Many years later, at the crossroads of our lives, the soul was to remember that fateful day in which it was given a fresh start. In such moments of reflection, the past, present, and future, all roll into one. Like the mythical serpent that bites its own tail, at once giving birth and devouring itself, every ending becomes a new beginning in the wheel of time.
At the Dawn of the New Year we invite such reflections in the mythic dimension, where the holiday cheer mingles with the mourning of the past.
From time immemorial, in the highlands of Mesoamerica, the spectacle of the winter solstice, this most sacred of rising dawns, has offered a precise point of spiritual concentration and reflection on the nature of being in time. The very Maya term for “sun,” “day,” or “dawn,” is kinh or k’ih, is a synonym for time itself and a symbol of historic creation, whose glyph is often depicted as a mandala design, “simulating a flower with four petals,” as Miguel Leon-Portilla (18).
The mythogram of the k’ih is doubtless one of the central symbols of Maya culture. It embodies the solar GodHunahpu in all its splendor, expressing the all-encompassing nature of the consciousness of time in the process of creation. Eric Thompson famously saw in the Maya concept of time “the supreme mystery of Maya religion, a subject which pervaded Maya thought to an extent without parallel in the history of mankind” (Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, 155).
The sun is thus the embodiment of the solar God Hunahpu in its fiery creation of time; for this reason, its sweeping annual path, as Raphael Girard writes, “symbolizes the cycle of human life” (Esotericism of the Popol Vuh 134), as well as entire Ages of Creation, “which are ‘suns’ in the cosmogonic text of the Popol Vuh” (León-Portilla 18). But the Maya concept of creation is not a one-sided ascent of the Light but includes its “twin” opposite of death and destruction along the course of time. The downward move of the sun stands for the descent of the Twin Heroes into the Underworld of Xibalba, that dreaded place of fear and trembling, where they must endure and overcome the many trials set by the Death Lords—including rituals of dismemberment and self-sacrifice at Crushing Ballcourt.
Thus the winter solstice, which the highland Maya call rakan k’ij or “sun’s reach” (B. Tedlock 180), brings together the image of the dying and resurrecting heroes in their “reach,” at the very limits of their existence, with the symbol of time itself. The astronomical event is thus an apprehension of the noumenal sense of temporality itself, an experience of becoming and transformation, which is concentrated on a point of illumination that eternally renews itself.
Ages of Creation
The solar cycles also represent entire Ages of creation as well as so many heroes’ journeys, exemplifying the descent of Twin Heroes into the underworld, their endurance of the trials of Xibalba, and their triumphant resurgence as a Sun and Moon reborn. Consequently, the very name given to shamans in the Maya Highlands, aj’k’ij means “day” or “time-keeper.” As Barbara Tedlock describes them, the priestly “mother-fathers” chuchkajawib are the “initiated calendar diviners, dream interpreters, and curers” (B. Tedlock 47) who look through the soul of the community in the sacred signs of the great calendar round.
As it is written in the Maya Sacred Scriptures, the “Book of the Counsel” or Popol-Wuh, the native vision of the sacred dawn of time was already threatened under colonial rule:
We shall reproduce it because we no longer have the vision of the Book of the Counsel, the Vision of Dawn, of the arrival from beyond the sea, of our lives in the shadows, the vision of the Dawn of Life, as it is told.(Popol Vuh. Trans. Asturias and Mendoza 13)
The image of the Rising Dawn is the culminating image of the Twin’s journey, the result of a process of deep psychic transformation, which does not shy away from devastation and death; it does not remain untouched by the power of darkness in its light-driven quest. Hence the native experience of “enlightenment” is described as a kind of revelation “of our lives in the shadows,” a light of internal illumination born out of the darkness itself. Hence the very notion of “light” in the native context is not divided from its shaded opposite. On the contrary, it is a source of self-illumination able to comprehend its own darkness as well.
Although this “mixed” notion of the Light of God may seem foreign to the Western mind, we find a strong parallel in esoteric alchemy. Carl Jung describes the esoteric aspect of the alchemical Light of Nature, orlumen naturae, as “the light of the darkness itself, which illuminates its own darkness, and this light the darkness comprehends” (CW 13: 160¶97).
