Monday, July 16, 2018


Were they pyramid builders? Astronomers? Lords of the jungle? High priests and shaman? Mathematicians?
After years of studying the Maya, I believe—aside from those glorious pyramids— they’ll most be remembered for their stargazing abilities. The Maya were called naked-eye astronomers.
Say what?

The Maya were stargazers for a reason. First and foremost they were mathematicians who painstakingly followed and kept detailed records on the position of the stars and planets day by day, year by year, century by century. Without the use of anything other than the naked eye, they recorded these precise calculations for more than a millennium. They kept track of the night sky in paper-bark books called codices. (Sadly, all but three were burned by Spanish priests in an effort to purge the Maya of their “pagan” beliefs). And through this precise nightly recording of the sky’s movements, they were able to simulate what we today can do in the blink of an eye with a telescope. The Maya viewed the Milky Way as the world tree, their Ceiba. The Ceiba was considered the Maya tree of life—the tree that holds up the world.

But to the Maya, the Milky Way was more than that familiar smudge across the sky we see each night. The Milky Way was also the Sac-be or road to the underworld for dead souls as well as the path for those souls to the sky. It was their River Styx. Without the Milky Way, dead souls couldn’t find their way and would be caught in a forever limbo.

So Maya astronomers were left with the weighty job of deciphering how each star and planet would align. It was their destiny to forever record the nightly movement of the stars so that those departed could find their way to the underworld.

Even though all but three of their paper-bark books were destroyed, additional proof in this theory of the Milky Way and the world tree’s importance is carved onto the glorious sarcophagus lid of Pakal, Palenque’s greatest ruler.If you've never been to Palenque, go. To me, it is the most spiritual and mystical pyramid site, off the beaten track and not an easy journey. But once there, it’s like Hawaii with pyramids in a lush jungle setting with a smattering of near Asian style structures. The Asian influence makes one wonder. But back to the sarcophagus lid—it shows the king descending down the world tree into the jaws of the underworld, or Xibalba, to his death. Descending the stairs to Pakal’s musty tomb is a journey in itself. And as an aside, Pakal’s tomb was discovered by accident in 1952 by famous archaeologist Alberto Ruz when a worker noticed holes in a floor slab. When lifted, it showed a stairway filled with rubble that took three years to clear. But Pakal’s tomb, and the discovery of the king’s bejewelled death mask, made those efforts worthwhile.
Palenque was also the site of the famous Palenque Roundtable in the mid-1970s where more than twenty of the world’s foremost archaeologists came together and broke the Maya code.  At that meeting, they deemed that the greatest portal to the underworld was found in the night sky, and it related back to the Maya creation myth. Now having the ability to read the Maya stelae (carved concrete like slabs placed in front of every pyramid), these archaeologists decided the myth portrayed the Milky Way, as a tree, to be the centre of their universe, dating back to their creation myth in the Popul Vuh.
Have I lost you yet?

But not only did the Maya gaze at the stars so that they and their rulers could find the starry path to the underworld, They monitored the planet Venus to decide when to make war on fellow Maya city-states, and when to plant their crops, specifically maize.
So determined were the Maya to follow this star-earth continuum that many pyramid sites, such as Chichen Itza’s Temple of Kukulkan, are aligned to certain astronomical specifics. Each spring and autumn equinox, the sun casts its shadow onto this Chichen Itza temple due to its place in the heavens, the building’s position, and the Maya’s precise calculations, configured centuries ago, for for this event. The sun’s shadow creates the illusion of the serpent’s body (the temple sports a huge serpent on each of its four corners) slithering down to the base of the staircase, finishing at the serpent’s mouth at ground level. Again, if you’ve not yet been to Chichen Itza, go. Other sites also are clearly aligned with these spectacularly coordinated spectacles, not unlike sunrise at Stonehenge. One wonders, how on earth did they do it? But they did.


