Calendar Animals and Deities

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Calendar Animals and Deities David H. Kelley Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 16, No. 3. (Autumn, 1960), pp. 317-337. Stable URL: Southwestern Journal of Anthropology is currently published by University of New Mexico.

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HE PURPOSE of this paper is to draw attention to certain similarities of sequence in names found in calendrical lists. The similarities considered are primarily found in animal names; however, some attention is given to other names, especially those of deities. Major emphasis is on calendrical lists from Eurasia and Mesoamerica, with some remarks on the named lunar nights of Polynesia. The most important lists involved are: 1. The named lunar houses. These are sequences of 27 or 28 named constellations from China, Persia, Arabia, Egypt, India, and some other areas of Eurasia. The Indian material is found in markedly different fonns from Jain and Hindu sources; there is also a Hindu list of the deities who ruled each of these constellations. 2. A sequence of 27-30 "lunar animals" known from China, Southeast Asia, and Greece. The Greek list includes one section of object names rather than animal names. 3. A sequence of named "nights of the moon" from Polynesia. 4. Several lists of 20 day-names, following one another in unbroken sequence, from various Mesoamerican groups such as the Aztecs, Mayas, Zapotecs, Mixes, Otomis, Mixtecs, et al. There is an Aztec list of the deities ruling these days. The names are not cognates from one linguistic group to another; the meanings in some cases are easily translatable and are often the same from one group to another; in other cases, the meaning of the names is obscure or complete untranslatable. The Aztec list differs from the others in the fact that all of the names are of easily detennined meaning, ten of the names being animals. This simplicity has usually been interpreted as indicating a relatively late standardization from earlier, more esoteric, lists. However, in Eurasia one finds that lists of animals, symbols, and deities coexisted, and this suggests that they might also coexist in Mesoamerica, whether one takes a diffusionist view or the view that parallel systems will tend to produce parallel results. REMARKS ON PREVIOUS STUDIES

The first person to draw attention to similarities between names in Eurasia and Mesoamerica was Alexander von Humboldt. However, he was unable to show that any sequential correspondence was involved. A brilliant study by Graebner * The final draft of this paper was prepared as part of a more detailed investigation supported by a research grant from Texas Technological College, 1960. 317 VOL.

16, 1960



(1921), which has received very little attention in the United States, pointed out that there was some correspondence in sequence between Aztec and Southeast Asian lists. Cyrus Thomas (1894) pointed out some similarities between the Polynesian and Mayan calendars which he thought indicated the Polynesian origin of the Mesoamerican calendar, and the ultimate Asiatic derivation of both. Subsequently, a number of other scholars have worked on the problem, but most Americans who have studied New World culture history have ignored publications dealing with the Old World origin of the Mesoamerican calendars, or have been content to point out methodological weaknesses in these works and assume that the results were, therefore, invalid. In a brief article, it is impossible to consider in detail the validity of the many arguments and rebuttals which have been presented, or to review the history of the many scholars who have previously reached conclusions similar to those presented here. Much data on associated material must be omitted, and the relationships and history of the Arabic, Hindu, and Chinese systems of lunar houses can not be examined. It will suffice to point out that the Arabic system is mentioned in the Koran; the Hindu lists are given in full in the Atharva Veda; and we know from documentary sources that the system of lunar mansions was in use in China at least by the late centuries BC, while internal astronomical evidence from China suggests the origin of the Eurasian system by about 2500 Be. The most recent and fullest summary of this material is in Needham. 1 I believe that the series of lunar animals associated with the lunar mansions has a related origin and similar history; however, many scholars disagree, and probably the view expressed by Weinstock (1950) is widely held. He maintains that the Chinese lunar animals derive from a Greek original in the early centuries AD. Kroeber,2 in denying the relationship of the Chinese twelve-animal system, the Western zodiac, and a system of thirteen animals among the Mayas writes "Genuine evidence for connection would be clean-cut in a closed system like this. It would consist of the number of symbols being the same; at least a majority of the symbols also being patently the same; and the order of the symbols being the same, or mostly the same." However, even within Asia, where the relationships are admitted by Kroeber, these criteria cannot be reconciled with the nature of these systems. That the number of symbols may vary in closely related systems is shown by the Hindu month sequence, in which every one of the twelve names of the month recurs as one of the twenty-seven lunar mansions, and by the Chinese animal sequence in which the twelve animals (forming the series to which Kroeber 1 Needham, 1959, vol. 3, sec. 20, seen in proof by courtesy of the author. 2 Kroeber, 1948, p. 547.



