments with the day-signs, whereas other sources were saying that this may have happened when they started being exposed to European astrology that already had their ‘zodiac man’, that connected the head with the first sign of the zodiac, Aries, and then the second sign, all the way down to the feet. Do you know if this was a pre-existing thing, or was this something that started to emerge out of a synthesis of Mesoamerican and European astrology?

KJ: This particular codex is from after the conquest, so from this diagram alone we would not be able to make a determination. However, the fact that the Maya also have what you would call a ‘zodiac man’, and that this has obviously survived the ages, would lead me to believe that it’s probably earlier than the conquest.

CB: Okay.

KJ: Unless we wanted to say that the Aztecs borrowed from westerners and made up their attributions, and then the Maya borrowed from the westerners and made up a different set of attributions, but I’m suspecting that it’s old.

CB: Okay. So that brings up one last point for the medical part, which is that I was reading that the day when an illness first manifested itself was also thought to be astrologically significant. And if that’s true that’s interesting because then it parallels the Western practice of decumbiture charts.

KJ: Yes. And we know that the Mayan form of divination, when you’re initiated you receive a bag full of 260 seeds from the wild coral tree. And when a person asks you a question, you scoop up some of the seeds with your hands, lay them out in little groups of four, and then count them as if they were the days of the 260-day calendar. But where do we begin our count? If a person is asking a real-world question, like the one I mentioned earlier, “Should I go into business with my brother?,” since today is 6 Eagle, they would start counting with 6 Eagle. But if in fact they were asking a question simply about themselves and their own spiritual path, and they were born on the day 3 Jaguar, we would start counting from 3 Jaguar.

Now when a person falls ill and comes to a Daykeeper to say, “What is the source of my illness?”, in Mayan culture it is always believed that there are always two sources for any illness, one of which is purely physical and the other is psychological or metaphysical. And usually one is very well aware of the physical source. I mean, if you’re sneezing and coughing after having spent the night out in the rain it’s rather obvious what the physical cause of your illness is, but they would also feel that there is a psychological illness. And so, the Daykeeper would, again, take up the seeds, lay them out, and begin counting in order to determine the spiritual source of the illness. But then if the person had fallen sick on the day, just for example, 7 Thought, we would count from 7 Thought. And in this sense, yes, it’s very similar to decumbiture.

CB: Okay, that’s really interesting. So that brings us to one of the final points which is, as I was reading in Burns, that while the main focus of Mesoamerican astrology was the welfare of the community as a whole and its harmony with the cosmos, which is what we would usually classify as as mundane astrology, there was evidence that there may have been consulting astrologers who gave advice to individuals on the basis of their interpretation of the skies in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, but that unfortunately the evidence for this largely relies on the accounts of Spanish post-conquest chroniclers, and unfortunately the notebooks of these calendrical shamans did not survive the conquest.

KJ: This is for the most part true. If a head of state or a king of some particular kingdom, or the lord of a Mayan city-state was concerned about coming political events then we have a lot of good reasons to believe that they would have summoned an astrologer. We would say a Daykeeper ‘cause it amounts to the same thing. Daykeepers were supposed to understand not only the attributes of the 20 day-signs and everything else involved, they were also supposed to be experts in the sky. And I mentioned earlier the Xultun workshop, we actually uncovered some 11 years ago now, where they trained scribes. And in addition to the training in writing hieroglyphics, we see maps of time cycles which obviously have an astronomical basis. So we know that the scribes were usually Daykeepers who also had a knowledge of astronomy, and these are the people upon whom the lords and kings would call when they wanted advice.

CB: Okay, so that’s like with the Mesopotamian tradition where sometimes the astronomers and the astrologers were one and the same and there was to a certain extent some interchangeability possibly between what we now classify as separate fields.

KJ: Yeah. And when when we are frustrated because the Dresden Codex, for example, gives us all these wonderful cycles of Venus and the synodic and the appearances and disappearances and so on and so forth, and yet it has absolutely nothing to do with human personality, it is possible that these tables of planetary motion, like the ones we find on the walls in Uxmal, were intended to assist with these mundane predictions. They don’t appear in natal astrology but they would have been important for determining political events. And one important clue to this is that Tikal chose to start a war against another city called Caracol during a Jupiter-Venus conjunction, and in the monument they raised about their successful campaign against Caracol we find the hieroglyphs for both Jupiter and Venus, as well as the date that they staged their invasion. And if you look up that date on a computer you will find that there was a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus on that date. Therefore many of these tables which appear to be purely scientific astronomy may have been used for these kinds of purposes and not for natal astrology, which was based entirely on the 260-day calendar. But it’s very, very possible, I would say probable that these factors were all used in advising rulers and overlords about the political climate of the times and whether it was auspicious for them to make a certain move or a certain policy change, etc.

