The Maya calendar is actually a system of distinct calendars and almanacs used by the Maya civilization of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. These different calendars tracked observable phenomena such as the solar year, the lunar year, and the synodic period of the planet Venus; others had a divinatory or ritualistic purpose without any known association to natural cycles.
These calendars could be synchronised and interlocked in complex ways, their combinations giving rise to further, more extensive cycles.
The essentials of the Maya calendric system are based upon a system which had been in common use throughout the region, dating back to at least the 6th century BC. It shares many aspects with calendars employed by other earlier Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Zapotec, Olmec, and Mixtec, and later ones such as the Aztec. Although the Mesoamerican calendar did not originate with the Maya, their subsequent extensions and refinements to it were the most sophisticated. Along with those of the Aztecs, the Maya calendars are the best-documented and most completely understood.
The most important of these calendars is one with a period of 260 days. This 260-day calendar was prevalent across all Mesoamerican societies, and is of great antiquity (almost certainly the oldest of the calendars). It is still used in some regions of Oaxaca, and amongst the Maya communities of the Guatemalan highlands. The Maya version is commonly known to scholars as the Tzolkin, or Tzolk'in in the revised orthography of the Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala. The Tzolkin combined with another 365-day calendar (known as the Haab, or Haab' ), to form a synchronised cycle lasting for 52 Haabs, called the Calendar Round. Smaller cycles of 13 days (the trecena) and 20 days (the veintena) were important components of the Tzolkin and Haab cycles, respectively.
A different form of 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 form, known as the Long Count, is based upon the number of elapsed days since a mythical starting point, and was capable of being extended to refer to any date far into the 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 a vigesimal one (i.e., base-20), and each unit of a given position represented 20 times the unit of the position which preceded it. An important exception was made for the second place value, which instead represented 18 × 20, or 360 days, more closely approximating the sidereal 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 are supplemented by what is known as the Lunar Series, another calendric form which provides information on the lunar phase and position of the Moon in a half-yearly cycle of lunations.
A 584-day Venus cycle was also maintained, which tracked the appearance and conjunctions of Venus as the morning and evening stars. Many events in this cycle were seen as being inauspicious and baleful, and occasionally warfare was timed to coincide with stages in this cycle.
Other, less-prevalent or poorly-understood cycles, combinations and calendar progressions were also tracked. An 819-day count is attested in a few inscriptions; repeating series of 9- and 13-day intervals associated with different groups of deities, animals and other significant concepts are also known.
Maya concepts of time
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 within 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 5 coefficients in this system (a baktun-count), since this was more than adequate to express any historical or current date (with an equivalent span of approximately 5125 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 and pervasive 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 reoccurrences of various cycles.
As the particular calenderic 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 katun-cycle, were often marked by the erection and dedication of specific monuments (mostly stela inscriptions) 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) which 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.
Mayanists have bestowed the name tzolkin (or tzolk'in, in the revised orthography which is now preferred) on the Maya version of the Mesoamerican 260-day calendar. The word was coined based on the Yucatec language, with an intended meaning of "count of days". The actual names of this calendar as used by the pre-Columbian Maya are not known. The Aztec calendar equivalent was called by them tonalpohualli, in the Nahuatl language.
The Tzolkin calendar combines twenty day names with the thirteen numbers of the trecena cycle to produce 260 unique days. It was used to determine the time of religious and ceremonial events and for divination. Each successive day was numbered from 1 up to 13 and then starting again at 1. Separately from this, each day was given a name in sequence from a list of 20 day names:
Classic Maya 5
Classic Maya 5
|01||Imix'||50px||Imix||Imix (?) / Ha' (?)||11||Chuwen||50px||Chuen||(unknown)|
|04||K'an||50px||Kan||K'an (?)||14||Ix||50px||Ix||Hix (?)|
|07||Manik'||50px||Manik||Manich' (?)||17||Kab'an||50px||Caban||Chab' (?)|
The system started with 1 Imix, which was followed by 2 Ik, 3 Akbal and so on up to 13 Ben. The day numbers then started again at 1, so there were 1 Ix, 2 Men, 3 Cib, 4 Caban, 5 Etznap, 6 Caunac, and 7 Ahau. The day names then started again, so the next day was 8 Imix. The full cycle of every possible day number with every possible day name took 260 days.
The Maya believed that each day of the Tzolkin had a character that influenced events. The Maya had a shaman-priest, whose name meant day keeper, and who read the Tzolkin to predict the future. When a child was born, the day keeper would interpret the Tzolkin cycle to predict the baby’s destiny. For example, a child born on the day of Akabal was thought to be feminine, wealthy, and verbally skillful. The birthday of Ak’abal was also thought to give the child the ability to communicate with the supernatural world, so he or she might become a shaman-priest or a marriage spokesman. In the Maya highlands, babies were even named after the day on which they were born to apprise the community of that child's purpose in life.
