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Maya 2012

Primer: Three Maya Calendars


Friday, November 30, 2012

The Maya Sense of time The Maya calendar that records the longest span of time is called the Long Count. It marks the number of days that have passed since a mythological founding date that fell on either August 11 or 13, 3114 B.C., depending on how the Maya calendar is reconciled with our calendar. Long Count dates are usually written as a series of five numbers, such as (the date that corresponds to January 1, A.D. 1). The smallest unit of time is the day, or k’in, and it is recorded in the place farthest to the right. The next place records the number of winals, a 20-day unit of time often referred to as a “Maya month.” The third place records the number of Maya years called tuns. Eighteen winals make up a tun, for a total of 360 days. The Maya extended the count by multiplying each successive cycle by 20. Thus, 20 tuns make up a k’atun, and 20 k’atuns make up a bak’tun—a period of time equivalent to 394.52 solar years.



Maya monuments that have Long Count dates often include dates from other types of calendars. The two most important of these time cycles are the tzolk’in, a 260-day cycle that may be based on the duration of a human pregnancy, and the haab, a calendar that approximates the solar year. One example of an artifact that includes dates from all three calendars is monument six from the site of Tortuguero. An inscription on that monument mentions the date at the end of the thirteenth bak’tun, which falls on December 23, 2012, written as 4 Ajaw 3 K’ank’in by the ancient Maya.




The date 4 Ajaw records the day in the tzolk’in calendar. The tzolk’in is based on a 13-day “week.” The number 4 in the date records the day of the week. There are also 20 named days, so each day has a name and a number. The first named day is Imix, which translates as “water serpent” in Yukatek Mayan, followed by Ik’ (“wind”), and Ak’bal (“night”). The numbers run concurrently with the names, so the first day of the tzolk’in calendar is 1 Imix, followed by 2 Ik’, and then 3 Ak’bal. After day 13 is reached, the numbers start over but the names continue, therefore the fourteenth day of the tzolk’in is called 1 Ix (“jaguar”). This cycle continues for 260 days, when the calendar returns to 1 Imix. The twentieth day name, and the one mentioned in the Tortuguero monument, is Ajaw (“lord”), which was the day when many important festivals commemorating period endings were celebrated.


The date “3 K’ank’in” refers to a day in the haab calendar, which is based on the solar year. Each day in the haab is numbered from zero to 19 and occurs during one of 18 named months called a winal. The first day of the haab is called 0 Pop, the second day is 1 Pop, etc., up to 19 Pop. The twenty-first day of the haab is 0 Wo. The 18 winals add up to 360 days. The remaining five days of the solar year were called Wayeb, and were considered a time of bad luck. The Maya did not include a leap day in the haab calendar, so it would diverge from our modern calendars by one day every four years.


The tzolk’in and haab calendars were also used together in what is called the “Calendar Round.” Starting at 1 Imix 0 Pop, it takes 52 haab years or 73 tzolk’in cycles for the two calendars to come around again to that date. The last calendar round was completed on April 28, 2011. The next one will end on April 15, 2063.

The Calendar Inscriptions


Thursday, December 13, 2012

One of the few artifacts that survived being crushed in the gravel factory that now occupies the site of Tortuguero in southern Mexico is a large stone tablet (monument six) that records important events in the life of the ruler Bahlam Ajaw (“Jaguar Lord”), who lived in the early seventh century a.d. The tablet contains one of only two known references to the end of the thirteenth bak’tun ( 4 Ajaw 3 K’ank’in), which translates to December 23, 2012. This is the inscribed date that people refer to when they discuss the Maya calendar predicting the end of time.


Chiapa de Corzo
A small fragment of a monument from the site of Chiapa de Corzo in southern Mexico indicates when the earliest known Long Count date was written. Parts of the inscription have been lost, but based on the readable glyphs, Gareth Lowe of Brigham Young University deduced that it probably recorded a date in 36 B.C.


The most recent Long Count date comes from a monument at the city of Tonina in southern Mexico. It commemorates the k’atun that ended on, which took place in A.D. 909. By that time, Tonina’s power and influence were in decline, but the ruling dynasty seems to have managed to hold on to power longer than many of their neighbors.

maya4La Corona
A stone block from a staircase decorated with hieroglyphics at La Corona, an ancient Maya city in northern Guatemala, was carved to commemorate a visit by the king of the region’s most powerful city, Calakmul, sometime after August 5, A.D. 695, when the king had been defeated by an army from the city of Tikal. According to Marcello Canuto, David Stuart, and Tomás Barrientos of the La Corona Project, the king was probably visiting to shore up support among his allies after his defeat. The glyphs refer to the king as “13 k’atun lord”—the end of the thirteenth k’atun had been celebrated a few years earlier. The text goes on to refer to the end of the thirteenth bak’tun, 4 Ajaw 3 K’ank’in, perhaps as a way to locate the recent historical events within larger cycles of time.


