Scholars on the Astronomy at Izapa
of early July 2007.
An interesting exchange on astronomy at
I disagree with your interpretation of my statement. I'm all for
stating facts as facts and leaving speculation in the category of
speculation. What I pointed out, in the quote you cited, were facts.
Let's take a look.
First, “the carved monuments repeated
or not that the Izapan monuments frequent
identification in parentheses, off the top of my head, so it wi
portrayed on Ste
(Lowe and Norman, BYU). The Mi
with the Mi
us understand the iconographic association between the Mi
axis form in many Izapan ste
caiman/frog; thus see Ste
11 to the December so
rift on Ste
Benfer et a
(horizon azimuth a
of the depictions of astronomica
even though severa
found in my book, I be
Way, the dark rift, and the December so
Izapa. As you can see, these are not a
arguments, and even if they were, there's nothing wrong with that, and
I invite you to discuss the arguments more fu
that certain arguments that are not bu
certain thinkers, so we have to admit in the soft science of
reconstructing ancient symbo
Huston Smith---that some peop
chorus of dissent at this point,
It may not be a chorus, but there is indeed “dissent” among scholars
when it comes to astronomical interpretations of Maya iconography.
Others would probably agree that significant problems exist in many
previous attempts to correlate iconographic elements in Maya art with
astronomical features and phenomena. The Maya of course often
represented celestial bodies in a pretty direct way ("star," "sun,"
"moon" etc.), usually as part of larger designs, but there's little
solid evidence to show that sculptures at Izapa or at any other site
are systematic depictions of astronomical features or forms, at least
in the way suggested earlier on this thread. For example, I see no
good reason to interpret "world trees" as depictions of the Milky
Way, nor do I see any other motifs as correlating with the rift of
the galactic plane. There are many other specific doubts to bring up
on a case-by-case basis. This is not to deny the importance of
cosmography in Maya art – it’s clearly everywhere. Instead I would
argue that the assertion that “Izapa’s monuments depict astronomy” is
way too simplistic. Izapa’s remarkable monuments depict the
intertwined themes of cosmology, history, and mythology, and its very
hard to draw firm lines between these areas. Julia Guernsey’s work
on the monuments of Izapa shows this complexity very well.
The “astronomy method” of Maya iconographic analysis, as it might be
called, was widely read and touted in the 1990s, due mostly to Maya
Cosmos and Linda Schele’s use of celestial maps to interpret Classic
Maya imagery. I may be opening a can of worms in saying this, but
many of the iconographic interpretations in that book have turned out
to be wrong, and the astronomical methodology behind them full of
numerous false assumptions and identifications. Although Izapa didn’t
figure heavily in Linda's discussions, I think the astronomy-based
interpretations suggested for Izapan sculpture are undercut by many
of the same problems.
For what it’s worth,
I welcomed the opened dialogue with
Thank you for your input. Having studied the orientations and
iconography at Izapa, I'd have to disagree. The suspicion that Izapa
as a whole, and its main groups and individual monuments, are
intentionally oriented to significant horizons and the astronomical
movements over those horizons, actually goes back before Schele's
work, to V. Garth Norman's 1980 thesis and general observations by the
BYU archaeologists who excavated the site in the 60s. The astronomical
content of the Izapan monuments can be deduced, following principles
of archaeoastronomy, at the site itself. That Schele and a dozen other
scholars accept these connections should mean something. Timothy
Laughton, Clemency Coggins, Looper, and others have offered
observations about the astronomy at Izapa. I do recognize that a
certain school of thought underplays, or ignores, astronomy at the
sites - some sort of lingering reaction to Thomson's "dreamy
stargazer" myth, but I consider that interpretive bias to be
unwarranted. You note that I've stated in blunt terms that Izapan
iconography refers to astronomy, but of course I allow for the larger
complexity of interwoven relationships. In fact, I explored how the
monuments encode not only astronomical references but also ballgame,
kingship, sacrifice ritual, Creation Mythology references,
agricultural motifs, and shamanic rites, beginning with my 1995 book
The Center of Mayan Time. This is the larger complex of Izapan
"cosmology" that Dr. Guernsey-Kappleman has approached from the other
side of the investigation, first highlighting kingship and
agricultural metaphors and slowly, more recently, incorporating the
astronomical considerations. I tend to emphasize the astronomy and
mythology --- and there's a lot there to emphasize --- and am not
focused on early kingship rites. Izapa is, after all, largely a
ceremonial or religious site. It would not be too much to say that
Izapa, like Takalik Abaj (see May '04 Nat. Geog. piece:
http://magma.nationalgeographic.com), is an astronomical observatory.
