The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
19,000 people fit into the new Barclays Center to see Jay-Z perform. This blog was viewed about 110,000 times in 2012. If it were a concert at the Barclays Center, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
According to some, the world is about to end on December 21st. Of course, those people are pretty ignorant.
You see, the Mayan calendar “ends” on that date. I use the quotes there because the Mayan concept of time was more cyclical, and all that will happen is the Mayan long count will reach the date 188.8.131.52.0, the end of the 13th baktun, which will mean, well, nothing really.
But today I’m not going to find a bunch of nut jobs to quote and rebut concerning this stupd “prophecy,” while making comments about how skepticism is da shiznit. Today, I’m going to post what was a paper about the Mayan Calendar and their concept of time. This was written in the Spring of 1998 (long before anyone was making a fuss about the 2012 issue, I think, so it does not come up in the paper), and was completed and turned in on April 20th, 1998; or what was the Mayan date of 184.108.40.206.1.
I will not blame you for skipping this one, as it is fairly dry and is after all a term paper from a college sophomore. But in case you wanted to learn a little something about the Mayan calendar, here’s one way to do so.
I have made some minor edits, and included some images.
Time and the the Mayan Calendar
We can admire the Maya for many things including their monumental temples and their wonderful hieroglyphic writing found on countless Stelae and other monuments throughout the Yucatan lowlands and Guatemalan highlands. But when we study the Maya in depth we discover that they had very old and very solid roots in things like agriculture that dealt with religious rituals and seasonal changes. Related to these things very directly were a complex set of calendars and time keeping systems that acted as a axis for all of their religious and secular activity. The Maya had calendars—plural—meaning that not one system of time-keeping was used, but three (maybe four, depending on how technical we want to be). These different time-keeping mechanisms were based on different cycles and were not alike in most ways but were related in very clear-cut and significant ways.
Of the three time keeping devices, the two calendars that were used were the sacred 260-day calendar—tzolkin—and the 365 day calendar known as the haab. Both were very different from our Gregorian calendar in structure as well as mechanics and combined to create a cycle of 18,980 days, slightly less than 52 solar years (Meyer 1). This 52-year cycle in known as the calendar round to the Maya and is significant because it is the amount of time that the tzolkin and the haab, running in unison, will not repeat. In a sense, the calendar round worked for the Maya like the century does in our calendar. The third time keeping method of the Maya is the Long Count dating method. When dates are found in Mayan sites the date is recorded using this method, along side the tzolkin and haab dates, which allowed us to coordinate the systems for our understanding.
The last mechanism worthy of mention is the very specific calculated solar year of 365.2422 days which is mentioned here to establish that the Maya were very aware that their 365-day haab, also known as the Vague Year, was not perfect in calculating the solar year. However, the Maya made no attempt to account for this difference by use of a leap day as we do because of the delicate relationship between the haab and the Tzolkin. If every four years another day is added to the haab, then the cycles of the year bearers (that will be discussed later) and their significance to the Maya would disappear. It is also important to note that despite the fact that the Maya did not use a leap day, they were very aware of and measured closely the effects of this decision, i.e. the accumulated change in seasons as the years cycled (Thompson 121).
Throughout this paper I will be using Mayan names for the days and Uinals (20-day “months”) in the Yucatec language as recorded in Sir J. Eric S. Thompson’s book, Maya Hieroglyphic Writing (pages 68, 106 respectively) and sometimes followed by the Quiché equivalent, found in Tedlock’s book on page 89, in parentheses. Example: Yucatec (Quiché). This will be done as to not confuse the different spellings or words used to express the same days or Uinals in different languages. The other names of days from the other Maya languages are included in the attached section #3.
The Mayan conception of time was by no means elementary or simple; “Mayan astronomers at Palenque were recording calculations which sweep more than 1, 250, 000 years into the past, and then foreword to dates over four millennia in the future” (Thompson 141). It is a controversial topic of whether the unit of time for the Maya was the day or the tun (360-days). If it was the tun, which can be vaguely called a year, then the kins (days) and Uinals (20 days) are just fractions of this basic unit like minutes and seconds are fractions of an hour. From the evidence that Thompson gives us in his book it seems as if the tun would be the more likely candidate for the unit of Maya time because of the large scale view of time that the Maya held—they seemed to think bigger. In his discussion of he Long Count Eric Thompson believes that the unit of time was the tun on the grounds of evidence such as the Chilam Bilam and other sources that refer to time periods in years more and more and days less and less. Also, as he states, if the Maya count were based on the day then “it would be logical to expect a straightforward vigesimal system with a year of 400 days” (Thompson 141-142). But as I will point out, the Maya did not use a pure vigesimal system, and they did not have a calendar of 400 days.
The Long Count:
The Long count was based on a vigesimal counting system, that is, a system of counting based on 20 instead of the decimal system we use. As the system is difficult to understand, and as I write this I find it harder to describe, I will use a description used by John Major Jenkins in his article Introduction to the Mayan Calendar:
It is written using dots to indicate placement values (for example: 220.127.116.11.4). The leftward placements are of higher value. The Long Count dating method is based on a hierarchical day-count based on twenty. The above date represents the passage of 8 baktuns, 15 katuns, 6 tuns, zero uinals, and four days since the zero date (Jenkins 5).
Here is an adapted version of the table that Jenkins provides for us on the same page:
Long Count Periods (read right to left)
Number of Days
1 kin = 1 day
20 days = I uinal
18 uinal = 1 tun
20 tuns = 1 katun
20 katuns = 1 baktun
13 baktuns = 1 Great Cycle
1,872,000 (around 5,125 years)
And compare it to a pure vigesimal system:
Placement of number (right to left)
Number of days
1 (comparable to the kin)
2 (“ “ “ Uinal)
3 (“ “ “ tun)
4 (“ “ “ katun)
5 (“ “ “ baktun)
As the tables above show, the Mayan Long Count, although based on the vigesimal counting system, is not a pure vigesimal system. The system of counting was altered slightly from the system used for counting objects as Peter Meyer reaffirms in his article The Maya Calendar:
When counting days, however, the Mayas used a system in which the first place [starting from the right] (as usual) had a value of 1, the second place had a value of 20, but the third place had a value not of 400 (20*20) [as a pure vigesimal system would] but of 360 (18*20). (This may have been due to the fact that 360 is close to the length of the year in days.) The value of higher places continued regularly with 7,200 (20*18*20), 144,000 (20*20*18*20), etc. (Meyer 1).