CB: Okay, got it. Let’s see, one of the things to start transitioning into is intermediate and then modern period. I think you said to me, when we’re preparing at one point, that most of the Spanish chroniclers cannot be trusted since they were clerics who often regarded this knowledge as a ‘tool of Satan’.

KJ: Exactly, yes.

CB: They would look at some of the illustrations and stuff and interpret it as if it was satanic imagery or something like that.

KJ: Well, simply because it wasn’t Christianity it was therefore satanic to them. And as I said earlier the only exception to that rule is Bernardino Sahagún. How he ever ended up as a high-ranking churchman I have no idea because he’s purely objective in the way he records things.

CB: Okay. But otherwise there was a systematic attempt to suppress and destroy that knowledge, and especially the writings of it at that time.

KJ: Diego de Landa, who was the archbishop of Yucatan shortly after the conquest, actually boasts of how he burned all the books of the Maya.

CB: Wow, okay.

KJ: Yeah.

CB: So there’s just tons and tons of that tradition of the wisdom that was collected that was basically lost at that time.

KJ: Yes. Which is one of the reasons why I find it interesting what survived and what did not. The intensely detailed astronomical knowledge did not survive. The natal delineations of the day-signs did survive and some of the myths having to do with the sky, like the one I mentioned about Orion or the appearance and disappearance of Venus also survived.

CB: So some of that survived through the myths and through an oral tradition.

KJ: Yes. One of the reasons why I went to Momostenango was because it’s known for having the greatest level of survival, and this is because it’s 7,500 feet up in the mountains, higher even than you, higher even than Santa Fe. It’s 7,500 feet up in the mountains and there’s only one road that leads there, and the people who lived there were the K’iche’ Maya who were great warriors and very rebellious against the Spaniards. So no Spanish troops wanted to go on that little winding mountain road, and consequently Momostenango was never disturbed, and the Catholic Church made its peace with Momos a long time ago. I’ve been to ceremonies where the old gods were called upon, where we did the ceremony in the cathedral of Momos, so the Catholics made their peace with it, And the Spanish military overlords were afraid to go there and consequently more knowledge survived there than anywhere else. I’m trying to rescue it because the internet and TV and cell phones are having a very strong negative effect. Of what I first experienced during my first journey there in February of 2010, about half of it is already gone.

CB: Oh, wow, okay.

KJ: So that’s why I’m trying to conserve it, preserve it ‘cause the Momos—they’re pretty much the last. Fortunately, in December of 1996, when the peace accords were signed for the terrible 15-year Guatemalan Civil War, the Maya were given their religious freedom. So now people come from all over Guatemala to study in Momostenango, and then now it is starting to spread all over the country and the old ways are coming back. So survival in a certain way is probably assured, but there were details that I saw vanishing and wanted to preserve.

CB: Okay, and here’s a map. As you said, this is in Guatemala.

KJ: Yeah. Okay, here Antigua, Santa Cruz. Yeah, this is it right here. Just above where the red marking is, that’s where Momos is. See the label that says Quetzaltenango below it?

CB: So it’s just north of there.

KJ: So you you get in what is called a ‘chicken bus’, and sometimes there are real live animals that peasants and farmers bring onto the bus—paisanos, you know, campesinos, country people—and you get this jolting ride for an hour up that same mountain road that the Spanish was so afraid of, and about an hour later you will end up in Momos. But in that region in general they have the strongest survivals of ancient ways purely and simply because the K’iche’ were rebellious and great warriors and the Spanish were afraid of them.

CB: Okay. And backing up just a little bit, so after the conquests some Maya became interested in European astrology along with other aspects of the culture of the invaders. And this is where a book that you mentioned at one point comes in, the books of Chilam Balam.