In this regard, I'd like to focus on an analogous case in point, which
I referred to in my previous post, that of Benfer's work at the
above link to that piece in Astronomy magazine (previous post). If
there is ANY merit to his deductive observations regarding the Fox
dark cloud constellation, then there must be SOME merit to my findings
at Izapa (our deductive approaches are identical, though my work
integrates a great deal more contextual support).
Finally, I see the important points of Schele's
actually be drawn from earlier work --- for example, that the "sacred
tree" is a demonstrable Maya concept, namely the cross formed by the
Milky Way and the ecliptic, goes back to Girard, Tedlock, Milbrath,
etc etc (citations in my book). The dark rift feature is a widespread
reference implicit in the data, though often overlooked. See, for
example, my 1995 review of Maya Place Names: http://www.alignment2012.com/fap11.html
(this was expanded into Appendix 4 in my book). Is the refutation of
"Schele's work" publicly available, or written up at all? Which
points are problematic? I've notice problems - e.g., that the "sky
portal" opens when the Milky Way rims the horizon; actually, more
relevant and supported by known concepts is the fact that the dark
rift ("road to underworld; Black Road; sky portal") rises over the
horizon at that time. Thank you for your time and comments,
David didn’t respond to this, but started another thread
Thanks for contributing your thoughts to the thread. I don’t want to clog up the list with my panegyrics and digressions from the main trajectory of the list, so off-list a quick question. Your post responded to the issue of astronomy at Izapa. Do you, then, disagree with the interpretation that the caiman on Stela 25 represents the Milky Way? Your consideration is much appreciated,
John M Jenkins
David was nice to reply with careful consideration:
Thanks for your question on Stela
25. I don't claim to be the expert on Izapa
iconography, but to answer your question: no, I would not see this alligator/caiman
as a Milky Way representation. To put it more accurately, I'm not convinced
by any argument put forth that this is in essence an astronomical image.
The caiman is a caiman-tree, clearly related to Trees of Sustenance depicted
in later Maya art. Images of the upturned gator-tree appear on vessels
as well as in 3-D sculptures at
With his verification that he didn’t be
Thanks for your time and for answering my question. I greatly respect your work, and certainly don’t want to alienate you, but I’m quite surprised that you don’t think the caiman-tree on Izapa Stela 25 represents the Milky Way. It seemed clear to me that your own work made this connection. Not only that, but your words below also implicate the iconographic variations of the dark rift in the Milky Way. My comments are in blue in brackets.
“I believe that the Starry Deer Crocodile is more than an animated sky symbol. The iconography consistently associated with the creature strongly indicates that it represents the starry, nocturnal aspect of the more broadly conceived Celestial Monster, and that it in essence symbolizes the cloudy Milky Way (D. Stuart 1984; Milbrath 1999).”1
I agree completely.