Based on the Mayan counting system, the Long Count dates events by stating how many days have passed since 3113 or 3114 BC (this depends on whether we use the Julian or Gregorian calendar, respectively). This dating method is used instead of the combination of the tzolkin and haab dates because the calendar round will repeat every 52 years, making the combination of a tzolkin and haab dates insufficient for dating events because any date, for example 1 Imix 2 Pop, will occur every 52 years or so, meaning that seeing this date on a stele will not tell us which revolution of the calendar round the event occurred, but only limits the possibilities to days that occur every 52 years.
“The Tzolkin, Mayan name derived from the word tzol which means “to put in order”, and kin that means ‘day’ (Imagenet. Origins, p. 1).” The Tzolkin calendar is the more complex and unfamiliar to us as compared to the haab and was under the control of certain individuals, called “daykeepers,” who had the responsibility of keeping track of the days and performing the rituals associated with them. Overall, the Tzolkin seems to have been a “divinatory almanac,” as Eric Thompson calls it in his book, meaning that it was used as a basis for predicting the future and what we might call fortune-telling. The days were actually considered gods or lords that carried the burden hence ruled each particular day name. Life surrounded by the Tzolkin was “not monotonous” says Thompson, the days followed “in unbroken succession, each bringing its charge of weal or woe” (Thompson, p. 66).
The Tzolkin was broken up into 13 day numbers and 20 day names. Here is the list of days and their equivalent names in the Quiché language. The numbers are present to list the sequence, do not confuse them with the day numbers mentioned above:1.Imix (Imöx)
The day names and numbers were indistinguishable from one-another as a single functioning unit with its own meaning and character. “The combination of number and day was a unit, and one part was as meaningless without the other as a telephone number is without the name of the exchange” (Thompson, p. 66). The day 13 Ahau, for instance would not be called 13, or Ahau because one without the other would be incomplete. Having one without the other is like me telling you that to make a cake you needed a half cup or saying that you needed sugar; if I gave you one then you would need the other to make sense of the directions. But despite the fact that a certain day is not identified by its name alone or its number alone, it is also clear that the day name, which is the name of that day lord, has a certain significance that differs from day to day and is separate from the number. Each day lord has his own characteristics and one day may be very different from the previous or the following. This relationship between the day names and numbers and their significance will be expanded when I discuss divination. The concepts of the advance of day names and numbers will become more clear when we establish how the mechanics of the Tzolkin works.
The numbers and days advance in unison; that is, the day name and number advanced on the beginning of a new day instead of the number advancing through what we would call a month. For instance, if today were 1 Manik then tomorrow would not be 2 Manik, but it would be 2 Lamat. This is because the day name Lamat follows the day name Manik in the sequence of days, and 2 follows 1. When, as the days progress, the number reaches 13, then the next day would be numbered as 1. And the last day arrives, then the names repeat in the same sequence from the beginning. This cycle continues indefinitely along with the haab which also cycles endlessly.
The major problem with the 260-day calendar, and to some extent the haab as well, is that there is no identifiable beginning. The Mayans saw time in cyclical terms, there is no beginning or end, it is just the kins, Uinals, tuns, and katuns rolling through time in an endless cycle.
A. . .major controversy about the 20-day calendar concerns the beginning day of the cycle. Central Mexican lists of the twenty day names usually begin with [Imix]. . .but the Mayan picture is less clear. Morley noted that ‘since the sequence of twenty day names was continuous, it is obvious that it had no beginning or ending, like the rim of a wheel: consequently, any day name may be chosen arbitrarily as the starting point.’ (Morley, Sylvanus. An Introduction to the study of the Maya hieroglyphics.)
Despite the lack of absolute evidence for a day that begins the cycle, it is relatively accepted that Imix is the beginning day of the cycle and that the accompanying number would be 1; hence the first day of the Tzolkin is accepted as I Imix (Thompson 102, Tedlock 94). Whether or not this day actually was seen by the Maya as the beginning of the Tzolkin is something that will be argued over and may not ever be known for sure.
While talking about beginnings, it is appropriate to discuss the origins of the Tzolkin itself. Nobody is sure why the Tzolkin developed the way it did. The theory that I most widely encountered, whether in proposing it or attempting to discredit it, was that the 260-day period is very close to that of the human gestation period. Eric Thompson is a critic of this theory, saying that it “is not a very happy explanation because there is no logical reason why the period of pregnancy should be considered in establishing a divinatory almanac” (Thompson, p. 98). But despite Thompson’s critique, the theory is held by many to be reasonable and is held in veneration within the community of Mayanists.
Another prominent theory is that the 260-day period is the amount of time that the sun is south of the zenith of the latitude 14º 30´ (a little south of Copán). The problem with this theory is that this exact latitude does not accurately represent the whole of the Yucatan peninsula and the Highlands. In Some places in Yucatan the sun would be south of this zenith on as many as 311 days of the solar year (Thompson, p. 98). Thompson states that one “must Assume then that the cycle of 260 days originated on the periphery of the area in which it was current, and that, spreading northward and westward, it was eagerly adopted by peoples for whom it had no solar significance” (Thompson 98). This is the same as saying that the tzolkin was developed by someone living along the 14º 30´ latitude and spread throughout the limits of Mayan influence and accepted as it was.
Other common answers to this problem include that this cycle was created because it is the least common denominator of the numbers “13 and 20, both of which are important in Mesoamerican thought” (Tedlock 93). One version of this I found on line and sounds like this:
The time count used for corn cultivation must have been based on the initial Maya numeration which consisted of the number of fingers on both hands and feet or the number 20, a kal. The observation that 13 kal (260 days) were needed from the choosing of the location for the milpa until the burning of the felled forest patch and equal number of kal elapsed from the planting, through the growth and harvest until the corn was stored, gave origin to the first Maya calendar. (Imagenet. Origins of the Mayan Calendar, p. 1)
This may seem reasonable, but I am wary of lending this idea credibility because the idea is not sourced, hence it may just be speculation.
