Maya and Aztec

Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations

Maya Hieroglyphic Writing. Appendix I. Divinatory Almanacs in the Books of Chilam Balam. Excerpts; by J. Eric S. Thompson; 1950

Category: Books, Maya Hieroglyphic Writing


Divinatory Almanacs in the Books of Chilam Balam

Noble stock was graft with crab-tree slip.
—SHAKESPEARE, Henry VI, Pt. 2, Act 3, Scene 2

IN SEVERAL of the books of Chilam Balam and in Perez are the sorry remnants of the old art of prognostication of the days of the sacred almanac. These fall into three groups. Two examples (Perez 1 and Kaua 1) of days with their prognostications fitted to uinals of the old Maya calendar form the first, and least European, group; in Perez 1 degenerate examples of the day glyphs are given, but in no other case are any glyphs present. In the second group (Tizimin, Kaua 2, Ixil, Perez 2-4) the days are fitted to the Christian year starting with January 1, and there is varying emphasis on festivals of the Roman Catholic Church. Tizimin, for example, has few ecclesiastical notations; Kaua 2 has saints’ names for practically all the days of the year. The names of the Maya months are given, with start of Pop correlated with July 16. Maya influence is even less apparent in almanacs of the third group (Nah and Tekax). Prognostications are confined to a bald statement whether the day is good or had and even that is found with only the first three months; Maya day names are given, but the corresponding numerals are omitted. Maya month names are inserted.

All these almanacs appear to be traceable to two sources, or perhaps even to a single source. Perez 1 and Kaua 1 derive from an almanac fitted to a year 5 Kan. This could have been that of the years 1585, 1637, or 1689. I am inclined to think it may have been a sixteenth-century original. All the remaining almanacs must stem from a single source, for all start with 10 Oc on January 1, and have 11 Cimi as the year bearer on first of Pop. This is, of course, an impossible combination by orthodox Maya standards, and surely reflects the degeneracy of the calendar in colonial times. One explanation of its origin is given below. However, apart from the fact that a Cimi could not be the year bearer, it is inconceivable that compilers of six different almanacs should have independently chosen a year with 11 Cimi on first of Pop when there were fifty-one other choices. Furthermore, Kaua 2 and Perez 2 both pass from 6 Manik to 8 Lamat, and continue 9 Muluc, 10 Oc, 11 Chuen, 12 Eb, etc.; Kaua 1 jumps from to Chuen to 12 Eb, and that suggests strongly that the compiler of Kaua 1 was copying the day list from Kaua 2 or Perez 2 or a common ancestor, and corrected his transcription to conform to the mistake in the original four places further down the list. Furthermore, the sequence of good and bad days and the entries of “warnings and portents and evils imminent” agree so closely that there can be little doubt as to their common source.


Perez 1 (pages 96-99) once was part of Mani. It is a fragment consisting of a sequence of 80 days (one is accidentally omitted) which starts with 5 Kan and ends with 6 Akbal. As the starting point 5 Kan is said to be the year bearer, one can assume that the entries correspond to the uinals Pop, Uo, Zip, and Zotz’, although there is no mention of those names. At the end of 20, 40, and 60 days are the phrases: “It turns back a second time,” “It turns back a third time,” and “It turns back a fourth time.” As these entries precede what would be the starting points of the second, third, and fourth uinals, they serve to confirm the arrangement by uinals. On the left of each page are the day glyphs, woefully degenerate and, for the most part, unrecognizable. Each is enclosed within a square; coefficients are lacking. To the right of each glyph its name and number is written in European script, together with the luck of the day and sometimes a more specific divination. For example: Uaxac Manik utz ma kazi utzul haab lae, “8 Manik, Good, not evil. Good rain there.”

An outline of the aspects of the days is given in Table 20. For the translation of the entries, not only of this almanac but of the rest of the series, I am indebted to Ralph L. Roys. Some of the passages are corrupt; others are in archaic language. All are abbreviated. These factors have made good translations difficult, and the absence of context is a serious drawback, for often more than one translation is possible. As an illustration of the difficulties, one might cite two entries which are of frequent occurrence. The first is the expression balam haab, which literally means balam (or jaguar) year. It seems unlikely that the expression can have this meaning here because it is referable to individual days. Haab, however, has the meaning of rain in several Maya languages and dialects, and it is therefore logical to apply that meaning to these

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entries, particularly since so many deal with rains and planting. This suggestion is largely confirmed by an entry in Kaua 1 where balam hail and balam hab occur together and seem to refer to the same thing. Balam hail is balam rain (or water).

