Mayan Calendar Overview

Learn about the Mayan calendar.
Learn about the Mayan calendar.

Although the Mayan calendar is possibly best known for its 2012 prophecies, there is so much more to it than that. It is very detailed and includes three different cycles or rounds that work together like the parts of a clock. It takes into account the movements of the moon, the sun, Venus, and more. This calendar was based on a beginning of time roughly 4,000 years prior to its creation.

The History of the Mayan Calendar

For centuries, the Mayan calendar was the Mesoamerican way of measuring the passage of time, and it also offered insight into the past while prophesying about the future. Only the ruling elite had full knowledge of what the calendar proclaimed, and with that knowledge came more power.

Looking at it now, the calendar may seem like a jumble of unfamiliar words and indecipherable meanings. That's because there are three separate cycles to consider.

There is the 260-Day Sacred Year section that features thirteen numbered days and twenty day names that repeat.

In addition, there is the 365-Day Haab Year that consists of eighteen months of twenty days (each represented by its own symbol), plus an additional month at the end of the year that only has five days.

The Calendar Round is a measure of time that mixes the 260-Day Sacred Year and the 365-Day Haab, or Vague Year. Those days mesh together, and the same combination never occurs more than once every fifty-two years.

Finally, there is the Long Count that is meant for the long-term measurement of time and is related to the prophecies of 2012.

What Makes It Different from Present Day Calendars

The Mayan calendar is not meant to simply measure time. It is meant to measure the degree of consciousness-characteristics, evolution and so on, in addition to keeping up with the passage of the seasons, the crops and so forth.

It is a spiritual calendar, rather than just a way to measure the days of the month and the months of the year. The year 2012 is a very important date to almost all who know anything about the Mayan calendar, even though everyone still can't agree on what exactly that date means.

Parts of the Calendar

The Mayan calendar is actually made up of three individual calendars that work together to measure time, teach us about history and predict the future.

Long Count

To understand the Long Count, here are a few key words:

  • Baktun: 400 tuns (144,000 days)
  • Tun: A period of 360 days

The Long Count section of the calendar addresses the long-term passage of time. It began on August 11, 3114 B.C.E. and consists of thirteen baktuns. This is the type of date that is frequently found on Mayan pyramids and other monuments, although it is often followed by two Tzolkin characters and two Haab characters.

It is this count that is so important in relation to December 21, 2012.

Tzolkin, the Sacred Calendar

This calendar combines twenty day names with thirteen day numbers, which gives 260 unique days. The Tzolkin is referred to as the Sacred Calendar, or the Divine Calendar, because it was used to determine the length of religious ceremonies and events as well as divination. This is the calendar referred to by shaman in order to receive answers to yes or no questions as well as to choose the best days for several types of rituals. This is also the chart that they would refer to on a baby's day of birth to determine the personality characteristics of the child.

No one knows exactly where the idea for the Tzolkin's 260 days came from, but there are several theories:

  • Predicting a baby's birth date based on the last day of a woman's menstrual cycle
  • Multiplication of two of the most important numbers to the Mayans, thirteen and twenty
  • The number of days between zenithal passages at a 15-degree latitude location, home of the Olmecs
  • The number of days between planting and harvest

Haab, the Vague Year

This is the solar calendar with 365 days. It consists of eighteen months of twenty days each (called uinals), with a five day period of rest at the end called the Wayeb. This calendar was designed to keep track of the passage of time via the seasons. Even though it is similar to the Gregorian calendar, it has no mention of a leap year, and it did not take into account the extra quarter day every year.

The five days at the end of this section of the calendar were known as days of bad luck because the gods were resting and unable to protect their people. During these five days, the Mayans observed certain rituals to ward off disaster and to prepare for the return of those gods.


The Mayan calendar accomplished quite a bit at one time addressing the past, present and future, and it still piques our interest today.

Mayan Calendar Overview