The Dresden Codex is famous for its remarkably accurate astronomical tables, of which the Eclipse table is one of its finest examples. "We focus our attention on these pages of the Dresden because they illustrate best of all the Maya astronomer's keen awareness of the heavens (Aveni, Skywatchers, 173)." Although much is known about the Eclipse Table, its intricacies raise as many questions as they answer. Although it is common knowledge that the Maya were keenly aware of the complex cycles of the heavens, there is still much debate about the nature and purpose of these tables.
Do these tables record lunar or solar eclipses? Not only are scholars divided between thse two options, but it is possible that both were recorded simultaneously. The question is important because the data for lunar eclipses would only have taken 33 years to gather, while a solar table would have been the result of over a century's careful work. Knowing the period of observation would give us insight into the length of Maya astronomical traditions and the stability of their social structure. Because of the cyclical structure of the table's dates, it could actually record either lunar, solar, or both, depending on what the starting date was. Although it is most easily a lunar table, it is not unlikely that the Maya did record both kinds of eclipses: they had the ability to make complex and precise calendrical calibrations, and they were fascinated by meaningful intermeshing of cycles of time.
Are the Eclipse tables recording past phenomena, or were they made for prediction? It seems unlikely that they were purely records, since the Maya were deeply concerned with foretelling the future, and eclipses were surely significant enough to warrent prediction. Also, it is possible that the dates in the table are "recyclable," since it seems that they provide adjustments so the cycles of time could be projected forward. This supports the idea that the Eclipse tables are divinatory, while based on thorough astronomical observations.
Even if the Eclipse table is solely lunar, it is still an amazing article. Aveni enthuses: "The lunar table is a marvel of astronomical accuracy. Altogether it marks 405 lunations, equating that period with 11,958 days and yielding a synodic month of 29.52592 days (by our way of thinking), only seven minutes away from the modern value. Furthermore, the table is recyclable. To complicate matters, the ritual needs of the Maya forced them to incorporate the 260-day cycle into the table. The cycle of 46 X 260 = 11,960 days is an interval which lies remarkably close to fitting the table. Any such multiple of the sacred round would gaurantee that, after each trip through the table, the user would return to its resting point. Paradoxically, this Maya ritualism, which acted as a complicating drag on the calendar, was also the driving force. If Maya religion had no astrological attachments, the astronomers would have had no motivation to attain such great heights. Though we cannot claim to grasp fully all the subtle refinements of these pages of the Dresden Codex, they nevertheless stand as strong testimony to the genius of the Maya priest-astronomer, in his attempt both to master one of the wonders of nature and to condense its complexities into so brief a space." (Aveni, Skywatchers, 183)
Return to Ancient Cultures Home Page.