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The Watershed: Olmec Antecedents

Copyright 1997. John Major Jenkins

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What was the context in which the Long Count was created? The mythological motifs involved in the 2012 end-date cosmology - and their astronomical counterparts - have already been discussed in depth. They include the dark-rift in the Milky Way as a "cave of creation" or cosmic birth canal, the Milky Way-ecliptic cross as the Cosmic Crossroads, the Galactic Bulge as the highest Cosmic Center and Womb of Creation, and the Milky Way itself as the Great Mother. The cave of creation, the cross, the Great Mother - how ancient are these ideas? What I have noticed in my studies is that the central motifs of the Long Count end-date cosmology, which I propose was formulated towards the end of the Olmec era (roughly 500 BC to 200 B.C.), are part of a deeper strata of Mesoamerican cosmology. As I previously mentioned, one of the oldest Mesoamerican creation stories involves the "First God" being born from the cosmic "cave of creation." Olmec God- Rulers are often shown enthroned in a cave, which doubles as a serpent mouth. This mythic image is perfectly evocative of the alignment of the 13-baktun cycle end-date in 2012 AD - the Sun Deity seated in the dark-rift birth-canal "cave."

Before examining the many Olmec motifs which appear to anticipate later Izapan and Mayan symbol-complexes, I will sketch what has already been said about the Olmec in this book. The Olmec are considered to be the Mesoamerican Mother Culture. Their civilization was centered in the Gulf Coast heartland, but the Olmec style stretches from Guerrero State in Central Mexico southward into Central America. Gulf Coast area Olmec centers like San Lorenzo and La Venta flowered between 1500 BC and 900 BC. The Latter day Olmec town of Tres Zapotes produced one of the earliest Long Count dates (32 BC).

Olmec Symbology and Cosmology

The Olmecs were rooted in shamanism. They apparently utilized traditional vision-producing tools, such as DMT extracted from the Bufo marinus toad (Furst 1981) and tobacco. They also had a sophisticated interest in astronomy (Hatch 1971) which I believe ultimately led to the discovery and calibration of precession. How did the Olmec influence the early Maya? One model describes how the transition from Olmec forms of culture to the standardized Classic Mayan institutions flowed through Izapa in Southern Chiapas, into Kaminaljuyu, and then northeastward into the early Mayan sites of the Peten. Of course, other channels of commerce, trade, and influence have been charted as well. The point is that many Olmec concepts are antecedant to the ones found at Izapa. In other words, Olmec prototypes are genetically related to later Mesoamerican ideas, including very important astronomical and mythological concepts. For example, the concept of the pyramid as a sacred Creation Mountain. The pyramid at La Venta was a replication of the distant volcano San Martín Pajapan (Schele 1995b:108). Artifacts were found in this volcano's crater, which symbolized the ancient earth-cleft from which maize and the Maize Deity were born. This creation event also involved the "lifting of the sky," and Monument 1 from San Martín has been identified as a sky-lifter:

Diagram 178. San Martín Pajapán Monument 1. From Schele (1995b:108).

Schele (et. al. 1993) showed that the bar being lifted upright represents the Milky Way. The relationship between the Cosmic Mountain, the Sacred Tree, and the Milky Way is ancient and is a key to understanding later Izapan and Mayan cosmology. These concepts also play a central role in the astronomy and mythology of the Long Count end-date. At Izapa, it was volcano Tacana to the north which represented the Cosmic Creation Place, and a cleft on its eastern flank symbolized the cleft of Creation (see "Izapa Cosmos"). The Big Dipper rose through this cleft during the Izapan era.

Thousands of Olmec artifacts have been uncovered from widely diverse Olmec zones. A continuity of artistic and symbolic forms has been identified (Joralemon 1976; Coe 1976). Schele (1995b:105) writes that the Olmec Middle Formative Ceremonial Complex unified Mesoamerica from 900 BC to 500 BC. As outlined in The Olmec World (1995), the major Olmec deities and motifs include:

Secondary motifs are found in conjunction with these images which are very significant in terms of probable associations with astronomical features. For example, I will argue that the Olmec cleft-head symbolizes the dark-rift in the Milky Way. I also have long suspected that the crossband symbol represents, on a very deep level of Mesoamerican thought, the crossroads formed by the Milky Way and the ecliptic. Of course, the Mayan Sacred Tree or Cross is now understood to represent this astronomical crossroads, as explored by Schele and Freidel (1990) and Schele et. al. (1993). However, this idea was published much earlier by Girard (1949) and Milbrath (1980a and 1980b). Reilly (1995:36) notes that Charles Smiley suggested to Michael Coe (Adams 1977:189) that the crossed-bands is a symbolic replication of the Milky Way and ecliptic cross. Furthermore, Reilly writes that if this is true, then the crossed-bands "symbolize the center of the sky" (Reilly 1995:36). This is significant because the cleft-motif is often found in conjunction with the crossbands:

Diagrams 179 and 180. Reilly (1995: Figs. 17 and 30).