KJ: That’s true. There were many books of Chilam Balam, the best known are the Chumayel and the Tizimin, but it’s the Chilam Balam of Mani and the Chilam Balam of Kawa that have the mixture of day-sign astrology with Western astrology. The two scholars who translated the Chilam Balam of Kawa were able to trace the Western information to a Spanish astronomical and astrological almanac circa 1670 or thereabouts.

CB: Yeah, that’s what I was reading, that this was a 17th and 18th century compilation of European and indigenous materials for a Maya audience, some of which was translated and some was in the original language, but it included some European astronomical and astrological works.

KJ: Yeah. For example, they would say ‘month of Gemini’ and then give the little prediction from the almanac, and then they would have, “Those who are born under the sign of the Deer,” and “Those who are born under the sign of the Jaguar,” and so on and so forth, all of it mixed up together.

CB: Nice. So just like with every other tradition of astrology around the world when traditions come into contact with each other they start mixing and blending in different ways.

KJ: Yes. I cannot call it very sophisticated or very much in-depth. Of course there were many things about Western culture which the Maya did not like. They did not like having their villages burned, their women stolen, high taxes, etc., but there were some things about Western culture that they liked, and astrology appears to have been one of them.

CB: Okay. So one of the things you wrote—well actually to expand on that point, something I’ve always noticed is just throughout history, anytime you put two astrologers in a room together they start talking and they start comparing their approaches, and one way or another those approaches rub off on each other. And we’ve seen that in so many different cultures, like with the many different interfaces between Hellenistic or between Greek and Indian astrology and some of the interchange between those two cultures, or Mesopotamian astrology and there was eventually some interface with Chinese astrology to some extent. It’s just like a commonality that astrologies will eventually tend to rub off on each other because astrologers, while sometimes they can strongly disagree with each other, sometimes even that disagreement can cause interesting developments when you expose different traditions.

KJ: And the Chilam Balam books, even though they include older material which has been preserved, are primarily products of the 18th century.

CB: Okay.

KJ: So they had been under Spanish rule for almost a couple of hundred years, and there is a lot of mixture of tradition in the Chilam Balam books.

CB: Okay. So that is something to be aware of at least when going back and studying some of these traditions in terms of what we can know at different stages. And when you start getting different traditions exposed to each other sometimes we have to be careful that maybe there are some things rubbing off in different ways. Which is something you have to deal with any time you’re studying the history of astrology is just being very aware of what you can say about that tradition at different stages based on whatever evidence survives.

KJ: Yeah, the same is true here.

CB: Okay. And the last thing is you said that the amount of genuine astrological knowledge in the Chilam Balam books is somewhat limited in terms of natal astrology, but that they give us a fair amount of knowledge about the cycles of human history that make up the Mayan Long Count.

KJ: Oh, the Long Count.

CB: Yeah, that might be—

KJ: All the peoples of Mesoamerica have a system of world ages, cycles of history similar to the Hindu yugas or pralayas, but each culture counts these cycles of history differently. The Maya seemed to have developed the most elaborate of all of them which is called the Long Count, and it consists of 5,125 years for a world age; and each world age is broken down into 13 segments, and each of those segments is broken down into 20-year segments. And the Chilam Balam books give us each of those 20-year segments in some detail.

CB: So that that number 20 comes up again. Is that connected?

KJ: Yeah, of course. Yeah, it’s absolutely connected. 20 is completion. Just as 20 digits and 13 joints define the human being, 20 defines also periods of time, periods of history, 20 years. And there will be 13 of them before it starts over again. And, no, they don’t count from 1 to 13, they count backwards by two. In other words, the 20-year period number 12 would be succeeded by the one numbered 10, would be succeeded by the one numbered 8 and so on and so forth.

CB: Okay.

KJ: And they’re named for the day that they end, and the hieroglyph for it is the same as the hieroglyph for zero. In our culture zero means nothing or nothingness, but in Mayan culture it refers to the moment which is both the beginning and the end. They perceived an ending, or the ending of a cycle, and the beginning of the next cycle as a unit, a single moment and that was their definition of zero. Theirs is rather different from ours.

CB: Okay. Well, I’d like to take a break, but that’s gonna bring us to the really important question of what happened with all the 2012 stuff when that was such a phenomenon.

KJ: Yeah.

CB: We’ll take a break and then we’ll come back and answer that question.