The most interesting [if not far-fetched] idea to me is this one from John Major Jenkins’ article;
The 260-day cycle does not directly correspond with any known astronomical period, yet it serves as a common denominator to synthesize the cycles of Sun, Mercury, Venus, Moon, Earth [and] Mars (as well as the other planets). In essence, it is the key factor of all the planetary periods” (Jenkins 2).
It seems that the Mayan knowledge of astronomy was significantly advanced in calculating the movements of the massive bodies in our solar system and that the Maya may have used this knowledge to develop an unusual calendar.
The last theory of the tzolkin’s origin also deals with astronomy. Barbara Tedlock mentions “that a double tzolkin (520 days) equaled three eclipse half-years” (Tedlock 93). If I interpret this correctly then I conclude that this means that two tzolkin years would be the same time as one and one-half revolutions of the (lunar or solar?) eclipse cycle. Knowing that the Maya did calculate and predict eclipses, this theory is possible as well as the others. Whether any one of these theories, all of them (in parts), or none of them is correct, we at least have a good idea of what the Tzolkin was used for after its creation—a tool for divination.
Divination and Meaning of the day names and numbers:
Divination was believed, by at least some Maya, to involve the predicting of the future and fortune telling. The process itself is not particularly significant in this discussion because it would lead into too many directions that would go beyond the scope of this discussion of the calendars. What I would like to do is describe how the day names and numbers had significance when they were used for divination purposes. As I mentioned, each day name was considered to be a god to the Maya, and that as Thompson states they cannot be separated from the numbers and make any sense. However, in her study of the Quiché people and their rituals Tedlock disagrees with Thompson’s statement that day names and number were not separated based on the fact among the Quiché, “low numbers—1, 2, and 3—are ‘gentle,’ while the high numbers—11, 12, and 13—are ‘violent’” (Tedlock 107). Generally, what this means is that the higher the number along with the day name, the more serious or more severe the meaning of the day name and vice-versa relative to the value, good or bad, of the day god.
I will not describe all 20 days but will focus on how one day name—Imix–is evaluated from two different texts (Tedlock spends a whole chapter on the 20 days that is longer than this paper, thus I am doing myself and the reader a service by not discussing all of them). The mnemonic meaning that Barbara Tedlock discusses refers to her discussion of the meanings and associated phrases among the Quiché people of the Guatemala highlands. As she says in her book, “in actual practice the names [of days] are ‘read’ not as words in themselves but as a kind of oral rebus for quite other words; these other words are linked to the day name by means of paronomasia—that is, by means of poetic sound play” (Tedlock 107). In considering this, we must be aware that Tedlock’s study of the day names comes from her experience with more modern-day highland descendants of the Maya who do not share the same words as the majority of the Maya whom Eric Thompson discusses in his book. Thus, we must be aware that both of the discussions of the day names are coming from two different researchers getting their information from different places and times recorded in different languages.
Imix, according to Thompson, means the earth crocodile “whose back formed the surface of the earth” (Thompson 73) or more generally the earth and the abundance that is related to the earth. Thompson believes that this is due to the fact that the Quiche (possibly the same as Tedlock’s Quiché) associate Imox (their name for the day) with the earth god Mo´x. Whether this association is fortuitous or the two words have a common origin is unclear although Thompson seems to agree with the latter of the two possibilities (Thompson 71). The Mexican equivalent to Imix is Cipacti which symbolizes the earth crocodile. The word Cipacti itself translates loosely into “spiny creature” and the Aztec word for this day also means crocodile. The word Imox, which is similar to the modern Quiché word for this day, refers to the ceiba tree which symbolizes the abundance of mother earth in Maya religion. Thus, it seems reasonable to say that Imix at least vaguely represents the earth and hence the earth crocodile (Thompson 72-73).
Tedlock’s equivalent word for Imix is Imöx (Quiché) and she gives a different description than Thompson does. Tedlock’s approach is to break down the word into its “mnemonic phrases” and describe when the rituals are performed according to the number of the day. How she connects the word Imöx with the phrases “camöxiric (‘one becomes crazy’), nimalaj c´ulel (‘a big enemy’), and cumatz rib chiquiwäch Mam (‘humble oneself before the Mam [year-bearer]’)” (Tedlock 125) is unclear to me, however. The number of the day along with the name further defines the meaning of the day. Some of the rituals involved with this day are dependent on the number; according to Tedlock, on day Imöx numbers 1, 6, and 8, a daykeeper, someone who keeps the 260-day calendar, visits an appropriate public shrine and humbles himself or herself before the Mam (year-bearer) as to not be dominated by their power (which makes one go crazy). On high numbered Imöx days the diviners go to mountaintop shrines to present themselves to the Mam, asking the Mam to dominate persons, in the form of mental and physical sickness, who have used witchcraft against others—hence the “big enemy” (ibid.)
When divination is being performed the day Imix, say in the case of divination for an illness, indicates that an enemy (c´ulel) has asked a diviner for the illness to be put upon you (probably from a shrine on the top of a mountain on a high numbered Imix day). In a marriage divination, the presence of Imix indicates that the desired woman would cause the client to become crazy through unfaithfulness or other malign action (Tedlock 125). A final example of how the day names are used in divination is that a “child born on Imöx will be dominated by the power of the Mam. As a result, he or she will be weak, inefficient, undirected, even insane” (ibid. 126). It is relatively easy to see that the divinatory calendar was and still is highly interconnected with daily life and Mayan thought. It was not like the haab, which is almost purely a secular system for counting days [a separation of religious and secular calendars].
