Friday, July 6, 2007

Code Breaking

Unlike what occurred with the Persians, Egyptians or Babylonians, the civilizations of America were not older than the European: they were different. Their differences were radical, a true ‘otherness’. --Octavio Paz, El arte de México, Materia y Sentido, 1977 (My translation)
Every day at the Centro de Idiomas de Sureste I ask many questions. The teachers must be tempted to throw me out of the air-conditioned room into the deadly mid-day Merida heat. I buy books: Mayan Cosmology for Idiots, An Explanation of the Mayan Calendar for Crazy Gringos Who Don’t Get It. Or something like that. And slowly, slowly, I begin to see through the fog.

The Mayans practiced a kind of zoolotry, my course reader states. They had snake gods, bee gods, deer gods, jaguar gods and bird gods. But there were also corn gods, death gods, a sun god and the king of gods, Itzamna. They dwelled above the earth, on earth and in the mysterious netherworld. As many as five different gods were associated with rain and wind. Some gods were benevolent, others not so much. They had split personalities: sometimes I like you humans, sometimes I don't. Better get moving on those blood sacrifices, people! A couple were female. One of these chick gods was the goddess of suicide -- not exactly whimpy girl-goddess stuff. My favorite? Maybe the four Bacab gods who hold up the sky at the four 'corners', or Balpahal Kin, the yin/yang god of the eclipse. It's hard to resist the goth charms of Ah Puch, the skeletal god of the netherworld.

The calendar is still kicking my butt. In what is called the Short Count, a different name (and god!) is associated with each of the twenty days in a month. Then there’s a series of 13 numbers that interact with those twenty days in rotation. When you get back to the beginning, number one name day plus number one of the 13 numbers, the 260 day year has passed. Or something like that. You have to coordinate that calendar with the 365 day Long Count calendar. Yeah, I still don’t get it. The written language is a series of glyphs. Acheologists have recently decided that these elipsoid shapes marked with curvy lines and splotches are more than idea-based pictographs, they´re also a phonetic alphabet. They look like Easter eggs to me.

But yesterday at the Museum of Anthropology I stared at the Mayan base-20 counting system display until it made sense. Ah, yes, the bars indicate five. Dots equal one. Place value goes from bottom to top, and the conch shell image is a place-holder. Long before the Indians dreamed up the number zero, the Mayans used an empty conch shell to indicate the same concept. Brilliance!
I have no idea how the presidential campaigns are going in the US, or whether there are any new ideas for how to end the war. I suppose I could look for a newspaper, or even check online, but all day long my brain is busy trying to decode the mysteries of a world mostly forgotten. It's a pretty good kind of busy.

Tomorrow, Uxmal!