Why is a cosmic cleft associated with the Crossroads? This is understandable when we accept the astronomical references of these iconographic motifs. The dark-rift (the birth cleft) is, in fact, right next to the Milky Way-ecliptic cross in Sagittarius. The significance of this is complicated, though related to central Mesoamerican ideas about cosmogenesis:

1) Maize and the Maize Deity were born from a mountain cleft - the "broken place, the bitter water place" of the Popol Vuh (Schele et. al. 1993).

2) Hunahpu's conception near the dark-rift cleft (D. Tedlock 1985).

3) The King was enthroned in a cave or Deity Mouth (a pervasive Olmec and Mayan depiction).

4) The Crossroads as a reference to "the Cosmic Center" (Reilly 1995:36).

5) Venus-Quetzalcoatl's birth from the Milky Way or dark-rift (Milbrath 1988b).

6) Rain comes out of the Crossroads (Taube 1995).

Corn was born from a cosmic cleft. As the ancient myth goes, maize and the Maize Deity were born from a cleft or cave in the Cosmic Mountain. Volcanoes represented the Axis Mundi, uniting sky and earth from zenith to nadir. As such, the four directions, on the terrestrial level, emanate from the locally deified volcano or mountain. In other words, the Cosmic Mountain or volcano represents the earth-navel. The celestial counterpart to this is the crossing-point formed by the Milky Way and the ecliptic from which the four celestial directions emanate. As such, on the celestial level, the nearby dark-rift corresponds to the terrestrial crater-cleft. In Olmec symbology, we see maize sprouting from cleft-heads - or at least where the cleft- motif would normally be:

Diagrams 181-184. Maize Sprouting from Cleft-Heads; El Sitio. From Schele (1995b:106).

The cleft-head is a place of regeneration, birth, and emergence. The cleft is a birth place; it is a cave and a place of emergence. In terms of the agricultural domestication, maize has long been associated with (was "born" from) mountain caves from which poured life giving mist and vapor (Bassie-Sweet 1991). A celt from Rio Pesquero shows the quadrapartite "cross" motif with the maize-sprout motif in the head-cleft.

Diagram 185. Rio Pesquero celt. Schele (1995b:106).

This figure is amazing; it shows a ruler holding a serpent-bar whose lower body is an inverted caiman. The inverted caiman motif has been identified as the Milky Way (Kelley 1989 and Schele et. al. 1993). The serpent bar he holds is an early form of the "double headed serpent bar" that is the ecltipc. Thus, we have a graphic confirmation of the pairing of the Milky Way-ecliptic cross with the maize-generating cleft (the dark-rift). Examples of Olmec inverted caimans can be compared with similar inverted caimans from Izapa, probably preserving a continuity of meaning:

Diagrams 186-190. Inverted caimans from Reilly (1995:38) and Schele (1995b:106, 107, 109).

Schele (et. al. 1993) explicitly identifies the Izapan caiman on Stela 25 as the Milky Way. I have argued that the head- cleft represents the dark-rift. Elsewhere I propose that the caiman's mouth - at the bottom of these representations - is the dark-rift. Here we may see a polarity between the June and December solstices (Kelley 1989). Growth and new life may have been associated with the June solstice - when the dark-rift was overhead at midnight - while death and devouring referred to the December solstice sun in or near the dark-rift (the caiman's mouth). This is a dialectical opposition which is characteristic of Mesoamerican thought (see "Izapa Cosmos"). The cleft-head and the caiman's mouth can both refer to the dark- rift.

