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The Maya calendar is
a system of distinct calendars and almanacs used
by the Maya
civilization of pre-ColumbianMesoamerica,
and by some modern Maya communities in highland Guatemala.
These calendars can be synchronized and interlocked, 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 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, as
documented in Colonial Yucatec accounts and reconstructed from Late Classic
and Postclassic inscriptions, 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 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 by 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 las Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala. The
Tzolk'in is combined with another 365-day calendar (known as the Haab,
or Haab' ), to form a
synchronized 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 Tzolk'in 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 mythological
to the correlation between the Long Count and Western calendars accepted by
the great majority of Maya researchers (known as the GMT correlation), this
starting-point is equivalent to August 11, 3114 BC in the proleptic
Gregorian calendar or 6
September in the Julian
calendar (−3113 astronomical).
The Goodman-Martinez-Thompson correlation was chosen by Thompson in 1935 based
on earlier correlations by Joseph Goodman in 1905 (August 11), Juan Martínez
Hernández in 1926 (August 12), and John Eric Sydney Thompson in 1927 (August
its linear nature, the Long Count was capable of being extended to refer to
any date far into the future (or past). 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 which 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 are supplemented by a Lunar Series, 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 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.
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 sets 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 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 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
re-occurrences of various cycles. As the particular calendaric 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) 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.
The tzolk'in (in
modern Maya orthography;
also commonly written tzolkin)
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
Maya, to mean "count of days" (Coe 1992). The various names of this
calendar as used by Precolumbian Maya peoples are still debated by scholars.
The Aztec calendar
equivalent was called Tonalpohualli,
in the Nahuatl
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:
Tzolk'in calendar: named days and
Classic Maya 5
Classic Maya 5
||Imix (?) / Ha' (?)
- The sequence number of the named day in the Tzolk'in calendar
- Day name, in the standardised and revised orthography of the
Guatemalan Academia de Lenguas Mayas
- An example glyph (logogram)
for the named day. Note that for most of these several different forms
are recorded; the ones shown here are typical of carved monumental
inscriptions (these are "cartouche"
- Day name, as recorded from 16th century Yukatek
de Landa; this orthography has (until recently) been widely used
- In most cases, the actual day name as spoken in the time of the
Classic Period (ca. 200–900) when most inscriptions were made is not
known. The versions given here (in Classic
Maya, the main language of the inscriptions) are reconstructed
based on phonological evidence, if available; a '?' symbol indicates
the reconstruction is tentative.
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 Kawoq, and 7 Ajau. 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.
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. 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
rulewhich 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.
A third theory comes from understanding of astronomy, geography and
paleontology. 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, and gnomons (used
generally for observing the path of the Sun and in particular zenithal
passages), were found at this and other sites. The sacred almanac may well
have been set in motion on August 13, 1359 BC, in Izapa. Vincent H. Malmström,
a geographer who suggested this location and date, outlines his reasons:
(1) Astronomically, it lay at the only latitude in North America where a
260-day interval (the length of the "strange" sacred almanac used throughout
the region in pre-Columbian times) can be measured between vertical sun
positions -- an interval which happens to begin on the 13th of August -- the
day the peoples of the Mesoamerica believed that the present world was
created; (2) Historically, it was the only site at this latitude which was
old enough to have been the cradle of the sacred almanac, which at that time
(1973) was thought to date to the 4th or 5th centuries B.C.; and (3)
Geographically, it was the only site along the required parallel of latitude
that lay in a tropical lowland ecological niche where such creatures as
alligators, monkeys, and iguanas were native -- all of which were used as
day-names in the sacred almanac.
Malmström also offers strong arguments against both of the former
A fourth theory is that the calendar is based on the crops. From planting to
harvest is approximately 260 days.
||five unlucky 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' (or Uayeb in
16th C. orthography). Bricker (1982) estimates that the Haab' was first used
around 550 BC with the starting point of the winter
The Haab' month names are known today by their corresponding names in
Maya, as transcribed by 16th century sources (in particular, Diego
de Landa and books such as the Chilam
Balam of Chumayel).
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
The five nameless days at the end of the calendar, called Wayeb', were thought
to be a dangerous time. Foster (2002) writes "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.
Main article: Calendar
Neither the Tzolk'in nor the Haab' system numbered the years. The combination
of a Tzolk'in date and a Haab' date was enough to identify a date to most
people's satisfaction, as such a combination did not occur again for another
52 years, above general life expectancy.
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 in 18,980 days, equivalent to
around 52 solar years, the cycle repeats roughly once each lifetime, and thus,
a more refined method of dating was needed if history was to be recorded
accurately. To measure dates, therefore, over periods longer than 52 years,
Mesoamericans devised 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)
Table of Long Count units
||Long Count period
||Long Count period
||Approx solar years
||= 1 K'in
||= 20 K'in
||= 1 Winal
||= 18 Winal
||= 1 Tun
||= 20 Tun
||= 1 K'atun
||= 20 K'atun
||= 1 B'ak'tun
There are also four rarely-used higher-order cycles: piktun, kalabtun, k'inchiltun,
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.
Long Count calendar forms the
basis for a New
Age belief, first forecast by José
Argüelles, that a cataclysm
will take place on or about December 21, 2012, a forecast that mainstream Mayanist scholars
consider a misinterpretation, yet is commonly referenced in pop-culture media
as the 2012 problem.
For example, Sandra Noble, executive director of the Mesoamerican research
notes that "[f]or the ancient Maya, it was a huge celebration to make it to
the end of a whole cycle". However, she considers the portrayal of December
2012 as a doomsday or cosmic-shift event to be "a complete fabrication and a
chance for a lot of people to cash in."
Another important calendar for the Maya was the Venus cycle.
The Maya were skilled astronomers,
and could calculate the Venus cycle with extreme accuracy. There are six pages
in the Dresden
Codex (one of the Maya
codices) devoted to the accurate calculation of the heliacal rising of
Venus. The Maya were able to achieve such accuracy by careful observation over
many years. There are various theories as to why Venus cycle was especially
important for the Maya, including the belief that it was associated with war
and used it to divine good times (called electional
astrology) 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.