The Maya calendar is a system of calendars used in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, and in many modern communities in highland Guatemala and in Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico.
The essentials of the Maya calendar are based upon a system in common use throughout the region, dating back to at least the 5th century BCE. It shares many aspects with calendars employed by other earlier Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Zapotec and Olmec, and contemporary or later ones such as the Mixtec and Aztec calendars. Although the Mesoamerican calendar did not originate with the Maya, their subsequent extensions and refinements of it were the most sophisticated. Along with those of the Aztecs, the Maya calendars are the best-documented and most completely understood.
By the Maya mythological tradition, the deity Itzamna is frequently credited with bringing the knowledge of the calendar system to the ancestral Maya, along with writing in general and other foundational aspects of Maya culture.
The Maya calendar consists of several cycles or counts of different lengths. The 260-day count is known to scholars as the Tzolkin, or Tzolk’in. The Tzolkin was combined with a 365-day vague solar year known as the Haab’ to form a synchronized cycle lasting for 52 Haab’, called the Calendar Round. Smaller cycles of 13 days, the trecena, and 20 days, the veintena, were important components of both cycles. The Calendar Round is still in use by many groups in the Guatemalan highlands.
A different calendar was used to track longer periods of time, and for the inscription of calendar dates (i.e., identifying when one event occurred in relation to others). This is the Long Count. It is a count of days since a mythological starting-point. According to the correlation between the Long Count and Western calendars accepted by the great majority of Maya researchers (known as the Goodman-Martinez-Thompson, or GMT, correlation), this starting-point is equivalent to August 11, 3114 BCE in the proleptic Gregorian calendar or 6 September in the Julian calendar (−3113 astronomical). By its linear nature, the Long Count was capable of being extended to refer to any date far into the past or future. This calendar involved the use of a positional notation system, in which each position signified an increasing multiple of the number of days. The Maya numeral system was essentially vigesimal (i.e., base-20), and each unit of a given position represented 20 times the unit of the position that preceded it. An important exception was made for the second-order place value, which instead represented 18 × 20, or 360 days, more closely approximating the solar year than would 20 × 20 = 400 days. It should be noted however that the cycles of the Long Count are independent of the solar year.
Many Maya Long Count inscriptions contain a supplementary series, which provides information on the lunar phase, number of the current lunation in a series of six and which of the nine Lords of the Night rules.
A 584-day Venus cycle was also maintained, which tracked the heliacal risings of Venus as the morning and evening stars. Many events in this cycle were seen as being astrologically inauspicious and baleful, and occasionally warfare was astrologically timed to coincide with stages in this cycle.
With the development of the place-notational Long Count calendar (believed to have been inherited from other Mesoamerican cultures), the Maya had an elegant system with which events could be recorded in a linear relationship to one another, and also with respect to the calendar (“linear time”) itself. In theory, this system could readily be extended to delineate any length of time desired, by simply adding to the number of higher-order place markers used (and thereby generating an ever-increasing sequence of day-multiples, each day in the sequence uniquely identified by its Long Count number). In practice, most Maya Long Count inscriptions confine themselves to noting only the first five coefficients in this system (a b’ak’tun-count), since this was more than adequate to express any historical or current date (20 b’ak’tuns cover 7,885 solar years). Even so, example inscriptions exist which noted or implied lengthier sequences, indicating that the Maya well understood a linear (past-present-future) conception of time.
However, and in common with other Mesoamerican societies, the repetition of the various calendric cycles, the natural cycles of observable phenomena, and the recurrence and renewal of death-rebirth imagery in their mythological traditions were important influences upon Maya societies. This conceptual view, in which the “cyclical nature” of time is highlighted, was a pre-eminent one, and many rituals were concerned with the completion and re-occurrences of various cycles. As the particular calendric configurations were once again repeated, so too were the “supernatural” influences with which they were associated. Thus it was held that particular calendar configurations had a specific “character” to them, which would influence events on days exhibiting that configuration. Divinations could then be made from the auguries associated with a certain configuration, since events taking place on some future date would be subject to the same influences as its corresponding previous cycle dates. Events and ceremonies would be timed to coincide with auspicious dates, and avoid inauspicious ones.
The completion of significant calendar cycles (“period endings”), such as a k’atun-cycle, were often marked by the erection and dedication of specific monuments (mostly stela inscriptions, but sometimes twin-pyramid complexes such as those in Tikal and Yaxha), commemorating the completion, accompanied by dedicatory ceremonies.