In the context of Maya mythology, the ultimate image of the Rising Dawn is nothing less than the culmination of the Twin-Heroes’ journey through the Xibalban underworld, where the Young Hunahpu and Xbalanque—already the Second Coming of the Feathered Serpent on earth—endured the many trials of Xibalba: the Six Mansions of Death and the dreaded Sacrificial Ballgame, a gruesome spectacle of killing dismemberment, which takes place at “Crushing Ballcourt” or Puk’bal Cha’j, where they play with Hunahpu’s own head as the ball!
The course of the sun during the winter solstice thus reproduces on the celestial plane the culmination of the entire cycle of the Twin Heroes’ Journey, which “on its annual sweep,” as Raphael Girard writes, “symbolizes the cycle of human life”:
Thus Hunahpú is born with the dawn and dies on descending into the underworld (Xibalbá), only to resurge again in the east, triumphant. His birth takes place during the winter solstice, and from then on he grows according as the day lengthens in duration, reaching his plenitude when the daystar passes through the zenith and then returns, “flagging in pace” like an old person, during the apparent return movement of the star.(Esotericism of the Popol Vuh 134-135)
The astronomical event of the winter solstice was known to the Highland Maya as rakan k’ij or “sun’s reach,” a term which denotes the still point of the sun’s movement downwards. As an archetypal image of eternity, the event brings together the dying and resurrecting God with the culmination of the year in the harvest of the land.
From a shamanic perspective, however, rakan k’ij points to the internal illumination of our consciousness of being in time, a fundamental sense of sacred temporality, embodied by the combinations of the great calendar round. The Maya sense of “eternity,” therefore, points to a process of becoming and everlasting change which signals the departure and arrival of being itself as the Event of the Sun’s Reach. This is what constitutes the Maya myth of the New Year in its essence: the permanence of a present that eternally renews itself.
The Sacred Dawn of Creations
The image of the Aurora Consurgens or “Rising Dawn” thus illustrates a fundamental insight that Joseph Campbell often referred to as a decisive feature of true mythology: its transparency to the transcendent. As Campbell writes with great emphasis in Inner Reaches of Outer Space: “for any god who is not transparent to transcendence is an idol and its worship is idolatry” (18). Yet it is obscure to say more exactly what it means to be “transparent to transcendence.” And it seems necessarily obscure to be exact, unless our description itself become “opaque to transcendence” and reduced to widespread banalities. This is a genuine problem of communication that affects philosophy and mysticism alike. But this is also where the language of mythology steps in in order to bridge the gap.
The Maya vision of rakan k’ij is a mysterious conjunction of opposites, which brings together the beginning and “ending of sun” with the image of the sun’s own lunar connection with Venus, what the Highland Maya call ’Iq’o-Q’ih, or “Lune-Soleil” ‘Moon-Sun’ (Raynaud 84), also described in the Popol-Wuh as “Sun Passer” (Edmonson 159) or even “sun carrier,” that is, “the great star at the birth of the sun” (D. Tedlock 150).
Evidently, this Venus Moon-Sun ’Iq’o-Q’ih plays the role—not exactly of Mother, but of a kind of celestial midwife for the birth of the Sun. Moon-Sun ’Iq’o-Q’ih “carries” and “passes” the sun as it “pulls it out” or “draws it out” of the primordial darkness of the maternal abyss.
The Twin Heroes themselves, the Young Hunahpu and Xbalanque, became direct embodiments of the Sun and Moon only after their epic triumph over the forces of Xibalba. According to the Popol-Wuh, it was then and only then that “they arose as the central lights. They arose straight into the sky. One of them arose as the sun, and the other as the moon. Thus the womb of the sky was illuminated over the face of the earth, for they came to dwell in the sky” (Christenson 191). Hence the very constitution of Sun and Moon, together with the appearance of Moon-Sun, form a triumphant trinitarian constellation that marks the birth of a new “sun”—orform of collective consciousness—out of the darkest abyss of time.
It was in these moments that the forefathers of the Maya teach us the significance of the Sacred Dawn. At the point where the New Light becomes a commemoration of the Fourth Age of Creation, the birth of the People of the Corn is marked:
Thus they spoke when they saw, when they invoked the return of Dawn, there where the sun rises, contemplating Moon-Sun [’Iq’o-Q’ih], the great star before the rising sun, which illuminates the sky, all over the earth, the road of the constructed people, the formed people.(Popol Vuh. Trans. Asturias and González 98)
The vision of the winter solstice thus commemorates the resurgence of the sun god, Hunahpu, as it gives birth to itself out of the mysterious alchemical coupling of Moon-Sun (Luna-Sol) ’Iq’o-Q’ih, the great star that is to serve as “the guide for the human work, the human design” (D. Tedlock 150). Therefore, the guiding light for the reshaping of humanity is not the sun itself as the pure light of consciousness. No. The guiding light is rather the image of the union of opposites, a “mixed” dialectical light that brings together the conscious mind with the unconscious process, thus reconciling the individual mind with the life of the collective.