The Birth of Maize, The Birth of Venus

Now, why is corn growing from Olmec cleft-heads? Why was the dark-rift in the Milky Way thought of as the birthplace of corn? Well, the dark-rift is the birth canal of the Cosmic Mother (the Milky Way). It is near the Crossroads and is thus associated with the center of the cosmos. The Galactic Bulge was also probably thought of as a cosmic womb, thus reinforcing the combined features in this part of the sky with "creation." Confirmation is found in Mayan myth as well. Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who are on one level maize deities, were conceived near the "crook in the calabash tree" - another mythic reference to the dark-rift in the Milky Way (D. Tedlock 1985:334, 358; Tedlock and Tedlock 1993a:44, 49-50). In other words, the creation or conception of the Hero Twins occurred near the dark-rift (see Appendix 2). On another level, Hunahpu refers to the calendar day One Ahau, and thus to Venus. As Milbrath suggested (1988b), Venus-Quetzalcoatl was born and/or reborn upon passing through the rich, fertile waters of the Milky Way. This must occur along the ecliptic, and the dark-rift in the Milky Way (which is along the ecliptic) cries out to be recognized as the birthplace of Venus- Quetzalcoatl.

The way this relates to maize and the birth of the Maize Deity is complex. In a note to the Ballgame essay, I pointed out a striking scene from the Borgia Codex which may illustrate the birth of Venus via its association with the Lamat glyph and rabbits. Reilly (1995:36) notes that a motif on the Olmec Dragon is an archaic star glyph form of the Maya Lamat/Venus hieroglyph. The Olmec Dragon itself appears to be a precursor to the Avian Serpent which later became the Plumed Serpent - Quetzalcoatl. On one level the Olmec Dragon may represent the Milky Way. Reilly illustrates an Olmec potsherd which places the Lamat-Venus glyph between the eyes of a deity figure:

Diagram 191. Olmec potsherd with early Lamat-Venus glyph. From Reilly (1995:37).

This suggests that Lamat-Venus can pass along the face of the Olmec Dragon. If the Olmec Dragon represents the Milky Way, an association between the ecliptic, the Milky Way and Venus is implied. Though I can't explore this in detail here, this points us to the dark-rift as a likely birthplace for Venus and Corn, a place of creation and fertility. Most interesting in this line of questioning is the fact that the sprouting maize on Olmec cleft- heads resembles the hieroglyph for Venus:

Diagram 192. a) Venus Glyph and b) the Olmec Maize Sprout from the Creation Cleft.

The Venus glyph represents the morningstar dawning of Venus. Sprouting and dawning are metaphorically related in Mesoamerican thought. Thus, the dawning of Venus is likened to the sprouting of maize. However, something deeper may be going on if the similarity of the two motifs is not accidental. The Maize Deity and Venus are probably related via the deity Hunahpu who, on different levels of meaning, has associations with both Venus and maize.

Another direction of research may be suggested in Sprajc (1992) and Closs, Aveni and Crowley (1984). The calendric name for the Aztec Maize Deity Cintéotl was 1 Xochitl (1 Flower), cognate with 1 Ahau in the Maya calendar (Sprajc 1992:227). As mentioned, 1 Ahau was the Sacred Day of Venus for the Maya, suggesting some kind of parallel in Mesoamerican thought between the Maize Deity and the Venus Deity. In addition, J. L. Furst writes (1978:216) that Corona Núñez interpreted the day-sign 1 Flower in the Mixtec Codex Vindobonensis "to be the Sun God's calendrical name." This suggests that the name/day-sign 1 Ahau has a tripartite identity relating it equally to the Sun God, the Venus God, and the Maize God. The Aztec feast for the rejuvenation of maize was held every 8 years, prompting Seler to connect this with the Venus calendar (in which 5 Venus cycles occur every 8 years). Here we should note that the Maya god of maize was a patron of the number eight. In considering these things, Cohodas (1976:160) concluded that "for certain purposes Venus and the Maize God were meant to be seen as equivalent."

Closs et. al. (1984) provides additional astronomical interpretations which connect the cycle of Venus extremes with the beginning of the rainy season at Copan. Venus can rise in extreme northerly and southerly positions along the horizon, even exceeding the sun's declination at the solstices. The extreme northerly rise positions of Venus occurred regularly in late April and early May during the building of Temple 22 at Copan. Certain architectural features in this building appear to be targeted on the extreme rise points of Venus. Late April and early May is when the rainy season began and the planting of maize commenced at Copan. Thus, the extreme northerly rise cycle of Venus may have provided a sky-earth hierophany connecting Venus with the planting of maize. As Sprajc explains, Venus extremes coincided with the start and end of the rainy season (1992:229). (In addition, the first solar-zenith passage at the latitude of Copan is May 1st.)