A cyclical interpretation is also noted in Maya creation accounts, in which the present world and the humans in it were preceded by other worlds (one to five others, depending on the tradition) that were fashioned in various forms by the gods, but subsequently destroyed. The present world also had a tenuous existence, requiring the supplication and offerings of periodic sacrifice to maintain the balance of continuing existence. Similar themes are found in the creation accounts of other Mesoamerican societies.
The tzolk’in is the name commonly employed by Mayanist researchers for the Maya Sacred Round or 260-day calendar. The word tzolk’in is a neologism coined in Yucatec Maya, to mean “count of days”.
The tzolk’in calendar combines twenty day names with the thirteen numbers of the trecena cycle to produce 260 unique days. It is used to determine the time of religious and ceremonial events and for divination. Each successive day is numbered from 1 up to 13 and then starting again at 1. Separately from this, every day is given a name in sequence from a list of 20 day names:
Some systems started the count with 1 Imix’, followed by 2 Ik’, 3 Ak’b’al, etc. up to 13 B’en. The trecena day numbers then start again at 1 while the named-day sequence continues onwards, so the next days in the sequence are 1 Ix, 2 Men, 3 K’ib’, 4 Kab’an, 5 Etz’nab’, 6 Kawak, and 7 Ajaw. With all twenty named days used, these now began to repeat the cycle while the number sequence continues, so the next day after 7 Ajaw is 8 Imix’. The repetition of these interlocking 13- and 20-day cycles therefore takes 260 days to complete (that is, for every possible combination of number/named day to occur once).
Origin of the Tzolk’in
The exact origin of the Tzolk’in is not known, but there are several theories.
1. One theory is that the calendar came from mathematical operations based on the numbers thirteen and twenty, which were important numbers to the Maya. The numbers multiplied together equal 260.
2. Another theory is that the 260-day period came from the length of human pregnancy. This is close to the average number of days between the first missed menstrual period and birth, unlike Naegele’s rule which is 40 weeks (280 days) between the last menstrual period and birth. It is postulated that midwives originally developed the calendar to predict babies’ expected birth dates. The deity Ix Chel is thus of particular interest due to her mythic relation to the calendar.
3. A third theory comes from understanding of astronomy, geography and archaeology. The mesoamerican calendar probably originated with the Olmecs, and a settlement existed at Izapa, in southeast Chiapas Mexico, before 1200 BC. There, at a latitude of about 15° N, the Sun passes through zenith twice a year, and there are 260 days between zenithal passages. Gnomons (used generally for observing the path of the Sun and in particular zenithal passages) were found at this and other sites.
4. A fourth theory is that the calendar is based on agriculture. From planting to harvest is approximately 260 days.
The Haab’ was the Maya solar calendar made up of eighteen months of twenty days each plus a period of five days (“nameless days”) at the end of the year known as Wayeb’. The five days of Wayeb’, were thought to be a dangerous time. During Wayeb, portals between the mortal realm and the Underworld dissolved. No boundaries prevented the ill-intending deities from causing disasters. To ward off these evil spirits, the Maya had customs and rituals they practiced during Wayeb’. For example, people avoided leaving their houses and washing or combing their hair. It is estimated that the Haab’ was first used around 550 BC with a starting point of the winter solstice.
The Haab’ month names are known today by their corresponding names in colonial-era Yukatek Maya, as Phonemic analyses of Haab’ glyph names in pre-Columbian Maya inscriptions have demonstrated that the names for these twenty-day periods varied considerably from region to region and from period to period, reflecting differences in the base language(s) and usage in the Classic and Postclassic eras predating their recording by Spanish sources.
Each day in the Haab’ calendar was identified by a day number in the month followed by the name of the month. Day numbers began with a glyph translated as the “seating of” a named month, which is usually regarded as day 0 of that month, although a minority treat it as day 20 of the month preceding the named month. In the latter case, the seating of Pop is day 5 of Wayeb’. For the majority, the first day of the year was 0 Pop (the seating of Pop). This was followed by 1 Pop, 2 Pop as far as 19 Pop then 0 Wo, 1 Wo and so on.
As a calendar for keeping track of the seasons, the Haab’ was a bit inaccurate, since it treated the year as having exactly 365 days, and ignored the extra quarter day (approximately) in the actual tropical year. This meant that the seasons moved with respect to the calendar year by a quarter day each year, so that the calendar months named after particular seasons no longer corresponded to these seasons after a few centuries. The Haab’ is equivalent to the wandering 365-day year of the ancient Egyptians.