The Haab—365-day calendar:
The word haab is also referred to as the vague year and seems to mean “cycle of rains” (Jenkins 2). Unlike the tzolkin the haab is more like the Gregorian calendar than the tzolkin is in that the haab is broken down into what we could call months consisting of numbers for days. The haab is a 365-day cycle that is divided into 18 Uinals of 20 days each and a short month called Uayeb 5 unlucky days added, usually, to the end of the year. The word Uayeb means “unnamed” and therefore the 5 days are not named but do include many rituals. Each Uinal name has its meaning much like the days of the tzolkin do as we saw with my example of Imix. Here is a list of the Uinals starting with Pop, Uo, Zip, etc. which is where most people seem to start the haab:
Uayeb (5 days)
Like our calendar, each Uinal starts on a day and continues until all the 20 days are through then moves to the next month. The problem comes about when we start looking into the numbers and what the first day of the month is. This has to do with what is referred to as the “seating” of the month.
As Eric Thompson discusses, most Mayan scholars have accepted that the first day of the Uinal is denoted as 0 Pop, 0 Uo, etc. This view holds that the day after 19 Pop would be 0 Uo and this would be the seating of the month. Thompson has quarrels with this on the basis of evidence that he has seen and discusses in depth in his book. “From all we know of the Maya philosophy of time and from all we can gather from the glyphs, the Maya were interested in recording the completion of time” (Thompson 119) is how he begins the argument. He concludes that “the days of the months were numbered 1-19, and that the day between the nineteenth of one month and the first of the subsequent month was usually called the seating of the new month, but sometimes was called the last of the old month. It is possible that ‘seating of’ is not the correct translation” (Thompson 121). What this means is that the seating of a month may not have been part of new the month at all but may have been the end of the last month even though it carried the name of the next month. Another way to look at it would be to view the seating as more like a transition, or as Thompson himself suggests, an “entrance of.” The question is, what exactly is entering in which the Maya were greeting? This problem makes deciphering the rest of the intricacies of the calendars even harder, especially the year-bearer problem that will be discussed in a few moments.
At the beginning of this paper I mentioned that the Maya were aware of the actual length of the solar year (365.2422 days) and that they did not attempt to correct for the difference by the use of a leap day. Eric Thompson tells us that “[s]uch a correction would have played havoc with the whole orderly plan of the calendar and would have disorganized the elaborate system of. . .different time cycles, which were of the highest importance for divinatory and ritualistic purposes” (Thompson 121). But not only would it cause problems with the divinatory aspect of the calendars, it would have caused problems by throwing off the year-bearer every 4 years.
The Year-Bearers (Mam) and the concept of Burden:
The year-bearer is the tzolkin date that falls on the start of the new haab year, which is the seating of Pop (0 Pop) or the first of Pop depending on whom you ask.. Because of the way that the haab and tzolkin correlate with each-other, only 4 day names from the tzolkin can fall on the beginning of the haab. Depending on how the two are calibrated, the 4 day-names will vary, again, depending on whom you ask. The standard system, according to Thompson, had the first of Pop (as 0 Pop could be interpreted as the last day of the old year as I discussed earlier) as only coinciding with the day names Akbal, Lamat, Ben, and Etz´nab. But supposedly “in parts of Campeche and Yucatan a shift took place, as early as 18.104.22.168.0 [around July 1, 672]. . .and was apparently accepted generally in Yucatan in the sixteenth century” (Thompson 124). The change then made the days Kan, Muluc, Ix, and Cuauc the only names that fell on the first of the year. Tedlock gives the set of year-bearers used today in present-day Guatemala highlands among the Quiché; Ik (Ik´), Manik (Quej), Eb (E), and Caban (No´j) which is one of the sets that Meyer gives in the third chapter of his article.
Meyer gives the same three sets in his article that Thompson and Tedlock give together in their books. He mentions the Kan-Cuauc set that Thompson does but Meyer offers it as the result of the coming of the Spanish when the people of Mayapan “began to number their months from 1-20, instead of from 0-19” (Meyer. chapter 3, p.1) which may have been the same cause that Thompson mentioned because Thompson didn’t give a reason and Meyer only gave us a clue of the date (before the 16th century). This shift caused the set of year-bearers to change from the original Akbal-Etz´nab set to the Kan-Cuauc set just as the shift that Thompson mentioned caused. Perhaps the Spanish were the cause of this shift in the calendar when they arrived and as a result we are now having problems being sure what set of year-bearers is the correct one—assuming any one was correct.
It turns out that the set that one uses as the year-bearers depends on the month base being used, that is what the start of the month is, 0 or 1. The confusion seems to be related to uncertainty about the seating of the month, which is then transmitted to the seating of the year. It is best to let Meyer explain:
Some scholars. . .state that the Dresden and Paris Codices use the Akbal/Lamat system of yearbearers. This results from interpreting ‘the first of Pop’ to mean 1 Pop rather than 0 Pop. . .Thompson adduces some evidence that the 0 day of a month was really the last day of the preceding month, so that 0 Pop was really the last day of the old year, not the first day of the new year, but suggests that the Mayas themselves. . .may have become careless in drawing such distinctions. Be it as it may, the system of yearbearers used [here] interprets the 0 day of a month to be the first day of that month, implying that the system of yearbearers used in the Dresden Codex is Ik/Manik and not Akbal/Lamat. (ibid. p. 2).
Due to the lack of clarity in the issue of where the month is seated and the shifts that the Maya implemented in the calendar correlation’s, the problem of the year-bearer is also unclear. The sets used differs from place to place and I am only sure that the present-day Quiché use the Ik/Manik set.
What we are sure of is how the Maya saw the year-bearer as having to carry the burden of the year “as a load on his back” (Thompson 125). A drawing by Jean Charlot is included in Thompson’s book that is adapted from full-figure glyphs that, quoted from the drawings label at the front of the book, “represent arrival at the lub, ‘the resting place,’ of the deified numbers bearing the periods as loads, at the completion of the tun” (Thompson, Frontpiece). This drawing (above) shows many year-bearers with the glyphs of day-names on their backs; some resting, others not. The significance of the concept of Burden of the year has to do with divination; the year-bearer’s characteristics will be associated with the entire year the same way as I described when discussing divination. The same influences of the names and numbers of the year-bearer will further define the characteristics of the year. As a year begins, the tzolkin date that corresponds to the start of the haab then becomes the name of the god that will bear the year on his back for that year until he reaches the lub. The number that was associated with that day when the haab began will further describe the influence of the day god. The higher the number the more severe the lower the number the less severe. But of course this severity is relative to the value, good or bad, of that particular day god. A lower number of a good day god is not a good sign and vice-versa.
