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How Did the Maya Know Which
Stars Were Near the Sun?

An Essay by Thomas Razzeto
© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Razzeto

To print this essay, click on this link and then click File, Print. (Adobe Acrobat PDF)



In my work on 2012, I point out that the astronomy is the key to understanding why the Maya picked the exact day of the winter solstice of 2012. On that day, the sun will be in front of the dark rift, as seen from earth, as we see in the image below:

Izapa at 12:08 PM Dec 21, 2012

The dark rift is a swath visible to the naked eye in the band of stars made by our Milky Way galaxy. While the sun will be in front of the dark rift, don't get the wrong idea. The sun will not be engulfed in darkness! These stars will simply provide the very distant background for the sun. This leads some people to ask: How did the Maya know which stars would form the background for the sun on any given day since the brightness of the sun obscures these stars and prevents naked-eye skywatchers from observing them?


A Little Background

Well, the first thing to realize is that the stars that form the background for the sun repeat year after year. This is due to the orbit of the earth around the sun. Let's take a look.

Stars behind the sun repeat yearly

While the sun seems to move smoothly and continuously against the background stars, as seen from earth, this apparent motion is actually caused by the motion of the earth as it orbits around the sun. The earth's orbit around the sun always stays in the same plane. In other words, the earth does not bob up and down as it goes around the sun. Because of this, the background stars that seem to pass behind the sun are exactly the same year after year. By the way, the band of stars that lie behind the apparent path of the sun is called the zodiac. (The band of stars that make up the zodiac should not be confused with the band of stars made by our Milky Way galaxy. Note: these two bands cross in the sky and this crossing is often referred to as the sacred cross or the sacred tree by ancient cultures all around the world.)

The zodiac attracted great attention from all ancient naked-eye skywatchers because the sun and the planets can only be observed near this section of the sky. While the planets and the sun do move against the background stars, they are not free to just wander around anywhere at all! They must stay fairly close to the zodiac, which makes a huge circle around the earth. In fact, the sun must stay exactly on something that astronomers call the ecliptic, which also goes around the earth, right through the middle of the zodiac.

Initially, the Maya created a map of the stars that they saw at night. Each night they saw a little bit more of the star map in one direction and a little bit less in the other direction, and after a while, they had a complete map. (Given good viewing conditions and a fairly low horizon, this only takes a few months to do. This is because at any given moment, you can see about half the sky. Since you can start viewing the stars just after sunset and continue until just before sunrise, you can see about three-quarters of the star map each night. So in just a few months, you will fill in the missing piece.) Incidentally, I have heard that they used reflecting ponds to help them with this. The image of the night sky, which was seen as a reflection in the pond, was measured with ropes. In this way, angles, relative size and distance were reproduced very precisely. The Maya refined their star maps over many years to the point where they were very accurate.


How The Maya Knew the Stars Near the Sun

Once they had these star maps, the Maya could put them to use as follows. Just before dawn, they would take note of the last visible constellation nearest the rising sun before the brightness of the sun made it fade away from view. Later that day, just after sunset, the Maya would take note of the first visible constellation nearest the setting sun. They would then know that the sun was approximately in the middle of these two constellations. But that was just a start. The Maya also used other observations to learn the position of the sun with much greater precision.

It is my opinion that the Maya correctly understood that the earth went around the sun and that the moon went around the earth and that the moon was closer to earth than the sun. This - and many other things - can be determined by logically observing the day, the seasons of the year, the phases of the moon, and eclipses of the sun and the moon. Although the Maya did not have high technology, some of them were certainly very smart!

For example, when they saw a full moon in a certain position against the background stars, they knew that the sun was in the exact opposite position of the zodiac. This is just simple geometry. An eclipse of the full moon is a special case of this geometry. During an eclipse, the shadow of the earth falls on the moon; otherwise the shadow goes just above or just below the moon leaving it free to shine brightly. Since the Maya understood this, they could use these events and their star maps to determine where the sun was in relation to the background stars on the days when there was a full moon.

Full moon determines the stars behind the sun

While the full moon observations were quite helpful, there was still another event that was even better: a solar eclipse. During a total solar eclipse, the sky gets dark enough for a few bright stars to be seen by the naked eye and this allowed the Maya to directly observe the actual position of the sun against the background stars. This is exactly what they wanted to know! While total solar eclipses do not happen very frequently, they happened often enough that the Maya learned enough to predict them and to use them in this way.


The Amazing Precision of Maya Sky Watching

While you are probably getting a pretty good understanding of how the Maya knew about the sun's position, it might be helpful to consider an example of the great precision the Maya were able to attain with their dedicated sky watching and day counting. Although this example does not have anything to do directly with 2012, let's take a look.

Let's talk about the amount of time that it takes to go from a new moon to the next new moon. Most people know that it takes about one month for this to happen. In Copan, the Maya left records that they observed 149 cycles of the moon in exactly 4,400 days, which is about 12 years. When you divide 4,400 by 149, you get 29.5302 days for the length of this lunar cycle. Our modern astronomers use a value of 29.5306. So you see that the ancient Maya's value was 99.999 percent correct! Excellent! And notice that they devoted 12 years to the study of a cycle that was only about a month long. That's dedication!

With this example in mind, it is not unreasonable to expect that the Maya were also tracking the position of the sun against the background stars as precisely as possible. So even though they could not get precise data every day, they could get excellent data often enough to extrapolate the position of the sun every day. As you can see, the longer the Maya observed something, the more precisely they knew its natural rhythms. In order for the Maya to create the Long Count calendar, they needed to observe the astronomy for a very long time. And that is precisely what they did!

Archaeologist Marion Hatch discovered in the town of La Venta that people 3,000 years ago were tracking not only the planets and the stars, but also the wobble of the earth, which is called precession. La Venta is in the region of southern Mexico that is considered the birthplace of the Long Count calendar. Since the calendar was created about 2,000 years ago, we see that the Maya had about 1,000 years to refine their astronomical understanding in order to create the calendar. While this may be surprising to many people, this is exactly what I think happened.

By the way, I would like to bring up one last point for those of you who are interested in astronomical details.


The Solar Year, the Sidereal Year and the Earth's Wobble

As we just learned, the stars in the night sky repeat themselves year after year. But astronomers actually talk about two different types of years. We all know these two types of years but most of us just don't consciously consider the difference. We all know that it is a year when we go from the moment of the winter solstice to the next moment of the winter solstice. This is called a solar year and it is determined by the relationship between the sun and the angle of the axis of the earth. But we also know that it is a year when the earth completes its orbit around the sun. This is known as a sidereal year and it is determined by the sun's position against the background stars. A sidereal year is about twenty minutes longer than a solar year and this difference is caused by precession. The Maya tracked precession and both types of years very carefully.

Well, that concludes this essay. I hope that you now have a better idea about some of the astronomy that can be understood by just observing the sky and counting the days.

The End
Written: October 20, 2011

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If you find these comments intriguing, perhaps you will enjoy my book, Mystical 2012: Did the Maya Shamans Discover a Mystical View of Reality? You can buy it at Amazon.com. If you like my material, please spread the word! I would rather have many people enjoy my work for free than just a few who decide to purchase it.

You can also read my other 2012 essays at:

Well, thanks for reading my essay! Have a great day!

Thomas Razzeto







If you enjoyed this essay, then you might like some of my other work:

  • Infinitely Mystical, my main website, is here: infinitelymystical.com

  • My completely free ESP board game for 2 or more people of all ages is here:
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