The Planet Venus as a Symbol of Death and Resurrection in Ancient Mesoamerica
Do our myths come from the stars or do we project our myths onto the stars? The story of Mithras truly does come from astronomical discoveries in the ancient world. It was noticed that every 2,160 years the night sky changes with the constellations seemingly moving backward one notch (the precession of the equinoxes). Mithras thus became the god who altered the night sky in this manner. Indeed, an iconography and narrative involving him killing a bull (among other things) and representing the sun (Sol Invictus) was developed to the point where Mithraism challenged Christianity during the first few centuries AD. Yet, when the Egyptians saw the star Sirius rise, heralding the flooding of the Nile, they took an already formed mythological character, Isis, and equated the star to her. The planet Venus to the ancient Aztecs could go either way. Its birth from the sun, at the beginning of its observable cycle, and the death of the planet back into the sun, at the end of its observable cycle, was either equated to Quetzalcoatl’s death and resurrection or engendered that story.
Venus Symbolism and Quetzalcoatl
Quetzalcoatl, like Osiris to the Egyptians, was the mythological figure who brought farming and civilization to his people. Also, like Osiris, Quetzalcoatl had a malicious brother, Tezcatlipoca. Tezcatlipoca tricks Quetzalcoatl into drinking an intoxicant which leads to illicit relations with a priestess and, consequently, to Quetzalcoatl’s guilt-fueled self-immolation and resurrection. The Aztecs considered the planet Venus to literally be Quetzalcoatl either as the divine being or as the historical leader embodying the god who had been unjustly exiled.
Quetzalcoatl using the attributes of Ehecatl the wind god, thus representing the winds that bring the rain. From the Codex Borgia. (Public Domain)
In Mesoamerica the planet Venus is especially dazzling and, consequently, was considered of extreme importance. It was called the Ancient Star and when it appeared again in the East, after an 8-day absence in its cycle, priests flicked the blood of sacrificial victims toward it to appease it. Venus completes it revolution around the Sun every 224.7 days, yet, from Earth, Venus seems to complete a perceived cycle every 584 days.
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The Dresden Codex, one of the few Mayan books not destroyed by the Spanish, has a ritual calendar of 104 years based on this 584-day cycle. In this calendar the heliacal rising as a morning star (when Venus seems to appear out of the Sun) was given the ritual length of 236 days, its transition to an evening star at superior conjunction was given 90 days, its period as an evening star was given 250 days, and its disappearance at inferior conjunction was counted as 8 days (during which a wild festival was held).
Part of the Venus table in the Dresden Codex. (Public Domain)
Some modern researchers believe that a closer look at these numbers could have helped the Mesoamerican cultures discover an accurate model of our solar system, but scientific description was the last thing these folks were looking for, as they believed that the night sky contained messages that could guide one’s life and decisions on Earth. This was much more useful than discovering a heliocentric theory.
Venus Cycles, Signs in the Sky
Indeed, the patterns in the night sky seemed to cry out, “Decipher me! This is no coincidence! There is deep meaning in the stuff up here!” For example, Mesoamerican mathematicians realized that 5 x 584 = 8 x 365. This begged the question: “What does this mean!?” So, 8 Venus cycles equaled 5 Earth years. It had to mean something. The night sky was revelatory and this 8 to 5 ratio might not be immediately understood, but it was a piece of the overall puzzle to be kept for the day when it could be placed meaningfully into the greater picture.
The information derived from the night sky and other information used in magical predictions was arithmetical and numerological to the Mesoamericans. There was, for instance, a Sacred Round of 260 days. Nobody, anymore, is sure where they got this from – maybe the period of time for human gestation.
The Tzolk'in calendar. Sacred Round of 260 days. (ltcconline.net)
It became a type of mathematical constant, however. 2 x 260 = 520, which equals, for instance, three lunar half years. The Dresden Codex, from which we learn of the importance of the planet Venus in the lives of the power elite in Mesoamerica, was a book of divination with the stations of the Venus cycle as important aspects of when, for example, war should occur.
Venus, the Perfect Symbol for Dualism
Yet, the four-part division of the Venus cycle also allowed for the creation of a story. It allowed for the creation of allegorical or symbolic qualities which invited the god Quetzalcoatl into the picture or, perhaps, lead to the creation of the Quetzalcoatl story. These four intervals could be roughly divided into Venus as a morning or evening star incorporating disappearances in front of and behind the sun. One could begin to say that the planet Venus was born from the Sun and died back into the Sun.
