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Today’s ‘ring of fire’ eclipse recalls years of Maya astronomy

Today, an annular or “ring of fire” solar eclipse will be visible over parts of Yucatán. I envy those able to see it. 

The show today is the result of the moon passing between the Earth and the Sun, but since it is at its farthest point away from us, the solar glare will be covered just over 90%, allowing the outer flares to still be visible. In other parts of North, Central and South America a partial solar eclipse will be visible. This solar eclipse is the first visible in Mexico in 30 years and the first annular eclipse over the Yucatan Peninsula in 400 years. 

The eclipse is best seen over the Yucatán/Campeche state line in areas such as Sisal, Celestún, Tekax, Campeche city, and the archaeological site of Calkiní. After today and the total solar eclipse that we will experience in April 2024, the next total solar eclipse in Mexico will not be until 2052.

Solar eclipses have captured the imagination, most often negatively, by peoples all over the world for millennia. How, exactly, the Mesoamericans responded to them is somewhat in doubt, in no small part because of the destruction of ancient records by conquering Europeans.  

Like all agricultural societies, astronomy was extremely important for Mesoamerican civilizations, as was the regularity of the cycles on both heaven and earth. Anomalies were noticed and recorded, with explanations of one type or another attached.

Modern research using historical records and modern astronomy has aligned over 25 past solar eclipses with Mesoamerican records, in particular from the Mexica period from 1300 to 1550 (also known as the Aztec period). Multiple records do associate bad omens with eclipses. The most common interpretation is that the sun is somehow being “eaten” or “swallowed” and something must be done to correct this. Some Maya records indicate that eclipses indicate anger on the part of the jaguar-sun god Kinich Ahauis, foreshadowing drought, war, or death according to researcher Martha Ilia Nájera Coronado of the National Autonomous University of México (UNAM). The Dresden Codex indicates that ceremonies and sacrifices were held to mitigate the damage. Interestingly, Maya records also indicate a conflict between the sun and the moon. Their very accurate calendar may have clued them in on the moon’s role here. 

Eclipses in Mayan Culture. (Photo KEN GEIGER)

The Mexica calendar was less accurate and they did not seem to have made that connection. They had various interpretations as to what was happening with each solar eclipse they observed. One explanation claims the sun being swallowed by a jaguar; another blames skeletal figures called “tzitizmime”

However, the migration of the Nahuas and the subsequent establishment of the Mexica capital, Tenochtitlan, are tied to solar eclipses in 1116 and 1325 respectively, which, as you can imagine, was considered positive in that empire. The same civilization would look back on the eclipse of 1508 as foretelling the empire’s doom when the Spanish arrived over a decade later. 

Chilam-Balam, a book written in Maya shortly after the Spanish Conquest claims the same eclipse caused panic among the priests, who believed their god had died. Academics such as Emil Kahlisi of Cornell University and Paul M. Sutter of SUNY Stony Brook assert that eclipses did not have the same overwhelmingly negative historical significance that they did in Asia and Europe. They were certainly noticed but did not seem to instill the same level of dread. However, it is likely we will never really know for sure. 

The Europeans brought their own fears of eclipses and other celestial phenomena, blaming them frequently for calamities such as epidemics and famines. In 1577, Friar Antonio Tello wrote that “…on the third of August, there was a great eclipse, which caused a great plague in which many Indians died.” Another in 1691 was blamed for a food shortage, which was considered the will of God. 

The negative effect of eclipses on children, crops and farm animals is a very old belief that continues in some places to the present day. Superstitions related to eclipses have origins in the Mesoamerican period, with evidence that the Mexica people thought children needed protection from them and that Maya pregnant women carried obsidian blades for protection. The most widespread superstition today is the tying of red cloth or ribbons onto pregnant women, trees, other plants and farm animals to protect them. In a few cases, pregnant women will carry scissors or knives under their bellies for the same reason. 

Octavio Murillo of the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (INPI) emphasizes the continuing mixed reaction to eclipses in Mexico to this day. “Although there are cultures in Yucatán that still take the occurrences of eclipses seriously and mythologically, there are others who relate to it as a natural phenomenon,” he said.

In the modern world, solar eclipses are now an opportunity to wonder at the marvel that is the universe. This particular event is also an opportunity for the states of Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo to promote themselves for celestial tourism, especially in their archaeological sites, major cities and Pueblos Mágicos. Yucatán’s Annular Solar Eclipse Festival features over 90 cultural and artistic events in seven different communities and archeological sites to take maximum advantage of this one-in-a-lifetime event. 

Leigh Thelmadatter arrived in Mexico over 20 years ago and fell in love with the land and the culture in particular its handcrafts and art. She is the author of Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta (Schiffer 2019). Her culture column appears regularly on Mexico News Daily.

Today’s ‘ring of fire’ eclipse recalls years of Maya astronomy

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