The Twenty Day-Signs of Mesoamerican Astrology
by Bruce Scofield
Perhaps as far back as 3,000 years a unique form of astrology began to evolve in the Mesoamerican region of the New World, today's Mexico and northern Central America. A sequence of 20 signs, not of space like our Western zodiac, but of time, evolved and became the core of a great astrological tradition that has been perpetuated up to the present time. The key to this tradition and the framework within which the 20-signs cycle is the 260-day astrological calendar.
The 260-day astrological calendar, also known as the sacred calendar or divinatory calendar, was used by all the major cultures up to the Aztecs, and is still being used by Maya peoples in the more remote sections of Mexico and Guatemala. It consists of a cycle of 20 days, each having a name and a specific symbolism that cycles 13 times. On a more subtle level is a cycle of 13 that repeats 20 times within this same period. A person's birth is recorded as occurring during one of the 20 signs, the day-sign, and also during a 13-day period or sign. Again, these are signs of time, not of space like the zodiac. According to anthropologists who have studied these peoples and their use of the calendar, it has not dropped a day since the invasion of the Spanish conquistadors and friars. Although the calendar itself survives, the meanings of the key symbols have become somewhat distorted and are in need of rehabilitation.
Many people have heard about the Mayan calendar. More properly called the Long Count, this time-keeping tradition is essentially astrological – it was the mundane astrology of ancient Mesoamerica. The Long Count is a 5,125-year period that is one fifth the length of the roughly 25,600-year cycle called the precession of the equinoxes. The ancient Maya divided this period into smaller pieces much like our calendar year is divided into months, weeks and days. The most important division of the Long Count is the 260 katuns, or periods of about 20 years. Each katun functions like a day-sign, except that it is the length of a human generation! Today we are living during the final years of the last katun which will end in 2012.
Like the Western zodiac and the Chinese cycle of 12 years, many of the twenty days are named for animals. In early cultures, animals were very much a part of life. Each animal has its own peculiar character and it was convenient to designate a personality by associating it with an animal. We do this today when we call a person a snake, or say they are bull-headed. Countries have official animals also. Of the twenty named-days, ten refer to animals. The other ten refer to forces of nature, plants or life experiences. In Western astrology, one is born under a particular sign, or more properly, the Sun was in a particular sign at birth. Likewise in the Aztec sacred calendar, one is born during a day that is "ruled" by one of the twenty named-days.
In ancient times the knowledge of the sacred calendar and the twenty named-days was kept by both priests and calendar specialists who read fortunes and answered questions for the public. In the lands of the Maya these people were, and are, called daykeepers. The Aztec word for the astrological calendar is "tonalpouhalli" and the order of the days was kept in picture-books called "tonalamatl," which means "book of fate." When a child was born, the parents would go to a priest or reader to learn the name of the birthdate. Part of the child's name would be the name of that day. In the manuscripts from Aztec times, persons are often referred to by their calendar name. Eight-Deer, a hero in one ancient picture-manuscript, is a good example. The parents would also learn about the child's fate, character and profession. In order to avoid a bad fate, parents would often have their children baptized on a better day, even if this meant waiting a few days to make the birth official.
The sacred calendar was also used to find auspicious times. When merchants were to set off on a long journey, the astrological calendar readers were consulted. The preferred day for a business expedition was the day 1-Serpent. Likewise, the military used the calendar to time their actions. Individuals could consult astrologers to find answers to questions and cures for illness. Like the I-Ching, the great divinatory text from ancient China, the astrological calendar was a guiding force for the people and the culture.
Finally, sky events such as eclipses, planetary conjunctions and the movements of the planet Venus were interpreted according to the time-signs that these events occurred within. There are a few tantalizing remnants of delineations for the effects of Venus/Sun conjunctions during the 13-day signs. Anecdotal research suggests that these delineations continue to work in modern times.
Here are the twenty signs or symbols that form the core of the Mesoamerican astrological tradition. Like the twelve signs of the zodiac, they follow a definite sequence and symbolize a kind of evolutionary movement. Each of the day-signs is assigned to one of the four directions in the order East, North, West and South. This order repeats five times -- there are five sets of four signs that make up the key twenty signs of the 260-day calendar. We can see an analogy with the 4 elements of Fire, Earth, Air and Water in Western astrology as a classification of each of the 12 signs of the Western zodiac. Signs of the East are powerful and initiating while those of the West are concerned with relationship. This is similar to the directional associations with the horoscope, the Ascendant being East and the Descendant being West. Signs of the North are more mental, those of the South more emotional.
The Meaning of Each Day Sign
An understanding of these signs, similar to an understanding of the zodiac, is the key to Mesoamerican astrology. Here is a system in the process of rehabilitation that offers an extraordinary personality matrix, one that in most cases requires no birth time. Within this system is a most accessible means of self-knowledge with tremendous potential. The day-signs, the core of Mesoamerican astrology, are one of the greatest intellectual achievements of New World civilization, and it lives again in the 21st century.
Determining the day-sign and 13-day sign (only two of the elements in a full Mesoamerican horoscope, though probably the most important ones) have in the past required tables that are far too long for this short article. With computer software, however, calculations are instantaneous. An easy way to find your day sign and your place in other important cycles used in Mayan astrology is to get your Mayan Life Path Astrology report, available from Alabe.com.
Bruce Scofield is the author of Astrolabe’s Mayan Life Path Astrology and Professional Forecaster reports, as well as a number of books including Day-Signs: Native American Astrology from Ancient Mexico, Signs of Time: An Introduction to Mesoamerican Astrology and How to Practice Mayan Astrology. His website is www.onereed.com.
© 2006 Bruce Scofield