Now and Then: The Modern vs the Zapotec Concepts of Time

By Brooke O’Connor

When I started researching the concept of time in the Zapotec culture versus the idea of time today, there were many changes happening in the world – one of which is the first public availability of AI, or artificial intelligence. New technologies will change the fabric of how we live our lives, as well as our perception of time.

We’ve probably all experienced an AI “chatbot” – the online conversations that you have when you want to “talk” some kind of customer service. Lately, these text-generating chatbots have moved on to writing entire essays. So … just for fun, I typed my topic into ChatGPT, an advanced chatbot released in November 2022 by Open AI, a nonprofit artificial intelligence research laboratory. This is what came out.

The Zapotec culture, indigenous to the southern state of Oaxaca in Mexico, has a unique and complex understanding of time. The Zapotecs have long held a cyclical view of time, in which the past, present, and future are interwoven and constantly influencing one another. This view is deeply ingrained in their daily lives, religious practices, and social structure.

One aspect of the Zapotec perception of time is the belief in the power of ancestors. For the Zapotecs, the spirits of their ancestors continue to play an active role in the present and are often called upon for guidance and protection. This belief is reflected in the Zapotec calendar, which is based on a 260-day cycle, in which the days are named after various deities, natural phenomena, and ancestors. Each day has its own unique characteristics and significance and is believed to be influenced by the spirits of the ancestors associated with it.

The Zapotecs also have a strong connection to the land and their environment. This connection is reflected in their agricultural practices, which are closely tied to the cycles of the sun, moon, and stars. The Zapotecs use these astronomical cycles to determine the best time for planting and harvesting crops. For example, the Zapotecs believe that certain days are better for planting certain crops, depending on the phase of the moon.

Another important aspect of the Zapotec perception of time is the concept of “tequio.” Tequio is the Zapotec word for community work or service, which is an integral part of Zapotec culture. Tequio is typically done on a voluntary basis and is done for the benefit of the community as a whole. It can take many forms, such as building a community house, repairing roads, or planting crops. The Zapotecs believe that tequio is necessary to maintain balance and harmony in the community and that it helps keep the ancestors’ spirits happy.

Religion also plays a big role in the Zapotec perception of time. In Zapotec culture, gods and goddesses are believed to have a significant impact on the perception of time. They are seen as the creators and guardians of time and are responsible for the cycles of the seasons and the passage of days and nights. These deities are also associated with the passage of time in the human life cycle, such as birth, adulthood, and death. For example, the god Xipe Tótec is associated with the planting and growth of crops, and rituals are performed in his honor at the beginning of the agricultural cycle to ensure a bountiful harvest. Similarly, the goddess Cocijo is associated with the rainy season, and rituals are performed to ensure that the rains come at the appropriate time for the crops.

Additionally, the gods and goddesses are also associated with different stages in the human life cycle, such as birth, adulthood, and death. For example, the god of childbirth, Pitao Cozobi, is invoked to ensure a safe delivery, and the goddess of death, Xoxo, is honored to ensure a peaceful transition to the afterlife.

One of the most important ceremonies is the Guelawe, a celebration of the dead that takes place annually, usually in November. During this ceremony, the Zapotecs believe that the spirits of the dead return to the living world to visit their descendants. The Zapotecs believe that the spirits of the dead have the power to influence the lives of the living and that it is important to keep them happy through rituals and offerings.

However, it’s worth mentioning that Zapotec culture is diverse and there are variations between different regions and even towns. There are many different practices, beliefs, and expressions of their culture. Also, the Zapotec culture has been in constant change over the centuries and is still adapting to the present day, thus, this article presents a general view of the Zapotec culture’s perception of time.

In modern times, the perception of time has been largely shaped by advances in science and technology. The invention of the clock in the 14th century revolutionized the way time was measured and perceived. The development of mechanical clocks, and later quartz and atomic clocks, made it possible to measure time with an unprecedented level of accuracy. The widespread use of clocks and watches has also led to the standardization of time across the world, with time zones being established to account for variations in longitude.

In physics, time is not an absolute but relative to the observer, and in theories such as special and general relativity show that the perception of time can change depending on the observer’s velocity and gravitational field.

In modern Western cultures, time is often perceived as a scarce and valuable resource. People are constantly racing against the clock, trying to fit more activities into each day. This has led to the development of time management techniques and tools to help people make the most of their time.

In conclusion, the perception of time has evolved throughout history and across cultures. The Zapotec culture had a complex understanding of time that was closely linked to their religious beliefs, while in modern Western cultures time is often perceived as a scarce and valuable resource. Advances in science and technology have played a significant role in shaping our current understanding and perception of time.

Note: I had to fix some grammatical errors, but then, when I asked how I should tell people this article was written, it responded, “This article was crafted by the deft hand of artificial intelligence.”

One thing is clear in our modern age; time stands still for no one, and if we don’t progress along with the technology we will be left behind.