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HORUS VOL I. Issue 2
Venus: A Battle Star?
by C.E. Bowen
Measurement of time by celestial cycles and concern with the calendar played a much more visible role in ancient civilizations than in our own. In ancient times, the calendar was not merely a device to mark
the days, weeks, and months of the year. The calendar system was perceived religiously and the priests gave the astronomical gods, active, vital roles in daily affairs. As a result, each day was different,
depending upon which astronomical gods were believed to control or influence a particular phase of the calendar cycle. These divine influences over things that were planned to take place on a certain day were
taken into careful consideration by kings and farmers alike.
Since only certain gods at certain times would be well-disposed toward specific human activities or seasonal conditions in nature it was important to plan and act accordingly if one desired a favorable outcome.
Thus, the calendar was used not only to forecast appropriate planting and harvesting times or to predict general weather conditions as we do with an almanac, but to decide as well the best times to undertake
actions in the affairs of state, including military action.
One astronomical god found prominently in the pantheons of ancient civilizations was that which represented Venus. While the role this god played in the schema of beliefs varied from culture to culture, there
is an interesting communality of belief relating Venus to both the bounty of crops and to the appropriate times for warfare. Examples of this common belief are found in ancient Babylonia, in the period of the
Han dynasty in China, and in Mesoamerica just prior to the Spanish Conquest. Whatever the source, these beliefs have been echoed by cultures half a world apart and separated in time by many centuries.
[*!* Lahaun Chan from the Venus Table in the Dresden Codex]
Venus in Babylonian Beliefs
One of the most ancient documents yet discovered concerning the planet Venus is the so-called Venus Table K. 160, which came from Assurbanipal's library in Nineveh. This table is a list of the movements of
Venus and its expected influence on human affairs. As can be seen in the following English version [based on a German translation by F. X. Kugler] of these auguries for the fifth and sixth groupings of
Document B (lines 16-23), there are references to hostilities after- but not during- either superior or inferior conjunction of Venus.
16. If Venus becomes visible in the East on the sixth of Abu, there will be showers of rain given from the sky; there will be destruction.
17. It is in the East until the tenth of Nisan; on the eleventh day of Nisan, it disappears.
18. It remains gone from the sky for three months; on the eleventh of Duzu, Venus again lights up in the West.
19. Then there will be hostilities in the country, [but] the produce of the country's fields will prosper.
20. If Venus is visible in the West on the seventh of Elulu, the produce of the country's fields will prosper, for the heart of the land will be [in] well-being.
21. It is in the West until the eleventh of Airu, the twelfth of Airu it disappears.
22. It remains gone from the sky seven days and on the nineteenth of Airu, Venus...
23. . . . again lights up in the East. Then there will be hostilities in the Land.
Venus in Chinese Beliefs
It is interesting to find basically the same belief in this relationship of Venus to warfare later, during 23 A. D. in China. History states that Wang Mang, who assumed power in 9 A. D. had killed three of Liu
Hsin's children and Liu Hsin, himself, feared a similar fate. It was under these circumstances that Liu Hsin initiated a plot to overthrow Wang Mang; however, he delayed his revenge until the Venus was visible
in the sky because of the belief that that planet must preside over the execution of one who has done wrong. Moreover, he apparently delayed action as well because of the related belief that troops going into
battle when Venus was invisible would suffer defeat. Apparently this patience paid off because Liu Hsin was successful and subsequently restored the Han Dynasty to power.
Venus in Aztec Belief
The ancient peoples of Central Mexico also shared the belief that Venus played a direct role in human affairs. Paragraph 51 of the "Anales de Cuauhtitlan," a document written in Nahautl (the language of the
Aztecs) sometime after the Spaniard's conquest of Mexico, states:
"They know when it [Venus] is going to appear, in which signs and how long it will shine, shoot its rays and show them anger. If it falls on 1 Cipactli (swordfish), it shoots the old men and old women,
everyone alike, with arrows [rays]. If on 1 Ocelotl (tiger), if on 1 Macatl (deer), if on 1 Xochid (flower), it shoots the young children with arrows. If on 1 Acati (reed), it shoots the great lords with
arrows, just as on 1 Miquiztli (death). If on 1 Quiyahuitl (rain), it shoots the rain with arrows, and it will not rain. If on 1 Olin (movement), it shoots the young men and young women with arrows; and if
on 1 Atl (water), everything becomes dry, etc. Therefore, the old men and old women venerate each one of those signs."