Origin of the Tzolkin
The exact origin of the Tzolkin is not known, but there are several theories. 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 number twenty was the basis of the Maya counting system, taken from the number of human fingers and toes. (See Maya numerals). Thirteen symbolized the number of levels in the Upperworld where the gods lived. The numbers multiplied together equal 260. Another theory is that the 260-day period came from the length of human pregnancy. It is postulated that midwives originally developed the calendar to predict babies’ expected birth dates.
The Haab was the Maya solar calendar made up of eighteen months of twenty days each and a five day month at the end of the year known as Wayeb or Uayeb that was called "the nameless days." Victoria Bricker estimates that the Haab was first used around 550 BC with the starting point of the winter solstice. The Haab was the foundation of the agrarian calendar and the month names are based on the seasons and agricultural events. For example the thirteenth month, Mac, may refer to the end of the rainy season and the fourteenth month, Kankin, may refer to ripe crops in the fall.
In Yucatec Maya, the eighteen months had the following names:
Each day was identified by a day number within 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 ... 19 Pop, 0 Uo, 1 Uo and so on.
As a calendar for keeping track of the seasons, the Haab was crude and inaccurate, since it treated the year as having 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. Some argue that the Maya knew about and compensated for the quarter day error, even though their calendar did not include anything comparable to a leap year, a method first implemented by the Romans.
The five nameless days at the end of the calendar called Wayeb were thought to be a dangerous time. Lynn Foster writes that, "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 or washing or combing their hair.
Neither the Tzolkin nor the Haab system numbered the years. The combination of a Tzolkin date and a Haab date was enough to identify a date to most people's satisfaction, as such a combination didn't occur again for another 52 years.
Because the two calendars were based on 260 days and 365 days respectively, the whole cycle would repeat itself every 52 Haab years exactly. This period was known as a Calendar Round. The end of the Calendar Round was a period of unrest and bad luck among the Maya, as they waited in expectation to see if the gods would grant them another cycle of 52 years.
Since Calendar Round dates can only distinguish within 18980 days, equivalent to around 52 solar years, the cycle repeats roughly once each lifetime, and thus, a much more refined method of dating was needed if their history was to be recorded accurately.
The Long Count employs the use of number series, roughly base 20 and is constructed by counting whole number of days alone. The Mayan name for a day was kin; twenty of these kins are known as a uinal; eighteen uinals make one tun; twenty tuns are known as a katun, twenty katuns make a baktun. (Four higher order cycles but rarely used are known as Pictun, Calabtun, Kinchiltun, and Alautun.)
|Days||Long Count periods||Long Count||Solar years||Tuns|
|1||= 1 Kin|
|20||= 20 Kin||= 1 Uinal|
|360||= 18 Uinal||= 1 Tun||~ 1||1|
|7 200||= 20 Tun||= 1 Katun||~ 20||20|
|144 000||= 20 Katun||= 1 Bactun||~ 395||400|
The Long Count started at 22.214.171.124.0 on Julian day 584283 (3114 BC August 11 in the proleptic Gregorian calendar, or 3114 BC September 6 in the proleptic Julian calendar) according to the "Goodman, Martinez-Hernandez, Thompson" correlation (nicknamed "GMT"), the most widely accepted correlation between the Maya and Gregorian calendar. The baktuns progress 13, 1, 2, ..., 12. Because of this progression, many start the Long Count at 0.0.0.0.0 rather than 126.96.36.199.0, even though the Maya glyph for their epoch literally means "the completion of 13 baktuns". This cycle is 1,872,000 days in length, terminating on 2012 (December 21, Gregorian) and is designated 188.8.131.52.0, since the Maya believed that time is periodic. Another correlation sometimes used, that of Lounsbury, correlates the start-day to JD 584285 (3114 BC August 13 (Gregorian) = 3114 BC September 8 (Julian) ) and the terminal date to 2012 December 23 (Gregorian).
Calculating Long Count dates
Long count dates list number of the highest order period first (Baktun) and then the number of each successively smaller order periods until the number of days (kin) are listed. Then the Calendar Round date is given.
A typical Calendar Round date is 184.108.40.206.16 5 Cib 14 Yaxkin. One can check whether this date is correct by the following calculation.
