Timekeepers: The European Golden Age, the Mesoamerican Time of Darkness, and the New Dawn of Indigenous Peoples
by Jorge Garcia
Those gathering to observe and enact the ‘cosmic dance’ between the Earth, the Sun, the Moon and Venus have begun to make history and measure time differently, again.
The ‘Monolith of the Stone of the Sun’ now in the collection of the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City was excavated on 17 December 1790 in the city’s main square, Zócalo, and is dated to the fifteenth century AD. First used by Aztec and other pre-Colombian peoples of Latin America, it is read for the counts of Sun, Moon and Venus as they move in relation to the Earth. Image Source: Creative Commons
The years between 1492 and 2012 are special years in our current era. In general, for most Indigenous peoples, this period represents 520 years of oppression and dispossession. By contrast, for European colonists and missionaries, it represents a period in which the ‘modern industrialised and technological society’ was born. It was their ‘Golden Age’.
Based on the writings of the British historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto about 1492, we know of the expectations placed on the voyages of Christopher Columbus, and how the finding of ‘new’ lands surpassed those expectations.1 Europeans were looking for trading routes to India, and instead they found an entire continent that with time became their land.
Miguel León-Portilla’s Vision de los vencidos alternately explores how Mesoamericans reacted to the changes that the post-1492 era brought to their lives.2 Anticipating a five-hundred-year period of oppression and dispossession, Indigenous peoples evolved strategies to survive that era and to safeguard their ancestral ways and knowledge. At the same time, they knew that this period would ultimately end, and that it would be announced by the passing of Venus in front of the Sun the way it did on June 2012. This moment marked the beginning of a new cycle known as ‘the New Dawn of Indigenous Peoples’, when a time of awakening began. This represents a period in which they would rise again to resume their destiny and shared intent to maintain the spiritual ways inherited from their grandfathers.
The period which began in 1492 is about recent history. The post-2012 era is about the future. Today we can look back at the changes that arose from the decisions and actions that were taken in 1492. Historical reflection alone would not allow us to fully understand, or to predict, how the next five hundred years will unfold. Clearly, the future looks grim. Climate change will continue to affect us. The destruction of natural habitats will continue to open more land for development. The systematic destruction of Indigenous peoples around the world along with their knowledge will continue to happen to the detriment of our civilisation. The systemic extermination of animal species and their habitats contributes to the loss of ecosystems. The irrational prospect of continuous war continues to drive human beings to the brink of exasperation, with so much chaos everywhere. Under our current system of time, we measure and understand changes that happen on Earth by the needs of materialist society, which is ruled by greed, dispossession and a never-ending longing for the creation of new markets at any cost. Speed is key to the high-frequency trading of Wall Street, which as we know fuels disastrous market crashes.
Mesoamericans—and for that matter, most Indigenous Nations of the Americas—had a more eloquent and profound way of understanding the passing of time.3 Their concern was to live in close harmony with the deeper “spirit of their times”, so they could withstand the persistent changes that occur on Earth.4 In essence, they understood and were sensitive to the energies that comprised the conjunction of time and space. To understand the deeper spirit of their times, Mesoamericans focused on celebrating and honouring the earthly responses to the movements of the Sun, the Moon and Venus. They understood that changes on Earth were a result of the passing of time, as marked by solstices, equinoxes and Venus transits in front of the Sun. Their ultimate concern was to understand and strive to live in harmony with these cosmic events.5 Timekeeping became how people were able to understand the times under which we, as human beings, evolve with the Earth, and timekeepers were the messengers.
1492: The Beginning of Our Modern and Recent History
In our modern history, 1492 is a crucial date. It is the year Columbus sailed off to find new trading routes. It is the year the humanist, philosopher, astronomer and Catholic priest Marsilio Ficino promulgated the ideas of the Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro (Virgil), who in the first century BCE had written of the Golden Age of the Roman Empire. By 1492, at the height of the Italian Renaissance, that ‘Golden Age’ became the ‘Golden Age’ of the West. A quarter of a century later, in 1519, when Cortez arrived on the Peninsula of Yucatan, the ‘Golden’ legacy of the Roman Empire was re-established.
For Mesoamericans, the arrival of the Europeans marked a time of Darkness. ‘Darkness’ for Mesoamericans, however, did not necessarily mean dark as in atrocious,6 but rather dark as in part of a time of transition—a cosmic time of introspection, a time for looking inward. For Mesoamericans, Venus, the morning and evening star, was the messenger of this shift.