A Brief Word about the Venus Round:
Venus has a cycle of 584 days, says John Major Jenkins, which means that it will “rise as morningstar approximately every 584 days” (Jenkins 3). The round that is associated with Venus occurs when the tzolkin, haab, and Venus cycles all fall in unison. This happens every 104 haab and is known as the Venus round. This round holds importance to the Maya but must be kept short here as to not step on the toes of astronomy.
[This latter comment was in the interest of not being repetitive. We students, back in 1998, were working as a class to cover many Mayan topics, and excessive discussion of astronomy would have been redundant with the work of the other students, who we were presenting these papers for]
To sum what has been said in these pages it is important to emphasize that the Maya thought in terms of cycles. Each calendar was a repeating cycle in themselves and all of the time-measuring systems that the Maya used combined to make many rounds such as the 52-year calendar round, the 1,872,000 day Great cycle formed by the long count, and the Venus round of 104 haab. The tzolkin’s importance lies in the complex divination practices that the Maya seemed to live for and the day lords that came in and out with the change of each day. The tzolkin is made up of 20 day names and 13 day numbers that are inseparable in defining what day it is but not in what the day means. Divination was practiced by interpreting the day names and numbers, and on certain days of the tzolkin year rituals where performed at shrines. The 18 Uinals of the haab act like months with 20 days each with an added short month of 5 days called the Uayeb. The year-bearers carry the tuns (ok, pun intended—but the Maya would have loved it!) from year to year and never seem to complain a bit about this burden. To see that the Maya knew so much about their universe and yet still found a way to collapse as a power should be a lesson to us though. If the saying is true that the bigger you are the harder you fall, then we, as the most “advanced” society in earth’s known history, better be careful as to where we are going.
8. Craine, Eugene R. (ed). The Codex Pérez and The Book of Chilam Balam of Mani. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman. 1979.
9. Tedlock, Barbara. Time and the Highland Maya. University of New Mexico Press:
10. Thompson, J. Eric S. Maya Hieroglyphic Writing. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman.
I know, not very sexy. To be honest, I don’t remember if I ran into any of the 2012 Mayan calendar stuff back then and ignored it, or if it did not exist as a thing then. In either case, nothing more really needs to be said about what will not happen on 22.214.171.124.0, also known to us as December 21st, 2012.
All I know is that I have work that day and the evening before I will have (probably) attended the atheist meetup.
In recent weeks, I have been thinking a lot about the question of the relativity of values. What do we value? Why do we value those things rather than other things? Might we be more content, happy, or more mature if we were to value other things? Can we change what we value? What the hell are “values”?
Today, I want to sketch out a rough analogy which may pave the road for future posts (or not, if the analogy breaks down or if it just ends up being a stupid idea).
In order for our bodies to function, we need to eat food. But the kind of food we eat, how much of it we eat, and how often we eat it will have an effect on the efficiency of that functioning, the body such a diet will maintain, and will effect our general mood and ability to accomplish various tasks.
In order for our brain to function as a contributor to our personality as part of a social landscape, it needs information. The kind of information it receives (especially early in its development) and how (and how often) we exercise it will influence what kind of mind we have. It will effect how we react to new or old information, what we believe about the world, and what we value.
In terms of our diet and our health, what we want to eat (both what we merely desire and what we think we should eat) is our set of tastes.
In terms of our worldview and moral inclinations, what we think and feel (both what we are inclined to and what we think we should believe and think right) is our set of values.
Desires and Wants
I want to make clear the distinction between what we unwillfully desire and what we want. If I see a piece of chocolate (especially dark chocolate), I desire it. My mind is inclined towards eating it, and it is by act of will (free or not) that I either eat it or I do not. My set of beliefs, values, etc will be responsible for that decision.
In terms of values, there is also a difference between my unconscious, automatic reaction to information and my conscious deliberation about information with emotional content. It is unconscious and automatic that I feel annoyance, even disgust, when seeing an obvious injustice perpetrated by someone against others (an unequal set of behaviors based upon a logical contradiction, for example; a violation of Kant’s categorical imperative as one rationalized example). But there is a difference between that feeling of annoyance or disgust and my subsequent deliberation about that behavior. I, for example, have a visceral feeling of annoyance, sometimes leaning on anger, at seeing some level of clutter (especially if ignored for some time). But rather than start Hulk-smashing (which just creates more clutter) I take a deep breath and remind myself that this anger is not rational; that I can either clean it, ask the person responsible to be aware of this emotional response I have and request they clean it, or I can distract myself with another task or activity (and hope it will be remedied in the mean time).
That is, what I desire to do when seeing clutter is to express my anger at the person responsible (a symptom of my personality disorder), but what I want to do is motivate my behavior towards healthier solutions, with the long term goal of correcting the automatic reaction to doing those more pragmatic solutions. I do not merely bow to my destructive desires, but try and re-orient my emotional reactions to something healthier, and over time it works with diligent effort. It has become essential and necessary for me to do this every day, and sometimes it’s easier than other times.
Similarly, what I desire is to eat salty snacks, chocolate/ peanut butter, and low fat wheat thins ( much better than the regular ones, IMO) while drinking a couple of delicious beers. I desire sweet, salty, (low) fatty foods all the time, but what I actually eat is much more healthy and I feel better because my wants govern my desires. They don’t repress or stifle them, but I feel that mitigating the effect of my desires is wise.
There are things that we desire and want. There are also social structures around us, with many competing (and sometimes harmonizing) ideas about how we should behave. Some of those ideas tell us to repress or even eliminate certain desires, because those desires are wrong.