In 1898, Eduard Seler showed that the above was not a localized belief in Mesoamerica. He demonstrated that parallel descriptions of Venus' influence were also depicted in the Borgia, Bologna, and Vaticanus
B Codices (from Central Mexico) as well as in the Mayan Dresden Codex. In other words, throughout Mesoamerica, Venus was believed to be a threat to people of all ages, their livelihood (maize), and to their
rulers and warriors (young men). The threat to the rulers and warriors could include, as one option, overthrow and defeat in battle. This is reinforced by Seler's additional observation that Tlauizcalpantecutli
(the god of the Morning and Evening Star) was a representative of those who have fallen in battle.
In his "Historia de los Indios de Nueva Espana," (History of the Indians of New Spain) Friar Toribio Motlinia writes;
"After the Sun, they worshiped and made more sacrifices to this star [Venus] than to any other celestial or terrestrial creature. After it disappeared in the West, the astrologers knew the day when the
Eastern One (the "eastern planet" or "planet in the East") would first appear again, and they prepared [for] war, a festival and sacrifices for that first day, and the lord gave an Indian whom they then
sacrificed in the morning, as the star rose and appeared, and they also performed many other ceremonies and sacrifices. . . "
This reference to warfare probably refers to the fact that the Aztecs undertook frequent "wars of flowers" to obtain victims for sacrifice. This combat was not one of conquest under the aegis of Venus but rather
was for purposes of placating the god since, as Friar Sahagun reported, the Aztecs had a great fear of Venus when it first appeared in the East as Morning Star. Thus Venus apparently was not strictly a god of
war in the Aztec pantheon. This god was related to warfare, however, for he was apparently influential with respect to the well-being of the warrior class and clearly was related to those who had fallen in
[*!* Image: Offering in Front of a God]
Venus in Mayan Beliefs
The role of Venus in the belief system of the Quiche Maya is not clear. The "Popol Vuh," a book of the ancient Quiche Maya in Guatemala, tells that 44 ... they saw and invoked the coming of the sun, the
arrival of day; and at the same time that they saw the rising of the sun, they contemplated the Morning Star, the Great Star, which comes ahead of the Sun. . . " (Goetz and Motley: 1950, p. 173). Further on, the
Popol Vuh states that they apparently viewed the Morning Star (Icoquih) simply as the herald of the Sun.
The Popol Vuh leaves one with the impression that Venus was merely the precursor of the Sun; however, there is clear evidence that its role was much more important than that. Floyd Lounsbury and Michael
Closs have studied certain dates on the monuments in the Mayan area and have concluded that some of the dates may have been selected intentionally to coincide with some point in the Venus cycle.
For example, F.G. Lounsbury (1982) investigated a date shown in Room 2 of the murals at Bonampak. The mural in this room shows a battle scene and the ruler's ritual execution of a captive. Although the date
of this event is not clear, Lounsbury believed that the date 126.96.36.199.5 13 Chicchan 13 Yax (equivalent to the Julian date of August 2, 792 A. D.) was the correct reading. Using the most generally accepted
(Thompson's) correlation of the Mayan calendar with our own, this date places the event exactly at the time of an inferior conjunction of Venus.
[*!* Image: References to Venus in Paris Codex, page 5]
[*!* Image: Eclipse Symbols of the Sun and Moon (?) and for Star]
Lounsbury also investigated other dates, which were possibly related to warfare at Bonampak and elsewhere. He concluded that there were instances where these inscriptions were somehow related to the
position of Venus in the sky or at least made use of a word or idiom relating to warfare which included reference to Venus. For example, he found that the date given in connection with a glyph having possible
military significance [8 Kan, 17 Muan, 188.8.131.52.4.1 was thirty days after the superior conjunction of Venus: a time which could be consistent with its first visibility as Evening Star in that part of the world.
Were these Venus events merely a coincidence or was there, in fact, a conscious choice on the part of the Maya? Some light is shed on this question in Bishop Landa's book, Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan,
which was written about the Maya. There he mentions that the Maya used the constellations of the Pleiades and Gemini as guides to determine when the Morning Star would rise. The relationship of these stars
with Venus could have some meaning with respect to agriculture: the Pleiades rise just before the sun during May (the month of Pax in Landa's listing of the months) and this month is the start of the rainy
season; therefore ' it is time to plant the maize crops. However, this does not seem to explain the planet's apparent relationship to warfare.