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[end of break]

CB: All right, so we’re back from our break. So that brings us to another topic. People that were around 10 years ago will know that there was a lot of hoopla, especially in the New Age community, about this idea that like the Mayan calendar was ending in 2012 and that that indicated somehow the end of the world or something like that. And while it was clear to many of us around the astrological community at that time that this was being hyped up and was being sort of distorted in some weird ways for odd purposes, I wanted to talk to you and ask what happened there and what was the actual story.

KJ: Okay, what actually happened was it was very early in the 20th century that scholars figured out how to count the Long Count. And within that long cycle of 5,125 years, beginning on August 11, 3114 BC and ending on December 21, 2012, figured out that it seemed to end in 2012 and there was nothing forthcoming or anything new, anything different, anything beyond this, so they assumed that the Maya were predicting the end of time or the end of the world. And this really demonstrates nothing more than the fact that even early archaeologists, scientists though they may have been, were still very much under the influence of the Abrahamic religions which do believe in an apocalypse, a final end of the world, and that they did not understand that the Maya thought in the same manner as Hindus with their yugas/pralayas of interlocking cycles of thousands or even millions of years; they simply did not understand that the Maya thought the same way. And it wasn’t really until, oh, my gosh, probably not until the 1990s that we were able to translate what’s called the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque. And I’ve mentioned this earlier that it predicts that the King Pakal, the Great, will return on a certain date in the year 4772 AD or CE, reincarnate, and become the king of Palenque again.

So it should have been clear that the Maya were thinking far beyond 2012. But sometimes the New Age fails to realize that because they were also—most of them—born and raised in American or European families that also come from the Abrahamic tradition and that they were just kind of hardwired for this ‘end of the world’ stuff, so people began to interpret it as such. We now know that the Maya were simply talking about a world age, one of which begins at 3114 BC and ended in 2012, and the next one that began in 2012 will go for another 5,125 years and be divided into 13 Cycles, which are divided into groups of 20-year cycles. And this was just their way of counting and also of predicting historical patterns, which is something I’d like to write about at some point. I have written a little bit about it, but that book is only available in a PDF. I haven’t managed to get it into solid print yet.

CB: What is the title?

KJ: The Mayan Prophecies.

CB: Okay.

KJ: I analyze all 13 groups of 20-year cycles in the Chilam Balam books.

CB: Okay, so that’s the one that’s available as a PDF on your website if people just email you.

KJ: Yes.

CB: Okay, that’s cool. And then the 2012 stuff—it seemed like that was something that really picked up in the 1990s forward basically, and they tried merging it with other ideas from Western astrology, like the Age of Aquarius and other stuff like that.

KJ: Right. Instead of ‘end of the world’ it became ‘enlightenment for everybody’ for some thinkers.

CB: Sure. But it was very much disconnected from not just what ancient Mayan astrology would have said or implied about that, but also even contemporary practitioners of Mesoamerican astrology weren’t really even being consulted that much either it seemed, right?

KJ: You know, they were not aware of it because the Maya stopped using the Long Count around 900 CE and only the 20-year fragments survived, not the entire picture of the Long Count. And those 20-year cycles found their way into the books of Chilam Balam and survived that way but somewhat out of context in the larger scheme of things. So, yeah, it was basically just a whole series of misunderstandings really.

CB: Okay, that’s good to know.

KJ: Oh, I was gonna say because they did not remember the Long Count even in Momostenango, where more of the ancient tradition survives than any other place, most of the people there had never heard of 2012 until hippie visitors started coming up on the chicken bus and asking them about it.

CB: Oh, no. That must have been really, really awkward.

KJ: It must have been. Most of them were aware of what they call this ‘crazy Western idea’ by the time I got there in 2010. And my good friend Don Rigoberto had already made a living for himself going around to various different countries explaining the real concept. He was a very fine historian of Mayan culture and he did understand the Long Count.

CB: So is that part of the reason why? Because you said the first book that you wrote, Jaguar Wisdom, which I believe came out in 1997—

KJ: ‘97, yeah.

CB: —became popular. It became unexpectedly popular at some later date. Was it partially due to that or was swept up in some of that hype? How did that come about?

KJ: Well, I also spoke of it as a change in larger cycles of time. My intention was to take the focus off of all this stuff about sunspots and alien astronauts and end of the world or enlightenment for everybody and return things to a consideration of the actual Mayan people and what they had retained of their ancient knowledge. So of course my whole treatment of the 2012 phenomenon was fairly skeptical.

