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date: 23 May 2018

Venus in Mesoamerica

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.

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, which define the cultural area known as Mesoamerica, and are expressed in technology; forms of subsistence and 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 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. On the other hand, 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 to be 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, being fostered by the rulers who exploited them in order 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 sociopolitical context.