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date: 18 November 2018

Venus in Mesoamerica: Rain, Maize, Warfare, and Sacrifice

Summary and Keywords

During the last three millennia before the Spanish Conquest, the peoples living in the central and southern parts of modern Mexico and the northern part of Central America evolved into complex societies with a number of common characteristics that define the cultural area known as Mesoamerica and are expressed in technology, forms of subsistence, government, architecture, religion, and intellectual achievements, including sophisticated astronomical concepts. For the Aztecs, the Maya, and many other Mesoamerican societies, Venus was one of the most important celestial bodies. Not only were they aware that the brightest “star” appearing in certain periods in the pre-dawn sky was identical to the one that at other times was visible in the evening after sunset; they also acquired quite accurate knowledge about the regularities of the planet’s apparent motion. While Venus was assiduously observed and studied, it also inspired various beliefs, in which its morning and evening manifestations had different attributes. Relevant information is provided by archaeological data, prehispanic manuscripts, early Spanish reports, and ethnographically recorded myths that survive among modern communities as remnants of pre-Conquest tradition.

The best-known is the malevolent aspect of the morning star, whose first appearances after inferior conjunction were believed to inflict harm on nature and humanity in a number of ways. However, the results of recent studies suggest that the prevalent significance of the morning star was of relatively late and foreign origin. The most important aspect of the symbolism of Venus was its conceptual association with rain and maize, in which the evening star had a prominent role. It has also been shown that these beliefs must have been motivated by some observational facts, particularly by the seasonality of evening star extremes, which approximately delimit the rainy season and the agricultural cycle in Mesoamerica. As revealed by different kinds of evidence, including architectural alignments to these phenomena, Venus was one of the celestial agents responsible for the timely arrival of rains, which conditioned a successful agricultural season. The planet also had an important place in the concepts concerning warfare and sacrifice, but this symbolism seems to have been derived from other ideas that characterize Mesoamerican religion. Human sacrifices were believed necessary for securing rain, agricultural fertility, and a proper functioning of the universe in general. Since the captives obtained in battles were the most common sacrificial victims, the military campaigns were religiously sanctioned, and the Venus-rain-maize associations became involved in sacrificial symbolism and warfare ritual. These ideas became a significant component of political ideology, fostered by rulers who exploited them to satisfy their personal ambitions and secular goals. In sum, the whole conceptual complex surrounding the planet Venus in Mesoamerica can be understood in the light of both observational facts and the specific socio-political context.

Keywords: Mesoamerica, Venus extremes, rain, maize, fertility, warfare, human sacrifice

Introduction

Mesoamerica is a cultural area corresponding to the central and southern parts of modern Mexico and the northern part of Central America. The peoples living here before the Spanish Conquest, in the early 16th century, shared a number of cultural traits, which started to appear with the emergence of the first complex societies during the 2nd millennium bce. The history of prehispanic Mesoamerica is usually divided into three main periods or evolutionary stages: the Preclassic (ca. 2000 bce–200 ce), the Classic (ca. 200–900), and the Postclassic (ca. 900–1521). In spite of a great linguistic diversity and considerable regional and time-dependent cultural variations within Mesoamerica, its general cultural unity—a result of both common origins and intensive interaction—can be observed in an economy based on intensive agriculture (mainly on the cultivation of maize as a staple crop), in social and political structures, and in similarities in monumental architecture, arts, religion, calendrical system, and astronomically derived concepts.

In the Mesoamerican religion and world view, Venus was one of the most important celestial bodies. Multiple aspects of its significance are attested in archaeological vestiges, in colonial documents written soon after the Spanish Conquest, and in ethnographically recorded myths and beliefs that survive as part of the Mesoamerican cultural tradition among contemporary indigenous groups (Milbrath, 1999; Šprajc, 1996a). Several prehispanic manuscripts contain tables that were used for monitoring or predicting the most important stations in the synodic period of the planet, such as the first and last appearances of the morning and evening star. As revealed by the structure of these tables and the dates and intervals involved, the Mesoamericans assigned to the planet’s synodic period a canonical length of 584 days, and they were also aware of the commensurability of five synodic periods and eight calendrical years of 365 days. Due to the difference between the 584-day period and the accurate mean duration of the Venus synodic cycle (583.92 days), such tables gradually went out of step with observational reality, but the most sophisticated Venus table, which appears in the Dresden Codex—elaborated during the last centuries before the Spanish Conquest in the Maya area, in southeastern Mesoamerica—even includes correction mechanisms that were occasionally applied to eliminate the error (Aveni, 2001, pp. 184–196; Bricker & Bricker, 2011, pp. 163–248).

The objective of this article is to explore the most important concepts about Venus in Mesoamerica: the planet’s relation with rain, maize, and fertility, on the one hand, and with warfare and sacrifice, on the other. After summarizing the evidence that attests to the Venus-rain-maize associations, including some specific data suggesting a prevalent importance of the evening star in these concepts, possible observational bases are presented, among which the extremes of the evening star and their concomitance with agriculturally relevant seasonal changes in nature must have been particularly important. Since modern astronomy has been practically unaware of these characteristics of the planet’s apparent motion, they will be briefly described. While the fertility attributes of Venus can be understood in terms of the most fundamental concerns of the agriculturally based Mesoamerican societies, whose subsistence depended to a considerable extent on the vagaries of the climatic regime, the planet’s associations with warfare and sacrifice can be accounted for by religious and political justifications of these practices, which were intimately related to ritual performances intended to secure a proper sequence of cyclic natural changes and the ensuing agricultural fertility.

Venus, Rain, and Maize

Analyzing the iconography of Temple 22 at the Maya city of Copán, in Honduras, Closs, Aveni, and Crowley (1984) discussed the roles of Venus-related supernaturals in mythological narratives from different parts of Mesoamerica and argued that Venus “may be a part of a complex including the new maize and the coming of rains” (Closs et al., 1984, p. 228). Subsequent research has greatly expanded their argument, showing that Venus-rain-maize associations in the Mesoamerican world view are indicated by abundant historical, archaeological, and ethnographic evidence (Šprajc, 1993a, 1993b, 1996a, 1996b).

One of the best known facts is that the central Mexican god Quetzalcóatl and his variants K’ucumatz and Kukulcán in the Maya area were related to Venus, on the one hand, and to rain, maize, and fertility, on the other. The feathered serpent, a common representation of this deity, was a mythical creature since the remote past represented celestial water, clouds, and the rainy season (Carmack & Mondloch, 1983, pp. 185, 232; Milbrath, 1999, pp. 177–186; Piña Chan, 1977; Preuss, 1988, pp. 47–72; Thompson, 1971, p. 134). Beliefs associating rain or water in general with serpents, which often have wings or feathers, are preserved all over Mesoamerica (Armillas, 1947; Monaghan, 1989; Münch Galindo, 1983, p. 179). Another pan-Mesoamerican concept associates water with mountains (Broda, 1993, 2000); in some cases the mountain lords are evidently connected with Venus (Holland, 1963, p. 94; Šprajc, 1993a, p. 22; Tax, 1950, pp. 2451, 2456, 2517).

In a story ethnographically documented among the Kekchí and Mopán Maya in Belize, the Sun declares the cloud to be his elder brother, while in another story the elder brother of the Sun is Lord Xulab, the planet Venus (Thompson, 1930, pp. 120, 159–161). The Venus-Cloud equation is further supported by the tale in which Sun suspects that Moon is having an affair with Venus; another version of the story has Cloud as the suspected adulterer (Closs, Aveni, & Crowley, 1984, p. 231; Thompson, 1939, pp. 169f).