You’ve traced the prototype of the Starry Deer Crocodile back to early representations at Izapa. You’ve stated a connection between the Starry Deer Crocodile and the Milky Way (in Classic Period art). You identify the caiman-tree on Stela 25 as an early depiction of the Starry Deer Crocodile. Is there a model, or principle, conventional wisdom, consensus agreement, or default assumption, that demands a discontinuity in the celestial reference? Is there, then, any possibility or suggestion that the caiman-tree on Stela 25 might, like its later forms as the Classic Period Starry Deer Crocodile, represent the Milky Way? Applying logic to your data, I think so. Additional considerations provide more contextual evidence that strengthens the argument for such a continuity. For example, Stela 25 is in a row of five monuments on the north end of Group A. Several of the stelae in this row depict the principal bird deity rising and falling. A person who stands in front of these monuments, facing north, looks at the iconographic depictions of the bird deity on the various monuments and can, at night, tilt their head back slightly and observe Tacana volcano in the distance. The altars and stelae are oriented in a line east to west so that priests facing the stelae, doing ritual on their altars, can look up and pay homage to Tacana in the distance. Why? And what connection might this have with the bird deities represented on the stelae? The Big Dipper rises over the eastern flank of Tacana, spins around the pole, and sets to the west. I find this compelling and meaningful in terms of identifying the bird deity on Stela 25 with the Big Dipper. Your acknowledged connection between the mythic scene portrayed on this monument and the much later Hero Twin episode recorded by the Quiché Maya in the 1550s is additional evidence for the astronomical identification, since according to the Popol Vuh the bird deity involved in this episode is Seven Macaw, who the modern Maya associated with the Big Dipper. (The purpose of this observation is to show continuity of meaning between the myth at Izapa and the conceptual connection among the modern Maya). The probability that Izapa Stela 25 contains astronomical reference is thus extremely high, and furthermore suggests that a Milky Way identification of the caiman-tree on Stela 25 was a prototype and continuous with your stated Classic Period redactions. This line of argument is one small slice of a chain of interconnections that I could go into in greater detail --- I’m confident this would provide you with the “rigid and carefully constructed argument” and the “meticulous chain of connections to make a viable interpretation.”
“…Dennis Tedlock (1992:252) is
explicit in giving the name Hun Hunahpu to the ‘pre-Triad’
GI, whom Lounsbury considered to be the father of
the Triad namesake … GI is by no means a local
Your observations about the k’in bowl helmet are intriguing, and suggest that the ‘hole’ was a place that the sun could occupy. This makes absolute sense if we accept the celestial prototype of the ‘helmet’ or ‘hole’ as the dark rift in the Milky Way. Two things here: the hole is on the Milky Way crocodile, and the sun can occupy it. The sun moves along the ecliptic; there are only two places where the ecliptic crosses the Milky Way. One of these crossing zones is touched by the southern terminus of the dark rift, near Sagittarius. Why can’t the established astronomical references provide clues as to as-yet unidentified aspects of the iconography? With some caution, the sky can provide a map for interrelations in the iconography. Comment – I don’t understand why you favor the anus interpretation over a vagina – the two choices you originally suggest. Anuses are not birthplaces. Vaginas are birth places; that’s the context of the data, right? In this connection, we see one of the variant conceptual designations of the dark rift as a vagina or birth place. If we see it as a vagina, then we can begin speaking about a birthplace that is located on the Milky Way. See also Ruud van Akkeren’s Scorpio article on the Copan Notes website.
“Representations of the solar cartouche within the crocodile’s body (Figure 136) strongly suggest that the sun was consumed by the crocodile during its nightly course beneath the earth and defecated or reborn each morning. [Caption for] “Figure 136: The sun within the womb or stomach of the Starry Deer Crocodile, on Yaxchilan HS3, Step III.”4 [The ecliptic-traveling sun within the ‘womb’ of the Milky Way. Fascinating. Where could that be?]
I commented in the post to John Hoopes that more data is not necessarily needed for making progress in understanding the astronomical connections in iconography, and that what really needs to take place is a shift in perspective in how the current data is perceived. Another listero implied this indicated some rational failing on my part. I’m interested in progress in Maya Studies. I know that you are, too. Any comments will be greatly appreciated. Best wishes,
John Major Jenkins
p.s. – I didn’t say 2012 once!
He replied quickly:
I apologize if I wasn't clear about my thinking on this.