As a final note on this intriguing Venus-Maize idea-complex, the interval between the first eveningstar appearance of Venus and its first morningstar appearance is about 260 days. As B. Tedlock notes (1982), maize at certain elevations in the Quiché region is harvested after 260 days.

A Rainy Crossroads

The Crossroads symbol has multiple meanings, one of which involves the production of rain. That the Crossroads itself gives rise to rain, water, and fertility is stated in Taube (1995:88): "The crossed-bands motif, flanked on either side by triple rain drops, is evidently denoted as a celestial source of rain." In other words, rain, water and fertility emerge from the Crossroads. This is understandable since the Crossroads was thought of as signifying a Cosmic Center - a creation place, a place of fertility. The nearby dark-rift was understood as a mouth or birth canal. The flow of blood from a woman's birth canal during menstruation may be related to this thought- complex. In addition, water is often depicted pouring from the mouths of celestial animals, denoted a period ending event. The Crossroads and the dark-rift, with the nearby Galactic Bulge, all combine to implicate my proposed end-date cosmology in ancient Mesoamerican thought.

Tres Zapotes Stela C and Izapa Stela 11

One of the oldest Long Count dates was found on Stela C from Tres Zapotes, corresponding to (32 BC). The reverse side of this monument contains an amazing scene:

Diagram 193. Tres Zapotes Stela C reverse.

The lower portion shows a Cauac monster or Witz Mountain deity (they are related), with a cleft-head and six raindrop symbols pouring down from its eyes. A ruler is shown above the cleft, who has solar attributes because of the quadripartite symbol on his chest. He is placed where corn is depicted sprouting on other Olmec carvings; as such, he may be the Maize Deity, who also has solar connotations. Thus, the solar-maize deity is in the crossroads, emerging from the cleft of creation. This, of course, is the end-date cosmology in a nutshell. And it appears on one of the earliest Long Count monuments yet known. The symbolism on Stela C from Tres Zapotes is similar to that found on Izapa Stela 11:

Diagram 194. Izapa Stela 11

Here we have the solar First Father deity emerging from the mouth of the crocodile-frog who is the Milky Way. The deity-cleft here is symbolized by the open mouth of the frog or toad, a glyph which Kelley (1976) interprets to mean "to be born." Obviously, with corn growing from the cleft-head of Olmec figures and from Mayan Cauac and Witz-Mountain deities, the cleft-head can also be understood as a "birth" or "to be born" place.

More early Long Count monuments were found south of Izapa, at places like Abaj Takalik and El Baul.

Of Snake Mouths and Cleft-Heads

The head-cleft seems to cross over somewhat with the symbology of the jaguar or snake mouth as a "portal to the underworld." (Remember, the dark-rift in the Milky Way is called "the road to the underworld" by the Quiché). Jaguar mouths were also understood to be entrances to the underworld, and so we can understand the connection between the cleft-head motif and the jaguar or snake mouth motif. They both appear to designate the passage to the otherworld - the dark-rift in the Milky Way. The Olmec deity-mouth motif was closely related to the cave motif, and rulers are often depicted enthroned in caves:

Diagram 195. Chalcatzingo Monument 1.

Here we have a very ancient image. The king is a shaman, performing vision rituals in a cave. The cave is the portal to multidimensional consciousness accessed by journeying through the Cosmic Center. The frames on Izapan stelae are often stylized jaguar maws, indicating that the scene is occurring in the otherworld, or in the mythic realm. In other words, mythic astronomy is being described rather than historical events. An Olmec stela contains an Izapan sky panel, suggesting a precursor to the Izapan style:

Diagrams 196-198. La Venta Stela 1 with Izapan sky-panel (Reilly 1995). Tlapacoya ceramic vessel (Reilly 1995: Fig. 21a). Izapa Stela 23 (Reilly 1995: Fig. 22a).