In modern indigenous folklore, Venus and rain are often associated with the devil (Milbrath, 1999, p. 35). Apparently, the Christian devil merged with some prehispanic deities (Closs, 1989). The evolution of these transformations can be understood if we consider that, in prehispanic beliefs, water was stored under the surface of the earth, from where it ascended in the form of clouds. Under post-Conquest Christian influence, however, the prehispanic concepts about the underworld began to be equated with the Christian idea of hell, and the underworld deities related to rain and Venus became devils. Since the substitution of new terms was not necessarily accompanied by new concepts, hell and the devil in contemporary native folklore do not always have bad connotations (see the whole argument in Šprajc, 1993a, pp. 22–23; 1996b, pp. 33–36).

Considering that Venus was associated with different Mesoamerican rain gods (Milbrath, 1999, pp. 197–209), its relationship with maize does not come as a surprise. In various myths about the origin of maize, an important role and the association with rain is attributed to a particular species of ants (Katz, 1995), and Closs (1989, pp. 397f) offered convincing arguments that ants had some relationship with Venus in the Mesoamerican world view. Since Atamalcualiztli, the Aztec feast of the rejuvenation of maize, was celebrated at eight-year intervals, it may have been related to Venus (Graulich, 2001; Sahagún & Garibay, 1958, p. 154). Eight years is the time-span after which Venus phenomena recur on approximately the same dates of the year; as well, the canonical period of the planet’s invisibility around inferior conjunction was eight days. It is thus significant that the Maya maize god was patron of the number 8 (Thompson, 1971, pp. 134f, 137). Furthermore, the Venus-maize relationship is revealed in the symbolism of the Mesoamerican ritual ball game and in the Popol Vuh, a collection of the Quiché Maya myths (Pasztory, 1972, p. 445; Tedlock, 1996).

The Venus-rain-maize conceptual relationship in Mesoamerica clearly has ancient origins. In central Mexico and in the Maya area, there were different but apparently related glyphs for Venus. The cross that frequently appears on the representations of rain and fertility deities in the central Mexican Classic period city of Teotihuacan is similar to the Maya Kan cross, but in many instances it strongly resembles the Lamat glyph, a cruciform Maya sign for Venus (Figure 1; Thompson, 1971, p. 77). While the reading of this glyph is simply star, the contexts in which it appears indicate that in many cases it refers to the star par excellence, Venus (Closs, 1979, pp. 147f; Macri, 2010, p. 194; Garton & Taube, 2017, p. 37).

Venus in Mesoamerica: Rain, Maize, Warfare, and SacrificeClick to view larger

Figure 1. Cruciform (a) and half-variant (b) Maya glyphs for Venus (after Šprajc, 1996a, Fig. 2.1).

The Venus identity of the Teotihuacan cross is sustained by some iconographic or glyphic compounds in which it is occasionally substituted by the five-pointed star (Berlo, 1989, p. 26, Fig. 8; Carlson, 1991, Figs. 7c & d, 13g & h). It has been shown that both full forms and half variants of the five-pointed star, ubiquitous in Teotihuacan iconography and appearing also in the Terminal Classic murals of Cacaxtla, in central Mexico, as well as in the Maya area, at least in certain contexts represent Venus (Baird, 1989; Brittenham, 2015, pp. 93–110; Carlson, 1991; Macri, 2010, p. 198; Miller, 1989, pp. 290ff). The half form of the five-pointed star must have been generically related to the later version of the Venus glyph, which is frequent in the Postclassic iconography in central Mexico, Oaxaca, and Yucatán, but appears already on a Late Classic carved boulder at the Gulf Coast site of Maltrata, where it is attached to the underside of a feathered serpent’s body (Baird, 1989, Fig. 39), and also in the murals of the Temple of Venus at Cacaxtla—two painted piers represent a male and a female personage, each with a jaguar-skin kilt to which an outsized five-lobed Venus sign is attached. Both figures stand within blue borders adorned with eyed half stars (Figures 2a and 2b). The male personage has a “goggled” eye, typical of the central Mexican rain god (named Tláloc by the later Aztecs), and a scorpion tail. In Maya iconography the scorpion tail is associated both with Venus and with rain and maize deities (Baus Czitrom, 1990; Uriarte & Velásquez, 2013, pp. 682f). A carved bench excavated in Group 8N-11 at Copán features a skyband—a decorative panel composed of astronomical signs—which includes a young man with a scorpion tail emerging from the half-variant Lamat (Venus) glyph (Figure 3; Webster, Fash, Widmer, & Zeleznik, 1998). The same personage, which most likely represents the young maize god, is depicted, also with a scorpion tail, on a Classic Maya plate, but in this case his body is a full (cruciform) variant of the Lamat glyph (Carlson, 1991, pp. 19–26, Figs. 8j & k; Šprajc 1996a, Pl. 8).

Venus in Mesoamerica: Rain, Maize, Warfare, and SacrificeClick to view larger

Figure 2a. Two painted piers in the Temple of Venus at Cacaxtla, Tlaxcala, Mexico, looking west.

Photo courtesy of E. C. Krupp.

Venus in Mesoamerica: Rain, Maize, Warfare, and SacrificeClick to view larger

Figure 2b. Two painted piers in the Temple of Venus at Cacaxtla, Tlaxcala, Mexico, looking west.

Photo courtesy of E. C. Krupp.

Venus in Mesoamerica: Rain, Maize, Warfare, and SacrificeClick to view larger

Figure 3. Classic Maya maize god with a scorpion tail, emerging from a half-variant star glyph, in the skyband carved on a bench in group 8N-11 at Copán, Honduras.

Photo courtesy of Nicholas Hellmuth.

Torres (2002) proposed that scorpion imagery associated with Venus signs refers to the planet’s conjunctions with the constellation of Scorpion, which always occur at the end of the rainy season. While some cases he discusses seem convincing, the idea can hardly be generalized; for example, a stellar interpretation is hardly applicable to the personified Venus glyph with a scorpion tail, appearing in the skyband of Copán mentioned above, considering that both this and other Maya celestial bands include the signs for the Sun and the Moon and thus evidently refer to the most important heavenly bodies, rather than to stars or constellations.

The rain deity on a Teotihuacan-period roof ornament (almena) from Cinteopa, in central Mexico, wears five crosses (Cook de Leonard, 1985, Fig. 2), as does the so-called “Jade Tláloc” in Tetitla murals of Teotihuacan, where eight bundled strips are attached to the collar with five crosses (Miller, 1973, p. 146, Fig. 301). Recalling the commensurability of five Venus synodic periods and eight years, these are further indications that Venus is implied.