refers) all recur in the same order among the twenty-eight lunar animals. Saussure

has shown the high probability of a change in the order of the Chinese lunar

animals, and classical writers show that while four of the days of the week appear in the same order, three of them show marked variability. When the Vedic series of twelve animals is compared with the Chinese series, we find that eight of the names are the same and in the same sequence, but Crocodile substitutes for Dragon, Deer substitutes for Dog, Sparrow substitutes for Rooster, and Elephant substitues for Horse. Substitutions of conceptual equivalents which sometimes seem very far-fetched to us do occur. Unless the reason for them is very clear-cut in terms of the symbols of the local cultures concerned, they can never furnish proof of contact, but even a short series of sequential identities is adequate to prove statistically some sort of common origin, which can not be refuted because of such dissimilarities. A comparison of the Vedic series of twelve animals with the Chinese series of twenty-eight animals would start with the handicaps of not having the same number of symbols and of showing some differences in order. Moreover, although the majority of symbols are "patently the same," there are some differences, and a slight continuation of the process of differentiation would be ample to account for major dissimilarities. For a similar closed system, the alphabet, the number of symbols varies with remarkable freedom, the order has sometimes (though rarely) been completely changed, and the form of the symbols changes beyond recognition except to those who have carefully traced the changing forms through time and space. DISCUSSION OF COMPARISONS

Table 1 shows a comparison of the twenty-eight Hindu lunar houses and their ruling deities with the Aztec twenty day-names and their ruling deities. There are some marked correspondences, extending to structural features and sequences. The Hindu list shows the storm god exactly half-way around the sequence from the water-goddesses, and the Aztec list shows water half-way around the sequence from rain. The Aztec sequence Death-Deer-Rabbit-Water shows a remarkable coincidence with the Hindu sequence, where Yama, the death god, is followed by Agni, god of fire, and he in turn by Prajapati, the high god (in deer shape) ruling the constellation called «'the roe deer." Prajapati is followed by Soma, the moon god who, in tum, is followed by Rudra, the storm god. The correspondence of Soma and Rabbit, which at first sight seems the poorest, in fact involves a complex of similarities. Both in India and among the Aztecs, the figure in the moon is represented as a rabbit; Soma is not only the moon god, but has generally been stated in older authorities to be a type of liquor, although I have been informed






Comparison of Aztec and Hindu calendar sequences Aztec deities ruling to days

Tonacatecuhtli god of life Quetzalcoatl, Feathered Serpent TepeyollotI, jaguar god of mountains, with Tlazolteotl, old earth and moon goddess Ueuecoyotl, Old Fox, a dance god Chalchiuhtlicue, Jade Skirt, a water goddess T ecciztecatl, the moon god, with T ezcatIipoca Tlaloc, the rain god Mayauel, goddess of the moon, agave, and drunkenness Xiuhtecuhtli, fire and year god, with Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, Venus god Mictlantecuhtli, god of death; Tonatiuh, sun god

Aztec day names


Hindu deities ruling the lunar mansions

1. Cipactli, crocodile, swordfish 2. Ehecatl, god of wind

the Vasus, 9 earth gods

3. Calli, house

Aja Ekapad, the one-footed goat Ahi Budhnya, the serpent of the deeps Pusan, the prosperer, charioteer of the sun Asvins, the twins

4. Cuetzpallin, lizard 5. CoatI, snake (also means "twin") 6. Miquiztli, death 7. Mazatl, deer 8. Tochtli, rabbit ( figure in moon a rabbit) 9. Atl, water 10. ItzcuintIi, dog

Varuna, god of ocean

Yama, god of death Agni, god of fire Prajapati, high god in deer shape Soma, god of liquor and the moon (figure in moon a rabbit) Rudra, "Red," the storm god Aditi, mother of the gods, as a cow

Hindu lunar mansions

22. Srav~tha, most famous 23. Satabh~aj





24. Piirva Bhadrapacla


25. Uttara Bhadrapada



26. Revati, wealthy 27. Asvini 28. Bharani, bearer 1. Krittikii 2. Rohini, red, roe-deer 3. Mrigasiras, stag's head 4. Ardra, moist 5. Punarvasu, the two good (ones) again



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