the Mesoamerican Calendar(s)

Anyone trying to understand the workings of the Mayan Calendar may be surprised to find out that there was not just one such calendar, there were several. And most famous are three: the tzolkin, their augury calendar, the haab, their solar calendar, and the Long Count, the one with the rapidly approaching end date.

There is no problem with the tzolkin. It ends every 260 days (less than nine months) and a new one starts, just like our calendars. The end-date for this calendar is nothing to worry about.

The haab likewise begins anew at the end of every year without dire circumstance.

There is also the “Calendar Round”, a larger calendar cycle but not exactly a separate calendar. It is the correlation between the tzolkin and the haab. The two run parallel and end together on the same date every fifty-two years. This marks the time when they usually had their fire ceremony: putting out the fires in all the surrounding villages and waiting until dawn to start a new fire in the city and carrying the new flame to all the countryside. Apparently, they feared the Sun would not return that night.

That brings us to the Long Count. The marvelous construct that runs for 5,125 years or so before reaching the End-Date, supposedly on December 21st, 2012.

Where did it come from? And for what purpose would they need to keep track of such long periods?

According to most theorists, the creators invented the calendar in the second century B. C. and simply ‘back-dated’ the beginning from some mythical point… some claim it dates from the birth of the planet Venus.(1)

Jenkins and others think it was nothing more than the first rising of the planet Venus following some other event, as yet undiscovered(2). It seems like a rather lame start of an exhaustive enterprise to back-date the start of the Long Count to something so minor. It would lead one to believe that the ending of the calendar will something as equally insignificant.

The Maya also understood precession of the equinoxes. A short explanation of precession will follow in Chapter 5. But why is precession important? Other than show the mechanics of our rotating world in the cosmos, does it actually do anything for us?

The Case of Authorship

As I mentioned previously, many scholars decline calling this the Mayan calendar as they believe it was composed even before the Maya got ahold of it.

While it is true that the earliest examples of the calendar inscriptions we have discovered lie at the borderlands between the Olmecs and where the Maya arose, their appearance seems to be after the Olmec civilization was in decline. So, it may be that the calendar was the last gift of the Olmecs, presented to the world as they disappeared, or it could be that some people hitherto unknown to us came up with the five-thousand year production.

Still, until some evidence comes forth showing the Olmecs, or someone else, had the calendar beforehand, I can see no sense in ascribing it to someone other than the Maya or their proto-Maya ancestors.

Besides, as I mentioned earlier about the current discoveries, the beginnings of the Maya are being pushed further and further back. This increases the likelihood that the calendar was very much all their own.

The Tzolkin

the twenty day-signs of the tzolkin
the twenty day-signs of the tzolkin

The ancient tzolkin is still being used by the Maya today as an augury, listing the good and bad days. You can think of it being similar to an astrology chart. Well, sort of.

One curious feature about the calendar is its arrangement of numbered days. I have come across some descriptions of the tzolkin that say it is so simple but then go on to make it as confusing as possible. Hopefully, it will not seem so here except, perhaps, for the names of the days. There are twenty in total and you can think of them as simple names of the days of the week.

In order to better understand how their calendar works, I will show our current calendar first in a manner similar to the tzolkin:

Let us take 2012, for example. The year starts:

1 – Sunday
2 – Monday
3 – Tuesday
4 – Wednesday
5 – Thursday
6 – Friday
7 – Saturday
8 – Sunday
9 – Monday
and so on to the end of the month:
29 – Sunday
30 – Monday
31 – Tuesday
and then in February, the sequence continues:
1 – Wednesday
2 – Thursday
3 – Friday

The month of March will start with 1 Thursday and April will start with 1 Sunday, just like January. July will also start with 1 Sunday. That same combination won’t repeat until 2013. It is a bit more difficult to show the cycles repeating in our calendar because the months we use are of differing length whereas in the tzolkin they are the same.