While it is difficult to establish where and when the Venus-rain-maize complex originated, its wide distribution in later periods, as well as the occurrence of cruciform Venus signs all over and even beyond Mesoamerica (Carlson, 2005), suggest a considerable time-depth of these concepts. The earliest Venus signs are found in Preclassic iconography (Macri, 2010, pp. 195f), one possible example appearing on an Olmec style statuette, which has a deformed head, probably imitating the maize cob (Garton & Taube, 2017, pp. 35f). Another interesting case is found in Middle Preclassic reliefs (ca. 700–500 bce) at the central Mexican site of Chalcatzingo, where the ears of two jaguars, pertaining to a group of Olmec deities associated with earth, water, maize, and fertility (Joralemon, 1971, pp. 13, 82, 90, 1976, pp. 33, 37), are very similar to the half-variant of the Maya star glyph (Angulo Villaseñor, 2002; Šprajc, 1996b, pp. 68–72, Fig. 11). According to Justeson, Norman, Campbell, and Kaufman (1985, pp. 50, 52), the cruciform Lamat (Venus) glyph seems to have been a general feature of early southern Mesoamerican writing, possibly inherited from the Olmec “mother script,” and early origins are also likely for the half-variant of the Lamat glyph: it appears on some Classic-period Zapotec urns from Oaxaca and is sometimes associated with a deity comparable to the central Mexican Quetzalcóatl, whose earliest representations date to the Late Preclassic (Caso & Bernal, 1952, pp. 59, 161, 365, Figs. 93, 94, 284). Furthermore, Justeson et al. (1985, pp. 21, 66) showed that the calendrical day name Lamat is probably of Zapotec origin, having been diffused to Mayan languages during the Late Preclassic. A motif resembling the half-variant of the Lamat glyph appears, together with Lamat-like crosses, on a Preclassic cylinder seal from Tlatilco, in central Mexico, while on another seal a “Venus ear” adorns a human head in profile (Kelley, 1966, p. 744, Figs. 1 & 2); the latter resembles the head variant of the Maya Lamat glyph, in which the star sign substitutes the ear (Thompson, 1971, Fig. 7: 59, 60). The usage of the Venus glyph as an ear is, in fact, common in Maya iconography (Closs, 1979, p. 163).

The Role of the Evening Star

Since the Mesoamericans were aware that the brightest “star” visible either before sunrise or after sunset was one and the same celestial body, it is obvious that certain beliefs about Venus were associated with both its morning and evening manifestation. In many mythological narratives, however, the two aspects of the planet figure as two distinct entities with differing attributes. According to various sources, the morning star at its first appearance after inferior conjunction was believed to inflict harm on nature and mankind in a number of ways. Due to these reports, a traditional opinion has been that the morning star was the most, if not the only important aspect of Venus. However, the evidence discussed by Klein (1976, p. 87) shows that the evening star “had an equal, if not greater, significance,” and multiple data summarized below suggest it was this aspect of the planet that had a primary role in the rain and maize symbolism.

The modern Lacandón Maya, in Chiapas, Mexico, connect their rain god Mensäbäk with Venus. Possibly the evening aspect of the planet is (or originally was) more important in this relationship: Äh Säh K’in, the evening star, is addressed in a chant to the new incense burners during a ceremony that includes, or included in the past, the first-fruit offerings. The morning star appears in another poem as the antagonist of the rain: its arrival is destructive and brings about Mensäbäk’s death (Bruce, 1974, pp. 83ff, 311, 358; Tozzer, 1907, p. 106). Aquatic attributes of the evening star have also been recognized in prehispanic Maya iconography (Schele & Miller, 1986, pp. 177, 311f).

The reptilian deity, represented in Mesoamerican art from the Preclassic on, developed in at least two clearly discernible directions: one resulted in the feathered serpent, whose personification became Quetzalcóatl; the other, in the Maya bicephalic dragon or celestial monster, which has often been considered to be a representation of Itzamná, the most important Postclassic Yucatec god (Joralemon, 1976; Thompson, 1939, pp. 152–160), though it conflates attributes of different deities (Martin, 2015). Itzamná was essentially the god of celestial water (Thompson, 1939, pp. 152f); according to an early source, he was “the dew or substance of heaven and clouds” (Lizana & Acuña, 1995, p. 62). Also the Maya two-headed sky monster was clearly associated with water and is often represented with a star glyph on its front head (Kelley, 1976, p. 96; Martin, 2015, p. 192; Thompson, 1939, pp. 154–156). In Temple 22 of Copán, Honduras, and House E of the Palace at Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico, the celestial monsters are placed in architectural space; overarching the south-facing doorways, they extend in the east-west direction, having their front heads with Venus signs on the west side, and their rear heads with the Sun glyphs on the east side. The body of the two-headed monster in House E of Palenque is a skyband, which includes the glyphs of the Sun, the Moon, and Venus; as it is obvious that the skybands are simplified versions of the celestial monster, it is significant that, at Palenque, the Venus glyphs are placed in their western parts (on the sarcophagus lid and on piers d and e of the Temple of the Inscriptions, in House E, and on the Tablet of the Cross; Šprajc, 1996b, p. 63).

According to Schele and Miller (1986, p. 45), the celestial monster represents the dawn, with the Sun following the morning star. Such reasoning, however, cannot explain why the Moon glyphs are also frequently placed on the west side of the celestial bands. It seems much more likely that the iconography and spatial orientation of the monsters and celestial bands betray the concepts in which the Moon was associated with the west and the Sun with the east. Such associations can be found among the present-day Mixe-Popoluca (see sections “Venus and the Moon” and “Venus Extremes”) and must have been rather common: on page 1 of Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, the Sun presides over the east and the Moon over the west (Aveni, 2001, pp. 150f). Following this line of argument, the location of star-Venus signs on celestial bands and monsters suggest the importance of Venus in its evening aspect (Šprajc, 1996b, pp. 63–65, Fig. 10).

It is commonly held that Quetzalcóatl was associated with the east and Venus as morning star, but the sources are far from unanimous. It should be pointed out that the complex Postclassic Quetzalcóatl resulted from the fusion of different and originally independent deities. The most important two were the feathered serpent and the wind god known among the Postclassic Aztecs as Ehécatl; both supernaturals had their Preclassic origins in the Gulf Coast area. The 16th-century friar Diego Durán reported that Ehécatl was the lord of the evening twilight (López Austin, 1994, p. 26). Quetzalcóatl-Ehécatl as a sky-bearer is associated with the west in two central Mexican codices (Thompson, 1934, pp. 217–219) and some of the round temples dedicated to the wind god incorporate alignments to the extremes of Venus as evening star (see section “Venus Extremes”). While many sources relate Quetzalcóatl with the morning aspect of Venus, it is worth noting that most of them refer to very late periods, when this god was amalgamated with Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli. At the time of Spanish Conquest, two concepts were embodied in the figure of Quetzalcóatl: the one of creator god and the other of culture hero; in the latter aspect he was associated with Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, the morning star, and with his calendrical name 1 Reed (Nicholson, 2001; Pollock, 1936, p. 163). Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli “symbolized the earlier hunting-gathering, ‘Chichimec’ life way” (Nicholson 1971, p. 426) and must have been brought to central Mexico by the Postclassic immigrants from the north, in whose religion the morning star had a significant role (Kelley, 1955). According to some sources, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli personified both the morning and the evening aspects of the planet, but his name (“Lord of the Dawn”) and various myths suggest that his primary association was with the morning star, whose first appearances after inferior conjunction were believed to cause harm to people and nature. In the original Venus-rain-maize complex, the evening star seems to have had a prominent role, but as a result of the blending of traditions during the Postclassic, the morning star also acquired some fertility symbolism. Notwithstanding the eventual acculturation of the newcomers, in some cases it is evident that a coherent union of ancient and recently arrived deities and concepts had not been achieved by the time of the Conquest (Jiménez Moreno, 1972, p. 33; Kelley, 1955, p. 403; for the whole argument see Šprajc, 1993b, 1996a, 1996b).

