Keeping score

The period between solstice and New Year’s usually finds me thinking about time: what it is, how we experience it. Few cultures have gone as deeply into the nature of time as the Maya. But so much of their worldview is so strange to me that, no matter how lucid the explanation, I find myself at a loss to grasp what is really being said. Some of my incomprehension derives, I think, from our deeply ingrained modern tendency to view place and time as separable. But there’s more:

“Since he revealed himself only when he was born, it is only his reflection that now remains.” The scribes who transposed these words from New World characters into Old World letters felt the need to add an interpretation – or, to phrase the matter more the way it is phrased in Quiché, they felt the need to tell the reader what these words would say if we could hear what was hidden inside them, namely,

The sun that shows itself is not the real sun.

There are people down around the Great Hollow today, people reckoned in the Book as relatives of the Quiché, who at least allow us the sight of the sun for half of each day. They say that when he reached noon on the day of his first appearance, he placed a mirror at the center of the sky and then doubled back, unseen, to the east. During the second half of that day only his reflection was seen, and so it has been on every day since.

“Reflection,” these people say, and so says the Book. Lemo’ is the word, and it’s also the term for mirror. But the mirror reflects, during the second half of the day, what the Sun did during the first half. Or else it reflects, during our own times, what Sun did only once, and long ago. Coming here among these Mayan nations, we seem to have entered a world where reflections are not simultaneous with the things reflected. Reading the Book, we may guess that reflections ceased to be simultaneous the moment vigesimal beings [i.e., humans, people who keep score] lost their perfect vision:

“They were blinded as the face of a mirror is breathed upon.”

And what about the face in an ordinary mirror, seen close up? Leaving the land where they say lemo’ and coming back home won’t help. If any face is the true face of a vigesimal being it’s the one we all see in the mirror.

Dennis Tedlock, Breath on the Mirror: Mythic Voices & Visions of the Living Maya, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.


See Deforming mirror and Therapy and the face in the mirror, which deal with Nahuatl conceptions of mirrors. Influence traveled in both directions between the classic Mayan and Nahuatl (Toltec, Aztec) civilizations. See also my brief meditation Consulting the mirror, from last January.

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