The Maya names of the days of the week run in a repetitive sequence just like our days of the week but, as there are twenty of them, it may seem a little like the “week” is longer than the “month”:

1 – Imix
2 – Ik
3 – Akbal
4 – Kan
5 – Chicchan
6 – Cimi
7 – Manik
8 – Lamat
9 – Muluc
10 – Oc
11 – Chuen
12 – Eb
13 – Ben
1 – Ix
2 – Men
3 – Cib
4 – Caban
5 – Etz’nab
6 – Cauac
7 – Ahau; and then back to the start with Imix:
8 – Imix
9 – Ik
10 – Akbal
11 – Kan
12 – Chicchan
13 – Cimi
1 – Manik
2 – Lamat
and so on, until the sequence has run through every combination of number and day name until it reaches 13 Ahau, the 20th day of the 13th “week”:
10 – Caban
11 – Etz’nab
12 – Cauac
13 – Ahau

And that is the tzolkin in a nutshell. It is very similar to ours in that the numbers run consecutively and repeat from the beginning regardless of the position of the names of the days, as they continue in their own sequence.

It should also be noted that the tzolkin always ends on “13 Ahau”, as does both the Calendar Round and the Long Count. So the 21st of December is also 13 Ahau.

A Question of Mathematics

So, though the tzolkin has some similarities to our own calendar it is still rather a strange beast. Why does it run only 260 days? Thirteen is understood to be a “sacred number” to the Maya in contrast to our own dark superstitions surrounding that number.

But what about the twenty? Some have surmised that the number twenty is the “number of man” to the Maya, formed by the simple expedient of ten fingers plus ten toes. But to my mind that is rather an oversimplification of an otherwise grandiose mathematical system. Surely, they used some grander design than that rather infantile method of choosing a number.

John Major Jenkins is among those that hypothesize the 260 days is close to the human gestation cycle… well, perhaps not that close but ballpark, nonetheless. And I still think that idea is a bit of a non-sequitur as well.

Several have pointed out the 260 day period after the Sun passes over Izapa and goes southward. It then returns north to spend 105 days north of Izapa as it stretches toward the tropic of Cancer. Just how this would still apply to the Maya in Yucatan is not explained. Izapa was an important Maya city but its beginnings seem to primarily come from the Olmec civilization.

I may be wrong about the matter, but it seems to me that someone devised the theory of this method and then looked for a place that would fit the bill rather than trying to find some mention in the Mayan corpus that pointed to this as the explanation.

It is such an important matter: where did the Mayans arrive at the combination of twenty and thirteen as the basis for their calendar?

Actually, since the Maya were looking further afield for their mathematical calculations, I would assume they took it from the heavens. Indeed, Valerie Vaughan says as much in her online article “The Fibonacci Numbers: Connections within the Mathematics and Calendrical Systems of Ancient Mesoamerica”. She says, “The fact is that the ancient Maya discovered a mathemagical key that linked nearly every known astronomical cycle. With the number 260 and its component divisors (13 x 20, 5 x 52, etc.), they could interconnect all the apparent time sequences of observable celestial cycles — solar, lunar, eclipse, Venus, Mars, Mercury, even the cycle of precession.” The tzolkin denoted multiple interrelated systems easily aligning with the haab once every fifty-two years, which period is called the Calendar Round.

She goes on to point out a few of these cosmic correlations and I think there are probably even more. The Maya were not counting toes, they were counting the celestial patterns, using the patterns contained therein – just like Pythagoras and others – to better understand the structure of the universe.

And the tzolkin has another interesting correlation to the Long Count: its 260 days mirrors the 260 katuns that make up the Long Count. Time, to the Maya, was not a linear thing but circular, repeating patterns. The repetition of the planetary orbits is reflected in the calendars and shown in the tzolkin as to be a smaller cycle of the greater cycle.(3)

The late Ian Lungold spoke at length on the ratio of 13:20. The ratio is very close to the “golden mean” used by classical artists and architects. And 20 x .666 equals 13 (rounded off). But I do not know if that means anything in particular. It might just be an oddity because it is in the decimal system whereas the Maya worked in a base 20 system.

The Haab

This calendar reflects something we are more familiar with: a calendar for the solar year. It is divided into eighteen months of an equal twenty days each (and there is that “20” again) and five “evil days” added to the end in its own separate “month”.(4) These five extra days, considered evil, were simply tacked onto the end of their older calendar of 360 days.