The Tlapacoya depiction is on a ceramic vessel - a cup. Notice the cleft motif at the top. The form of the vessel reiterates this symbol, and also relates to offering bowls and other U-shaped ceremonial paraphernalia. I have already mentioned Olmec antecedants to Izapan sky-panels, the Olmec or Izapan inverted caiman as the Milky Way, and the serpent maw as a place where mythic or otherworld scenes unfold. The crossbands motif, prevalent on Olmec carvings and possibly representing the Milky Way - ecliptic cross, is also found on several Izapan monuments (e.g., Stelae 11 and 50, Throne 1). So, clearly, we find Olmec antecedants to the central players in Izapan iconography and end-date cosmology. As such, when can we deduce that the Long Count was created? And where? When was precession calibrated, and by who? In this book I have proposed, based upon the archaeological evidence and what is currently known about Mesoamerican cultural history, that this probably took place in the 2nd or 3rd centuries BC, in the Izapan area. However, these Olmec antecedants suggest that the end-date cosmology and the understanding of precession might go back further, perhaps even to Olmec towns such as La Venta and San Lorenzo - to the second millennium BC! The great watershed event in the evolution of Mesoamerican cosmology - the discovery of precession - may go back beyond 1200 BC. For now, these possiblities will have to await further exploration.

Taube, Schele, and Reilly in The Olmec World (1995)

The Olmec World (1995) contains important new essays elucidating deep aspects of Olmec cosmology. As a second part to this essay, I will briefly review what three contributors to this book have to say.

Taube: The Olmec Avian Serpent

The Crossbands is an early kan glyph and has several meanings: sky, four, and serpent. This draws from the well- known meanings of the Mayan word kan or chan as sky, four and serpent. Taube concludes the Olmec Avian Serpent is a symbol of the sky. But which part of the sky? Taube writes that the Avian Serpent is a merging of the snake and the bird, two creatures identified widely with the heavens in Mesoamerica (94). What celestial features have been interpreted as a serpent? Which are seen as birds? Does this involve traditional constellations, the Milky Way itself, or other stellar objects as yet unidentified? I feel that the Milky Way was the serpent and the Quiché Xic constellation was possibly the bird. This association between the Milky Way as serpent and the hawk that rides its back may be fruitful in explaining many Mesoamerican symbol-complexes. For example, in Central Mexican mythology, the Mother of the Gods is the Milky Way and her messenger is a hawk (Brundage 1979). The serpent-bird concept may derive from this astronomical combo, and also implicates the dark-rift as a mouth (see "A Hawk, A Cross, and A Mouth").

Diagram 199. Xic and the Milky Way: Bird and Snake.

Quirarte noted the similarity between the Olmec Avian Serpent and Izapan sky-panels. Taube illustrates specific examples:

Diagram 200. Sky Serpents. From Taube (1995).

Taube illustrates sky-serpent masks (1995:92), one of which is from Izapa Stela 23:

Diagram 201. Taube (1995:92): Sky Serpents and Masks.

These are similiar to the Chac figures illustrated later:

Diagram 202. Chacs. From Taube (1995:96).

The Chacs will be discussed in more detail below. Taube discusses the rain deity on Izapa Stela 1 and calls it the Olmec Rain God. Again, here we see clear evidence of Olmec precursors to Izapan iconography. The Chac "masks" on Throne 1 from Izapa were not illustrated, but they are clearly related to the other Chacs and sky-serpents noted by Taube. Most importantly, since these "deity masks" (Norman 1976) occur on a quadripartite throne, the association between Chacs and the directions is implicit.

Diagram 203. Izapa Throne 1. Directional Chac "masks."

Taube notes that chacs occasionally ride on (or occur as) a serpent's tail (96). This might be an allusion to the Pleiades (tzab = the Pleiades = snake rattle), whose passage through the zenith marked the end of a Calendar Round - i.e., a directional year-bearer. The relationship between Chacs and the directional day-signs is thus supported. According to Taube, the cloud scrolls on the heads of Chacs may involve a metaphorical comparison between nimbus clouds and the gray convoluted contortions of brains. In the Chilam Balam of Chumayel, smoke from the copal incense which is used to conjure rain-making clouds is referred to as "the brains of the sky." The cloud scrolls of Mixcoatl depict the Milky Way, and here we can remember the South American concept of the Milky Way as the "great fissure of the cosmic brain" (see my "Mushroom Science" essay). Chacs as directional icons of course would have something to do with the Milky Way, because the four directions emanate from the crossing-point formed by the Milky Way and the ecliptic. Taube writes that the Chacs and the Cauac Monster-Mountain appear to be related (98). If we entertain the astronomical references implicit in these iconographic forms, the Cauac Mountain culminates with the Creation Cleft, the dark-rift which is a birth place. (The Cosmic Mountain, as Axis Mundi, is the Milky Way.) In other words, the Cauac Monster is the celestial dome of the night sky, the Cosmic Mountain, at the top of which one finds the crater- cleft - the portal down through the Axis Mundi into the center of the sky-earth. As such, the dark-rift is a beginning-end nexus which relates to period endings - the origin point of a time period as well as the center of the four directions. Thus, the association between Chacs and the Cauac Monster is understandable.