It is perhaps easier to find out how many days there are since 4 Ahau 8 Cumhu, and show how the date 5 Cib 14 Yaxkin is derived.
|9||× 144000||= 1296000|
|12||× 7200||= 86400|
|2||× 360||= 720|
|0||× 20||= 0|
|16||× 1||= 16|
|Total days||= 1383136 kin|
Calculating the Tzolkin date portion
The Tzolkin date is counted forward from 4 Ahau. To calculate the numerical portion of the Tzolkin date, we must add 4 to the total number of days given by the date, and then divide total number of days by 13.
- (4 + 1383136) / 13 = 106395 and 5/13
This means that 106395 complete 13 day cycles have been completed, and the numerical portion of the Tzolkin date is 5.
To calculate the day, we divide the total number of days in the long count by 20 since there are twenty day names.
- 1383136 / 20 = 69156 and (16/20)
This means 16 day names must be counted from Ahau. This gives Cib. Therefore, the Tzolkin date is 5 Cib.
Calculating the Haab date portion
The Haab date 8 Cumhu is the ninth day of the eighteenth month. Since there are twenty days per month, there are eleven days remaining in Cumhu. The nineteeth and last month of the Haab year contains only five days, there are sixteen days until the end of the Haab year.
If we subtract 16 days from the total, we can then find how many complete Haab years are contained.
- 1383136 - 16 = 1383120
Dividing by 365, we have
- 1383120 / 365 = 3789 and (135/365)
Therefore, 3789 complete Haab have passed, with 135 days into the new Haab.
We then find which month the day is in. Dividing the remainder 135 days by 20, we have six complete months, plus 15 remainder days. So, the date in the Haab lies in the seventh month, which is Yaxkin. The fifteenth day of Yaxkin is 14, thus the Haab date is 14 Yaxkin.
So the date of the long count date 220.127.116.11.16 5 Cib 14 Yaxkin is confirmed.
End of the world?
The turn of the great cycle is conjectured to have been of great significance to the Maya, but does not necessarily mark the end of the world. According to the Popol Vuh, a sacred book of the Maya, they were living in the fourth world. The Popol Vuh describes the first three worlds that the gods failed in making and the creation of the successful fourth world where men were placed. The Maya believed that the fourth world would end in catastrophe and the fifth and final world would be created that would signal the end of mankind.
The last creation ended on a long count of 18.104.22.168.0. Another 22.214.171.124.0 will occur on December 21 2012, and it has been discussed in many New Age articles and books that this will be the end of this creation or something else entirely. However, the Maya abbreviated their long counts to just the last five vigesimal places. There were an infinitely larger number of units that were usually not shown. When the larger units were shown (notably on a monument from Coba), it is expressed as 126.96.36.199.188.8.131.52.0.0.0, where the larger units are evidently supposed to be 13s in all larger places. In this age we are only approaching 0.0.0.0.0.0.13.0.0.0.0, and the larger places are nowhere near the 13s that would match the end of the last creation.
This is confirmed by a date from Palenque, which projects forward in time to 184.108.40.206.0.0, which will occur on October 13, 4772. The Classic Period Maya obviously did not believe that the end of this age would occur in 2012. There will be a baktun ending in 2012, a significant event being the end of a 400 year period, but not the end of the age.
Another important calendar for the Maya was the Venus cycle. The Maya were excellent astronomers, and could calculate the Venus cycle extremely accurately. There are six pages in the Dresden Codex (one of the Maya codices) devoted to the accurate calculation of the location of Venus. The Maya were able to achieve such accuracy by careful observation over many years. The Venus cycle was especially important because the Maya believed it was associated with war and used it to divine good times for coronations and war. Maya rulers planned for wars to begin when Venus rose. The Maya also possibly tracked other planets’ movements, including those of Mars, Mercury, and Jupiter.
Joe Monzo has interpreted the boundaries of the longcount to be defined by a periodic astronomical event: the triple conjunction just before sunrise of the moon, Venus, and Jupiter (see his webpage below in "external links"). However, this interpretation relies on modern astronomical calculations not used by the Maya.
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- Source of most of this text
- Maya calendar on hermetic.ch
- Maya calendar on michielb.nl, with conversion applet from Gregorian calendar to Maya date
- Convert date from Maya long count to Gregorian calendar
- Maya calendar on halfmoon.org
- Maya Time Keeping
- Current Tzolkin round on Sipp.org
- Maya Calendar and Links on diagnosis2012.co.uk
- Maya Calendar on xoc.net
- Joe Monzo's interpretation of the Maya longcount
- "The How and Why of the Mayan End Date in 2012 A.D." by John Major Jenkins, May 23rd, 1994 (conjunction of the sun and the Milky Way occurs on the winter solstice of 2012)
- "Why The Creation Cycles Do Not End December 21 2012, But October 28, 2011" by Carl Johan Calleman; on Airstream Indie Radio Mayan Calendar Pod Cast Station.de:Maya-Kalender