Scholars find it odd that a civilization so in tune with the cycles of the heavens would construct a calendar five days short of correct. The five day deficit would have pushed the solstice back a full month in just six short years and yet they used the 360 day calendar for many years.

It might seem strange to these scholars but if you look across the pond, the same thing was happening elsewhere. The ancient calendars of India, China, and the fertile Crescent also started at 360 days only to grow to 365, usually by tacking five “evil days” onto the end of it. The Babylonians used the 360 day calendar long enough that the Greeks even adopted their mathematical systems. And that is why today we still use 360 degrees to define a circle as well as the dimensions of the heavens.

It seems to me that if so many of the ancients were using 360 days for a year at the same time, why should we doubt that the year was really that length of time? Modern scientists tell us our present orbit is the way it has always been for millions of years so why shouldn’t we trust their “theory”?

Personally, I tend to trust the eye-witnesses rather than experts removed by more than twenty centuries.

The Calendar Round

Every fifty-two years, when the haab reaches the end of its run, so does the tzolkin complete seventy-three turns. This “half-century” marks the Calendar Round and was celebrated with what became known as the Fire Cycle.

The fires all over the region were doused and the land fell into darkness after the Sun set. Watchers, chanters, and dancers sang prayers to the gods throughout the night until the Pleiades had passed over head safely. As the sky grew light in the east, signaling the return of the Sun, torches were lit from the ceremonial fire and carried to all corners of the land to re-ignite the home fires.(5)

They knew the world would continue for at least another fifty-two years, when the Fire Cycle and its attendant celebrations would happen again. And given the shorter lifespans generally for the period, it seems unlikely many people would take part in more than one such festival.

The Long Count

And that brings us to the one calendar important to this End-Date mania: the Long Count. Not relying on something as simple as the rising and setting of a single planet, this calendar stretches more than 5,125 days before hitting the singular End-Date. The question has always been, why would the Maya want to keep track of such an unimaginably long period of time?

And the Long Count follows a different construction than the haab or the tzolkin. Rather than weeks building months and months building years, they have a sequence of ever longer periods nested one within the other:
uinal – (20 kin) – 20 days
tun – (18 uinals) – 360 days
katun – (20 tuns) – 7,200 days – (19 years, 260 days)
baktun – (20 katuns) – 144,000 days – (394 years, 91 days)
Long Count – (13 baktuns) – 1,872,000 days – (5,125 years, 94 days)

The system of writing the days out was: baktun #, katun #, tun #, uinal #, kin #. So the first day of the calendar would be written:

0 . 0 . 0 . 0 . 1

And the last day of the Long Count (December 21st, 2012) would be written:

13 . 0 . 0 . 0 . 0

This present run of the calendar began August 13, 3114 B.C. Many authors have pointed out that the calendar seems to have started with “the Birth of Venus”. Of course, they say, Venus was not actually “born” in 3114 BC so it must have been merely the “sighting” of Venus after some other event or something.

Exactly how they are supposed to have considered such a “first sighting” the actual birth of the planet is never mentioned. To my mind it seems a little bizarre that a culture so conscious of the planetary movements would pin the beginning of their calendar to such a “non-event”.

Apparently, according to most theorists, the Maya invented the calendar in the second century B.C. and simply ‘back-dated’ the beginning to some mythical point… like the aforementioned “birth” of the planet Venus.

Jenkins contends it was nothing more than the first rising of the planet Venus after some other event, as yet undiscovered. It seems like a rather lame start of an exhaustive enterprise to back-date the start of the Long Count to something so minor. Such a random artifice would lead one to believe that the ending of the calendar will be something just as minor.

During their run, the Maya took great pains to mark the end of every katun. The baktun endings were even more monumental and the kings on the throne at that time found their reputations enhanced.

With such a good thing going, it is strange that the Maya quit making mention of the Long Count in their dated notations. This did not occur in all parts of the Mayan world at the same time but its use seemed to have fallen out of favor? Why?