In his final speech given in the city of Tlatelolco in 1521, just before he went to encounter Cortez, Cuauhtémoc, the last Speaker of the Mexika people, said: “Totonaltzin ye omotlatihzinoh, totonaltzin ye omixpoliuhtzinoh, ihuan centlayohuayan otechcahuilih.” [Our sacred energy has already been well hidden, our venerable Sun dignifiedly disappeared his face, and in total darkness deigned left us.]7 The Mexika, like many other Indigenous Nations of Mesoamerica, venerated this period because above all, it promised the return of Quetzalcoatl.8 This was not the return of Quetzalcoatl promoted in modern history books, which claim that the Aztecs were expecting the white Quetzalcoatl coming back from the East to reclaim his kingdom, and that they mistook the Spanish Conquistador Cortés as his herald. This was a fiction invented to make Mesoamericans seem confused and superstitious. Rather, the returning Quetzalcoatl was actually Venus’s passing in front of the Sun on 26 May 1518, and then again eight years later in 1526. These Venus transits told Mesoamericans that the times and their way of life would change. For Mesoamericans, the arrival of the Spaniards confirmed a larger understanding they already had about the tendency of events on Earth to mirror major events in the cosmos.
Mesoamericans were neither confused nor superstitious; they were very clear about what this ‘new’ time meant for them in cosmic terms. Mesoamericans came from a long line of stargazers and timekeepers. They were city builders, astronomers, engineers and statesmen. They knew what the arrival of the European colonists and missionaries meant, not only in terms of their painful and disastrous encounter, but also more importantly, in terms of the effects that those Venus transits would have on a way of life they had been cultivating for thousands of years. Once the conquest ended, the Mesoamericans retreated to their homes, where they would faithfully await the time when they could resume their cosmic journey, cultivating all the while the harmony they saw in the stars.
To know and to have this deep understanding of time, Mesoamericans kept detailed calendar counts related to the movements of the Sun, the Moon and Venus. For them, it was essential to understand how these three celestial bodies impacted life on Earth. Mesoamericans knew that this time of Darkness, although painful and devastating, was a time of cosmic realignment pronounced by the passage of Venus in front of the Sun, and that a reversal would be signalled when that same transit series repeated in 2004 and 2012, some 478 years later. For Mesoamericans, those 478 years were a time of “cosmic hibernation”.9 Cuauhtémoc reaffirms in his speech that, “mach tictomachiliah occeppa mohualhuiliz, ma occeppa moquizaltiz ihuan yancuican techmotlahuililiquiuh.” [We certainly know [that] again it [the Sun] will deign to return, that it will rise again it will have it well to come out, and that it again will come to enlighten us [about our journey on this earth]].10 Mesoamericans believed that they were the Children of the Sun. The Sun served as a guide for their vision and for their intent. For them, the journey of the Sun in the wintertime was a journey that would test the intent of the Sun to return to the North and become strong and powerful like an Eagle, which represented the act of having a vision. The conjunction of Venus and the Sun represented a longer span of time during which they would have to keep their faith and way of life almost hidden so that the European colonists and missionaries would not eradicate their spiritual ways. So the passage of Venus in front of the Sun in 2012 marks a time when the Sun “would come out again to enlighten us”.11 This cosmic event marks the beginning of a period when old knowledge re-emerges and flourishes—a time when people of the Americas reassert their destiny and uphold their responsibility as the Children of the Sun.
Mesoamericans, like many other tribal people from the American continent, believed that our responsibility as human beings is to maintain the order we see in the skies. To this end, Dr Geraldine Ann Patrick Encina states:
“I believe that the haab’—the yearly count of 365 [days]—is the synthesis of the cosmovision and the conceptualisation of time-space, that captures, in its articulation with the Tzolk’in, the becoming cyclic and tidy of celestial events, and by principle of equivalence, Earthly processes and events.”12
The lives of Mesoamericans revolved around celebrations. For Mesoamericans, everything in the natural world had a spirit that needed to be honoured to have balance. The solar and lunar calendar counts helped them to maintain a close understanding of short spans of time, while Venus helped them to maintain an understanding of longer spans of time. The only way that Mesoamericans could stay in tune with these time spans was through spiritual ceremonies that honoured them and their effects on Earth.
