What Is the Mayan Calendar? The System in History and Today

Colored Clay Maya Calendar

Using their knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, the ancient Maya developed one of the most intricate, complex, and accurate calendar systems in human history. The Mayan calendar is still used in many of today's Mayan communities.

The Mayan Civilization

The Mayans were one of the most sophisticated ancient civilizations in the Western Hemisphere. It began as early as 2000 BCE and continued to have a strong presence in Mesoamerica until the Spanish arrived in 1519 CE. The Mayans lived in the Central America area that is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, the Yucatan Peninsula, and northern El Salvador.

The Mayan Calendar

The Maya calendar consists of three coordinating calendars: The Tzolkin, the Haab, and the Long Count. The Tzolkin and Haab calendars identify days, while the Long Count identifies years. These three calendars move together as interlocking gear wheels of different sizes, each marking differing time spans.

Maya Calendar - New Calendar Round

Maya Priests and Rulers

In ancient times, the most important role of the calendar was to correlate the actions of Maya rulers to historical and mythological events. The dates of these historical and mythological events were meticulously calculated by Maya priests. On the anniversary of these days, the acts the gods performed in the myth were reenacted by Mayan rulers. The calendar was also used to mark past and future happenings.

The Mayan Calendar Round

The Mayan calendar, known as the Calendar Round, was based on the overlapping cycles of the Moon and Sun. The Calendar Round combines the Tzolkin (Moon) calendar, representing the 260-Day Sacred Year and the 365-Day Haab (Sun) or Vague Year calendar. The days on each mesh together, and the same combination never occurs more than once every 52 years. After each Calendar Round, the calendar resets itself like a clock. Today's Mayan communities believe that 52-years marks the maturing of an individual and their ability to teach other generations.

Tzolkin, the Divine Calendar

The Tzolkin combines 20 day names with 13 day numbers. This results in 260 unique days consisting of 20 periods of 13 days. The days in each 13-day period are numbered from 1 to 13. Each day was represented by a god and given a name from a sequence of 20 names. Some were animal gods, such as Chuen (monkey) and Oc (dog). Archaeologists point out that the Maya sequence of animals can be matched to a similar arrangement in the lunar zodiacs of many Asian civilizations.

Origin of the Tzolkin

Exactly how this unique calendar came to be is uncertain. However, the length of the Tzolkin matches nine cycles of the Moon and the gestational period of humans. It's also thought that the 260-day cycle may tie several celestial events together, including the appearances of Venus and eclipse seasons. But perhaps the Tzolkin is simply the multiplication of two of the most important numbers to the Mayans, thirteen and twenty.

Uses of the Tzolkin

The Tzolkin 260-day calendar was used to determine important activities related to the gods and humans. It was used to name individuals, determine the personality characteristics of a child, predict the future, decide on favorable dates for battles, marriages, and so on. Each day had its omens and associations that guided the lives and destinies of the ancient Maya.

The Haab, the Secular Calendar

The Haab or Vague Year calendar is a 365-day secular solar cycle calendar. It has an outer ring of Mayan glyphs that represent each of the 19 months. The Haab calendar has 18 named months of 20 days each, with a final month of five nameless days. These last five days were considered unlucky and observed with fasting and sacrificing to the deities.

The Pyramid of El Castillo

The Pyramid of El Castillo was built to reflect the Mayan astronomical year. It has 365 steps; 91 steps on its four sides, and a final step at the top. It was built to mark the equinoxes, the two times each year when day and night are equal. On these two days, the Sun creates the image of a snake that appears to move down the Pyramid.

Archaeological complex Chichen Itza. Mayan pyramid Temple of Kukulkan. Mexico. Yucatan.

The Tzolkin and Haab

The Tzolkin and Haab meshed together to create an interlocking system in which each day provides four pieces of information:

  • A day number and day name in the sacred calendar
  • A day number and month name in the secular calendar

The Long Count Calendar

August 11, 3114 BCE in Gregorian calendars has been determined to be the beginning date of the Long Count calendar. According to Mayan Myth, this date marks the creation of humanity. Possibly as early as 300 BCE, the Long Count calendar was added to the Calendar Round. The Calendar Round measured time in endlessly repeating 52-year loops and couldn't fix events in chronology or in relationship to one another over long time periods. The Long Count calendar is used to mark astrological and mythological events that are beyond 52 years.

Long Count Cycles

The Long Count is an astronomical calendar with a cycle of 5,126 years. Each cycle is calculated to be 2,880,000 days long or about 7885 solar years. The Mayans believed that the universe would be destroyed and then recreated at the start of each Long Count cycle.

December 21, 2012

The Mayas related the universal cycles of the Long Count calendar to different gods and cosmic events. For the Mayans, December 21, 2012, marked the conclusion of the cycle associated with the Moon and began the period known as the Sixth Sun. The Sixth Sun is associated with the return of Kukulkan, the feathered serpent. The feathered serpent god is considered the creator of the cosmos and the god of science, learning, agriculture, crafts, and the arts. The Mayans believed Venus supported the god Kukulkan, and they associated Venus with war.

Feathered Serpent serpent head in the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in the archaeological Aztec site of Teotihuacan

Doomsday Prediction

The Mayan calendar came to worldwide attention due to what many felt was a "doomsday prediction" for December 21, 2012. While the world did not self-destruct on December 21, 2012, looking back, there's no denying this date marked a turning point in the long history of human evolution.

The Venus Calendar

The Ancient Maya closely tracked Venus in the sky and developed specialized Venus calendars, which they were perfecting before the Spaniards destroyed their culture and ancient texts. One of four surviving Maya texts, The Dresden Codex, chronicles the appearances of Venus. The Maya used the phases of Venus to time ceremonial events. Their wars were also related to the cycles of Venus.

Mayan Calendar Glyphs

The Maya developed a complex writing system that used hieroglyphs (glyphs) in the creations of their calendars. They have glyphs that stand for syllables and glyphs that stand for whole words, or "logos" which they combined. There are 200 to 250 syllable glyphs used in Classical Maya writing and about 500 logos. World scholars have been able to read a large portion of the Maya glyphs since the 1950s. Living Maya Time has a calendar converter and an interactive tool that will allow you to read the glyphs from stone carvings related to the Maya calendar.

Mayan Alphabet. Examples of this hieroglyphic

Today's Mayan Timekeepers

The Maya were perhaps the most sophisticated timekeepers in human history. Marking time was a way of being for them, and they honored each day as a gift from the heavens. Even now, there are special "day keepers" in the highlands of Guatemala who use the 260-day ritual calendar for divination.

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What Is the Mayan Calendar? The System in History and Today