Early on, some scholars thought it coincided with the collapse of their civilization but that seems to be far from the case. Today, we understand that the Maya did not all pick up at once and abandon their cities but it did happen over a short period of time. This set of events happened a century or two before the Maya began withdrawing back into the forests.

The Agreed Upon End-Date

Near the end of the nineteenth century, Joseph Goodman came across a notice in a work by Diego de Landa, Bishop of Yucatan, concenrning a celebration held by the Maya marking the end of a katun. From this notice he was able to tack down a correlation between the Mayan Calendar and the Julian Calendar. Juan Martinez-Hernandez followed on the heels of his research and published their combined findings in 1897 to little fanfare as the scholarly community had recently accepted the correlation published by Sylvanus Morley and Herbert Spinden.

It was not until 1927, when Eric J. Thompson came along to resurrect the work done by the other two and published it with his own corroboration as the GMT (Goodman-Martinez-Thompson) correlation.

And though the vast majority of scholars (and End-Time calendar buffs) have accepted the GMT Correlation, there are still many who claim it is wrong. Some claim by as much as five centuries!

Other End-Dates

But what about these other possible End-Dates? Here is a list of the other candidates:

Author – – End Date
Willson – – Thursday, Dec. 11, 1614
Smiley – – Friday, Nov. 5, 1734
Makemson – Thursday, Jun 22, 1752
Spinden – – Friday, Feb. 23, 1753
Teeple – – Sunday, Feb. 14, 1762
Dinsmoor – Tuesday, May 28, 1776
Stock – – Thursday, August 27, 1936
Goodman – Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Martinez-Hernandez – Wednesday, December 19, 2012
GMT – – – Friday, December 21, 2012
Lounsbury – Sunday, December 23, 2012
Pogo – – – Monday, November 11, 2024
Kreichgauer – Friday, September 23, 2129
Hochleitner – Tuesday, May 03, 2259
Schultz – – – Sunday, October 25, 2268
Ramos – – – Monday, August 05, 2272
Valliant – – – Saturday, October 19, 2272
Weitzel – – – Tuesday, August 12, 2532

So That Leads Us To… ?

So we are left scratching our heads.

We do not know why they started this enterprise, whether from a real event, back-dated to some imagined event, or whether is was all make-believe, some shamanistic snow job. And we are still left wondering what the ending of the calendar signifies. And from the wide disparity of the candidates for the end date, it could mean practically anything.

I mean, what if the End-Date had already passed us by? What if Willson’s correlation was the correct one and the end was during the reign of James the First of England? Talk about your Age of Enlightenment! We’re talking the real Renaissance here.

This whole thing may be nothing more than an exercise in futility, as many claim, but still the problem beckons… Why would the Maya or any civilization put so many centuries into the workings of a singular construct if it held no purpose than to keep their minds occupied? There simply has to be a true meaning behind all the mystery.

2 Responses to “the Mesoamerican Calendar(s)”

  1. Angiras Says:

    The idea that the calendar began with the birth of Venus is believable, but the significance of 20, 52 and 260 does not fit with the events in my Cyclic Catastrophism,which had a periodicity of 30 i.e. (15+15) years, where the first fifteen years of each cycle were 360 days and the second fifteen years comprised also the ‘bad days’, thus 365.25. There were 100 cycles, comprising 3000 years which is confirmed by the Greek myths which state that the Olympian Gods reigned for 3000 years. The Heraclitus aion was 360 x (15+15), close, but he lived after the Cyclic Catastrophisms ended.
    The 360 days per year, with five bad days, agrees with the Aztec calendar. I would guess whoever produced the Mayan number interpretation was trying to fit it into some other system, such as the Jewish jubilee period. Sorry, I believe it is incorrect.

    • rsmarshal Says:

      I really don’t think the Maya were attempting to correlate their cycles into anyone else’s calendar system. The very concept would have been lost on them. And I seriously doubt they had much contact with either the Greeks or the ancient Jews.

      Their claim is that they derived the calendar cycles from phenomena they could witness, repeatedly, and calculate into predictive models. Exactly what those cycles were we do not know.

      And as the Aztec calendar came so much later than the Mayan version, it of course would tend to agree.

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