Several pre-Postclassic portrayals of deities have been interpreted as representations of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, apparently due to the popularity of the idea about the importance of the morning star, but the evidence that such identifications are based on (e.g., Coe, Houston, Miller, & Taube, 2015, p. 147; Coltman, 2007, 2009; Lacadena, 2010, pp. 384–387) is ambiguous at best (Šprajc, 2008, 2012). Discussing the iconography of Stelae 1 and 3 of Xochicalco, a Terminal Classic central Mexican site, Sáenz (1962, pp. 71f, 77) identified frontally depicted human faces protruding from the open jaws of a serpent with Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, Venus as morning star, on the grounds of their resemblance to the images, traditionally interpreted as representations of this god, at the central Mexican Toltec capital of Tula and in the Maya metropolis of Chichén Itzá. The occurrence of the central Mexican star-Venus sign on Stela 2 does suggest some relationship with Venus. However, Klein (1976, pp. 85ff, 97) showed that the en face representations of the Venus god refer exclusively to the evening aspect of the planet. Also Pasztory (1973) rejected Sáenz’s identification and interpreted the images on Stelae 1 and 3 of Xochicalco as earth deities, connected with fertility and the Night Sun, but the latter concept merged with Venus as evening star (see section “Venus Extremes”).

Furthermore, Stela 3 of Xochicalco contains the date 4 Movement (of the 260-day calendrical cycle), which may refer to the Sun or to a god comparable to the later Xólotl. This god was closely related to Quetzalcóatl; he is often represented with Quetzalcóatl attires, and the role of the two gods in myths is occasionally interchangeable. In Codex Vaticanus B, 4 Movement is a name for Xólotl (Caso, 1967, p. 197). While Milbrath (2013) identifies him with Mercury, different kinds of evidence suggest that this god, associated with lightning, water, and maize, represented Venus as evening star (Šprajc, 1993a, pp. 29f). The date 4 Movement on Stela 3 of Xochicalco may thus refer to the evening aspect of the planet. Significantly, the date 1 Reed, so characteristic of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, does not appear at all on Xochicalco monuments, not even on the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpents. Also the Late Classic feathered serpent carved on a boulder at Maltrata, with a five-lobed Venus sign attached to its body, is accompanied by the glyph 4 Movement (Baird, 1989, Fig. 39). In the light of such evidence it is difficult to accept that “the plumed serpent known as Quetzalcoatl is consistently identified with the east” (Taube, 2010, p. 148).

The evolution and expansion of the complex Quetzalcóatl cult, with many of its aspects originating from the Gulf Coast region, has an interesting parallel in the development and spread of the ritual ballgame. It is known that the ballgame involved a complex symbolism related to the agricultural cycle and fertility, on the one hand, and the most important celestial bodies, particularly Venus, on the other (Carlson, 1991; Closs, 1979; Kowalski, 1992; Pasztory, 1972, p. 445), reminding us of the attributes of Quetzalcóatl. More explicitly, the patron of the ballgame among the Aztecs was Xólotl, the evening star variant of Quetzalcóatl. He appears as ballplayer in the Atamalcualiztli hymn (Sahagún & Garibay, 1958, pp. 152f), and a deformed deity, comparable to Xólotl or Nanáhuatl of later times, is associated with ballgame in the Classic period Teotihuacan mural painting (Pasztory, 1972, pp. 445, 449). Considering these data, the evening star had an important place also in the symbolism of the ballgame, which seems to have been a ceremonial activity associated with the Quetzalcóatl cult (for the whole argument, see Šprajc, 1993a, 1996a, 1996b).

Like in Xochicalco, the feathered serpent is prominent in the Terminal Classic mural painting at Cacaxtla, but the date 1 Reed is, again, absent. Šprajc argued (1993b, p. S30) that the star signs in these murals refer predominantly to the evening aspect of Venus, because the enclosure known as Temple of Venus, with pillars on which two standing human figures adorned with star signs are portrayed, is situated in the western section of the Palace. Furthermore, an enclosure with star signs is represented in Building A, in a mural facing west, and a similar enclosure is depicted behind the captain of the defeated warriors on the battle mural of Structure B, again in its western part. Since the male figure in the Temple of Venus has a scorpion tail, it may also be mentioned that a glyph reading sinan, meaning “scorpion” in Yucatec Maya, appears on page 46 of the Dresden Codex Venus Table in a column that corresponds to the evening star phenomena (Carlson, 1991, pp. 25f). Domínguez and Urcid (2013), however, contend that the five-lobed sign on the two figures in the Temple of Venus refers to the morning star. To support their opinion, they mention that the murals face east, and add that the evening star was indicated with a different star sign, which has three lobes and additional flint knives, and which appears at the waist of human figures carved in the complex of the Temple of the Warriors at Chichén Itzá, almost exclusively on the west-facing reliefs (Domínguez & Urcid, 2013, pp. 590f). It is worth noting, however, that the five-lobed sign appears in the latter architectural complex only once, on column 9 of the Temple of the Warriors, on its north side; additionally, a three-lobed sign adorns a warrior on the North colonnade dais, but it is in the east part of its south side (Miller, 1989, Figs. 20–26 & 20–27). It is thus only fair to admit that the mere placement of any of these signs offers little ground for their identification with either aspect of Venus, let alone for connecting the five-lobed sign exclusively with the morning star; recall that the date or calendrical name 4 Movement, which accompanies the feathered serpent with a five-lobed star sign on the boulder of Maltrata (Baird, 1989, Fig. 39), can hardly refer to the morning star.

Observational Motives of the Venus-Rain-Maize Complex

Assuming that the religion and world view of any social group can be understood in terms of its natural environment and cultural context, it is more than likely that the pan-Mesoamerican beliefs relating Venus with rain, maize, and fertility were motivated by some culturally relevant observational facts.

Venus, Maize, and the Number Eight

Since the canonical period of Venus invisibility around inferior conjunction was, according to several sources, eight days (which is, in effect, the average disappearance interval in Mesoamerican latitudes; Aveni, 1992, pp. 89, 97), it has been suggested that Venus was associated with the sown maize seed, which remains invisible for a comparable lapse of time before the new plant is born (Dütting, 1980, pp. 156f; Graulich, 1981, p. 83). It seems significant that the Maya maize god was patron of numeral 8 (Thompson, 1971, pp. 134f, 137), but this association may also have been derived from the eight-year cycle equivalent to five synodic periods of the planet.

Venus and the Moon

Since the evidence presented above indicates a prevalent importance of the evening star in the Venus-rain-maize relationship, these concepts may have had different origins. One possibility is that they represent an extension of lunar symbolism. All over the world, including Mesoamerica, the Moon is associated with water, vegetation, and fertility (Eliade, 1964; Köhler, 1991; Thompson, 1939), quite likely due to some observational facts (Šprajc, 2016a, pp. 79f). Among the Mixe-Popoluca and Cora, the Moon has its house in the west, obviously because after conjunction it is first visible in the western sky (Lehmann, 1928, p. 772; Preuss, 1912, p. LVII). On page 1 of Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, the Sun presides over the east and the Moon and two water-related goddesses over the west (Aveni, 2001, pp. 150f). Regarding the Maya, Thompson’s (1971, p. 112) argument that the west “is the natural home of the moon goddess” is corroborated by the fact that the Moon glyphs are normally placed in the western parts of celestial bands (Šprajc, 1993a, p. 39). Since both the Moon and the evening star “rise” in the west, and given the evidence attesting to the fusion of the concepts related to the Moon and Venus, it is possible that lunar symbolism was transferred to the western side of the universe and to Venus as evening star.

