Reading the Sky for Signs

The Maya constructed Chichen Itza so that on each equinox the late afternoon sun hits the pyramid, creating the illusion of the feathered serpent slithering down the northern staircase. The Western world continues to use a calendar that is less accurate than the one Mesoamerican groups used prior to the colonial period. In Peru, while debates continue about their original use, the Nazca lines are meant to be seen from above, revealing an awareness that we cannot yet comprehend. These examples tell us that Indigenous groups in the Americas had profound knowledge of the stars, seasons, and time. In this section, we explore different responses to astronomical phenomena, beginning with the earliest known description of the Aztec calendar by Fray Toribio de Benavente (1527–1549). Alongside it is a reproduction of the “Representación de los cinco días” (undated), which highlights the five days at the beginning of the third and fourth trecenas of Tonalámatl, a divinity almanac structured around twenty thirteen-day periods. The precision of these calendars, and our inability to fully understand them, has led to cultural impositions. For instance, in 2012, the West imposed its own millenarianism upon the Maya calendar, claiming that the world would end. Juan de Dios Mora plays off of this in Nave Espacial Maya de 2012 (2011).

In 1680, the power of the Spanish viceroyalty of New Spain was shaky. The Pueblo Revolt had just kicked the Spaniards out of New Mexico while the viceroy, Payo Enríquez de Rivera y Manrique, resigned from his post and a transition to Tomás de la Cerda y Aragón was under way. Some, including Father Eusebio Kino, took the Great Comet blazing across the night sky as an omen from God, prompting him to chart its movement from his time in Cádiz through his time in Mexico City.

Father Kino’s Exposición astronómica (1681) is an early offering of an illustrated scientific treatise in the Americas and is tied to the first comet to be discovered using a telescope. Yet a greater knowledge of the stars is present here. Take, for instance, Kino’s placement of La Virgen de Guadalupe on the drawing so that it aligns with the sign of Virgo, thereby revealing Kino’s understanding of the constellations. Kino’s interpretation of the comet in times of uncertainty was not unique, even to Mexico. We know from Indigenous accounts in the first half of the 1500s that astronomical signs preceded the arrival of the Europeans.

Knowledge manifests in different ways. While some look to the stars for messages from their deities, others, such as Carlos Sigüenza y Góngora in his response to Kino, Manifiesto philosóphico contra los cometas despojados del imperio que tenían sobre los tímidos (1681) and Libra astrómica y philisóphica (1690), pointed toward the comet as a naturally occurring phenomenon of nature. The debate, which also includes Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s “Aunque es clara del cielo la luz pura” (1690), is an example of the seventeenth-century discussion of science and religion. Alicia Gaspar de Alba outlines this debate in an early draft of Sor Juana’s Second Dream (1999), titled “The Tenth Muse.”

Fascination with the role of religion in the cosmos continued in Brazilian cordel literature as well, such as the apocalyptic interpretation of Halley’s comet as God’s punishment for humankind’s corruption in Geraldo Moreira de Lacerda’s O Cometa de Halley (1985) or José Severino Cristóvão’s A Natureza e Seus Feitos.

Betye Saar’s Mystic Sky with Self-Portrait (1992) centers the importance of tarot readings that incorporate constellations, planets, and stars into the divination process. Saar’s self-portrait also includes references to palm-reading and alchemy as important elements to her identity as she searchers for a deeper understanding of self within the universe.

We close out this section with “Sobre cubierta con Martí” (undated), Ernesto Cardenal’s own ponderings about the universe, the infinite space that surrounds us, and whether we are alone in it.