CB: Sure, sure.

KJ: But because the Long Count has its roots in the 260-day calendar the book probably did become popular because people were looking at it in hopes of finding out more about 2012. If so, well, I would have suspected that they might be disappointed, but apparently a lot of people really took to the ideas in it because it became very popular. So I feel like my intention sort of worked out in the sense that I did manage to turn the focus back to the living Maya and what they remember instead of alien astronauts and what have you.

CB: Okay. Well, that eventually led to your second book on this, which came out in 2011, which was titled Mayan Calendar Astrology: Mapping Your Inner Cosmos. And one of the things that you’ve talked about recently is you said that you’ve witnessed over the past 20 to 30 years this great flowering of contemporary Mayan astrology, where it’s growing and developing and turning into something new because it’s growing, because it’s a living living tradition.

KJ: Right. I cannot find anyone among the Daykeepers who heard about it earlier than the 1990s, so I’m assuming that it developed in the late 1980s. And I have many reasons too complex to go into, but I believe that it developed in Quetzaltenango, which is Guatemala’s second largest city and K’iche’ city. But, yes, they’ve taken ancient ideas and elements and created a system of natal astrology which we don’t have from the Classic Period Maya, and it has spread like wildfire all over Guatemala. And I’ve even been on buses with young people from Yucatan—where the 260-day count was lost probably in the 1820s—young men who use the internet to find somebody in Guatemala who could teach them this new system. So I have been on the bus with enthusiastic young men from all over the Maya world who come to the K’iche’ country to learn the new system of astrology, and it’s spreading like wildfire. Well, it’s only about 32-33-years-old, but there’s been a lot of commentary about how systems of astrology sometimes seem to have developed rather quickly in time.

CB: Like with Hellenistic astrology, you mean?

KJ: Well, I’m thinking partly of Alfred Witte and Uranian astrology. This was just a few individuals over maybe 20 to 30 years. And it has been argued—although I I suppose it could be argued differently—that we have a few people, Nechepso, Petosiris, a couple of other names, that these various people seem to have lived around the same time, and what remains of their writing doesn’t so much indicate a little, small beginning, it indicates a fully-fledged art. So, yeah, in that sense you could say that this new system of Mayan astrology is very similar to either Uranian or possibly Hellenistic astrology in the sense that it has used ancient materials and re-envisioned them into a new system.

CB: So you feel like you’re witnessing the birth of a new and more advanced and more complex—

KJ: Apparently I’m considered one of the major players in bringing it out to the world. I found out about it in 1991, about a year after it had been invented, and I’ve been working with it ever since. And some of the masters, like Carlos Barrios whom I mentioned, were good friends of mine. Oh, and then the man whom the Maya themselves considered to be the finest astrologer—but he’s never written any books and he speaks not a word of English—Roberto Poz, is considered to be the finest in the new system, and I studied with him as well. So I’ve actually been in it and part of it since the beginning. Most of the horoscopes that I see traveling around the internet resemble the design that I created. Yeah, I really do feel like I’m in the midst of an emerging form of astrology, which is very exciting.

CB: And you wrote in the notes—let me read this ‘cause it seemed important—that it was during during the Guatemalan civil war from 1981 to 1986 that a kind of cultural and spiritual renaissance began among the Maya, primarily among college students who were aware that keepers of traditional knowledge were being slaughtered en masse. So you wrote, “Among the products of this renaissance was the natal astrological system known as the Mayan Cross, which began circa 1989 or 1990, with a simple cross—each of the four arms as well as the center corresponding to a particular day-sign and meaning derived mathematically—and then that has expanded.” You said, “In 23 years, the five-sign cross has been expanded to nine signs: the year lord, the sign with the highest numerical total, the numerical total of the entire birth chart, a lightning bolt

KJ: Yeah, lord of the year.

CB: —a lightning bolt, which runs through the horoscope and charts the ‘inner lightning’ within a person’s body, and a system for determining compatibility.

KJ: Yes.

CB: So is that connected with the example image that you shared?

KJ: Yes.

CB: Would this be a good time to show that?

KJ: Yeah, I can do that.

CB: Okay. So what is this image?