But I think that we need to accept our desires as a given, and decide how we want to act while 1) not pretending those desires don’t exist 2) trying to find a way to express these desires in ways which do not non-consensually harm others and 3) not allowing those desires to consume our life such that we ignore what else we care about. These guidelines can be applied to conservative religious repression of homosexuality, social stigmatization of our innate sluttiness, or even the use of drugs (including alcohol). If you are gay, bisexual, or asexual, then you should find the ways you want to express those sexual inclinations. If you are slut, then you should be a slut. If you like a drug, then if you can do it without it being destructive to the world around you, then do it.
In short, we need to start deciding how to behave, what to believe, and what to value by being authentic. We cannot ignore the truth, even if we don’t like the truth. Because in many cases, the part of us that doesn’t like the truth is a part of us that is either broken or was imposed by an exterior idea (such as conservative moral views). We should care about what is true about our desires, and form our wants based upon those truths.
In Case Your Values are Wrong
If you find yourself living in such a way where you have desires which are unrealized, then you need to ask yourself why they are unrealized. If you go to church regularly and find yourself plagued by skeptical questions in response to what a religious authority says, then you might need to seek out alternative views. If you are in a monoamorous relationship but find yourself attracted to others, and even thinking about acting on those desires, then you might need to reconsider how you think about sex and relationships and consider some sort of nonmonogamy. If you can’t just have a couple of drinks, are getting high every day, or even if you never tried getting high but are curious about it but have always been afraid, then you might want to reconsider your association with those things.
There are diets which are good for us, others which are not. There are values which are good or us, and those which are not. How do you know that your values, your emotional relationship to the world, are the best set of values for your inclinations? And even if they are, have you considered if they are damaging to people around you? (That is, are they moral values, rather than Randian selfish values?). Do you even care if your values affect other people in ways they don’t want? Also, if they do affect others in ways they don’t want, are their current values, with which yours currently conflict, wrong? If their values are wrong, how can you demonstrate this to them in a way that will not result in them being defensive, yelling at you, or punching you?
What’s more important; standing for the right values knowing that they might actually be ultimately wrong, even if they are better relative to other value sets) or respecting all potential values (even the obviously wrong ones)? Assuredness or accommodation? (some might call it “temerity or tolerance?”, but that’s simply the other side of the coin).
I don’t have an answer to that question which everyone will accept, or even one that convinces myself all the time. My inclinations, my desires, often tell me to stand convicted to what I value, because those values are best. But what I want is to actually have the best values, which requires a certain level of uncertainty and skepticism. I must perpetually challenge my values the way I challenge my beliefs, and thus my certainty about my values is proportional to the amount of beating those values take from challenges both external and internal. An unchallenged value is not worth much, yet an unchallenged value is worth everything to its owner.
That is, we should be skeptical not only about facts, but also values. I, along with people such as Hilary Putnam and (seemingly) Sam Harris, think that the qualitative distinction between facts and values is dubious. Therefore, I also think that the common moral distinction made in our culture between criticizing a person’s facts and criticizing their values is dubious. I do think that criticizing a person’s values is a harder task to do well, especially if we care about their likely defensive reactions, but it is not an invalid criticism. There is no logical contradiction to pointing out that values can be wrong, at least in the sense of not matching up with reality and what might provide optimal well-being, emotional maturity, and authenticity. People are too often attached to their values (as well as their facts), and this should not be accommodated.
In a similar way that what we want to eat (in terms of our health) is something that is subject to criticism, what we value (in terms of being a fully realized and authentic person) is subject to potential criticism. If you tell me that I cannot tell you what to value, I will nod in agreement with the fact that I cannot force values on you, but that I can tell you that your values may be wrong.
Every so often, an aspect of woo finds its way into the mainstream, being taken up and mentioned by people who generally don’t keep up with or believe in the body of thinking it comes from. From my very biased sample of facebook friends, it seems that Mercury retrograde is one of them. People who never otherwise mention astrology will write “Thank goodness Mercury is coming out of retrograde, it’s been a rough week” or “Missed two buses and an essential phone call: damn you, Mercury retrograde!” And since I only rarely lecture to people on their own facebook walls, I thought I’d get out all my frustrated pedantry here.
First, a brief explanation of what “Mercury in retrograde” even means. All celestial bodies, as observed from Earth, move from east to west in a daily arc across the sky: this apparent motion is caused by the Earth’s daily rotation on its axis. The stars all stay in the same relative position to one another, but the planets move from night to night, so that one day they’ll appear near one constellation, and the next day they’ll have moved slightly further away from it. Normally this relative motion is also eastward, but occasionally a planet goes into a phase where it’s moving westward relative to the stars. This is called retrograde motion, and yes, all of the planets do it — Mercury just does it more often. It’s caused by the relative positions of Earth and the planet in question, as they both move through their orbit.
So there’s nothing mystical about it, just a natural effect of perspective when you have two moving objects moving at different rates.
For astrologers (and mythology buffs) Mercury governs transportation and communication, and when Mercury is in retrograde you can expect to have difficulties in both of these areas. And now we begin to see why the “Mercury retrograde” meme has caught on, even among people who never notice or care when Mars or Venus is in retrograde. Transportation and communication, in our modern world, tend to be based on complex systems that are easy to mess up. And they also tend to form the bedrock of our lives: some day write down how much time per day you aren’t engaged in either transportation or communication of some sort. So breakdowns in transportation or communication tend to be frustrating and cause further problems, and they happen often. And when a human brain faces a frustrating, obstructive issue, it wants to try to make sense of it. So if you’re a fairly ordinary person who’s heard of the whole Mercury retrograde thing from your astrology-believing friends, and one day you miss your train and later you’re stuck on hold for two hours, and still later you have trouble with a project because you and your colleague interpreted the requirements differently… well then your frustrated brain is looking for answers to “Why is everything so difficult today?” And then you think to check if Mercury is in retrograde, and if it is, all sorts of little reward fireworks go off in your brain. There’s an explanation! These issues might be out of your control, but at least they are predictable and explicable, and that feels so much better, cognitively, than just having a rough day for no particular reason.