It is no wonder that Venus is also identified with the Feathered-Serpent God itself—the Aztec Quetzalcoatl,who is called Kukulkan in the Maya lowlands and Tepew Q’ukumatz or “Sovereign Quetzal-Serpent” in the highlands—the Supreme God of the Root Ancient Word (U Xe’ Ojer Tzij), who contains within itself the dialectical union of opposites in the flesh.
The Interlocking Maya Calendar
This complex internal union of opposites in which differences are not obliterated by oversimplified images—the Maya being notorious for the complexity of their images!—is also re-marked by the dual nature of the Maya calendar itself, in which “feminine” and “masculine” forms of time-consciousness interlock in ecstatic union.
It is well known that the Maya used a dual system for measuring and marking time. What the shamanic ajk’ij or “day-keepers” call a “Calendar Round” means the strict combination of the two systems. Like two interlocking gears of Maya time, the solar and lunar calendar systems express two fundamental senses or intuition of time, each following its own order of being.
One the one hand, there is a large 365-day solar cycle, known as the haab or macewal k’ij “common days” (B. Tedlock 89), which encircles the annual path of the sun and the collective rhythms of agriculture and seasonal change. Then a smaller 260-day cycle centers itself in a more internal and personal sense of time, where the psyhic influences of that particular day, for this particular person, are taken into account. Through the ritual sorting of seeds and precious stones, the day-keepers exemplify the role that that chance plays in an individual’s fate.
This is the sacred divinatory calendar, which came to be known as the tzolk’in, and which is “sacred” in the original sense of “setting itself apart” as it helps the individual to carve a personal space of significance for the mythic dimensions of the collective psyche.
Known in the highlands as rajilabal k’ij or “ordering of days,” it opens the shamanic dimension of the soul, which includes the art of divination as well as the native practice of “psychotherapy,” where day-keepers treat ailing individuals with a technique of interpretation based in what they call the cacha uquiqu’el “the blood that speaks,” a series of pulsations and internal movements of the “lightning in the blood,” or coyopa, which grants practicing shamans a fundamental understanding of the psychic situation of their patient in the moment. This “lightning in the blood” or coyopa is a phenomenon sui generis which is, like the collective unconscious, structured like a language. Encompassing and going beyond simple verbal expression, it is a silent voice that means to speak from within the inner currents of the body electric.
The Intersection of Time and Eternity
As a “feminine” form of time-intuition, the tzolkin is governed by Lunar and Venusian cycles which are themselves related to the length of human pregnancy as well as the pregnancy of the land. It is no accident that the festival of the winter solstice happens exactly 260 days after the sowing of the cornfields or milpas. Thus the “solar” framework of temporality, the connection with the collective whole, is not external to the time-keeping mechanism of the tzolkin. Rather than a simple opposition or “compensation” in the lunar side, the solar side is already at work from inside.
The Calendar Round in its integrated totality expresses the union of “feminine” and “masculine” forms of time-consciousness. The interpenetration of both poles of the psyche is a crucible of being and time, expressing the fact that the collective and individual dimensions of human existence are thoroughly interwoven from inside.
Not only is community impossible without individuals, but also individuals—even in their isolation and spiritual alienation, are unthinkable without community or myth. For without a shared language to express the mythic dimension, the soul would be nothing but fantasy, a ghost without its shell. Only when the expression of the universal is accompanied by its political flesh, the soul has a path to its truth outside and inside itself. For it is only in the medium of existence that the soul can communicate its own essence back to itself and then others.
The individual “soul” is a thorough-going reflection of the collective unconscious which rules over entire nations.
In the crucible of myth and history, the very structure of Maya temporality exemplifies the way opposites are thoroughly integrated in themselves, how self-reflected into themselves, when they become transparent to the transcendent, opening the gates of true myth and history—what the Maya call the “Black-Transformer, the mouth of the White-Bone-Snake” (Freidel, Schele, Parker, Maya Cosmos, 51)—where the individual and the collective dimensions of the psyche are thoroughly interwoven in every step of the hero’s journey.