We have no exact information as to what a balam rain may be. The balams are the guardians of the villages and milpas in the beliefs of the Yucatec Maya of the present day and are closely associated with the winds, but as they are coupled with the usual rain gods in prayers, almost as though balam and chac were synonymous, it is not unreasonable to suppose that a balam rain was one sent by the balams, but balam rains may be unfortunate, and in that case a different derivation is probable. Note jaguar glyphs in phrase at Yaxchilan which often contains the supposed glyph for rainy sky (fig. 46,10-14,16).

The second expression which can be translated in more ways than one is u sian or u siyan, which is often linked to the words chaac or ku. Sian can mean birth, or enchantment, or conjuring in witchcraft, or gift. The various contexts reveal that the meaning which will best fit all the entries is that of birth or beginning. This expression has already been fully discussed (p. 259). In the tabulation the comments have been made even briefer than in the originals.

The entries in Perez 1 are entirely of an agricultural nature with the possible exception of a notation to the effect that 10 Men is the day of the burner (p. 99); there are no social entries as in the Tizimin group of almanacs, and the sequence of good and bad days also is quite different from that of the almanacs composing that group.

Perez 1 is probably the most authentic source we now possess for sundry reasons. It is the only almanac which gives the glyphs. Perez 1 and Kaua 1 are the only two which correlate the almanac with the Maya year, and alone fail to list any Christian festivals. Perez 1 is much more reliable than Kaua 1 for reasons which will shortly appear. Nevertheless, I am suspicious of the value of the entries, for I should not be surprised to learn that they had been shifted from a year with a bearer of different name and number.


Kaua 1 is a section of only 40 days correlated with two Maya uinals, the first entry, the day 9 Kan, being recorded as a year bearer. It is therefore clear that Kaua 1 seeks to correlate the sacred almanac with a Maya year.

The prognostications in Kaua 1, unfortunately, are nearly worthless, for if they are compared with the sequence in Perez 1 they will he found to be about the same. That is to say, Kaua 1 has the same entries for 9 Kan, 10 Chicchan, 11 Cimi etc. as Perez 1 has for 5 Kan, 6 Chicchan, 7 Cimi etc. Clearly, the compiler of Kaua 1 took the entries for a year with 5 Kan as the year bearer, and used them for a year 9 Kan, presumably under the impression that the luck of the day depended on its position not in the 260-day almanac, but in the months.

That the entries for a year 5 Kan were applied to a year 9 Kan and not vice versa is proved by internal evidence. Perez 1 correctly gives one entry concerning the burners, for the day 10 Men is said to be a burner’s day. Kaua 1 lists as burner days: 2 Oc, 4 Chicchan, 9 Oc, and 1 Men (corrected from 2 Men) and perhaps 6 Ix. Of these only 4 Chicchan is correct. However, if the year 9 Kan had been formed from the entries for a year 5 Kan, 2 Oc and 1 Men would have been a Oc and so Men respectively in a year 5 Kan and those are true days of the burner (p. 99). On the supposition that 6 Ix was a slip for the following day, 7 Men, its equivalent in a year 5 Kan would have been 3 Men, which is in fact a burner day. 9 Oc is not a burner day either in a year 9 Kan or in a year 5 Kan. It is therefore clear that the author of Kaua 1 copied from the prototype of Perez 1 the entries for Pop and Uo, but changed the day sequence from 5 Kan 6 Cimi, etc., to 9 Kan 10 Cimi, etc., without realizing that thereby he made nonsense of all the entries. That Kaua 1 was not copied directly from Perez 1 is evident from the fact that there are details in the former which do not occur in the latter.