And if, perchance, Mercury isn’t in retrograde on this particular day, you probably barely notice, since you weren’t all that invested in the myth to begin with, and you go on to look for other reasons why today sucks. And if this happens multiple times over the course of a year, and you get two or three “Yes! My day sucks because of Mercury!” moments and twelve or thirteen “Nah, it must be something else” moments, you will probably start to believe a little in Mercury retrograde. Your brain is a bad statistician; it remembers things that have emotional impact, and the “Yes! Explanation found!” emotional impact is much more powerful than the “Nah, must be something else.”
And if you already believe in Mercury retrograde, you’ll start getting confirmations pretty quickly. Apart from illness, nearly everything that goes wrong for a person in an industrialized society can be, by some stretch of the imagination, connected to either communication or transportation. Check out this piece from Astrology Zone on what Mercury retrograde means for you: aside from the obvious travel, mail, and email issues, it predicts that Mercury retrograde might cause your DVD player to break or your boyfriend to fight with you. Also, just in case all the bases aren’t covered, Mercury retrograde can cause some things that were broken to fix themselves, so if you have an unexpected success in the area of transportation and communication (as broadly interpreted as possible), that counts too! If you know when Mercury is in retrograde, it would be incredibly improbable for you not to receive dozens of confirmations that it’s having an effect during that time.
What tickles me about the Mercury retrograde phenomenon is that it always reminds me of another colossal case of human bias. The apparent retrograde motion of the planets confused the hell out of ancient astronomers. The going theory for hundreds of years was that the stars were part of a rotating sphere, moving cleanly around the earth which sat at the center of the sphere. The sun, moon, and planets were thought to move on inner spheres, concentric with one another and moving at different rates. Most philosophy at the time accepted a few basic principles (drawing heavily from Aristotle): that the celestial bodies were perfect and unchanging, while the earth was subject to change and decay; that a circle was the perfect form of motion, and thus all celestial motions must be circular. The system of concentric celestial spheres worked great with this philosophy, except that the planets sometimes didn’t. What was going on with that retrograde motion? Astronomers, most notably Ptolemy, worked out huge elaborate systems to explain the irregular planetary motion in terms of the circles that Aristotelian physics demanded. When something fits most of our observations, as well as our underlying philosophy, we will often go to absurd lengths to make the few remaining inexplicable bits fit before we’ll stop and consider that maybe the entire system is wrong.
I do love DarkMatter2525’s videos, and this latest one is no exception. This is sort of brilliant.
The Christian story is disgusting and, from my point of view, immoral. And while I’m no fan of Christmas, it is greatly improved as an old Roman/Pagan holiday about the solstice, gift-giving, and merry-making.
A week ago I wrote a quick post about how I was reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and quoted a bit from early on in the book. I am nearly done the book (I have one chapter left), and although I liked much of the early book and think that some of what he thinks about the relationship between our moral instincts and subsequent rationalizations of them are worth reading, I must conclude that i am not on-board with Haidt’s approach to religion, especially his criticisms of the “New Atheists.”
In chapter 11, Religion is a Team Sport, Haidt tries to deconstruct the new atheist approach, following on his anti-worshiping of reason from earlier in the book, and says we need to address religion for what is is (a group selected set of community-building institutions) rather than what it is not (a set of beliefs, ideas, etc). He thinks that our attention to beliefs as motivators for action is too simplistic, and points out that “belonging” has to be placed along with belief and action, in the matrix of religious behavior.
Well, yes of course it does!
I don’t need to get into the details of what is wrong with the book, at least in terms of the criticism of the new atheists, because that has already been done:
I agree that there are parts of the book which are quite worth-while. I did just get it from my local library, after all, and didn’t spend a cent to read it. If you are interested in moral psychology, evolutionary psychology, and group selection (whether or not you agree with any of those research areas specifically), then I suggest reading at least the first several chapters.
But what was most telling was that Haidt kept on talking about the difference between what makes a group work well and what does not. His conclusion is that religion makes groups work well, at least for members of the group. Atheists who ask us to leave religion, as individuals or as a species, risk losing what Haidt sees as the glue that can hold us together.
Haidt is seemingly unfamiliar (due to lack of mention) with any new atheist thoughts past 2007 or so (the book was published in 2012). Perhaps the problem is that he is unaware that many atheists have been working, especially in the last 2-3 years, on building up an atheist community. No, we may not have anything sacred (not even science), but we are working on creating a sense of what it means to be skeptical, non-religious, and living in a world with potential for beauty and terrible atrocity.
Religion is not the only force for group-cohesion, even if it has the advantage of having sacred spaces, authority, and thus loyalty (what Haidt identifies as primarily conservative values). I believe that care, a concern for fairness/ justice, and a sense of liberty (what Haidt identifies as what liberals tend to prioritize) are means to creating community as well. We do not need to give up a concern for what is true (a value Haidt does not list, interestingly, especially because it is a high value for many new atheists, including myself) in order to create shared group identities.
Haidt, an atheist himself, is not connected to the atheist community. Perhaps if he was, then his arguments would not be so poor. Perhaps we should invite him to the party?
Participants in a gay conversion therapy program are suing:
Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) fraudulently claimed to provide services that “convert” people from gay to straight. These services, known as conversion therapy, have been discredited or highly criticized by all major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling organizations.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against the New Jersey conversion therapy organization for fraudulent practices. The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, charged that JONAH, its founder Arthur Goldberg, and counselor Alan Downing violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act by claiming that their counseling services could cure clients of being gay.
The lawsuit describes how the plaintiffs – four young men and two of their parents – were lured into JONAH’s services through deceptive practices.
Hallelujah. Here’s hoping that this is the first of many.
This week on The Savage Lovecast, Dan Savage got a call from a man who hooked up with another man who had a(n allegedly) monogamous boyfriend. He wanted to know if he had done anything wrong, and if he should feel guilty. This question strikes me as particularly important to the polyamorous community, as we’re often faced with this sort of opportunity. Most advice I’ve heard from the community stresses that poly is only poly if it’s with the knowledge and consent of all involved, which includes partners of partners.
Dan (disappointingly, to me) gave a pretty standard response. He made a lot of room for degrees of offense committed, but ultimately concluded that the only morally upstanding thing to do would be to turn down a proposition from someone in a monogamous relationship. I was disappointed because, to my mind, that would be the worst choice of the ones available.