A Calendar Round date is a date that gives both the Tzolk’in and Haab’. This date will repeat after 52 Haab’ years or 18,980 days, a Calendar Round. For example, the current creation started on 4 Ahau 8 Kumk’u. When this date recurs it is known as a Calendar Round completion.
Arithmetically, the duration of the Calendar Round can be explained in various ways. One way is to consider that the least common multiple of 260 and 365 is 18980 (73 X 260 Tzolk’in days equalling 52 X 365 Haab’ days).
Not every possible combination of Tzolk’in and Haab’ can occur.
A “Year Bearer” is a Tzolk’in day name that occurs on the first day of the Haab’. If the first day of the Haab’ is 0 Pop, then each 0 Pop will coincide with a Tzolk’in date, for example, 1 Ik’ 0 Pop. Since there are twenty Tzolk’in day names and the Haab’ year has 365 days (20*18 + 5), the Tzolk’in name for each succeeding Haab’ zero day will be incremented by 5 in the cycle of day names like this: 1 Ik’ 0 Pop 2 Manik’ 0 Pop 3 Eb’ 0 Pop 4 Kab’an 0 Pop 5 Ik’ 0 Pop… Only these four of the Tzolk’in day names can coincide with 0 Pop, and these four are called the “Year Bearers”.
“Year Bearer” literally translates a Mayan concept. Its importance resides in two facts. For one, the four years headed by the Year Bearers are named after them and share their characteristics; therefore, they also have their own prognostications and patron deities. Moreover, since the Year Bearers are geographically identified with boundary markers or mountains, they help define the local community.
The classic system of Year Bearers described above is found at Tikal and in the Dresden Codex. During the Late Classic period a different set of Year Bearers was in use in Campeche. In this system, the Year Bearers were the Tzolk’in that coincided with 1 Pop. These were Ak’b’al, Lamat, B’en and Edz’nab.
Example of Long Count Calendar
The east side of stela C, Quirigua with the mythical creation date of 13 baktuns, 0 katuns, 0 tuns, 0 uinals, 0 kins, 4 Ahau 8 Cumku – August 11, 3114 BCE in the proleptic Gregorian calendar.
Since Calendar Round dates repeat every 18,980 days, approximately 52 solar years, the cycle repeats roughly once each lifetime, so a more refined method of dating was needed if history was to be recorded accurately. To specify dates over periods longer than 52 years, Mesoamericans used the Long Count calendar.
The Maya name for a day was k’in. Twenty of these k’ins are known as a winal or uinal. Eighteen winals make one tun. Twenty tuns are known as a k’atun. Twenty k’atuns make a b’ak’tun.
The Long Count calendar identifies a date by counting the number of days from the Mayan creation date 4 Ahaw, 8 Kumk’u (August 11, 3114 BC in the proleptic Gregorian calendar or September 6 in the Julian calendar). But instead of using a base-10 (decimal) scheme like Western numbering, the Long Count days were tallied in a modified base-20 scheme. Thus 0.0.0.1.5 is equal to 25, and 0.0.0.2.0 is equal to 40. As the winal unit resets after only counting to 18, the Long Count consistently uses base-20 only if the tun is considered the primary unit of measurement, not the k’in; with the k’in and winal units being the number of days in the tun. The Long Count 0.0.1.0.0 represents 360 days, rather than the 400 in a purely base-20 (vigesimal) count.
There are also four rarely used higher-order cycles: piktun, kalabtun, k’inchiltun, and alautun.
Since the Long Count dates are unambiguous, the Long Count was particularly well suited to use on monuments. The monumental inscriptions would not only include the 5 digits of the Long Count, but would also include the two tzolk’in characters followed by the two haab’ characters.
Misinterpretation of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar was the basis for a popular belief that a cataclysm would take place on December 21, 2012. December 21, 2012 was simply the day that the calendar went to the next b’ak’tun, at Long Count 184.108.40.206.0. The date on which the calendar will go to the next piktun (a complete series of 20 b’ak’tuns), at Long Count 220.127.116.11.0.0, will be on October 13, 4772.
For the ancient Maya, it was a huge celebration to make it to the end of a whole cycle”. The portrayal of December 2012 as a doomsday or cosmic-shift event is”a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in.