On the other hand, the resemblances between Perez 1 and Kaua 1 are so close, extending even to the same introductory paragraph, and to the same notes that the reckoning turns back at the end of 20 days, that it is apparent that there once existed two almanacs correlated with a year 9 Kan, or perhaps with a Christian year. One had what were probably correct entries; the other jumped the coefficient one place between 6 Manik and 12 Eb. The author of Kaua 1 copied the list of days from the latter, but set against them the entries from Perez 1. I am even inclined to believe that this may have been a piece of conscious antiquarianism, and that the author may have converted entries correlated with a Christian year back to a Maya year. The error in Kaua 2 suggests that that was the source of the day list of Kaua 1 if the latter is conscious antiquarianism. Whether that be the case or not, it is clear that the digits of the entries in Kaua 1 should be reduced by four (for those entries subsequent to so Chuen by five) places to obtain the correct prognostications.


The prognostications in Tizimin, Kaua 2, Ixil, and Perez 2-4, as already noted, are correlated with a Christian year. That the entries derive from a sacred almanac is

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abundantly clear. Items assigned to Maya days early in the year usually are associated with its second appearance, 260 days later. Thus January 13 and September 30 carry the same entry, U kukum tok ch’apahal yani, “Parade of the Warriors (?), there is sickness,” in Tizimin and Perez 4, because 9 Ik falls on both positions. Other dates which carry the same prognostication for both appearances include 11 Kan, 13 Cimi, 1 Manik, 6 Eb, 12 Etz’nab, 1 Ahau, 7 Cimi, 12 Chuen, 1 Ben, 11 Akbal, 12 Kan, 4 Muluc, and 6 Chuen.

The entries in all cases start with 10 Oc on January 1. Maya month names are added, the seating of Pop occurring on 11 Cimi, July 16. This is an impossible situation, for the year bearer must be Kan, Muluc, Ix, or Cauac, and the seating of Pop should, if our theory be correct (p. 127), fall on Akbal, Lamat, Ben, or Etz’nab.

It cannot be coincidence that 9 Kan, which as we saw was the year bearer in Kaua 1, falls on July 14 in all the calendars of the Tizimin group. I suggest that the almanac was adjusted to a Maya year soon after the Spanish conquest when the year bearer fell on July 14. That would have been 1556 to 1560, a time at which the old calendar system was starting to decline, but before July 16 had been accepted as the permanent equivalent of first of Pop. With such a calendar Cimi would have corresponded to July 16. The author of the much later adjustment to a year starting with January 1 made 11 Cimi the year bearer because he had believed (most erroneously) that the Maya equivalent of July 16 was always first of Pop. He must have known that Kan, Muluc, Ix, and Cauac were the year bearers because the Tizimin almanac carries notations to the effect that 5 Ix and 6 Cauac (could) fall on first of Pop, but these entries are opposite the occurrences of those days, respectively, in June and September.

The arrangement of the prognostications, as they now stand, is at variance with what we know of the luck of the days. They are listed below in the order of their favorability, the numbers representing respectively good, bad, and uncertain days: Cimi (9, 3, 1); Oc and Etz’nab (8, 5, 0); Chicchan (7, 5, 1); Caban, Cauac, and Ahau (7, 6, 0); Cib (6, 6, 1); Men (6, 7, 0); Manik (5, 5, 3); Muluc (5, 8, 0); Imix and Eb (4, 8, 1); Ik, Akbal, Lamat, Chuen, and Ben (3, 10, 0); Kan (3, 9, 1); and Ix (2, 11, 0).

Cimi, day of death, and presumably a day of dire misfortune, stands at the head of the list! Most amazingly it is associated with rain. Oc and Etz’nab follow, yet both have low ratings on the monuments. Imix, which was second on the monuments, occupies twelfth place, and Kan, day of maize, is nineteenth on the list!

The luck of the day frequently disagrees with the activity for that day: 1 Kan, 2 Eb, 9 Imix, 12 Men, and 13 Etz’nab are listed as bad, yet they are days for planting; rain is usually welcome in Yucatan, yet days of rain are often listed as evil in these almanacs; clever men are born on 9 Ik and 12 Ik, but these are bad days. r Manik is a good day, but it brings punishment of boys and sickness. In our culture corporal chastisement of little wanton boys might well convert an indifferent day into one distinctly beneficial to the community, but one can be fairly certain that the prognostication refers to divine punishment, a far more serious matter. Indeed, it is not improbable that the entries concerning castigation of sundry groups (nobles, priests, officials, craftsmen, and boys) reflect the last stage of degeneration from the pattern of punishment inflicted by Venus at heliacal rising.