Yes, I do firmly believe that the Starry Deer Crocodile / Alligator) represents
the Milky Way in many examples. This is best shown, I think, on
This seemed to be an attempt to safely bring to a close our exchange. Dave’s comment here that “alligators and crocs in the art can’t be lumped together, since they can have very different meanings and associations” implies that the Starry Deer Crocodile is something essentially different from the caiman on Stela 25, which therefore must not be a crocodile but an alligator. But in passages from his book that I cited above, the “Starry Deer Crocodile” (which he identifies as the Milky Way) is by name a crocodile, and the figure on Stela 25 is also a crocodile, according to his own words: “More direct parallels are found in representations of upright crocodiles that form trees from their tails, as depicted on Izapa Stelae 25 and 27.” It seems he ended his email with a complete reversal of his published words in order to give the impression that I was simply missing a basic truism, and then bowed out of a dialogue that was leading him, logically and coherently, in a direction that he did not want to follow. I decided to not press this odd oversight, a completely irrational disconnect between his officially published position of two years ago and his current thoughts, but there was so much in my email that was ignored, I felt I had to hone my essential questions carefully to elicit a more direct response:
Your book is beautifully produced, illustrated, and written. PARI did a great job and your insights are most welcome. I love quality books and deep research.
Did you notice how similar in form and detail the “Starry Deer Crocodile” on the jade ear spool from Rio Azul (Fig 135, page 166 of your book) is to the so-called frog-jaguar on Izapa Stela 11? What are the details, or lack of details, that disqualify the frog-jaguar on Stela 11 from also being identified as an early form of the Starry Deer Crocodile? Also, does not the frog-jaguar together with the solar deity on Stela 11 provide a symbolically identical situation as portrayed in Fig 136 of your book (“The sun within the womb or stomach of the Starry Deer Crocodile”). What would it be about a deer element that would clinch the association with the Milky Way? Or would it hinge more on the frog-tree-croc feature? I’m trying to figure out where the Milky Way association came into the picture if, as you say, the Milky Way is not depicted by these Izapan croc-trees. I don’t actually believe that, but I’m trying to entertain your assertion and deal with the unavoidable question of when the Milky Way got inserted into the symbolism, and why it would not be there as the celestial prototype from the beginning.
So, I gather from your comments that the identification of astronomy in the iconography is not contingent upon a close resemblance between or even direct inclusion of critical iconographic elements, such as the cartouche on Izapa Stela 8 (I would have thought that cartouche, and the mask at the bottom, to be the critical elements).
At any rate, if the Milky Way association of any croc-tree must be supported by, as you say, other sets of visual cues and contexts, I believe that’s what I offered in sketching the setting, orientation, and Popol Vuh continuity of Stela 25 (in my previous email). If that information is accepted as viable contextual, orientational, and documentary support (and I see no reason why it should not), don’t you think it goes a long way to showing astronomy on Stela 25 – if not the croc-tree as the Milky Way, then the bird deity as the Big Dipper? In other words, apart from any demonstrable link in the evolution of the iconography from Izapa to the Classic Period Starry Deer Crocodile, the argument here comes primarily from the carvings and the site itself, as I described in detail in my previous email.
I apologize if this opens worm cans, I just want to bring it to a satisfying closure regarding the points essential to the issue ---- which began on the UT list as a dissent regarding my evidence and arguments that astronomy is depicted at Izapa. Best wishes,
At this stage, there is no response. Another thread, ca
The two threads, and my private exchange with
Update. May 17, 2008. Very recently, I learned of research by Barb MacLeod and Michael John Grofe that provides strong argument that the Serpent Series in the Dresden Codex provides evidence that the Maya were preoccupied with calculating precession.
Grofe's work was approved as a Ph.D. thesis at the University of California,
Davis, in May of 2007. Titled: "The Serpent Series: Precession in the
Maya Dresden Codex." It truly does promise to move this whole discussion
forward, along with MacLeod's work on the 3-11 Pik formula, and how it relates
to rites of Maya kingship. I have to say it was extrremely heartening to discover
my work inspiring this serious scholarly research, especially after my recent
exchange with Aveni. This open-minded invitation to join forces, dialogue,
and move the work along is what I've been waiting for, for over ten years.
Now we can really begin the revolution in understanding the precessional preoccupations
of the ancient Maya cosmologists.