KJ: So in the very center you see the green cross, and in the center is the hieroglyph for 3 Kej, meaning 3 Deer. So we see that the central column is all in red and everything else is all in white. The central column will always be comprised of a single element, in this case fire. The eastern direction as it were, we have 3 Kej above it which represents the west, 8 Kawoq represents what we call the conception sign, everything that we bring into this life with us from our family heritage, our ancestors, even our past lives. And then below 3 Kej we see 11 Tz’ikin, and 11 Tz’ikin is called the future sign because it represents the eastern direction and therefore the sunrise, the beginning of new things. Then the right and left are reversed as if we are looking in a mirror. 10 Imox is actually the right-hand arm, whereas 9 Aj is the left-hand arm. And the right-hand arm of the cross is our masculine or yang side, the other is our feminine or yin side. And then there are the four day-signs at the corners.

And I won’t go into that too much because so many people disagree on what they mean; there’s a lot of different opinions about it. But you can see the day-sign Imox—he’s on an arm of the cross there—and also down in one corner below it and to the other side 10 + 4 = 14. That is the highest total of numbers of any day-signs, so he gets a place down there at the bottom of the chart, 14 Imox. The sign with the highest numerical total has a strong influence on personality. And then on the other side 7 E’this individual was born in the year 7 E’. And if you total up all nine signs plus the seven from 7 E’, you will reach the number 60. And the intensity with which a person lives has a lot to do with how high the number is. The higher the number, which goes as high as 86, the more intense the life.

So that’s a brief summary. And, by the way, when we stand at the altar we face the east. So we’re facing the sunrise, we’re facing the future, and behind us is the sunset, the land of the ancestors, which is why that represents our past incarnations, our past lives, our childhood. And then all our male friends and relatives and qualities are on our right hand, female on the left hand. So really this evolves out of the orientation that we use when we perform a ceremony, which is what I mean when I say that it’s based on very, very ancient ideas; and yet despite the fact that the ideas are ancient the treatment is modern. And, yes, when I first went to Momostenango almost nobody had heard of the Mayan Cross system, although they could all do the divination with the red coral seeds, and it was university students who started adopting the Mayan Cross system. I also believe it came out of a university. I can’t prove it, but I am fairly certain that it originated in Quetzaltenango at the University of Rafael Landivar. I have a lot of reasons but it would take me an hour or so to explain them.

CB: And that was a Jesuit university?

KJ: It is a Jesuit university, yes.

CB: Okay.

KJ: Which explains where they could have found the lightning bolt which so strongly resembles the one in the Kabbalah going through the Tree of Life. Because the Jesuits would have that in their library, wouldn’t they? So they have a Daykeeper who is a professor of Mayan languages who teaches at a Jesuit university, and who also teaches astrology. I suspect he lies at the origin of all of this.

CB: Okay, so this is the system that you outline in your book Mayan Calendar Astrology that goes into both the individual symbols as well as the outline of everything.

KJ: And someday, if I could ever afford to get hold of a copy of Sahagún, I may try to do a reconstruction of Aztec astrology. Of course Bruce Scofield reconstructed part of it, and much as with the Chilam Balam books, he mixes it with Western astrology. And I’ve seen a lot of people criticizing him for mixing it, and I’ve always been the one on social media to have to defend him and remind people that the Maya did precisely the same thing in the books Chilam Balam.

CB: Mixing the systems, you mean?

KJ: Mixing the two systems, yeah.

CB: Okay, got it. It’s interesting, that tension there, that astrologers have different hats. Sometimes you have your ‘historian’ hat where you’re going back and trying to reconstruct what different systems were in different eras, but then sometimes as a contemporary practitioner your focus as a practitioner is to take the best pieces from each system that you think work and put them together into something that’s effective.

KJ: Yes. The rabbis who were my academic advisors in the comparative religions department used to say put two rabbis in a room and you’ve got three opinions. I would say put two astrologers in a room and you’ve got three opinions.

CB: Right.

KJ: So I wrote about the Mayan Cross system because I was trained by some of the greats. Roberto Poz was a direct student of the teacher at the Jesuit university who may have originated it, and Carlos Barrios is the most famous name, and I’ve worked with all of these people extensively, so I wrote a book on that. Lately I’ve been hanging out more with people who are seriously interested in ancient Mexico, in the old days, and I’m thinking of someday doing a book on ancient Aztec astrology—the codex page that I showed you from was from the Codex Borbonicus, which is special; it’s believed to be the one codex which is closest to the Toltec tradition—matching it up with Sahagún’s writing—‘cause he was the objective guy, and he left us a couple of hundred pages on the astrology—and doing a practical reconstruction of the Aztec system.