The whole scheme of prognostication is so mangled and so full of errors that it is next door to meaningless. There are many obvious errors and many more which one can infer. One almanac places an event on one day, another places it a day before or after; events that fall on days that repeat in the last 105 days of the year may recur after 259 or 261 days instead of 260. Obvious mistakes in spelling and mutilated and meaningless words and sentences are frequent in all but the simplest entries, and it is clear that the copyists had no idea of what they were copying in the more involved sentences.

One feels like averting one’s face at the spectacle of this sad degeneracy. Can any good be gained by examining these monstrous abnormalities? The attempt has been worth while, for it has shown how little faith one can place in the historical reliability of compilers of the chronicles in view of their sorry efforts with the prognostics.

Even this Sodom and this Gomorrah have their Lot: one interesting set of entries, found with the days 1 Ahau, 6 Ahau, and 8 Lamat, surely refer, although in a sadly garbled way, to the Venus cult. The day 8 Lamat is said to be “the jaguar-faced 1 Ahau with the protruding teeth.” 1 Ahau is the day of Venus, and undoubtedly serves also as a name for the Venus god at the moment of heliacal rising, when he emerges from the underworld, for 1 Ahau is the lub of the Venus cycle. We have seen that Lahun-Chan, who was the god of the planet Venus, had protruding teeth, and there are references to his jaguar features (pp. 77, 218). This passage, therefore, serves to confirm our deductions as to the nature of the Venus god, and at the same time indicates a weak tradition of the old cult which survived the many transcriptions of these 260-day almanacs. Lamat is the day of the planet Venus, although I know of no particular reason for expecting a coefficient of 8 except that it recalls the eight days of invisibility of the planet at inferior conjunction. For 1 Ahau, the day of Venus, we find in these almanacs the entry: “there comes forth a great

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putrescence from the underworld by day and night. Sudden death.” I recall no direct connection between Venus and putrescence, but the underworld, the land of death, might well have such an association, and Cizin’s name may derive from ciz, which has a parallel connotation of offensive odor. This prognostic, I should judge, must again refer to Venus at the moment of leaving the underworld at the end of the eight days of invisibility at inferior conjunction; sudden death would denote the death which Venus was believed to deal at the moment of heliacal rising. There is no known connection between Venus and the day 6 Ahau, yet monuments dedicated at 6 Ahau 13 Muan tend to be decorated with Venus symbols, so 6 Ahau may have been a Venus day of importance.

Notations of the days of the burner period are made in the various almanacs; the survival of this period long after the ceremonies connected therewith had fallen into desuetude bears witness to the former importance of this cycle of ceremonies. The sian chac entries seem to be entirely mixed up, but their presence, in however garbled form, testifies to the former prominence of that cycle.

The copyist responsible for Perez 3 is the most careless, for he has many entries a day before or after they should occur. Perez 2 advances the day coefficients by one place on jumping from 6 Manik to 8 Lamat on August 7, but corrects the error on September 18. The same jump occurs on October 5, where the count goes from 13 Cimi to 2 Manik, and again on November 15 where 5 Muluc follows 3 Manik. As a result, day coefficients are two places too great from November 15 to the end of the year. Such mistakes, and they occur in other almanacs on a smaller scale, indicate that the scribes no longer related the prophecies to the Maya number and name combination, but to positions in the Christian year. In Table 20 I have made allowances for these errors, entering the items under their correct days. I have omitted Kaua 1 from the tabulation because of the certainty that all the entries are those for a year 5 Kan changed to a year 9 Kan, and entries concerning the burners and the days on which Maya months were seated have likewise been excluded. I have somewhat simplified the translations and have read garbled words as though they were correctly given. I have also suppressed all entries concerning festivals of the Roman Catholic Church, although these are not without interest in revealing successive steps of degeneration in Maya wit and wisdom accompanied by an increasing interest in church festivals. The last stage in this unhappy descent from the Maya Helicon is reached in the almanacs of Nah and Tekax. In these the Maya day names without their numbers (as useful as a telephone number without the exchange name) are listed,