The Problem With the Standard Advice
Dan Savage feels that sleeping with someone in a monogamous relationship is wrong because, even if you don’t know the other person in the relationship and thus “don’t have a moral obligation” to that person, it makes you “an accomplice to cheating.” In Dan’s mind, cheating is wrong, and therefore helping someone cheat is wrong.
The poly community has, shall we say, an unconventional view of cheating. We tend to say that the problem with cheating isn’t the sex, it’s the lying. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having sex with a person in a relationship. The problem is that when a monogamous person cheats, they are being dishonest with their partner. The harm is caused by the betrayal, not by the sex.
The problem with the standard advice is that, once the proposition has been made, the harm has already been done. By turning down the proposition, you’re turning a cheater into merely an attempted cheater. Is that really any better? To my mind, it is not. When someone attempts to cheat, the betrayal has already occurred. By preventing the “actual” cheating, all you’re doing is perpetuating the fraud that they are in a monogamous relationship. You’re actually doing more harm to the relationship by turning down the cheater, because you’re making it easier for both of them to pretend no betrayal actually happened. Chances are, unless you tell (more on that later), the other partner will never know about it, so most of the effect will be on the cheater. You’re just making the cheater feel less guilty and less likely to come clean.
So What Should You Do?
When you’re propositioned by a person in a monogamous relationship, from a moral perspective, there are three possible effects that your choice can have: do good, do harm, or do neither harm nor good. If you have sex with the cheater, you’re doing neither harm nor good. As explained above, the harm occurs when the proposition happens. The betrayal has already occurred. Whether the sex actually happens or not, the harm has already been done.
That being said, there are plenty of good reasons not to have sex with a cheater. First off, there’s a perfectly acceptable reason not to have sex with anyone – you don’t feel like it. There is no moral concern that I can think of which would obligate you to have sex with someone you don’t want to have sex with. In addition, the fact that someone is a cheater raises all kinds of concerns about that person’s trustworthiness, character, compassion, and decency. I have absolutely no problem with categorically turning down cheaters for those reasons. All I’m dealing with is the proposition that there is something morally wrong with being an accomplice to cheating.
Dan Savage’s preferred option – rejecting the cheater – is premised on the idea that you have a responsibility for the health and quality of that relationship . As I’ve explained above, rejecting the cheater is, at best, not helping the relationship, and at worst harming the relationship. If you accept that you have a responsibility for that relationship (what I call the “be a hero” option), the only moral choice is to inform the cheater’s partner (or at least make reasonable efforts to do so). Any other choice makes you an accomplice to fraud. If you truly think you have an obligation to that relationship (which I don’t think that you do), your obligation must be to ensure that it isn’t being conducted under false pretenses. Otherwise, you’re helping the cheater to hide their cheating.
If you’re going to be a hero and take responsibility for the other person’s relationship, a simple rejection isn’t going to do any good. To be a hero, you actually need to take some steps to right the situation. However, there’s no moral requirement to do so. Not everyone needs to be a hero. There is nothing morally wrong with accepting such an invitation if that’s what you want to do.
Solopoly has a list up of do’s and don’t’s when it comes to treatment of a non-primary partner. The list:
Honor time commitments and dates.
Listen to and honor your non-primary partner’s concerns, needs, and feelings.
Make your non-primary relationship a priority.
Offer reassurance and understanding.
Embrace your non-primary partner’s world.
Keep your promises.
Support good metamour relations.
Invite non-primary partners into negotiations and decisions that affect them.
Clarify your boundaries and commitments BEFORE you begin a new relationship.
Fully disclose your constraints, agreements and boundaries.
Speak up about fairness toward non-primary partners.
Assume good intentions.
Don’t violate agreements.
Don’t conflate “fairness” with “equality.”
Don’t bail at the first bump.
Don’t default to playing the go-between.
Don’t foster competition or conflict among your partners.
Don’t pretend the dynamic of your existing relationship(s) will not change.
Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.
These are mostly good suggestions. Most of them apply to any relationship, not just a non-primary relationship, and they are generally rather intuitive. However, I’d like to add something to the list that’s somewhat counterintuitive:
Do Take Sides
This does not necessarily apply to only non-primary relationships, but it applies to any situation in which you are dating multiple people who have exposure to one another. In such a situation, conflict is inevitable. If you date for long enough, your partners are going to have a conflict with each other. In such a situation, your instinct is going to be to remain neutral , to facilitate discussion, but not to exercise judgment. In my experience, this is a mistake.
When your partners have a conflict, you’re going to have an opinion. I’d be willing to bet you’re going to have a pretty clear opinion about who did what wrong, who should apologize, and what they should apologize for. Hiding that opinion doesn’t help anyone. Firstly, it harms the trust you’ve built with both partners. Hiding things always does, and hiding something so relevant and important harms the trust to a greater degree.
Secondly, when you’re in a relationship with two people having a conflict, you have a lot of power to influence how the conflict goes. And as Spider-Man has taught us, that comes with a corresponding responsibility. By being in a position of trust with both people, you are possibly the only person who can talk straight to both parties and have them actually listen. When one of your partners is behaving unreasonably, you are one of the only people who has the ability to talk them down. If you abdicate that responsibility, your partners have to solve the issue themselves. Maybe they will, but they’d stand a much better chance with an effective mediator.
The much better alternative is to pick a side in the dispute. If you think one party is right and the other wrong, say so. If you think both are wrong, say that. If you think one is very wrong and the other is only a little bit wrong, say that too. In almost any dispute, both sides have made errors. Point them out,. But do not try to remain neutral. It’s easy to fall into the “both sides are wrong” trap. It’s easy to point out minor infractions on both sides are pretend they are equivalent. Don’t do it. One side is almost always more wrong than the other. Say which one.
The other thing to remember, and I can’t stress this enough, is do not always choose your primary partner’s side. The whole thing only works if you give your honest opinion and overcome your biases. Your primary being your “top priority” does not mean that you always take your primary’s side in a dispute. Sometimes, your primary is going to be in the wrong. It happens. It’s up to you to say so.