If we look at the advent of the year 2012 in the same way that we look at the invasion of the American continent, in terms of the simple and inevitable encounter of the cultures of two continents propelled by the adventurous voyages of a sailor who thought he could find new trading routes, we might neglect the views and the profound teachings of those who understood these events as part of the deeper spirit of their times. In this analysis, Mesoamericans were not just passive victims of greed and ignorance; they continued their cosmic journey, and for much of the past 478 years, became ‘riders’ of their own faith during a time of Darkness. In spite of the cruel and devastating genocide committed on this continent, Mesoamericans, like all other Indigenous Nations, found consolation and strength in their faith, because, as Cuauhtémoc said, “We certainly know that again [our Sun] will deign to return, that it will rise again, and that again it will come to enlighten us.”13
The cycles of time that the Mesoamericans maintained for thousands of years would give them a different understanding of the changes that took place with the advent of European colonisation, which imposed secular and religious ideas, seemingly at odds with and disconnected from the environment, and therefore the total opposite to the Mesoamericans’ way of life. Mesoamericans were preoccupied with the correlation between the movements of the Sun, the Moon and Venus with respect to life on Earth; these movements gave them a sense of direction and guidance. For Mesoamericans, correlating time and cosmic events was part of a ‘cosmic dance’ that allowed people to be in harmony with the cosmos. As opposed to the denatured philosophical and religious approach of Europeans, Mesoamericans had a faith based on concrete cosmic events that had an actual effect on life here on Earth. European religion, through its Judeo-Christian doctrine, became monotheist in nature resembling the idea of an absolute monarchy. In comparison, Mesoamerican spirituality was based on images that resemble the multiple natural energies that had effect on the human experience. As a result, a lot of the images that we know now were not necessarily considered ‘gods’, but rather the representations and connections with inherent traits of the human condition. Quetzalcoatl, for example, was known as the representation of the precious knowledge that the human experience could have through the connection to old aged knowledge. Tezkatlipoca—the smoking black mirror, the energy of the North—was understood to be the representation of the subconscious. Xipe Totec, the energy of the West, was seen as the energy of transformation because the rain and the winds represented it from the west. Finally, the energy of the South, represented by Huitzilopochtli, the hummingbird, was the representation of the human intent. For Mesoamericans, it was not just a world of religion, but rather a world of human and spiritual aptitudes that needed to be understood to connect our worldly life with that of the spirit world enclosed in the movement of the stars close to the earth. They were, after all, people who were highly dependent on the Earth’s climate to survive through hunting and growing seasons. Their main collective mission was to ensure that the count of time was done properly, so that they could understand the times to come. For Europeans, those 478 years were a time of expansion and discovery, involving multiple attempts to tame or transform natural processes rather than obey them, to the great detriment of the environment. For Mesoamericans, those years were a time of darkness and desolation. In a larger context, too, they were a time for cosmic hibernation. To continue living on this Earth, Mesoamericans understood keeping time and its associated celebrations to be fundamental, striving always for a harmonious dance—like the one they observed in the sky—in the movements of the Sun, the Moon and Venus.
2012: The End of the World
These days, the year 2012 is remembered as the year in which the world did not end. The cataclysmic expectations that people held were based on misinterpreted Mayan prophecies exploited by books and Hollywood films. These misinterpreted prophecies amplified the Christian notion of a world-ending apocalypse to come. Approaching the close of 2012, people wondered if the Mayans were right—if “the year 2012 would indeed mean the end of the world.”14 In fact, the Mayans made no such prediction.
For the Mayans and many Indigenous Nations, the close of a specific cycle such as the one in 2012 was more of a time dedicated to tuning their lives towards a better understanding of cosmic changes. For mainstream society, such cosmic time has little meaning. In contrast, for Indigenous peoples for whom traditional and sacred knowledge is still alive, cosmic time is closely associated with the understanding of time and space as it relates to the lives of people in our communities, with our traditions, our culture and way of life, and most importantly, to our responsibility to maintain the sacred connection with everything that exists here on Earth and beyond. The passage of Venus in front of the Sun in 2012 marked the return of the precious knowledge encapsulated in cultural traditions that reaffirm the fact that in the end we are all cosmic beings.