While Landa does not explain the reason for observing Venus, some clarification may be obtained from the fact that the Maya had books in which they preserved certain astronomical records and auguries.
They referred to these for the appropriate times ". . . when they were to sow and to gather and to go to hunt and to war."
This interest in Venus becomes more clear when one looks at the Dresden and Grolier Codices. One section of the Dresden Codex (pp. 24, and 46-50) shows specific dates for the various periods of Venus and
the associated omens. As pointed out above, the auguries for the various Venus periods closely parallel the beliefs held by the Aztecs. A very specific reference to warfare can be inferred from the fifth section
of this table, which shows a warrior, holding a shield and spear in a defensive stance, being himself speared by a god whom J. Erie Thompson identifies as the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca-Itzlacoliuhqui-Ixquimilli,
one of whose manifestations was that of the Morning Star. The Grolier Codex also depicts information about Venus' periods in a more general manner. Here each scene depicts a warrior deity, armed with a
spear, grasping a prisoner or performing some action before a temple. By consulting these books, the astronomer priests provided information regarding the phases of Venus in its cycle and its influence on their
In fact, the Maya gathered at least once a year specifically for the purpose of discussing matters relating to warfare. Landa relates that the Maya kept watch in the temple of Cit Chac Coh during the sixteenth
"month" of twenty days, called Pax. According to this account, this festival concerned matters of war and securing victory over their enemies. Ferdinand Anders points out that this rite in Pax might have come
from the Mexicans. He goes on to point out that the name of the deity means 'Father-red-puma, " and was said to represent the Night Sun, the seventh god in the series of the Lords of the Night.
While Landa's account does not mention Venus in connection with the ceremonies in Pax, it is interesting to note that the Venus Table in the Dresden codex (p 47e) contains a glyph of the victim of Venus,
which Thompson read as Chac Bolay. Alternatively, the victim's name could also be read as Chac Balam, "great Jaguar (red puma). " This observation, coupled with the fact that the "Diccionario Maya
Cordemex" includes entries which indicate that other students of Maya history regard Cit Chac Coh as a god of war, gives a reasonable basis for assuming that Venus and warfare were somehow related in
It should also be noted that the patron god shown in the introductory glyph to dates on stelae for the tenth month, Yax, is generally interpreted to be Venus. One component of the glyph for the name of this
month includes a sign related to rain. Venus is possibly the patron of this month in its role relating to the well-being of crops and not in a martial sense.
Apparently the early tribes which migrated into the Yucatan, had strong beliefs regarding the Venus-warfare connection. When the peaceful cult of Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent, who represented Venus)
later migrated into the Yucatan, it became a warlike cult. This is evidenced by some frescoes at Chichen Itza which depict a warrior in the company of a menacing plumed serpent. Moreover, the warring rulers
of Mani, a neighboring city, also revered Kulkulcan (the Maya name for Quetzalcoatl) as their special patron up to the time of the Conquest.
Finally, John G. Fought (1972: 427-28) provides a Chorti Maya story which expresses the belief that when Venus is eclipsed by the Moon, ". . . someone is going to kill himself in the villages. If not, a war is
going to be made in the towns."
Based on this brief sample of writings and preliminary study, it appears that various civilizations, stretching from the Far East to Mesoamerica and from the times of the Babylonians to the Spanish Conquest of
Mexico, had beliefs which related Venus to warfare. The exact relationship is not clear. The Babylonian tables seem to indicate that warfare was a possibility when Venus was visible, that is the initiation of
warfare was possibly advantageous for someone. The Chinese of the Han Dynasty specifically believed that initiation of warfare was not advisable until the planet was visible. And finally, the Aztecs and the
Maya believed that Venus' visibility was at least indirectly related to the success of the martial plans. As a consequence, they focused on sacrifices to Venus especially at its heliacal rising and as a corollary,
seem to have avoided warfare during its periods of inferior conjunction.
A more thorough study of these ideas is warranted in order to determine (1) whether the corresponding cultural beliefs presented here are mere coincidence (2) whether these views about Venus possibly reflect
the effects of diffusion of ideas and (3) whether there is some specific relationship between warfare and the various phases of Venus in its cycle around the Sun, that is, whether there were especially favorable
times for warfare and for whom it would be favorable - the aggressor or defender.