Taube concludes the Olmec Avian Serpent is ancestral to the Plumed Serpent of Central Mexico (101). In Olmec shamanism, the lifting or carrying of the Avian Serpent was thought to bring rain. This may be a reason to associate the Avian Serpent with the Milky Way, because Schele describes the lifting of the sky (the Milky Way) as a creation event. Elsewhere Taube notes that feathered serpent balustrades on pyramids might involve the Cosmic Mountain concept; they might "depict celestial serpents raised upon the cosmic mountain" (103). I should comment on this statement. A "celestial serpent" raised from or upon the Sacred Mountain, following Schele's "raising of the sky" reading, is equivalent to saying that the Milky Way arches overhead as or upon the Cosmic Mountain. This draws from the identity of the Milky Way as a serpent - a flying serpent at that. And again, the Milky Way on some level was seen as the axis mundi - a symbol of the Cosmic Mountain.

The inter-relationship of these motifs can be understood when we accept the astronomical foundation of their identities. Amazingly, their relationships to each other become very clear when we look at the astronomy to which they refer. And, of course, one indispensible attribute of the astronomy is precession. As such, the Long Count end-date cosmology presents itself as an explanatory hypothesis for the complicated interdynamics of Olmec iconography. In general, I think that Taube could have given more attention to how his intepretations relate to astronomical imagery. And much of the astronomical references in Olmec motifs have already been put forward, by Schele and others. So it should be about time to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Reilly's 3-D Models

Reilly's essay, like Furst's, focuses on shamanism in the Olmec world. Quadripartite models of the cosmos are discussed, and some interesting 3-d projections of flat carvings are offerred (e.g., the Madrid Codex, the Rio Pesquero jade celt (Reilly 1995:39) and, in an appendix, the tablet from the Dallas Museum). Olmec sky-panels, emphasizing the cleft-head motif, are illustrated and compared to Izapan stelae. Vision questing was already a well established practice among the Olmec. The Olmec tradition of shamanism set the stage for Mayan kingship. Underlying this institution is the idea that the King was a high shaman, and his obligation was to perform sacrifices and journey into the cosmic center, to retrieve otherworldly knowledge and power. Totemic power animals were his allies, and these included the jaguar and caiman. Reilly also explores the meaning of the shaman's ritual costume (30-31).

Schele's Cosmic Mountain and Sacred Tree

For me, Linda Schele's article is most interesting. It deals with the Olmec Mountain and Tree of Creation. We should remember that Schele has written extensively about the Mayan Sacred Tree (at Palenque), emphasizing that it symbolizes the crossing-point of the Milky Way and the ecliptic. As such, her work contributes greatly to my reconstruction of end-date astronomy.

Schele discusses the cleft-head images and the corn that sprouts from these clefts. In earlier work, she proposed that these clefts, as well as the cleft on Cauac and Witz Mountain deities, were the "broken place, the bitter water place" spoken of in the Quiché Popol Vuh as the origin place of maize. She compares the Rio Pesquero celt (illustrated above) with the inverted caiman from Izapa Stela 25. Both represent the Milky Way. In the former, the Milky Way caiman transforms into the human ruler, thus suggesting that he is not only the axis mundi, but also the Milky Way.

Next, Schele reviews her work with the San Martín Pajapán sky-lifter. The raising of the Cosmic Tree "played a crucial role in Olmec symbology" (108). According to Schele, the sky-lifter being sat on the most sacred mountain in the Olmec world - a volcano that was thought of as the heart of creation - and raised the cosmic axis into the sky. The Milky Way, as the overarching frame of the celestial vault, spins around the polestar throughout the night. But was this a once in a World Age event? Since the Milky Way is constantly moving above and below the horizon, when did this creation event take place? In what way does the Milky Way axis move that evokes the beginning and ending of World Ages? I feel that this scenario has more to do with the precession-caused shifting of the galactic frame of reference, rather than some Herculean lifting of the canopy of stars at the mythic dawn of time.

