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Mayan Calendar

The Maya calendar in its final form probably dates from about the 1st century B.C., and may originate with the Olmec civilization. It is extremely accurate, and the calculations of Maya priests were so precise that their calendar correction is 10,000th of a day more exact than the standard calendar the world uses today.

Of all the ancient calendar systems, the Maya and other Mesoamerican systems are the most complex and intricate. They used 20-day months, and had two calendar years: the 260-day Sacred Round, or tzolkin, and the 365-day Vague Year, or haab. These two calendars coincided every 52 years. The 52-year period of time was called a "bundle" and meant the same to the Maya as our century does to us.

The Sacred Round of 260 days is composed of two smaller cycles: the numbers 1 through 13, coupled with 20 different day names (see diagram below). Each of the day names is represented by a god who carries time across the sky, thus marking the passage of night and day. The day names are Imix, Ik, Akbal, Kan, Chicchan, Cimi, Manik, Lamat, Muluc, Oc, Chuen, Eb, Ben, Ix, Men, Cib, Caban, Eiznab, Cauac, and Ahau. Some of these are animal gods, such as Chuwen (the frog), and Ahau (the eagle), and archaeologists have pointed out that the Maya sequence of animals can be matched in similar sequence to the lunar zodiacs of many East and Southeast Asian civilizations.

This calendar gave each day a name, much like our days of the week. Each of the 20 day names was represented by a unique symbol. The days were numbered from 1 to 13. Since there are 20 day names, after the count of thirteen was reached, the next day was numbered 1 again. The 260-day or sacred count calendar was in use throughout Mesoamerica for centuries, probably before the beginning of writing.

Maya day names & approximate meanings
Imix Waterlily Chuwen Frog
Ik' Wind Eb Skull
Ak'bal Night Ben Corn stalk
K'an Corn Ix Jaguar
Chicchan Snake Men Eagle
Cimi Death head Kib Shell
Manik' Hand Caban Earth
Lamat Venus Eiz'nab Flint
Muluk Water Kawak Storm cloud
Oc Dog Ahau Eagle

To complete the calendar round the date as given by the 260 day cycle is matched with the day given by the solar year, the Mayan Vague Year. This year is 365 days is long. The Mayans, while recognizing that this was not quite correct and correcting for the fact in important astronomical calculations, used only whole days in their calendar. Because they could not use fractions, the "quarter" day left over every year caused their calendar to drift with regard to the actual solar year. The Vague Year date was formed in the same way as the 260 year cycle, using 18 months of 20 days each plus a short month of 5 days, which were considered unlucky, at the end of the year. The 365-day year contained months which were also given names. Numbers 0-19 were used so that the count goes Zero Pohp to 19 Pohp, then continues with Zero Wo. The last day of each month, instead of being labeled 20, was given a special symbol, indicating the seating of the month about to begin. This was to indicate the fact that the influence of the next month could be felt before it actually began.

The linking of the tzolkin and the haab resulted in a longer cycle of 18,890 days, or approximately 52 solar years. The end of this 52-year cycle was particularly feared, because it was believed to be a time when the world might come to an end and the sky might fall, if the gods were not satisfied with the way humanity had carried out its obligations.

If these two cycles are begun at the same time, a period of approximately 52 years (18,980 days) will pass before all of the cycles are back in the same alignment. This cycle is called the Calendar Round and is the calendar still in use by the people in the highlands of Mexico. It has obvious shortcomings when periods longer than 52 years are to be recorded. This problem is dealt with by the long count.

No one is certain how such an unusual calendar came into being. The 260-day cycle may tie several celestial events together, including the configuration of Mars, appearances of Venus, or eclipse seasons. It may even represent the interval between conception and birth of a human baby.

The 260-day calendar was used to determine important activities related to the gods and humans. It was used to name individuals, predict the future, decide on auspicious dates for battles, marriages, and so on. Each single day had its omens and associations, and the inexorable march of the 20 days was like a perpetual fortune-telling machine, guiding the destinies of the Maya. The Maya also tracked a vague solar year in which they counted 365 days per year.

Month names and approximate meanings
Pohp Mat Yax Green ??
Wo ?? Zak White ??
Sip ?? Keh Red ??
Sotz' Bat Mak ??
Sek ?? K'ank'in ??
Xul Dog Muwan Owl
Yaxk'in New Sun Pax ??
Mol Water K'ayab Turtle
Ch'en Black ?? Kumk'u ??

Glyphs for the nineteen months of the Mayan calendar
(in the same order as in the above table)
The last month is Uayeb and has only 5 days

To the eighteen regular months the Maya appended a special five-day month called Wayeb composed of 5 days which were considered unnamed and unlucky. Thus the days were counted: One Imix, Zero Pohp, Two Ik, One Pohp. When the thirteenth day was reached the next day was Thirteen Ben, Twelve Pohp; then One Ix, Thirteen Pohp, Two Men, Fourteen Pohp. After Seven Ahaw, Nineteen Pohp, the next day was Eight Imix, Zero Wo.

In addition, the Maya used special glyphs to indicate time periods, the kin represented one day. Winals are periods of 20-days which we now call a month. The Tun was a year of 360 days and the K'atun was a time period of 20 years of 360 days each. As we will see later, the K'atun ending was a special time period celebrated by the Maya. It has its parallel in the modern world, the period of time which we call a decade. The Maya also counted 400-year periods called Baktuns. The Maya used these time periods in a special day count which is now called the Long count. Today a typical long count date is written thus: This represents 9 baktuns, 14 k'atuns, 12 tuns, 2 winals and 17 k'ins. Larger units included the pictun, the calabtun, the kinchiltun and the analtun. Each analtun was equivalent to 64 million years.

Special note

All names given here are in the new orthography developed by native Maya of Guatemala. Their system is being accepted by many various organizations of Maya and similar forms of this orthography are being adopted by other Maya groups. In reality, this system probably makes it easier for English speakers to pronounce the actual words. Given the Maya propensity for words and language it is only a natural development.

One of the most important roles of the calendar was not to fix dates accurately in time, however, but to correlate the actions of Maya rulers to historic and mythological events. The acts of gods performed in the days of myth were reenacted by Maya rulers, often on the anniversary of the original event - a date which was carefully calculated by Maya priests. The calendar was also used to mark the time of past and future happenings. Some Maya monuments, for example, record the dates of events 90 million years ago, while others predict events that will take place 3,000 years into the future.

The calendar also predicted the future, as our astrological zodiac does. For example, the Maya believed that a person's birthday or day-sign determined their fate through life. The newborn child was thus connected with a particular god, and remained under that god's influence. Some gods were more auspicious than others, and a child born under a well-wishing god was considered lucky. A child born under a less kind deity had to ensure throughout his or her life that the god was propitiated - especially during vulnerable periods like the unlucky uayeb of the solar year.

Many scholars have wondered why the Maya calendar was so complex. In part, it was because Maya priests made all decisions about dates for sacred events and the agricultural cycle. There was thus no need for the average person to understand the calendar, and it could be as elaborate as the priests wanted.

The ancient Maya cycle still survives in southern Mexico and the Maya highlands, under the care of calendar priests who still keep the 260-day count for divination and other shamanistic activities. These priests juggled cycles of time and calculated when several of these cycles would coincide.