CB: Okay. Yeah, so one of the things you said at the end is just that you strongly suspect that this is only the beginning and that the Maya gained the right to practice their ancient religion at the end of the civil war in 1996 in Guatemala and that their cultural renaissance is ongoing. So you expect that the Mayan Cross system, which is your name for this, will continue to develop and that that’s something you want to continue to be involved in.

KJ: It will continue to develop, as with many other new ideas that are coming out of the universities. Another very positive thing was that a lot of the people I know, one great teacher that I know was pulled out of school during the fourth grade to help with his family and had to train himself to read and write in Spanish. And his wife—we watch her very carefully when we take her to restaurants ‘cause she is likely to have the menu upside down because she can’t read or write at all; she was pulled out in the second grade. But now since the end of the civil war, since the Maya gained more human rights, civil rights, we find more and more people coming out of the villages and into universities, and I believe that this is where the cultural renaissance is gonna come from.

CB: Okay, brilliant.

KJ: In fact, my friend who was pulled out in the fourth grade and taught himself to be the historian of Momostenango and read and write fluently in both K’iche’ and Spanish, he made a lot of money talking about 2012. He went to an American expatriate and said, “You know, I’m in my 50s, and I’ve never had a bank account in my life. Can you show me how to make one?” And so, she took him to the bank and he started a high interest savings account and continued to live the life of a campesino with dirt floors and a tin roof and tin walls, but he sent all his kids to college.

CB: Oh, wow.

KJ: This is where it’s all coming from, people like this.

CB: Okay, well, that’s very exciting, and, yeah, exciting to witness with what we’ve seen in different traditions historically, like you mentioned with Uranian astrology and cosmobiology, that we suspect may have happened in the early Hellenistic tradition. You have the revival of some older traditions, but then also the merging or the synthesis with contemporary ones that create something new. But sometimes those periods of flourishing happen very rapidly, and we’ve been seeing something very similar to that happening in real-time with this over the past 30 years basically.

KJ: Yeah, that’s what I think. Even though this is quite a different culture than the European world that produced Uranian astrology or the Hellenistic ecumene which produced Hellenistic astrology, I believe that we are seeing a similar process in the human spirit.

CB: Brilliant. Okay, so I think that kind of brings us to the end of this. So I wanted to talk about where people can find out more information about your work, what your ongoing work is, or what projects you’d like to do related to this in the future, and where people can find out more information about some of the stuff that we’ve talked about here.

KJ: Okay, my website is www.jaguarwisdom.org. Please don’t mistake it for jaguarwisdom.com because there is no such website. So jaguarwisdom.org is where you can find my books for sale. Although for Mayan Calendar Astrology you will have to go to Amazon because the link is broken and we haven’t fixed it yet. Also, you can contact me at kenjohnson108@gmail.com because I have a complete beginning course in the current Mayan Cross astrology system that is in four units of five hours each. This is a 20-hour course, and you can get it from me.

CB: Nice. Awesome. Okay, good. Well, I’ll put a link.

KJ: And I hope someday to work more with the Toltec-Nahuatl Central Mexican tradition in the future.

CB: Yeah, well, I know on Facebook, for example, you post regularly about day-signs.

KJ: Oh, yeah.

CB: Now that you’ve got the webcam and the microphone setup that we did for this, maybe we can get you to do more video versions of that at some point on YouTube. I think that would probably be really popular.

KJ: Okay, yeah.

CB: You know, just throwing that out there, as well as other courses and teachings. But people should definitely email you for those books as well as for that course, and I’ll put a link to your website in the description below this video on YouTube or on the podcast website.

KJ: Yeah, you can find me under JaguarWisdom on Facebook.

CB: Good, okay. Awesome.

KJ: That’s where I do the daily posts for the energy of each day and as I learned it, word of mouth in Guatemala during my nine lunar months of intensive study to be initiated.

CB: Okay, awesome. Using that system, great. Well, thanks so much for joining me for this today. This was amazing. I can’t believe how much we covered, but this was really, really great.

KJ: Okay, thank you.

CB: All right, well, thanks everyone for watching or listening to this episode of The Astrology Podcast, and we’ll see you again next time.


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