The Maya calendar is a system of complex and highly developed calendars created by the Maya Civilization of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. This series of calendars, includes a sacred 260-day calendar, called the Tzolkin or Tzolk'in, a 365-day calendar called the Haab, and a 52-Haab cycle called the Calendar Round, which synchronised the Tzolkin and Haab cycles.
Importance of time in the Maya culture
The Maya believed that time was cyclical instead of the western conception of linear time. This means that they thought that time repeated itself, so therefore, if they knew the past they could predict the future. This concept of was embodied by what is termed Najt, or the concept of time and space consisting a single entity represented in a spiral format. By understanding time, the Maya believed they could gain power over their world.
The Tzolkin calendar combines twenty day names with thirteen numbers 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:
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, that 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, verbally skillful, and possibly a liar, cheat or complainer. 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 priest shaman or a marriage spokesman. In the Maya highlands, babies were even named after the day on which they were born.
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 neither the Haab nor the Tzolkin recorded year numbers, something else was needed for the recording of dates. There was also a Long Count which started at 126.96.36.199.0 on August 11, 3114 BC 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 188.8.131.52.0, 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 the Winter Solstice of (December 21) 2012 and is designated 184.108.40.206.0, since the Maya believed that time is periodic. Another widely-used correlation, that of Lounsbury, correlates the start-day to August 13, 3114 BC and the terminal date to December 23, 2012.
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.
Another important calendar for the Maya was the Venus cycle. The Maya were excellent astronomers, and could calculate the Venus cycle with only a two-hour margin of error. 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 tracked other planets’ movements, including those of Mars, Mercury, and Jupiter.
- Bricker, Victoria. (1982). The Origin of the Maya Solar Calendar. Current Anthropology. 23 (1), 101-103.
- Foster, Lynn V. (2002). Handbook to Life in the Ancient Mayan World. New York: Facts on File.
- Ivanoff, Pierre. (1968). Mayan Enigma: The Search for a Lost Civilization. Elaine P. Halperin, trans. New York: Delacorte Press.
- Tedlock, Barbara. (1982). Time and the Highland Maya. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
- Tedlock,Dennis, trans. (1985). Popol Vuh: the Difinitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Robinson, Andrew. (2000) The Story of Writing Thames and Hudson.