Dear Milo Rea Gardner, Feb 4th, '94 (12 Chicchan)
Peter Meyer sent me the letters of Oct 23rd and Dec 23rd that you wrote to him concerning things Mayan. I would like to discuss some of the points you bring up. First off, I think it's wonderful you are teaching children about sundials, time, astronomy and calendars. Also, deciphering the Dresden Codex, along with Mayan Calendrics in general, is certainly a rich field to be involved in right now—many breakthroughs are waiting around the corner. I'll go through your letters sequentially and bring up issues as I read.
I'm unsure what you mean by the "fourth Mayan Calendar". Do you refer to the Grolier Codex? I understand this contains Venus tables similar to those in the Dresden. The Sky in Mayan Literature is an incredible compilation, with me since last July. As well, the recent Schele and Freidel offering, Maya Cosmos, contains many new ideas. I'm unsure what you mean by "the dead-ends of Eric Thompson". I'd agree that many of Thompson's claims are no longer valid, having paved the way to better understanding. For instance, the correction procedure for adjusting for accumulated discrepancy in the predictive Venus calendar (Commentary on the Dresden Codex, 1972), in which the Venus Round is cut short after 61 Venus cycles to locate a new 1 Ahau Sacred Day of Venus near an actual Venus morningstar appearance, is probably only one of many conceived by the Maya. However, the most visible dichotomy between Lounsbury's work and Thompson's, continuing among two opposed camps in academia, is, of course, the correlation question.
Lounsbury champions the old Thompson correlation of 1930 (corr# 584285), while Thompson himself revised it 2 days in 1950 (corr# 584283). This revision occurred as a result of reevaluating the Landa material as well as the overwhelming ethnographic evidence of the tzolkin count still being followed in the Highlands of Guatemala, supporting the 584283.
As far as Lounsbury's paper on "184.108.40.206", I take note of Lounsbury's reference to Thompson's dubious claim that 220.127.116.11 was a scribal error for 18.104.22.168. Lounsbury's discovery here seems valid, but in any case is workable from the standpoint of either correlation. Why? Lounsbury's support for the old 584285 correlation goes back to at least 1983 with the publication of "The Base of the Venus Table of the Dresden Codex..." (Calendars of Mesoamerica and Peru, ed. Aveni). This paper attempts to correlate a 1 Ahau 18 Kayab date in the Dresden with an actual morningstar appearance of Venus. Lounsbury, I believe, succeeds in doing this, but the necessity of using the old 584285 correlation number doesn't follow. For several reasons. Yes, on Nov. 20th, 934 A.D. (Julian) Venus does emerge as morningstar, figured to be 4 days after inferior conjunction. And yes, according to the 584285 this would have been precisely 1 Ahau 18 Kayab. But Lounsbury puts too much importance on exact accuracy to support his a priori assumptions. The date cited represents a Sacred Day of Venus, the beginning of a new Venus Round period of some 104 years.
Why does he assume that there must be a 0 deviation at this time? Why not make corrections half-way through the Venus Round? This would create a mean deviation of 2.6 days when the Sacred Day of Venus came around. And if they used the corrections that Thompson proposes, implemented after 61 Venus cycles, again we would not expect a 0 deviation when Lounsbury suggests. Most importantly, the synodic Venus cycle varies between 580 and 588 days from cycle to cycle. This suggests that the Maya, rooted in actual observations, understood the approximate nature of their prediction system; the degree of accuracy that Lounsbury demands is simply not present. So, as Dennis Tedlock notes in his book The Popol Vuh (pg 238), "the astronomical basis of his argument could easily be two days off." (This was relayed to Tedlock in a personal communication from John B. Carlson). The fact that Lounsbury pinpointed an actual Sacred Day of Venus should still be recognized; the two day deviation is irrelevant. Unfortunately, Lounsbury continues his assault in "A Derivation of the Maya-to-Julian Calendar Correlation from the Dresden Codex Venus Chronology." (The Sky in Mayan Lit.) Let's look closely at this paper, and observe Lounsbury's clever technique of circular logic. (First, you may want to refer to my full argument against Lounsbury's 1983 paper in the enclosed excerpt from my recent book).
The deleted analysis of Lounsbury’s 1992
essay was refined and posted online; it is here.
So, if you are referring to this correlation question when you say that "Lounsbury's ideas should be stressed rather than Thompson's views," I suggest you reconsider and remember that there are millions of Maya involved in this issue. In Mayan Calendrics, Peter Meyer rightly uses "Thompson’s" 584283 correlation of 1950 as a default because it corresponds to the count used by the present day Maya and is supported by astronomical arguments as well as ethnographic and historical sources (See Munro Edmonson, 1988 The Book of the Year).
So I hope this has been informative for you, and ultimately I don't know where you stand on these matters. So don’t take offense if I seem extreme—I simply champion the true count, and have little patience for academics (like Lounsbury) hurling abstractions from the Ivory Tower while the Maya themselves dodge bullets and cling to what little continuity of tradition remains for them. And it is rather amazing to think that the tzolkin calendar still followed in the remote areas of Guatemala is the last link in an unbroken calendar tradition almost 3,000 years old.
Note: This correspondent also wrote to Linda Schele on these matters. She responded with her two famous posts to the new Aztlan e-mail list in 1996. I responded with my “Response to Counterarguments” essay, reproduced in an appendix to Maya Cosmogenesis 2012 (1998).