Venus Extremes

Aveni (1975) and Aveni, Gibbs, and Hartung (1975) seem to have been the first to suggest that some directions that materialized in the Mesoamerican architecture refer to the extreme rising and setting points of Venus. They proposed that these phenomena were marked by architectural alignments at the Maya sites of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. Closs et al. (1984) noticed, furthermore, that during the 8th and 9th centuries ce, all great northerly extremes of Venus, defined as the midpoint of a period during which the planet attained a declination in excess of 25.5°, occurred in late April or early May, which means that they coincided approximately with the onset of the rainy season in Mesoamerica. Further research has revealed that the greatest extremes visible in the eastern and western sky are asymmetric, and that they all remain seasonally fixed during very long periods (Šprajc, 1996b, pp. 23–27, 139–151, 2015a). As will be shown, not only architectural orientations but also some more explicit evidence can be interpreted quite convincingly as reflecting the observation of these phenomena. But since they are little known in modern astronomy, a short description seems necessary.

If the trajectories of apparent motion of Venus as morning and evening star, obtained by connecting the planet’s positions at the beginning and end of twilight on successive days, are plotted on the eastern and western sky for subsequent synodic periods, we can observe they are very similar every eight years (Aveni, 1991, Fig. 1). The eight-year patterns, which reflect the approximate commensurability of the planet’s five synodic periods and eight tropical years (5 × 583.92 days = 2919.6 days; 8 × 365.2422 days = 2921.9376 days), gradually change, but these variations also exhibit a long-term periodicity—a given pattern of Venus’ apparent motion is almost exactly repeated after 251 tropical years (251 × 365.2422 days = 91675.7922 days; 157 × 583.92 days = 91675.44 days; McCluskey, 1983; Spinden, 1928, p. 20).

Venus in Mesoamerica: Rain, Maize, Warfare, and SacrificeClick to view larger

Figure 4. Variations of the declination of Venus as a function of date, for five successive eight-year cycles in the 20th century. The maximum and minimum declination attained in each cycle is marked with a line.

The periodicities mentioned above are also evident in patterns of Venus extreme declinations. It should be recalled here that, if an extreme declination is defined as any moment when its absolute value is greater than before and after it, there are several highly variable extreme declinations in an eight-year Venus cycle, with one maximum (positive or northern) and one minimum (negative or southern) value, regularly occurring at eight-year intervals (Figure 4). During the last four millennia, both the maximum and the minimum declinations have always been attained during the planet’s evening visibility, having values notably in excess of those reached by the Sun at the solstices; the morning star’s greatest northern and southern declinations have hardly exceeded the extreme declinations of the Sun, being from 2° to 4° smaller than those attained by the evening star (Figures 5 and 6). The maximum/minimum declinations of both the morning and the evening star exhibit long-term oscillations: as Figures 5 and 6 show, any maximum/minimum declination is almost exactly repeated every 251 years.1

Whenever Venus reached the greatest northern and southern declinations plotted in Figures 5 and 6, it had an angular distance from the Sun of at least 30° and was visible, therefore, as the evening star in the moment of its setting (except in the extreme northern or southern geographic latitudes). While the maximum/minimum declinations most often recur at eight-year intervals, the exceptions correspond to the lowest/highest points of the curves reproducing variations of the evening star’s greatest northern/southern declination in Figures 5 and 6: after the maximum/minimum of a 251-cycle has been attained, the greatest northern/southern declination pertaining to a specific synodic period of a five-period (eight-year) cycle (supposing we assign it a number from 1 to 5 within the cycle) gradually decreases, until it is replaced by a growing extreme of another synodic period (i.e., with a different consecutive number). Along various 251-year cycles during the last four millennia, an overall growth/decrease of maximum/minimum declination values can be perceived.

Venus in Mesoamerica: Rain, Maize, Warfare, and SacrificeClick to view larger

Figure 5. Variations of the maximum declination of Venus as morning and evening star as a function of time, for the last four millennia.

Venus in Mesoamerica: Rain, Maize, Warfare, and SacrificeClick to view larger

Figure 6. Variations of the minimum declination of Venus as morning and evening star as a function of time, for the last four millennia.

An analogous explanation applies to the sharp breaks in the curves reproducing variations of the maximum/minimum declination of the morning star in Figures 5 and 6. These curves do not include declinations for the moments when the angular separation between the planet and the Sun was less than 5°. However, since in several cases it was barely over 5°, the planet was not necessarily always visible at the moment of its rising, and the greatest visible extremes may have been even smaller than those plotted in Figures 5 and 6. The reason for selecting the (somehow arbitrary) limit of 5° is that, in the optimum circumstances (i.e., when it corresponds to the vertical separation between the planet on the horizon and the Sun below it), it is approximately equivalent to the arcus visionis required for Venus to be visible at its first and last appearance as morning or evening star (cf. Huber et al., 1982; Schoch, 1924; Weir, 1982).

While the dates of typical moments of Venus’ synodic period, like the first and the last appearances of the morning and evening star, gradually move backward through the tropical year, the greatest extremes remain limited to short spans for very long periods: during the four millennia comprised in Figures 5 and 6, 83% of all the maximum northerly extremes occurred between April 30 and May 7, Gregorian, while 81% of the greatest southerly extremes were visible between October 29 and November 6, Gregorian. The relatively few extremes occurring beyond the cited dates (the limits are April 24 and May 9 for the maximum, and October 24 and November 9 for the minimum declinations) correspond to the time-spans around the sharp breaks visible in Figures 5 and 6, when a maximum extreme pertaining to one synodic period of an eight-year cycle was substituted by a growing extreme of another synodic period in the cycle (see above). The greatest northerly and southerly extremes attained by Venus during its morning visibility periods have also been seasonally fixed during the last four millennia, but more dispersed, occurring from June 30 to July 19 and from December 27 to January 16, Gregorian, respectively.

The asymmetry of the maximum extremes visible on the eastern and western horizon, as well as their stable long-term seasonalities, are a consequence of the inclination of Venus’ orbit to the ecliptic and of the position of its ascending node relative to the vernal point during the last millennia, while the secular trend of growing/decreasing maximum/minimum declinations visible in Figures 5 and 6 is an effect caused by the precessional motion of the ascending node (for a more detailed explanation, see Šprajc, 1996b, pp. 139–144).

While the exact date of a Venus extreme is difficult to determine by naked-eye observations, because the variations in declination are hardly perceptible around that date, the seasonality of extremes is much more obvious. In Mesoamerica, the extremes of the evening star coincide approximately with the beginning and the end of the rainy season and, therefore, delimit the maize cultivation cycle. It should be added that not only the greatest extremes manifest this seasonality: assuming that the extremes beyond the solstitial limits of the Sun may have been considered particularly significant, it is worth mentioning that Venus as evening star attains any declination in excess of 23.5° between April and the June solstice, while any declination smaller than −23.5° is reached between October and the December solstice. The evidence examined below strongly suggests that these phenomena and their seasonal occurrences were, indeed, observed in Mesoamerica.