Evidence of the way Maya priests calculated calendar dates was discovered earlier this year at the ancient Maya city of Xultun in northern Guatemala’s Petén rain forest. The investigation of a looter’s trench revealed a building that may have been used as a workshop by priests or scribes. In addition to vibrant paintings of a king and other important figures, numbers were painted and scratched into the building’s plaster walls. According to a group of researchers led by William Saturno of Boston University, the numbers were probably tied to calculating the movements of the moon, Venus, and Mars.

The Maya Codices


Thursday, December 13, 2012

The-Maya-Sense-of-Time-07We gather much of what we know about Maya astronomical knowledge from detailed records they themselves created on the pages of bark-paper books called codices. In the mid-sixteenth century, Franciscan missionaries burned nearly all of the Maya’s written records in an effort to eradicate their religion. Today, only three or four Maya codices remain. Three of them are named for the European cities where they are kept—Dresden, Paris, and Madrid. The authenticity of a fourth book called the Grolier Codex, now in Mexico City, is still disputed. The codices were probably written no earlier than the twelfth century A.D., but the Maya may have copied books that were written much earlier. According to archaeoastronomer Anthony Aveni, the codices were used to set dates for rituals, often by linking them to astronomical events.


The pages of the codices usually depict a deity and include a series of glyphs describing what the deity is doing. Many pages of these books also contain lists of numbers that allowed the Maya to predict lunar and solar eclipses, the phases of the moon, and movements of Mars and Venus. One example is a series of three pages in the Dresden Codex that record the phases of Venus as well as a list of tzolk’in dates and glyphs that have to do with omens and augury. The Maya believed that Venus was associated with violence and bad luck at certain times of the year. That association is clear on the second page in the series, which shows an image of the god Kukulcan, representing Venus, in the process of spearing an enemy.

An Eye on Venus


Thursday, December 13, 2012

The-Maya-Sense-of-Time-06The sun and the moon were not the only celestial bodies of importance to the ancient Maya. The movements of the planet Venus also held special meaning for them. Tables that mark Venus’ position throughout the year are recorded in ancient Maya books called codices and on monuments throughout the Maya kingdoms. Venus also seems to have influenced the architecture of the city Uxmal in the northwestern part of Yucatán, Mexico. Anthony Aveni, an archaeoastronomer at Colgate University, believes that the royal residence named the “House of the Governor” was designed with the observation of Venus in mind. Venus symbols decorate its façade and from its central doorway an observer can still see the planet align with monuments across the site that mark the northern and southern extremes of Venus’ migration along the horizon throughout the year.


Venus orbits the sun approximately every 225 days, but as it is seen from Earth, the planet appears to move back and forth relative to the sun in a cycle that lasts 584 days. Five of these oscillations—2,920 days—are almost exactly as long as eight solar years. Aveni believes that Maya priests saw significance in this astronomical coincidence. “For the Maya, everything has to be brought together in terms of whole multiples and that’s where Venus comes in. It has a five-to-eight rhythm with the sun,” says Aveni.


Venus also appears to go through four phases. For 250 days the planet is known in Western cultures as the “Evening Star” as it follows the setting sun. After the Evening Star phase, Venus disappears for eight days before returning as the “Morning Star”—the 236-day-long phase when it rises just before dawn. After the Morning Star phase, Venus disappears for 90 days before returning again as the Evening Star. A document from Central Mexico written in the late 1500s called the Annals of Cuauhtitlan associates the eight-day period between the Evening and Morning Star phases with the death and resurrection of Quetzalcoatl, a deity known as Kukulcan to the ancient Maya. Kukulcan was the sky god and the most powerful of the ancient Maya deities. According to Aveni, rituals celebrating the appearance of the Morning Star may have been held on the large plaza in front of the House of the Governor, providing the rulers of Uxmal with a way to commemorate their ties to the sky god.

The Modern Calendar Priests

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The-Maya-Sense-of-Time-08The Long Count calendar may be a relic of the past, but modern-day Maya communities in the highlands of Guatemala still have “Daykeepers,” people whose job it is to maintain a 260-day ritual calendar. Allen Christenson, an anthropologist at Brigham Young University, apprenticed himself to a Daykeeper to gain a better understanding of Maya concepts of time and the cosmos. According to Christenson, the Daykeepers’ role in the community is to keep track of different cycles of time, to perform the proper rituals to keep the cycles running, and to heal people when they are sick. The 260-day calendar they use today is the same as the tzolk’in calendar used by the Maya 1,000 years ago, although the modern calendar is shifted two days later than the ancient one. One concept that seems strange to the Daykeepers with whom Christenson has worked is the idea that some kind of apocalypse is going to happen on December 23, 2012. Until recently the highland Maya had little or no knowledge of the predictions regarding the 2012 date, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t think the world will end. “The world is going die on December 23,” says Christenson, explaining that the Maya believe the world dies each day when the sun sets, or when crops are harvested. “The world is constantly dying,” he says, “and the role of the Daykeeper is to make sure they get things going again.”