Day Number Day Name Good or Bad Event and Almanac in which recorded
9 Imix B Day of maize, P1
11 B For Batabs, T, P4
1 Ik G For nobles, T, P2, P4
3 B Strong wind, P2
4 B Day of rain, P2; fish spawn, Ix
5 B Strong wind, P2
6 B Day of rain, K2, P2
9 B Warriors parade, T, T,* P4; sickness, T,* K2, P2, P4; clever men born, P3 (twice)
11 G Wind comes from the conch, T, K2, P2-4 (twice each); day of rain, T, K2, P4 (twice)
12 B Clever men born, T, Ix, K2. P2-4
1 Akbal B Vigil, Ix
3 G Heavy rains, T, T,† P4
5 B Day of rain, P2
11 G Ah kulel punished for sins, T, Ix, P2 (twice), P4 (twice)
12 G Storm, rainy day, P3
13 B Vigil, T, Ix, P2-4
1 Kan B Sultry weather, T, P2, P4; storm, P2; plant, T
4 G Heavy rain, T, P4
6 G Start of rains, T, Ix, K2,† P2-4 (last, twice); day of rain, P2†
9 G Gifts, T, Ix, P3, P4. (twice); plant jicama, T
10 B Vigil, Ix
11 G Day of storm, P2; start of storm, P4; rain falls, T, P2, P3*; end of rainfall, T, Ix, P3
12 B Lords punished for sins, T, Ix, K2, P4 (twice); lords die, T, Ix, K2, P2 (twice)
13 B Day of fasting for god, T, Ix, P2 (twice), P3,† P4
6 Chicchan B Smoky sky, K2, P2
7 G Rain, P2
1 Cimi B Cizin and death, K2, P2; deer pestilence, P1
4 G Start of storm, T, Ix; birth of god (same?), P3, P4; rainy day, P2
6 G Storm, K2, P2; birth of god, T, P4
7 G Rain, T, P1, P3, P4; start of storm, T, P1, P3, P4; storm, P3, P4
8 G Start of storm, heavy rains, P1
9 G Strong wind, P2
13 G Start of storm, T, Ix, P2-4 (last two, twice)
1 Manik G Boys punished, T (twice), K2, Ix, P2-4 (all twice); sickness, T, P3
8 G Rain, P1, P4; for miserable ones, P2
12 G For planting, T, Ix, K2, P2, P4
1 Lamat B Adhesion of leg of jaguar (?), T, P2, P4
3 B Day for beans, limas, jicamas, P1
4 G Water falls, very hard, Ix, P3, P4
6 B Vigil, abundance, Ix; kills crops, P1
8 B Jaguar-faced 1 Ahau with protruding teeth, T, Ix, P2-4
9 B Milpa matters, P1
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10 Lamat B Jicamas, P1
12 B Encounter with Cizin, K2, P2
1 Muluc G Calm for planting, T, P3, P4
4 G Thunder, T (twice), K2, P2, P4 (last two, twice), P3; clouds wander, P4
5 B Brings a rainy day, Ix, P2-4
6 G Count of sunsets, T, Ix, P2, P4; day of heavy rain, P3
8 B Close of vigil, T, Ix, P3, P4; calm sky, P3
12 B Penance, 3 nights of vigil, T, Ix, K2, P2-4; encounter with Cizin, K2, P2
1 Oc G Great rain, Ix, K2, P3, P4; great storm, T, P2
3 B Jaguar year (rain), P3; wind, T
7 B Thunder, P2
12 B Thunder in west, Ix, K2, P2-4
13 G Day of rain, T, K2, P2-4
1 Chuen B Perhaps rain in east, K2, P2
6 B Conch closed, T (twice), Ix, P2, P4 (last two, twice), P3* 10.
10 B Start of sudden death, strong winds, T; sudden death, 5 days, K2, P2†; start of sudden death, 5 days, Ix, P3,† P4
12 G? Punishment for sins of priests, vigil, T, Ix, P2-4 (all twice)
13 B If rain falls, sun, P1
2 Eb B Plant crops, T
4 G For deer hunters, T, Ix, P2, P3,† P4
6 G For deer hunting, T, Ix, K2, P2-4
7 B Wind, flooding rains, P1
11 B Sudden death, for 5 days, K2, P2, P3 (see under 10 Chuen, 13 Ix, 1 Men)
13 B Day of vigil, T, P4; sickness, K2
1 Ben B Sickness, T (twice), Ix, K2, K2,† P2, P2,† P3, P3,* 134
3 B Hunting, T, K2, P2-4
5 G? Strong wind for sowing, P3; shortness of breath, stabbing pain, T, Ix, P2, P4