According to ethnographic data obtained by Lehmann (1928) from the Mixe-Popoluca inhabitants of Oluta and Sayula, two communities in the Tehuantepec Isthmus area, the morning star is a poor old man, El Viejo or Viejito, who is sometimes called Tata Dios. He and the Sun preside over the east but are in charge of the south in the dry season (i.e., when both the Sun and the morning star, indeed, move in the southern part of the sky). The owners of the House of the West are the Moon and Satanas, who controls the rainy season and reaches his Northern House with the winds that are said to blow from the south between February 15 and the end of May. Since this is precisely the period when Venus, if visible as evening star, moves northward to its northerly extreme, which heralds the onset of the rainy season, and recalling that the devil and Venus are conceptually related in contemporary Mesoamerican folklore, Satanas can be identified with the evening aspect of the planet. Also Münch Galindo (1983, pp. 154, 190), who collected his ethnographic data in the same Isthmus area, reports that north is the home of the lightning god, who brings water for planting and introduces the rainy season.

Considering that the old and ragged Viejito embodies the morning star, Lehmann (1928, p. 773) associated the evening star with muchacho limpio, a clean young man, reported by one informant to be the owner of the House of the West. However, since this figure is mentioned only once and does not appear where the patrons of the four cardinal directions are cited, he can be identified with Satanas. The latter cannot represent the Moon, because they both appear among the patrons of the cardinal directions. They are not unrelated, however, because they both figure as owners of the west, just as both the Sun and the morning star are owners of the east.

Lehmann linked Satanas with the Night Sun, which is, in fact, a concept related to the evening star: according to one of his informants, the principal god is Naxaikat or Móstramo (= Nuestro Amo, Our Master), who represents the invisible Sun, “the Sun below,” but is also described as a very beautiful star. This deity thus likely embodies both the Night Sun and Venus as evening star: just as Viejito has manifold aspects, being identified with the Sun, Jesus Christ, the daytime (= waning) Moon, and the morning star, Naxaikat seems to personify the Night Sun, the waxing Moon, and the evening star (Lehmann, 1928, pp. 764–766, 772; Münch Galindo, 1983, pp. 160f).

Similar conceptual fusions are found elsewhere in Mesoamerica. In central Mexico the evening star merged with the Moon and the Night Sun, and the rain god Tláloc was related to both the Night Sun and Venus as evening star (Klein, 1976, pp. 96f, 1980). As already mentioned, these associations suggest that the fertility symbolism of the evening star may have been an extension of the attributes of the Moon. However, the allusions to the north seem to reflect the observation of the evening star extremes, and this is also suggested by the information collected by Preuss (1912) among the Cora in western Mexico.

In Cora mythology the morning and evening aspects of Venus are distinguished as two deities. The maize god Sautari is identified with the evening star, while the morning star is his elder brother called Hatsikan, who is the lord of clouds and rains, but the characteristics of the two brothers are sometimes confused. One of the chants mentioning Venus is of particular interest because it seems to associate the movement of the planet in the western sky with climatic changes:

Come dancing from the north and (bring as a crown) your younger brothers.

Come dancing from the north, with feathers of the blue magpie.

[.|.|.]

(Come dancing) from the north, with the flowers of Turás.

Bring the flowers of Cempasuchil.

Bring the flowers of Zacalosuchil.

Bring the flowers of Tsakwas.

You bring the clouds as a crown.

You bring the whiteness as a crown.

You bring life as a crown.

(Preuss, 1912, p. 230; translation mine)

Preuss (1912, pp. 94, 230) thought that the morning star was invoked in this chant, because the kinds of flowers mentioned here appear in another song as younger brothers of Sautari. This interpretation, however, disagrees with the fact that Sautari (“he who gathers flowers”) is the name of the evening star (Preuss, 1912, pp. LXIff). In the song cited above the evening star comes from the north bringing clouds, feathers of the blue magpie, and some flower species, which the Cora associate with the rainy season (Preuss, 1912, p. LXXXI). The poetic narrative agrees with astronomical and climatic facts. When Venus is visible in the western sky, its northerly extremes coincide approximately with the onset of the rainy season. This does not mean that the Cora needed to know the exact dates and magnitudes of the extremes. The easily observable phenomenon is that Venus at this time of the year, if visible as evening star, is always seen relatively far to the north of true west, and its “return” from the extreme northerly setting point is accompanied by progressively heavier rainfall (Šprajc, 1993a, pp. 26f).

Neurath (2005, pp. 74, 86, 95) rejects this interpretation and contends that the rains are brought by the morning star. He follows Preuss (1912, p. LXIV) in claiming that the references to the north allude to the northern position of the Sun during the rainy season and argues that, since actual observations of Venus have not been documented, “the ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ roads taken by the brothers cannot be linked to natural phenomena related to Venus, like Venus extremes” (Neurath, 2005, p. 86). The argument is not particularly compelling because, on the one hand, it involves the Sun’s position during the rainy season, and thus also relies on the observation of natural phenomena; on the other hand, the absence of observational practice in the present does not imply that it never existed. In fact, it is difficult to conceive that the importance and complexity of the concepts about Venus surviving among the Cora would have developed without any reference to the observable characteristics of the planet’s apparent motion. In another Cora chant it is the morning star that asks the North for clouds (Preuss, 1912, p. 247). Venus is associated in various chants with different sky directions, but what seems significant is that, exclusively, its associations with north bring about rains. Recall that both evening and morning star northerly extremes could have been associated with rain: while those of the evening star coincide with the start of the rainy season, the morning star reaches its northerly extremes after the summer solstice, during the rainy season. Nonetheless, in the chant cited above, the reference to the evening star is quite explicit.

In this context it may be significant that, among the Tarascans in western Mexico, one brother of the Sun god Curicaueri had his dwelling in the west and was connected with the evening star, winds, and rains, but another brother was associated with north and fertility (Corona Núñez, 1957). The fact that north is described as “from here the water” in some Mayan tongues (Thompson, 1971, p. 249) may also reflect the observed coincidence of Venus northerly extremes with the onset of the rainy season, as already suggested by Closs et al. (1984, p. 235). It is true that the northerly extremes of Venus occur in the season when the Sun is also moving northward; since its diurnal course lies in the northern part of the sky during the first months of the rainy season, the Sun may also have been responsible for the mythological importance of the north. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that in a Choltí Maya vocabulary, north is given as noh ek; Thompson (1971, p. 249) thought that this was “a reference to the pole star or perhaps the great bear,” but the term, meaning “great star,” is a common name for Venus, both in Mayan and in other Mesoamerican languages.

Venus in Mesoamerica: Rain, Maize, Warfare, and SacrificeClick to view larger

Figure 7. View to the northwest along the balustrade of the early stage of El Circular at Huexotla, Edo. de México, Mexico. The balustrade is aligned to a prominent mountain on the horizon and to the greatest northerly extreme of Venus.

Additional evidence is provided by the Mesoamerican architectural orientations. Systematic research has revealed that most of them refer to the sunrises and sunsets on agriculturally important dates (Aveni, 2001; Šprajc, 2018). However, two orientation groups can be related to the greatest extremes of the Moon and of Venus as evening star. While the existence of both orientation groups is clearly indicated in the distribution of declinations corresponding to all Mesoamerican orientations (Šprajc, 2018, Fig. 2), it should be noted that, due to the relatively small difference between the extreme declinations of Venus (Figures 5 and 6) and those reached by the Moon at its major standstills (around ±28.5°), and considering the errors estimated for individual alignment data, it is often impossible to propose the most likely referent of a particular orientation. In some cases, however, a relationship with Venus is strongly supported by contextual data.

