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The Mayan Calendar: Time Immemorial

The Mayan calendar is a complex time keeping system. Keep reading for a greater understanding of this ancient calendar.

The Mayan calendar is an interconnected calendar system developed circa 2000 BC. Although used by several Central American cultures until the 15th century, it was closely associated with the Mayan civilization of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, and is still observed by some modern Mayan communities today.

The System Explained

The Mayan calendar consists of three separate but corresponding timekeeping systems: The Long Count, The Tzolkin (or Divine Calendar), and The Haab (or Civil Calendar).

Let’s start with The Long Count.

The Long Count

An astronomical counter, the Long Count tracks what the Mayans called the Great Cycle. Each cycle encompasses around 5,126 years and consists of five distinct units:

  • baktun: 144,000 days
  • katun: 7,200 days
  • tun: 360 days
  • uinal: 20 days
  • kin: one day

The Gregorian date of March 17, 2015, for example, converts to 13.0.2.4.16. It is interpreted as follows:

  • 13 baktun (13 X 144,000 days = 1,872,000 days)
  • 0 katun (0 X 7,200 days = 0 days)
  • 2 tun (2 X 360 days = 720 days)
  • 4 uinal (4 X 20 days = 80 days)
  • 16 kin (16 X 1 day = 16 days)v

This means that 1,872,816 days have passed since the last Great Cycle began.

The English anthropologist, Sir Eric Thompson, used the Spanish Inquisition as a source for Mayan-to-Gregorian date conversions. Major events during the Inquisition were recorded on both the Long Count calendar and the Gregorian calendar, so scholars compared matching dates from both systems to the Dresden Codex, a Mayan document that managed to survive the Inquisition.

The codex confirmed that the last Great Cycle began on August 13, 3114 BC, and its most recent baktun (144,000 day period) would end on December 21, 2012. Doomsday theorists predicted that an apocalypse would result, but Mayan natives and scholars scorned the idea, saying that the date would be a time of celebration instead, mainly because it coincided with Winter Solstice.

The Tzolkin

The Tzolkin, whose name means ‘distribution of the days’ is also known as the Sacred Round or Divine Calendar. It consists of 260 days, which are broken down into 20 periods of 13 days each. Its purpose is to identify the time of ceremonial and religious events as well as for divination. After each cycle, the Tzolkin repeats itself.

tzolkin-wheel

It has been suggested that the 260-day total corresponds with the duration of a typical pregnancy. Another theory proposes that Tzolkin represents the amount of time needed to cultivate corn, a Mayan food staple. It’s more likely that it derives from Mayan reverence for the numbers 13 (the number of joints on the human body where they believed that illness and disease infiltrated) and 20 (the sum of a person’s fingers and toes).

The Haab

A solar calendar consisting of 365 days, the Haab is divided into 18 months with 20 days each and a single 5-day-long month (Uayeb). The five days of Uayeb were dreaded, because it was believed that during this time, the divisions between the Underworld and the earthly realm disappeared, allowing evil spirits to wreak havoc. To ward off these hostile deities, the Mayan people followed special customs such as staying indoors and declining to wash or comb their hair.

Physical representations of the Haab have an outer ring of Mayan glyphs that represent all 19 months. Its accuracy is not perfect, as an actual solar year has 365.2422 days, a discrepancy that the Gregorian calendar corrects by making every fourth year a leap year.

haab-calendar

How Dates are Set

A date in the Mayan calendar is specified by its position in both the Tzolkin and the Haab calendars, which create a joint cycle called the Calendar Round. This cycle, which takes approximately 52 years to accomplish, is represented by a pair of wheels rotating in different directions.

The smaller of the two wheels has 260 teeth, each one named for a day of the Tzolkin. There are 365 teeth on the larger wheel, each one named for a position of the Haab year. As the two wheels rotate, the Tzolkin day’s name corresponds to each Haab position. The actual date is determined by counting the number of days from the commencement of the new Long Count cycle.

In a typical Mayan date, the Long Count date comes first, followed by the Tzolkin and finally the Haab date. March 17, 2015 on the Gregorian calendar would be interpreted as 13.0.2.4.16 2 Kaban 10 Kumku , which breaks down as follows:

  • Long Count date:13.0.2.4.16
  • Tzolkin date: 2 Kaban (one of the 20 periods consisting of 13 days)
  • Haab date: 10 Kumku (Kumku, which means ripe maize, was a time of harvest ceremonies)

Contemporary Mayan farmers continue to observe the calendar and even use their knowledge of sun and star cycles to determine when rituals and ceremonies take place. The Mayan calendar is a piece of ancient history that remains relevant today.

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One comment on “The Mayan Calendar: Time Immemorial

  1. John M
    April 11, 2015

    How did the Mayans keep track of “time” during the 24 hour cycle ????

    JMS

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