1 Ix B Men die, T; end of men dying, Ix, P3, P4; birth of lords, T, K2, P2, P3,† P4
4 B Sins adhere to chiefs, T, Ix, K2, P2-4
6 B Vigil, Ix
9 B Sun also, P1
12 G Jaguar rains, T, K2, P2-4
13 B Sudden death, P2
1 Men B End of sudden death, T, Ix, K2, P2-4
4 G Drought, P1
6 B Rabbit rains, P4
7 G Great thunderstorm, Ix
10 G Thunderstorm, Ix, K2, P2, P2,* P4; sun, its burden, P1
12 B Great storm, planting, Ix; heavy rain, planting, P2-4
13 G Fortunate for traders, T, P3, P4; vigil, T, P2-4
2 Cib G? Birth of god (Chac?), P4
3 G Bees hived, T, Ix, K2,† P2 (twice), P3, P3,† P4 (twice)
4 Cib B Vigil, T (twice), K2, P2 (twice), P4
5 G Jaguar rains, P1; planting, P3
6 B Travel in woods (hunting?), T, Ix, K2, P2-4; call deer, T,† Ix,† P2,† P3, P4†
7 B Continuous rain, K2, P4
13 G Clouds scurry, K2, P2
5 Caban B Sins of nobles (or craftsmen) punished, T, T,* Ix, P2, P2,* P3, P3,* P4, P4*; sickness, K2
10 G Birth of Ahaus, T, P2-4
12 B Storm in west, T; bees, wild animals, P1
13 G Beekeeping, K2, P2
2 Etz’nab G Make settlements, T, P2
3 G Banquets, gifts, T, P4
6 B Sickness, K2*?, P2
7 G Plant, T, Ix, P2, P3,* P4; plant noh uah, T; day of noh uah, P2; perhaps (rain) will fall, P2; beginning of storm, good rain, P1
8 B Holy men, T, Ix, K2, P2, P3,* P4
12 B Closing passage of conch (?), Ix, P2, P3, P3,* P4 (twice); sickness, T; death, K2, P2-4
13 G Plant, T (twice), Ix, P2 (twice), P3,* P4; rain, T, P2, P3,* P4; perhaps rain, P2; storm in west, P2, P4; thunder and rain, K2
1 Cauac B Cold, T, Ix, K2, P2, P4 (twice); storm, K2
3 G Day of rain, K2, P2; start of rain, P3, P4
5 B Great wind, T
8 G Plant noh uah, T
9 G For rulers of hives (?), T, P2, P4
1 Ahau B Comes forth a great putrescence, T (twice), P2, P3,* P4 (last two, twice); from hell by day and night, P2, P3,* P4; sudden death, Ix, P3,* P4; fever, Ix
2 B Cold, T, Ix, K2, P2; great cold, P4
6 B There comes forth a great hellish putrescence, T, P4; great hellish fever from Metnal, K2; death, P2
8 B Encounter with Cisin, T, Ix, K2, P2 (all except T, twice); sudden death, P2; vigil, K2
9 G Getting ready of the god, T, P2, P4 (each twice), P3; the birth of the god, P3
10 B Day of rain, P3, P4
12 G Wise men born, T, K2, P2, P3,† P4; writers born, P2
13 G Wind, T

* Listed one day early (e.g. 13 Cauac instead of 1 Ahau).

† Listed one day late (e.g. 13 Imix instead of 12 Ahau). Ix, Ixil; K, Kaua; P, Perez; T, Tizimin.

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starting with Oc (10 Oc as in the Tizimin group?) on January `. The good or bad luck of the days in a sequence similar to that of the Tizimin group is noted for the first three months of the year; from April on, even that feature is omitted. There are no prognostications; the spaces they should occupy are devoted to the saints and festivals of the Roman Catholic church.

Max Beerbohm writes of “that quality of pathos which makes even unlovely relics dear to us—that piteousness which Time gives even to things robbed of their meaning and their use.” It would not be just, but it would be charitable, to ascribe those qualities to these pitiful heirs of a great tradition.

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