The most persuasive examples are the Terminal Classic Governor’s Palace at the Maya site of Uxmal, El Circular of Huexotla, in central Mexico (Figure 7), and El Caracol of Chichén Itzá (Aveni et al., 1975; Šprajc, 1993a, pp. 45–50). The latter two buildings, both from the Late Postclassic, are round temples evidently dedicated to the Venus-related Quetzalcóatl/Kukulcán. On the façade of the Governor’s Palace of Uxmal (Figure 8), more than 350 Venus glyphs are preserved, being placed in the masks of the rain god Chac. In addition, the masks are diagonally arranged and vertically stacked in groups of five, eight stylized double-headed serpents are set in the decoration above the central doorway, and numerals 8 are sculptured in the Maya dot-bar notation over the eyes of the Chac masks placed at both northern corners of the palace (Aveni & Hartung, 1986, p. 31; Bricker & Bricker, 1996). The two numbers highlighted by iconographic elements very likely refer to the equivalence of five Venus’ synodic periods and eight years, whereas the Chac masks decorated with Venus glyphs (Figure 9) quite explicitly denote the planet’s relationship with rain, which is in agreement with the orientation of the palace to the maximum northerly extremes of the evening star, harbingers of the rainy season (Šprajc, 2015b). A disadvantage of the alternative proposal, connecting the orientation of this building to the greatest southerly extremes of the morning star (Aveni, 2001, pp. 283–286), is both in the large alignment error that needs to be postulated and in the lack of supporting contextual evidence.

In the light of these data, and considering that the only Venus phenomena maintaining a permanent concordance with agriculturally important seasonal changes are the extremes visible in the western sky, it is likely that these phenomena were a particularly important observational motive of the planet’s relationship with rain and maize.

Venus in Mesoamerica: Rain, Maize, Warfare, and SacrificeClick to view larger

Figure 8. Palace of the Governor at Uxmal, Yucatán, Mexico, viewing southwest.

Venus in Mesoamerica: Rain, Maize, Warfare, and SacrificeClick to view larger

Figure 9. The façade of the Governor’s Palace of Uxmal is decorated with masks of the rain god Chac. These have Venus symbols below their eyes and are arranged in groups of five.

Venus, War, and Sacrifice

That Venus had in important role in the Mesoamerican concepts concerning war and sacrifice has long been known, but only more recent research has revealed that these connotations of the planet were intertwined with its fertility symbolism (Baird, 1989; Baus Czitrom, 1990; Carlson, 1991; 2005; Ringle, Gallareta, & Bey, 1998; Šprajc, 1996a, pp. 123–168; Uriarte & Velásquez, 2013). This is particularly evident in the iconography of Teotihuacan and Cacaxtla murals (Baird, 1989; Brittenham, 2015; Carlson, 1991), as well as in mythological narratives, such as the Popol Vuh of the Quiché Maya (Tedlock, 1996).

A prominent role of Venus in warfare cult and symbolism is—rather than contradictory, as it might appear in view of its association with rain, maize, and fertility—in perfect agreement with some well known characteristics of the ancient Mesoamerican religion and world view. Human sacrifices were an inevitable act for securing rain, abundance of crops, and proper functioning of the universe in general (López Luján, & Olivier, 2010). Some depictions are particularly eloquent as to the meaning of sacrificial rites. The north mural in Structure A of Cacaxtla, for example, shows a man holding a bundle of darts tied with three sets of sacrificial bow knots; from the tips of the darts, eight drops of “blood” seem to be falling, but they are painted blue! “This is an explicit metaphor for the transformation of sacrificial blood into water symbolically filling the water/fertility bands below” (Carlson, 1991, p. 17). Another example is the scene repeated in several reliefs in the Great Ball Court of Chichén Itzá: instead of blood streams, vegetal motifs and snakes sprout from the neck of a beheaded human figure (Schele & Miller, 1986, Fig. VI.3). While human sacrifice had early origins, it underwent profound transformations with the development of social and political complexity. “The chiefdoms and states changed the meaning of this rite, intensified its practice, and began to use human sacrifice as a pretext for expanding their domains and pillaging the weak” (López Austin & López Luján, 2008, p. 146). Considering that, as part of this process, the role of sacrificial victims was increasingly assigned to enemies captured in battles, warfare was religiously sanctioned, and given the significance and purposes of human sacrifice, the Venus-rain-maize associations were incorporated in sacrificial symbolism and warfare ritual. Obviously, being a constituent part of political ideology, the concepts relating fertility with warfare became more a justification for raids and conquests than their immediate motive, and the rulers, pretending to be responsible for perpetuating the cosmic order through human sacrifice, exploited them in order to achieve some very secular goals and to satisfy their own personal ambitions (cf. López Austin & López Luján, 2008; Šprajc, 1996a, pp. 129–139).

To support these statements, it is worth mentioning that death-war-sacrifice connotations of the Teotihuacan five-pointed star became especially pronounced only in Late Classic iconography, although its water and fertility associations were retained (Baird, 1989, pp. 111, 118; Milbrath, 1999, p. 186). The diffusion of this multifaceted symbolism across Mesoamerica is particularly evident in the Late Classic and Early Postclassic spread of the complex Quetzalcóatl cult, in which the ballgame also had an important role and which is manifested in standardized imagery combining fertility metaphors with warfare and sacrificial themes; Tláloc-related motifs and Venus signs accompanying records of military exploits in Maya inscriptions represent but one iconographic expression of this religious complex (Carlson, 1991; Miller, 1989; Ringle, Gallareta, & Bey, 1998).

In light of this evidence, it is very likely that sacrificial and warfare attributes of Venus are of a later origin than its associations with rain and maize; the latter can be accounted for by some easily observable natural phenomena, whereas the former, having no readily apparent observational base, can be better understood in terms of their social and political context. If one motive (or ideological justification) of military campaigns was to obtain victims for human sacrifices, considered necessary for securing rain and abundant crops, the connections of Venus with war and sacrifice must have been derived from the planet’s fertility attributes and may have been reinforced after the Late Classic period, when migrations from the north resulted in a growing significance of the morning star, which among the North American natives is typically related to war and hunting (Chamberlain, 1982, p. 55; Kelley, 1955; Nicholson, 1971, p. 426; O’Brien, 1986; Šprajc, 1996b, pp. 122–126).

The whole set of ideas surrounding Venus was a significant component of political ideology. It has been argued that the founders of some Maya dynasties had a special connection with this planet (Milbrath, 1999, pp. 196–197). In some of the numerous Maya reliefs representing royal persons, a Venus symbol is placed in the ruler’s headdress. In a palace at Toniná, Chiapas, Mexico, a throne was found, decorated with a giant Venus glyph elaborated in stucco (Šprajc, 1996a, pp. 102–106, Fig. 3.10, Plate 7). This evidence is in accordance with the well-known fact that the Mesoamerican rulers commonly acted as impersonators of important, largely Venus-related gods, such as Quetzalcóatl, Itzamná and Chac, whose names are often included in their royal titles (Houston & Stuart, 1996; López Austin, 2015; Nicholson, 2001; Sellen, 2002; Sharp, 1981, pp. 16f).