Schele mentions that the tree-lifters have contrasting genders. The principal actor involved in raising the World Tree above the Cosmic Mountain was male in Maya and Mixe-Zoque regions, but female in the Otomangean and Nahuatl areas. I feel that perhaps this distinction involves two different modes of thinking about cosmogenesis. One emphasizes erecting the cosmic pole (male) while the other involves concepts of birthing and regeneration (female). The birth metaphor has to do with sowing and birthing, the sprouting of the sacred maize tree which becomes the flesh of human beings.

Having explored Olmec symbology, Schele then reviews the Classic Maya version of the World Tree, the Wakah Chan or "Raised-up Sky." This tree was "the Milky Way, stretching from north to south, with the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpio at its base" (109). The identification of the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpio follows the work of Kelley (1989) and, though it isn't mentioned, identifies the mouth at the base of the inverted caiman-tree as the dark-rift.

The interesting pan-Mesoamerican tradition of Tree Birth is then sketched, confirming indirectly that the dark-rift in the Milky Way Tree is a birth place. Bifurcated trees in various Central Mexican codices are illustrated, including this one from the Selden Codex:

Diagram 204. Selden Codex bifurcated Creation Tree. From Schele (1995b:113).

In general, the work of Schele on these Creation themes in Mesoamerican cosmology is insightful and revolutionary. However, she seems to stop short of incorporating the dark-rift at the Crossroads in Sagittarius into her reconstructions. The role of the dark-rift in Maya Creation is central, and antecedents are clearly present in the Olmec material. The Olmec Sacred Tree and Cosmic Mountain partake of the visionary shamanistic cosmology that led to the invention of the Long Count calendar, and the astronomical knowledge of the Maya. These mythological motifs most clearly have associations with the Milky Way, the ecliptic (which together form the Sacred Cross or Tree), as well as the dark-rift in the Milky Way. The dark-rift is centrally significant in the end-date astronomy because that is precisely where the solstice sun will be after a long precessional journey. And the dark-rift, as a birth cleft, is implicated as the birth place of maize, the Maize Deity, and Venus- Quetzalcoatl. It was also the place where the Hero Twins were conceived, who are maize gods with celestial associations including Venus.


Michael Coe was of the opinion that "the Long Count itself might have been the invention of one person" (1976:121). This is an astounding suggestion, but mitigated against when we accept that the Long Count arose over centuries of tracking precessional motion. However, like Hipparchus in the Old World, perhaps the final pieces were finally assembled by one intrepid and ingenious Izapan skywatcher. Malmström (1997) believes that the Long Count calendar was invented in Soconusco, probably at Izapa, in the second millennium BC. He also thinks that the Long Count was the invention of one person who he calls, ironically, the "New World Hipparchus." Unfortunately, no mention is made in Malmstrom's book of precession and its role in the Long Count end-date. Nevertheless, Malmström's use of the name "Hipparchus" may be more appropriate than he knows.

Many Olmec symbols anticipate later forms in Izapan and Mayan cosmology. Inverted caiman-trees represent the Milky Way. The Sacred Ruler can also be the Milky Way, and the serpent-bar he holds is the ecliptic. The cleft-heads are birth places for maize, and symbolize the craters on volcanoes or the caves in mountains where maize was thought to have been born. With Tacana volcano to the north, Izapa participated in this Olmec symbol- complex. The astronomical counterpart to the terrestrial cleft of creation seems to be the dark-rift in the Milky Way "mountain." And here we have the central players in the astronomy of the 13- baktun cycle end-date. I have sought to identify the watershed era in the development of Mesoamerican cosmology. Earlier in this book I wrote that the astronomical discoveries at La Venta, as explored by Hatch (1971), strongly suggested that precession was at least noticed at La Venta in roughly 1200 B.C. What exactly took place between this time and the Izapan era (an interval of perhaps 700 years) is not very clear. But since 1200 BC, the efforts of Olmec and Izapan skywatchers were trained upon that moment when precession was accurately calibrated and the Long Count was set in place. The placement of the Long Count calendar was determined by fixing the end of the 13th baktun on December 21st, 2012 AD. As such, Mayan time stretches backwards from the astronomically compelling "Zero Point" of the end-date alignment. We might even say that the Mayan calendar comes from the future.

Bibliographical details for the citations in this article can be found at: