Introduction to the Mayan Calendar
By John Major Jenkins
And so we begin our journey. There is much to discover and much to learn about the Sacred Calendar. By the end of this chapter we will have covered a lot of ground, and I will be sharing some advanced ideas. In an effort to make this accessible to the beginner, we should try to get a firm understanding of the basic mechanics of several different cycles and how they relate. And don’t worry, a lot of the basics covered here will be repeated when necessary throughout this chapter. I’ll try to keep this introduction short and simple. The full meaning of these interlocking cycles will be explored in later sections.
There are two types of Mayan time keeping: 1) the Venus Round system, consisting of the tzolkin, haab and the Venus cycle, and 2) the Long Count. Let’s start where it all begins, with the tzolkin.
Tzolkin, Haab, The Year-Bearers and Venus
The Sacred Calendar, the Earth Calendar, the Sacred Almanac, the Count of Days, the Tzolkin – all of these terms refer to the 260-day cycle. The term Sacred Calendar, however, is often used to denote the multiple interrelated systems, ie., the entire framework of cycles. 260 days is roughly nine moons. The cycle consists of 20 day-signs combined with a number from one to thirteen. Each day is named by its number and day-sign, thus giving a total of 260 unique days. The day-signs are glyphs, and on one level are used in divination. Their meanings cover important themes in Indian culture and can be loosely translated as follows:
These day-signs also have linguistic, astronomical and mythical references. The order of the day-signs is universal throughout Meso-america, and there is evidence that the 260-day Sacred Almanac has been followed unbroken for some 3000 years; Wind follows Alligator, House follows Wind, and so on. The 13-day number cycle parallels the sequential passage of day-signs. In other words, 1 Wind is followed by 2 House, followed by 3 Lizard, etc. In this way, 7 Jaguar (for example) occurs 40 days after 6 Jaguar. Most likely, the count doesn’t “begin” on any specific day, although the conventional listing begins with Alligator.
The way in which the day-signs have meanings on many different levels of Mayan culture is characteristic of Sacred Calendar studies. It would be difficult, indeed inaccurate, to promote just one origin or use for the day-signs; the Calendar has what I call “multiple meanings.” So why is the 260-day cycle so important? First and foremost, it corresponds to the 9-month gestation period of human beings, which has everything to do with growth and unfolding. It also corresponds to the interval between Venus emerging as eveningstar and its emergence as morningstar (about 258 days), the interval between the planting and harvesting of certain types of corn, and is related to planetary cycles. Here we see biological, agricultural and astronomical references.
The 260-day cycle does not directly correspond with any known astronomical period, yet it serves as a common denominator to synthesize the cycles of Sun, Mercury, Venus, Moon, Earth and and Mars (as well as the other planets). In essence, it is the key factor of all the planetary periods. Strange to think that it corresponds to our own gestation period. The solar cycle, which is really the 365 days or so that it takes for the earth to travel around the sun, was conceived as a partner cycle to the tzolkin. It was called the haab (cycle of rains) and consists of 18 months of twenty days, with a short month of 5 days at the end. Haab dates are indicated by a month name and a day-number. (Unlike the tzolkin dates, the months and numbers of the haab follow like our own month and days – e.g. 2 Zec in the haab is followed by 3 Zec, 4 Zec, 5 Zec and so on.) In one sense, these two cycles represent the secular and sacred interests of the culture. The haab is the obvious yearly cycle, while the tzolkin structures a hidden dimension, closer to the sacred spirit realms. Together, the tzolkin/haab serves as a framework for predicting eclipses, timing festivals, and for scheduling visits to shrine sites. The nineteen month-names we will use in this book come from the Yucatec Maya language:
The Tikal haab began on 0 Pop and numbered months from 0 to 19. The Quiche and Ixil haab begins on 1 Kayab and numbered months from 1 to 20. We will explore this further in the next section of this chapter.
The Year Bearers
This is where it starts getting a little tricky, and we start to see the mythological uses of the Sacred Calendar. The quality of a year is determined by the day-sign which falls on New Years Day – which is the first day of the haab. This special day is called the year-bearer, or, to the modern Ixil Maya, the mam. The 365-day haab is an approximation of the year. It is referred to as the vague solar year, or casually, as the year. Since the twenty day-signs divide into the 365-day haab 18 times with 5 left over, the year-bearer advances by 5 day-signs every year. Furthermore, five goes into 20 four times; thus there are four possible year-bearers. They correspond to the four directions and (for the Quiche Maya) the four sacred mountains. In this way, the Calendar’s “windows to the New Year” are anchored in the directional pillars of the cosmos. The year-bearer system, then, is the 4-year cycle of senior day-signs which consecutively fall on New Year’s Day. Because the year began on different days for different Mayan groups, there are 5 possible year-bearer systems, and they are indicated by Roman numerals in the day-sign chart given above. In practice, however, only the Type II system seems to still be in use, among the Mayan groups of Highland Guatemala.
Venus has a 584-day cycle. In other words, it will rise as morningstar approximately every 584 days. This was an important cycle to the Maya. The astrolo-mythic adventures of Sun and Venus were no doubt tracked closely by the early Maya, and there is some reason to suspect that the tzolkin arose, in part, to structure the related cycles of the two prominent celestial lights (Sun and Venus). This is because the relationship between the solar and Venus cycles is quite simple: 5 Venus cycles equals 8 haab. The influence of the third celestial factor, the Moon, was built into the tzolkin cycle itself. The cyclic relationship between Sun and Venus indicates that Venus traces a five-pointed star in the sky over a period of eight years. And eight is the musical octave, the number of harmony. More on this later.
Since the twenty day-signs divide into 584 twenty-nine times with 4 left over, the Venus cycle begins on one of 5 possible day-signs. As with the year-bearer system, the Venus day-sign system repeats sequentially, over and over. The beginning of the Venus cycle is considered to be the day on which it emerges as morningstar, about 4 days after inferior conjunction with the sun. The five day-signs which indicate when Venus will emerge as morningstar serve as a prediction mechanism; the Mayan priest-astronomers thus tracked, charted and predicted future morningstar appearances. When the number-coefficients are considered (which we have ignored for awhile), the calculations become a bit more complex, and the cycles become larger.
The Calendar Round
The first large cycle we come to is called the Calendar Round. This is when all the possible combinations of the tzolkin and haab are exhausted and the same tzolkin day and haab day come together. For example, let’s presume that the year-bearer 1 Wind initiates a New Year. Now, the year-bearer day-sign alone will return to initiate a New Year in only 4 years time, but when we consider the 13 number-coefficients, then (13 x 4) = 52 years (or haab) must pass before 1 Wind returns to initiate the New Year. This 52-haab cycle is called the Calendar Round. It was widely used by the Aztecs as well as the Maya, and is still vaguely remembered by the Ixil Maya of Guatemala. The math of this is as follows:
260 x 73 = 365 x 52 = 18,980 days
This, again, is the shortest time in which the tzolkin and haab can synchronize. But where does Venus fit into the picture?
The Venus Round
The big cycle of tzolkin, haab and Venus is completed when they synchronize on the senior emergence day-sign, the Sacred Day of Venus: 1 Ahau. The nature of the tzolkin, haab, and Venus cycles are such that they all synchronize every 104 haab, which just happens to equal two Calendar Rounds. The math:
260 x 146 = 365 x 104 = 584 x 65 = 37,960 days
This is an amazing calendrical accomplishment. In addition, the Maya mythologized this sacred link-up in the Popol Vuh and the Dresden Codex. The five possible day-signs on which Venus could emerge as morningstar are recorded in the Dresden Codex as: Flower (Ahau), Lizard, Rabbit, Grass and Owl. Ahau was the senior day-sign of the five, and 1 Ahau was the Sacred Day of Venus, representing the big synch of tzolkin, haab and Venus.
Let’s take a little side track here – I’ll present a puzzle which we will return to and solve later. Look at the cover of this book. The four day-signs above the title are of the Type II year-bearer system, the one allegedly used in the Dresden Codex. They are, from left to right:
Wind, Deer, Grass, and Quake.
The five day-signs at the lower border (one is in the middle of the rising sun), are the five predictive emergence day-signs from the Dresden Codex:
Lizard, Rabbit, Grass, Owl, and Flower.
Now let’s think about this. Obviously, if the three cycles of tzolkin, haab and Venus are to synchronize, then at least one of the 4 year-bearers must correspond with at least one of the 5 beginning day-signs of the Venus cycle. The one that does, which I have placed in the middle of the rising sun, with Venus rising on the left and the Mars glyph on the right, is Grass, not Flower! Is our reasoning faulty? What is the truth behind this? Could it be that Calendar Round and Venus Round observances were not synchronized? Even though one VR equals exactly 2 CR’s, it seems as though (from evidence in the Dresden Codex) that during the Late Classic Period the Maya had not yet synchronized Venus emergences with Calendar Round beginnings. This imperfect situation, to a people who apparently strived to reveal a harmony of the heavens, must have been intolerable. As we will see, perhaps the Venus system in the Dresden Codex was not the most perfect, and perhaps the Maya continued to perfect the system – during a period of Mayan history lacking in substantial data. So the smaller cycles of this dating system, the tzolkin, haab and Venus cycle, are encapsulated by the Venus Round, a period of almost 104 years. Here’s a brief summary:
Tzolkin: 260 days. 20 day-signs combined with 13 numbers.
Haab: 365 days. 18 months of 20 days each, + a 5-day month.
Venus Cycle: 584 days between each morningstar appearance.
Calendar Round: Synchronization of tzolkin and haab every 52 haab (18,980 days).
Venus Round: Equals 2 Calendar Rounds. Synchronization of tzolkin, haab, and the Venus cycle every 104 haab (37,960 days).
The Long Count and the Great Cycle
Another time-keeping system was used by the Maya. It is known as the Long Count because it deals with larger cycles of time. It is written using dots to indicate placement values (for example: 184.108.40.206.4). The leftward placements are of higher value. The Long Count dating method is based on a hierarchal day-count based on twenty. The above date represents the passage of 8 baktuns, 15 katuns, 6 tuns, zero uinals, and 4 days since the zero date. The placement of this zero date has been a tough question for Mayanists, and we will discuss this in detail in the next section. The hierarchy of days is as follows:
LONG COUNT PERIODS NUMBER OF DAYS
In this way, 1 Baktun equals 144,000 days, 1 katun equals 7200 days, 1 tun equals 360 days, and a uinal equals 20 days. Also of importance, in that it reveals the relationship between humans and the cosmos is the term for the twenty-day period: the uinal. The similar term uinac means person!
The 5-decimal Long Count dating system is found on hundreds of inscriptions from the archeological record. Fortunately, they often occur alongside tzolkin/haab dates, which has allowed archeologists to correlate the two systems (they are consistently related). As can be seen, the Long Count generates a large period of time known as the Great Cycle. This period of 13 Baktuns is about 5125 years in length, and is due to end in 2012 A.D. The end date in 2012 is designated in the Long Count as 220.127.116.11.0 – which means that 13 baktuns, or some 1,872,000 days have passed since the Great Cycle beginning date. Specifically, the Great Cycle began on the tzolkin date 4 Ahau, and will also end on 4 Ahau. The Long Count seems to be the more abstract dating method. Yet, we will see that the cycles it generates are strangely connected to planetary phenomena and ultimately to the processes of human unfolding.
The Long Count and tzolkin/haab/Venus system are theoretically unrelated, yet 37 Venus cycles = 3 katuns. Here are two more connections between the “long” and the “short” counts: 1) 72 haab = 73 tun; 2) 13 tun = 18 tzolkin. Is this fortuitous, or is there a deeper, hidden pattern at work? Both the Long Count and tzolkin/haab are used together in many of the archeological inscriptions throughout Mesoamerica. With these connection points, a complex interweaving between the two methods of Mayan timekeeping could be demonstrated. For now, this will have to serve as a basic introduction to the mechanics of the tzolkin, haab, Venus, year-bearer, and Long Count systems. Grasping all these different systems and how they relate to each other can initially be confusing. But hang in there, and if necessary, refer to this section or to the Glossary of Terms (Appendix I).
The Julian and Gregorian Calendars
I should explain these two calendar systems, as both are used in this study. The calendar system known as the Julian calendar was established by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C., which was the year 709 of the Roman Empire. It made the year-count more accurate by adding an extra day every fourth year, thus approximating the solar year to 365.25 days. (By comparison, the Maya had already come up with their year-drift formula which more accurately calculated the solar year as 365.2422 days.) The extra day was probably not officially used until 8 A.D., during the reign of Augustus. The expansion of the Roman Empire in the subsequent centuries made this calendar widely recognized. The system of numbering years by A.D. designation (Anno Domini) was instituted in 525 A.D. by the Roman abbot Dionysius Exiguus.
Since the Julian calendar is still slightly inaccurate, a discrepency built up over the centuries, causing problems in determining the occurrence of Easter. By the 16th Century, Easter was slipping towards summer. The problem was resolved by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. The reform resynchronized the time-count with respect to the equinoxes by skipping ten days; in other words, October 4th of 1582 was followed by October 15th. However, the sequential cycling of the day-names of the week could not be broken. This is an interesting fact. Remember, our week days are named after planet-gods and mythical heros: Sun, Moon, Thor, Wotan, and Saturn among others. It suggests a European feeling, similar to the Mayan need to track an unbroken count of days, that the cycling of day-gods was not to be fooled with.
The rule for leap year was also changed. In the new Gregorian calendar a year which is divisible by 4 is a leap-year unless it is divisible by 100 but not by 400. Thus, 1700, 1800, 1900 and 2100 are not leap years.
It took a while for the new calendar to be adopted in all of the European countries, although Italy, Spain, Portugal and Poland began following it immediately. Britain and British Colonies didn’t follow suit until 1752. English writers of the time often indicated which system they kept by noting O.S. (old style) or N.S. (new style). Russia was the last to reform; after the Bolshevik Revolution January 31, 1918 (O.S.) became February 14, 1919 (N.S.).
Although it may be assumed that dates before 1582 are going to be in the old Julian calendar, I prefer to clarify the matter by indicating (J) or (G) whenever necessary.
The Use of Julian Day Numbers
Astronomers have standardized a conventional way of denoting dates, to simplify long range calculations. By this method days are identified in reference to an unbroken count begun on January 1st, -4712 (J). The Mayan zero date of the Great Cycle is therefore referred to by its Julian Day number, 584283. This just means that 584283 days have elapsed between 1.1.-4712 (J) and 8.11.-3113 (G). Another important point is that -4712 is written 4713 B.C. In other words, astronomers recognize a 0 year for calculational purposes, whereas historians do not; there was never a “zero” year. Therefore, -3113 is the same as 3114 B.C.; a given negative year number is always one less than its B.C. equivalent.
This should serve as a basic introduction to the Sacred Calendar cycles. From here, we will delve right into some of the perplexing problems of the Calendar. I have compromised the accessibility of what follows by gearing it toward the academic community. In many ways I feel there are some valuable contributions here. Yet, in my own thinking, the most valuable work spills over into the mystical or visionary approach, which will joyfully receive full expression in Chapter Three. But first, I will be happy to share the present state of my calendar studies.