Table of Long Count units
|Long Count Unit||Long Count Period||Days||Approximate Solar Years|
|1 Winal||20 K'in||20|
|1 Tun||18 Winal||360||1|
|1 K'atun||20 Tun||7.200||20|
|1 B'ak'tun||20 K'atun||144,000||394|
|1 Piktun||20 B'ak'tun||2,880,000||7,885|
|1 Kalabtun||20 Piktun||57,600,000||157,704|
|1 Kinchiltun||20 Kalabtun||1,152,000,000||3,154,071|
|1 Alautun||20 K'inchiltun||23,040,000,000||63,081,429|
Many Classic period inscriptions include a series of glyphs known as the Supplementary Series. The Supplementary Series most commonly consists of the following elements:
1. Lords of the Night
Each night was ruled by one of the nine lords of the underworld. This nine day-cycle was usually written as two glyphs: a glyph that referred to the Nine Lords as a group, followed by a glyph for the lord that would rule the next night.
2. Lunar Series
A lunar Series generally is written as five glyphs that provide information about the current lunation, the number of the lunation in a series of six, the current ruling lunar deity and the length of the current lunation.
Moon age. The Maya counted the number of days in the current lunation. They used two systems for the zero date of the lunar cycle: either the first night they could see the thin crescent moon or the first morning when they could not see the waning moon. The age of the moon was depicted by a set of glyphs that mayanists coined glyphs D and E:
A new moon glyph was used for day zero in the lunar cycle.
D glyphs were used for lunar ages for days 1 through 19, with the number of days that had passed from the new moon.
For lunar ages 20 to 30, an E glyph was used, with the number of days from 20.
Lunation number and lunar deity
The Maya counted the lunation in a cycle of six, numbered zero through 5. Each one was ruled by one of the six Lunar Deities. This was written as two glyphs: a glyph for the completed lunation in the lunar count with a coefficient of 0 through 5 and a glyph for the lunar deity that ruled the current lunation. Teeple found that Quirigua Stela E (18.104.22.168.0) is lunar deity 2 and that most other inscriptions use this same moon number. It is an interesting date because it was a k’atun completion and a solar eclipse was visible in the Maya area two days later on the first unlucky day of Wayeb’.
The length of the lunar month is 29.53059 days so if you count the number of days in a lunation it will be either 29 or 30 days. The maya wrote whether the lunar month was 29 or 30 days as two glyphs: a glyph for lunation length followed by either a glyph made up of a moon glyph over a bundle with a suffix of 19 for a 29 day lunation or a moon glyph with a suffix of 10 for a 30 day lunation.
819 day count
Some Mayan monuments include glyphs that record an 819 day count in their Initial Series. Each group of 819 days was associated with one of the four directions and its color — east red, north white, west black and south yellow.
The 819 day count can be described several ways: Most of these are referred to using a “Y” glyph and a number. Many also have a glyph for K’awill — the god with a smoking mirror in his head. K’awill has been suggested as having a link to Jupiter. The accompanying texts begin with a directional glyph and a verb for 819-day-count phrases.
During the late Classic period the Maya began to use an abbreviated short count instead of the Long Count. An example of this can be found on altar 14 at Tikal. In the kingdoms of Postclassic Yucatán, the Short Count was used instead of the Long Count. The cyclical Short Count is a count of 13 k’atuns (or 260 tuns), in which each k’atun was named after its concluding day, Ahau (‘Lord’). 1 Imix was selected as the recurrent ‘first day’ of the cycle, corresponding to 1 Cipactli in the Aztec day count. The cycle was counted from katun 11 Ahau to katun 13 Ahau, with the coefficients of the katuns’ concluding days running in the order 11 – 9 – 7 – 5 – 3 – 1 – 12 – 10 – 8 – 6 – 4 – 2 – 13 Ahau (since a division of 20 × 360 days by 13 falls 2 days short). The concluding day 13 Ahau was followed by the re-entering first day 1 Imix. This is the system as found in the colonial Books of Chilam Balam.
Another important calendar for the Maya was the Venus cycle. The Maya kings had skilled astronomers who could calculate the Venus cycle with great accuracy. The Maya were able to achieve such accuracy by careful observation over many years. Venus was often referred to as both “The Morning Star” and “The Evening Star” because of its visibility during both times. There are various theories as to why the Venus cycle was especially important for the Maya. Across Mesoamerica, Venus was often depicted as “defeating” the Sun and the Moon, perhaps because of its persistent visibility after transitions from day-into-night (and vice-versa). Most scholars agree that Venus was associated with war and that the Maya used it to divine good times (called electional astrology) for their coronations and wars. Maya rulers planned for wars to begin when Venus rose.