Given the domains controlled by these deities, there is no doubt that the importance of Venus in political ideology can be largely accounted for by its fertility symbolism. An illustrative case is the Governor’s Palace at Uxmal, built around 900 ce by the ruler Chac (Kowalski, 1987) and oriented to the northerly extremes of Venus as evening star. The name of this lord and the decoration of his palace, including hundreds of Venus glyphs placed in the cheeks of the rain god Chac (Figure 9), suggest that Lord Chac pretended to be an incarnation of the rain deity and of his celestial manifestation. Considering the divine nature of the most important heavenly bodies, it is reasonable to suppose that the evening star reaching its northernmost position was believed to bring about the rainy season. If so, the Governor’s Palace can be viewed as a monumental materialization of the sanctified direction that marked the phenomena whose timely occurrences, conditioning annual climatic changes essential for a successful agricultural cycle, were vital for subsistence. We can imagine that Lord Chac, by orienting his residence to the relevant position of the rain god’s celestial avatar, whose power he assumed or shared, displayed in a singular way his divine identity and, consequently, his kingly responsibility for maintaining the ideal cosmic order, which guaranteed the survival of his subjects (Šprajc, 2015b).

If warfare was substantiated by religious concepts, however, it was also part of the rulers’ responsibilities, as were the most important sacrificial performances. Their objective was not only to secure a proper sequence of agriculturally relevant seasonal changes but also to prevent negative influences of ominous events, such as heliacal rises of the morning star (Šprajc, 2016b).

Conclusion

Like any other cultural trait, the conceptual relationship of the planet Venus with rain, maize, warfare, and sacrifice was a phenomenon intimately related to other aspects of Mesoamerican societies. The formation and basic characteristics of the Venus-rain-maize association can be explained in terms of the observation of nature. The apparently invariable and perfect celestial order, obviously superior to that on the earth, must have been, universally, the primary source of deification of heavenly bodies; consequently, their cyclic behavior was not viewed as being simply correlated with seasonal transformations in the natural environment, but rather as provoking them. It has been shown that Venus extremes are seasonally fixed phenomena; especially interesting are the evening star extremes, not only because they are greater than those visible on the eastern horizon, but particularly because they herald the onset and the end of the rainy season in Mesoamerica. The ethnographically reported mythic narratives of the Cora and Mixe-Popoluca, as well as architectural orientations to the evening star extremes and the associated contextual data, particularly the iconography of the Palace of the Governor at Uxmal, indicate rather explicitly that these coincidences were, indeed, perceived. It seems very likely that, as a consequence, Venus as evening star came to be conceived as one of the agents responsible for the timely occurrences of two crucial annual climatic changes, which conditioned, as they still do, a proper development of the agricultural cycle. Another fact motivating (or reinforcing) the rain and maize symbolism of Venus as evening star may have been the association of the west side of the universe with the Moon; its phases and other characteristics of its apparent motion are well known to modern peasants (Köhler, 1991), and its relationship with water and fertility is worldwide (Eliade, 1964).

Significantly, fertility attributes of the evening aspect of Venus have also been documented among the North American Pawnees (Chamberlain, 1982, pp. 52ff, 211; O’Brien, 1986), Australian aborigines (Tindale, 2005, pp. 369–372), and in a number of other cultures (Iwaniszewski, 2005). Since it is questionable that in all these cases the evening star extremes coincide with culturally significant seasonal changes in natural environment, the Moon-west-fertility association may have often been the more important observational motive. However, abundant ethnographic data collected by Belmonte and Sanz de Lara (2001, pp. 53–58, 74, 158–166) indicate quite explicitly that the relationship of the evening star with rain and cattle breeding on the Canary Islands derives from the seasonally occurring turning points observed in the movement of Venus in the western sky. These phenomena may also account for the association of the evening star with rain among the Incas in South American Andes (Sharon, 1978, p. 95), where its southerly and northerly extremes coincide with the onset (October) and the end of the rainy season (April), respectively, and the ceremonies for the Venus-related Thunder God were performed in April (Zuidema, 1980, p. 276; and personal communication, 1988). Finally, several Phoenician temples located across the Mediterranean basin and dedicated to the goddess Astarte, connected with Venus, war, and fertility, as well as some prehistoric sanctuaries in the southern Iberian Peninsula, all of them at sites with evidence of Phoenician colonization, may have been oriented to the southerly extremes of the evening star (Esteban & Escacena, 2013; Esteban & Iborra, 2016).

In Mesoamerica, the Venus-rain-maize complex possibly began to develop during early stages of the evolution of agriculture. Some archaeological data, though not unambiguous, suggest that these concepts were incorporated in the world view by the Middle Preclassic, but it is from the Classic on that their presence is firmly established. At some point, they became closely connected with warfare and sacrifice, conceivably as a consequence of political ideology imposed by the ruling elites. By contending that wars were necessary for acquiring a sufficient number of victims for human sacrifices, which were essential for securing agricultural fertility and a proper functioning of the universe, the rulers could justify military campaigns as a cosmological necessity, rather than an activity driven by their own mundane ambitions. Such ideological substantiations were likely boosted after the Late Classic period, when the importance and militaristic attributes of the morning star, together with other religious ideas originating among the hunting and gathering societies, were brought to central Mexico with population movements from the north and ultimately spread across Mesoamerica.

In sum, the characteristics and the evolution of ideas surrounding the planet Venus in the Mesoamerican world view can be understood in the light of observational facts, social and political context, and specific historical processes.

Further Reading

Aveni, A. F. (2001). Skywatchers: A revised and updated version of Skywatchers of ancient Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press.Find this resource:

Baird, E. T. (1989). Stars and war at Cacaxtla. In R. A. Diehl & J. C. Berlo (Eds.), Mesoamerica after the decline of Teotihuacan: A.D. 700–900 (pp. 105–122). Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks.Find this resource:

Carlson, J. B. (1991). Venus-regulated warfare and ritual sacrifice in Mesoamerica: Teotihuacan and the Cacaxtla “star wars” connection. Center for Archaeoastronomy Technical Publication No. 7, College Park, MD.Find this resource:

Milbrath, S. (1999). Star gods of the Maya: Astronomy in art, folklore, and calendars. Austin: University of Texas Press.Find this resource:

Miller, V. E. (1989). Star warriors at Chichen Itza. In W. F. Hanks & D. S. Rice (Eds.), Word and image in Maya culture: Explorations in language, writing, and representation (pp. 287–305). Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.Find this resource:

Šprajc, I. (1993a). The Venus-rain-maize complex in the Mesoamerican world view: Part. I. Journal for the History of Astronomy, 24(1–2), 17–70.Find this resource:

Šprajc, I. (1993b). The Venus-rain-maize complex in the Mesoamerican world view: Part II. Archaeoastronomy No. 18 (Journal for the History of Astronomy, Supplement to Vol. 24), S27–S53.Find this resource:

Šprajc, I. (1996a). La estrella de Quetzalcóatl: El planeta Venus en Mesoamérica. México: Editorial Diana.Find this resource:

Šprajc, I. (2015a). Alignments upon Venus (and other planets): Identification and analysis. In C. L. N. Ruggles (Ed.), Handbook of archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy (pp. 507–516). New York: Springer.Find this resource:

Šprajc, I. (2015b). Governor’s Palace at Uxmal. In C. L. N. Ruggles (Ed.), Handbook of archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy (pp. 773–781). New York: Springer.Find this resource:

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Notes:

(1.) All the positions plotted in Figures 4 to 6 derive from calculations based on the data given by JPL HORIZONS on-line ephemeris computation service, provided by the Solar System Dynamics Group of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.