People have maintained timekeeping to preserve the sacred connection with time and space that our ancestors created, joining the energies present on Earth with the movements of the Sun, Moon and Venus as givers of life. Their goal was to continue searching, not for cities of gold, but rather for the sacredness that exists in preserving, respecting, and honouring who we are and where we come from. Timekeeping was not merely an act of maintaining almanacs or counts of time—of allowing representations to govern life—but focused on the time and space of human existence, understood as relating directly to the Earth, the Sun, the Moon and Venus. In this process of continually evolving reflection and relation, representations act as suggestive scores that allow people to have a better understanding of the past, present and future. Our people aimed at understanding, through timekeeping, how we relate to each other and to the cosmos in the interest of the development and preservation of life. Maintaining this sacred connection meant that people had to continue moving with the Sagrada Forma [Sacred Form], which is understood not as a static entity but as a dynamic of associations—a sense of how we are all connected to everything there is. It was always imperative that we understood what this connection meant so that we could continue a way of life rooted in the teachings of our Mother Earth and the guidance of our Father Sun. Our life in community, our dances, our songs and our families are all part of an extended kinship that sustains the sacred ways of our people.
2012: The New Dawn
On 23 May 1526, Venus crossed in front of the sun; 486 years later, on 6 June 2012, Venus crossed in front of the sun again. This most recent passage marked a time of cosmic change known to many Indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere as the ‘New Dawn of Indigenous Peoples’. In mainstream society the conventional belief was that the year 2012 would mark the end of the world. For Indigenous peoples, it marked a time in which ancient knowledge would re-emerge to provide guidance and understanding. This cosmic event encouraged us to continue following in the sacred steps of our ancestors. As greater understanding of the New Dawn was gained, Indigenous peoples began to organise efforts to reunite those from the North and South. Numerous activities were coordinated including the proclamation of The Prophesy of the Eagle and the Condor, which occurred in Quito, Ecuador, in 1990. Following that event, in the year 2000, the Decade of Indigenous Peoples was organised, culminating in a continental meeting in Teotihuacan, Mexico. The reigniting of the Continental Fire by the Mayans in Guatemala happened in 2004, and the Haudenosaunee/Mohawk condolence ceremony, which honoured Mohawk Elder Jake Swamp’s dream of bringing back the Peacemaker,15 was held at the Mississippi Headwaters in June 2012. These efforts have supported the coming together of Indigenous peoples up and down the hemisphere. In addition, multiple ceremonies and meetings have taken place to fulfil the need to reinstitute ancient alliances and rekindle sacred continental fires. Periodic continental runs, which have served as a reminder that we are all connected, have taken place every four years since 1990.16
In 2010, as part of this process of reconstituting ancient knowledge, a group of Indigenous peoples began organising around the understanding that the year 2012 marked the coming of the New Dawn, as Cuauhtémoc had foretold us. As part of this process, timekeepers and traditional leaders from communities across the Americas convened a meeting in North America in September 2013, in order to better understand this New Dawn and its meaning for the future of Indigenous peoples. Issues of Indigenous calendars and the importance of maintaining lunar and solar ceremonies at their appropriate times were discussed. The main purpose was to resolve to continue specific efforts that will help re-enact ceremonies and ways of life that have been largely ignored and are in danger of disappearing.
Timekeepers: The Vision for the Future
Our vision of the future is to work towards the understanding and reimplementation of Indigenous creation stories, teachings, principles and values related to the wisdom held in ancestral Indigenous calendars from the Americas. Our mission is to bring back to people, especially those from traditional communities, the philosophy and knowledge of time-space for ‘good living’.17 This action will enable the development of new forms of leadership that will embody the principles and values of the New Dawn as it relates to Indigenous life. In this way, we hope to realise the vision of Cuauhtémoc, who in 1521 predicted the return of our precious knowledge in the form of Quetzalcoatl, to illuminate our path so that we may continue the task of creating harmony through our dances, our songs and our ways of life on this Earth.
1 Fernando Fernández-Armesto (1492), El nacimiento de la modernidad, Barcelona, Random House Mondadori, 2010.
2 Miguel León-Portilla (1959), Visión de los vencidos. Relaciones indígenas de la Conquista, Mexico City, Universidad Nacional Autonoma, 2005. Trans. Ángel María Garibay, The Broken Spears. The Aztec Account of the Conquering of Mexico, Boston, Beacon Press, 2011. Note the literal translation of León-Portilla’s title is ‘Vision of the Defeated’.
3 Indeed, this may also be said of other Indigenous peoples and cultures outside the Americas—Aboriginal Australians, various Indigenous communities in Africa and Asia, and the Sami of Norway, Sweden, Finland and parts of Russia.
