Much Ado About Time

April 8, 2009

Time has been of essence to most thinkers, philosophers, mathematicians, physicists and almost anyone else wishing to understand this incredible phenomenon responsible for our birth, life and death. The ancient Maya were one such nation who were “obsessed with time”:

How else to explain Long Count calendrical inscriptions, which might consist of more than a dozen glyphs, laboriously carved in stone, all of which firmly anchor events of a particular day in the present by tying them to cosmic history: precise counts of elapsed days, painstakingly calculated via multiple calendars based on an origin point several thousand years in the past? (Rice, Maya Political xvi).

The Mayan and Mesoamerican model “closely interrelates political power, time, space, and the notion of kingly duty as a sacred “burden”” (Maya Political 53). Indeed, the Maya kings were called the “rulers of time” (Maya Political 52). Rice quotes Barbara Tedlock in that the Maya were “interested not only in the quantities of time but also in its qualities, especially its meaning for human affairs” (56). The mathematical calculations of the Maya were very intricate and precise, and they were indeed able to predict the occurrences and movements of astral bodies thousands of years into the future. This “predictive astronomy” allowed the Maya to plan social activities and rituals and guided them through life, allowing them to “remember their future and anticipate their past” (Maya Political 57).

Cyclical time is at the essence of Maya – and all Mesoamerican – cosmology, though paradoxically the Maya viewed time both as linear and cyclical (Rice, Maya Political 57). According to Rice, the so-called time cycles are not actual cycles, but rather “two-dimensional pseudocycles, linear sine-wave patterns on X-Y-coordinates charting the peaks and valleys – the beginning, middle, and end – of cultural rise and fall” (53). Rice also points out that the Maya view of time and a quadripartite universe is not far from the view presented by the physicists today (Maya Political 56). All ancient Mesoamerican peoples shared a calendrical system, which remained pertinent for over 2600 years, mostly due to its mathematical accuracy (Maya Political 57). The Maya kept track of the passage of linear time by counting days from an event which occurred in 3114 B.C. in the Gregorian calendar (Maya Political 58). The Long Count that the Maya used is one of the most advanced calendrical systems; as Maya scholar Michael D. Coe states, it is “an absolute, day-to-day calendar which has run like some great clock from a point in the mythical past” (The Maya 25). The Mayas believed “time was a living being that had a personality, a sort of identity” (Yellow Woman 136). Maya days and cycles were named after deities, who were to bear the “burden” of time. Thus all Maya units of time were not abstract but rather living or even supernatural beings (Maya Political 58).

The Maya believed in multiple creations of the cosmos, the current one having begun 3114 B.C. This date marks the beginning of the present Fourth – or Fifth – Creation of the Cosmos, the beginning of time. This concept of multiple creations is similar in other Native American belief systems as well, e.g. the Fifth World of the Navajo or Pueblo religions. It is somewhat foreign to Western beliefs, although a similar idea can be found in the idea of eternal recurrence that some philosophers, e.g. Nietzsche, have written about.

The connection between time and space is present in many Western theories as well; Heideggerian theory of time considers time as measured and time as experienced as different. Wesley A. Kort writes about Heidegger’s “radically personal nature of human temporality” (Modern Fiction 156). According to Heidegger, “the question of temporality in its radically personal nature has been avoided throughout the whole of Western culture’s reflections on the nature and meaning of time” (Kort, Modern Fiction 157). Stephen Hawking reminds us in A Brief History of Time that both Aristotle and Newton believed in absolute time, meaning that the interval between two events remained the same regardless of who measured it, and thus time was seen as completely independent of space (Brief History 18). The theory of relativity, developed by Einstein, revolutionised the ideas of time and space. According to the relativity theory, each observer has his own measure of time, measured by the clock they carry with them, and the clocks carried by different observers might not necessarily agree, depending on where the person is and how he is moving (Brief History 22, 34). Time is, therefore, dependent on space. In physics, time is called the “fourth dimension” (47). Hawking also states that when the relativity theory is combined with the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, “it is possible for both space and time to be finite without any edges or boundaries” (Brief History 47). The conception of relative time indeed coincides with the Native American notion of time as neverending, cyclic, without a beginning or an end. Hawking states, in accordance with Heidegger, that with relativity, “time became a more personal concept, relative to the observer who measured it” (147). Thus, the Native American concept of time as relative as well as the relationship between time and space are indeed in accordance with Western physics, and the idea of linear time seems to be a Western cultural phenomenon, as Kort argued above.

If time really is relative, or cyclic, or personal, where does all of that leave us who are living in the now? Some philosophers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, claim to have the answers. Much like the Native Americans, Nietzsche sees time and the “temporality” of the human experience of time as a significant factor in the healing of the illness in the world. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra feels the weight of the past and the present, but suggests as a remedy that people should live in futurity. Past, present and future are therefore inevitably tied, and the individual – and global – destinies equally so. Time stands still and yet points towards the future – a future we all will, do, and must share.


Coe, Michael D. The Maya. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1966 (2005).

——————-. Breaking the Maya Code. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1992 (1999).

Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time. New Youk: Bantam Books, 1996 (1988).

Kort, Wesley A. Modern Fiction and Human Time: A Study in Narrative and Belief. Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1985.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. New York: Penguin Books, 1966 (1954).

Rice, Prudence M. Maya Political Science: Time, Astronomy, and the Cosmos. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.


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