Venus thus becomes the perfect symbol for various types of dualisms, e.g. death and resurrection, purity and sin, malevolence and benevolence. Various optimistic or pessimistic connotations could accrue to the two major parts of the story, lending value or potency to predictions based on where Venus might be at any given time.
Indeed, the rising of Venus from the Sun was interpreted ominously. In the Dresden Codex we see Venus as an armed warrior-god spearing a victim. Only a solar eclipse was feared more than the heliacal rising of Venus. The historical Quetzalcoatl stated he would return from the east to gain vengeance, and thus the reemergence of the planet brought this prediction back into everyone’s consciousness. Venus rising from the Sun was a foreshadowing of Quetzalcoatl returning to gain justice against a corrupt society.
Six sheets of the Dresden Codex (pp. 55-59, 74) depicting eclipses, multiplication tables, and the flood. (Public Domain)
It is important to also realize that Quetzalcoatl means “precious twin”. The two appearances of the planet are like twin stars, one emerging from the light and one descending into darkness. The story went that when Quetzalcoatl (the god) killed himself, a star rose from the funeral pyre. He then turned a negative into a positive by traveling through the underworld searching for the bones with which he could create humanity.
The Planet’s Impact on Ceremonial Centers
As you might expect, architecture was also influenced by the planet Venus. The two most famous structures are at Caracol and Uxmal, as ceremonial centers of enhanced sacred power. They are both observatories to chart the movement of Venus and centers for the worship of Quetzalcoatl. At Caracol windows at the top of the structure look out to the northern and southern extremes of Venus. At Uxmal a line passes through a platform and points to the rising of Venus at its southernmost point.
The individuals who inhabited these astronomically established structures were members of the political establishment. They determined the most advantageous days for military campaigns, planting and harvesting and even the most promising days for marriage among the elites. Often dates were juggled around by these priests to create a positive astrological link to a ruler’s actions or to reinforce a political mandate. The sacred authority of Maya and Aztec rulers was buttressed through the work of these astronomer-priests and the numbers they compiled concerning Venus.
Representation of a Maya astronomer from page 34 of the Madrid Codex. (Public Domain)
Death and Resurrection
This orientation toward the sky was, of course, universal. When one considers how impossible it was for the Mesoamericans, or even the Babylonians, to free themselves of the magical associations involved in astrology, the birth of science and philosophy in Greece seems even more remarkable. Although magic and foreboding cannot be divorced from the Mesoamerican concept of astrology, we, certainly, are not so constricted. We can readily accept Aztec symbolism divorced from magical consequences and find meaning in the journey of Venus. Yet, we seem utterly divorced from the sky and few of us find fascination with naked-eye astronomy.
The concept of death and resurrection pervades ancient mythology as one of our central hopes is that we can rise again, if not literally then metaphorically. It represents the awakening from denial to awareness, the movement from a lower to a higher nature. Perhaps the symbolism resonates so strongly with us because of the deep awareness we have that there is a process of becoming available to us, that through patience and self-examination we can discern the necessity for the most humane values and responses to emanate in our lives.
Venus, pictured center-right, is always brighter than all other planets or stars as seen from Earth. Jupiter is visible at the top of the image. (Brocken Inaglory/CC BY-SA 3.0)
To believe that union must emerge from divorce, mercy must emerge from revenge, kindness from callousness, patience from petulance, joy from despair, love from hatred, brotherhood from antagonism is to realize a meaning in the Ancient Star’s journey. To be able to pick Venus out of the sky, and understand that it can be a symbol of death and resurrection, of adversity and hope, is an extraordinarily powerful aesthetic experience.
By Daniel Gauss
Suggestions for further reading:
Dr. Anthony F. Aveni, of Colgate University, is widely regarded as one of the founders of the scientific study of Mesoamerican archeoastronomy and he helped in the overall development of the field of archeoastronomy. You can visit his web page here: https://www.anthonyfaveni.com/
Dr. Aveni is the author of numerous books, and, if I had to select one of them as a recommendation, I would easily choose ‘Star Stories: Constellations and People.’ This book relates various stories that folks from numerous cultures have either derived from or imputed to the night sky.
If you wish something a bit more scholarly, ‘Archaeoastronomy in the New World: American Primitive Astronomy, ’edited by Aveni, may be your cup of tea, although it is a bit old, having been published in 1982. Yet, it shows the beginning stages and seminal studies of the now robust field of archeoastronomy in the Western Hemisphere.