4 Indigenous cosmology is based not only on the understanding of calendar counts, but also on the energies that are present in those calendar counts. These energies were part of spiritual understanding that prefigures what the psychoanalyst Carl Jung referred to as “the spirit of the depths”, as opposed to a more mercurial “spirit of the times” or zeitgeist that changes between generations and according to shifts in social dominance. For Indigenous peoples, understanding this deeper “spirit of the times” meant conceiving of time beyond materialistic needs and maintaining a connection between worldly events and those in the cosmos. See C.G. Jung, The Red Book, ed. Sonu Shamdasani, New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009, p. 119.
5 This statement is not intended to say that Indigenous peoples were peaceful, but rather that they were more in tune with the Earth and its dependence on the effects that the Sun, Moon and Venus had on the climate and growing seasons. Their protocols and cosmology were holistic and ingrained within their warrior societies.
6 This statement is not intended to say that the conquest of the Mesoamerican continent was not a horrible event for the millions of Indigenous people who were raped, killed and dispossessed, but rather that for Mesoamericans the conquest was far more than simply an earthly encounter; it was a time marked by the crossing of Venus in front of the Sun, which indicated a cosmic time in which their knowledge would be safeguarded until the new time—the New Dawn—when their knowledge would once again resurface and people would continue with a way of life Europeans had interrupted with their arrival.
7 Tlacatzin Stívalet, Anáhuac 2000: lo pasado y lo presente proyectados hacía el porvenir, Mexico City, Ediciones Aguila y Sol, 1990. Anãhuac is the ancient Aztec name for Mexico City and literally means “near the water”. This and subsequently cited passages, which appear in Nuhatl and Spanish in Stívalet’s book, were retrieved from a October 2007 post by Xihucoatl, which contains their English translation, entitled “Ultimo message de Cuahtemoc” [Last message of Cuahtemoc] http://http://www.azcatl-tezozomoc.com/foros1/showthread.php?tid=3426 accessed 26 February 2018.
8 Quetzalcoatl represents the East. Venus emerges from the East as a morning star. Venus is believed to bring precious knowledge, both as a morning and evening star, about the changes that take place over a much larger scope of time. It is hard for modern society to understand the calendar counts of Venus because the understanding of time has changed. People now believe that time is money, whereas in most ancient civilisations time was part of a sacred hoop of life.
9 I owe this term to my good friend Patrick Toomay, who having listened to my desperate way of explaining the sense of darkness that was expressed in Cuauhtemoc’s last speech, encapsulated it as a “cosmic hibernation”, which it indeed became. What happens in such a time of cosmic hibernation? Venus is somewhat like yin and yang; its course carries dual, opposing, but complementary energy forces. In the case of the eras explained here, 1492 became a time of Darkness, while 2012 was a New Dawn. Venus is the messenger of new beginnings, of a new cosmic time.
12 Geraldine Ann Patrick Encinia, Cuenta Larga en función del Haab’ y su relación Venus-Luna: aplicación en Chichén Itzá, 1 de Mayo, vol. 13, no. 5, 2013, http://www.revista.unam.mx/vol.14/num5/art05/. My translation from the Spanish original: “Considero que el haab’—la cuenta anual de 365 [días]—es la síntesis de la cosmovisión y la conceptualización del tiempo-espacio, donde se plasma, en su articulación con el Tzolk’in, el devenir cíclico y ordenado de acontecimientos celestes, y por principio de equivalencia, procesos y eventos terrenales.” The haab’ was the 365-day count of the solar calendar; the Tzolk’in represents the 260-day lunar calendar.
14 This comment came from an American man with whom I was travelling on a flight from Mexico City to Dallas, Texas, sometime in 2010–11.
15 The Peacemaker was an Onondaga Indian who brought peace to the great six nations under the Iroquois Confederacy, or the Haudenosaunee nation from the US Northeast.
16 Indigenous peoples of the Americas have organised the Peace and Dignity runs which involve runners from every corner of the continent, beginning somewhere between Patagonia and Alaska, and meeting at a designated place in the middle.
17 ‘Good Living’ refers to the Andean term ‘Sumak Kawsay’, which calls for an understanding of ‘good living’ in comparison to ‘living well’. For more information on Sumak Kawsay see: http://bit.ly/2oCsj9Z