So who were the Maya? To me, they will always be stargazers who tamed the night skies long before modern man/woman would have thought it even be possible to do so. Had any more than three of the thousands of paper-bark Maya books burned been saved for posterity, what other wonders would we have discovered? Though they were an early civilization, they were one with extraordinary powers to delineate not only the position of the planets and when full eclipses would occur, but they also created an intricate system of calendars (twenty-eight in all) that, some scholars say, coordinate as accurately as our calendar does today. When the Maya calendars were compared for exactness against a modern day computer, scholars found only a slight difference in accuracy. All done without a slide rule, calculator or telescope.
Naked eye astronomy.
It worked for the Maya. And if this article doesn’t inspire you to go to the nearest pyramid site and stare at in wonder, I have failed to do my job.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Nancy Drew Author Had Connections to Maya Pyramids and Central America

(Photo from Jennifer Fisher, founder of Nancy Drew Society, of The Secret of the Old Clock).

     Who of us girls, as young teens, did not love Nancy Drew? The sleuth with a voracious appetite for getting into scary trouble, being at the center of crime scenes and mysteries? Who taught us how to signal SOS with a tube of lipstick, break out of a window using spike heels, and to always keep an overnight bag in the car, just in case?


     For years I thought Carolyn Keene was Nancy's author but later discovered that was a pen name for Mildred Wirt Benson who would write 135 books and 23 of the first Nancy Drew detective tales that came to shape Nancy's "steely bravery" according to an article by Jennifer Fisher in Zócalo. Benson's image of Nancy would create "the tenacious, bold and independent heroine we have come to know." The real author of our favorite "girl" detective was an Iowa homegrown born in 1905, daughter of a country doctor, and the first student—male or female— to earn a masters degree in journalism from University of Iowa (later home to the Iowa Writers Workshop). For fifty years Benson worked in journalism when not penning famous mysteries, covering the courthouse beat and crime and corruption at The Toledo Blade and The Toledo Times.


     As a child Benson was an avid reader of children's classics. Her first short story, "The Courtesy," appeared in St. Nicholas, a children's magazine, and won her second place in a monthly contest. Finding Iowa too dull for a woman with an agenda, she ventured to NYC and landed a job with an icon in publishing, Edward Stratemeyer. Fortune Magazine said of Stratemeyer in 1934, "As oil and gas has its Rockefeller, literature has its Stratemeyer."
     Stratemeyer published The Bobbsey Twins and The Hardy Boys and famously hired ghost writers for a flat monthly fee. Benson's pen name remained a mystery until the 1970s when researchers discovered Benson was the Oz behind the curtain. During the Great Depression and WWII, parents were candid with their children, according to Fisher's article, and didn't hide life's gravities. Enter Nancy Drew, a new kind of heroine for a new age of young girls. Stratemeyer penned a three-page outline for Benson and depicted her as an "up-to-date American girl at her best—bright, clever, resourceful, and full of energy."


     In 1973, Benson wrote an essay about her famous heroine, stating Nancy was treated as an equal by her father and by many in law enforcement and she never gave up when the going got tough. Her spirit struck a chord. Nancy Drew personified "the dream image which exists within most teenagers," Benson said. According to Fisher's article, this 1930s teen remained culturally relevant for more than 80 years, even as young women's roles changed dramatically. Mothers and grandmothers passed the books down to their daughters. "Women still tell me how they identified with Nancy Drew and that Nancy Drew gave them confidence to be whatever they wanted to be," Benson told an interviewer in 1999.


     But Benson, perhaps, was her own best role model for the very Nancy Drew we all came to love. She trained as a pilot in the 1960s. Traveling solo, she flew down to Guatemala to view ancient Maya pyramid sites. She traipsed through crocodile-infested rivers and hacked her way through jungles with a machete. In a particularly harrowing very Nancy Drew like experience, she was even locked inside a room in Guatemala by locals who thought she knew too much about criminal activity in their town. Channeling Nancy, she overpowered one of her captors and escaped. "Like any good sleuth," Fisher goes on to explain, "she later returned to Guatemala to learn more about what had happened to her."


     In the 1990s, twenty years after dedicated Nancy Drew lovers had discovered Keene's real name and ID'd Mildred Wirt Benson as Drew's creator, Benson donated a series of papers she'd written about her heroine, along with her trusty Underwood typewriter used for creating Nancy, to the Smithsonian where it sits to this day. And finally, the mystery author got public credit in her native Iowa in 1993 when the University of Iowa had a Nancy Drew Conference. That same year, she was named Person of the Week by ABC's Peter Jennings.

     Asked later if she would ever give up writing, Benson said, "The undertaker will have to pry me away from my typewriter." That's pretty much what happened. At 96, in 2002, she was sitting at her trusty Underwood when she died.