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The Maya Calendar

The Calendar Round


Page from the Dresden Codex, Maya manuscript

Page from the Dresden Codex, Maya manuscript. Chromolithograph of a page showing a section of a 'tonalamatl', a sacred season of 260 days. The god Quetalcoatl is depicted several times, including ferrying a woman (centre) and with an axe (bottom left).

(Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
"Calculations of the congruence of the 260-day and the 365-day Maya cycles is almost exactly equal to the actual solar year in the tropics, with only a 19-minute margin of error."
[www.civilization.ca/civil/maya/mminteng.html 10/17/00 Mystery of the Maya]

Achievements of the Maya

While the Maya are known for their phenomenally accurate, complex, calculations of the orbits of stars, planets and moon, and precise reckoning of the solstices and eclipses, there is also an effective, but much more ordinary, almost easy to understand calendar. It wasn't too easy, though: Only shamans could calculate it.

The Calendar Round

"It was used to name individuals, predict the future, decide on auspicious dates for battles, marriages, and so on. Each single day had its omens and associations, and the inexorable march of the 20 days was like a perpetual fortune-telling machine, guiding the destinies of the Maya."
[www.civilization.ca/civil/maya/mmc01eng.html> 10/17/00 Maya Civilization]


The ancient Maya and other Mesoamericans used a 52-year pattern, a calendar round, referred to as a bundle -- like our concept "century" -- composed of two cycles which fit together like cogwheels with unequal numbers of teeth.

260-day Count

The Maya (Mayan, by custom, refers only to language) divided their year into four quadrants with 65 days in each. We are unsure where the number 260 comes from, but it might relate to the period of human gestation or the interval between the planet Venus' emergence as eveningstar and morning star. Regardless of where it comes from, the 260-day cycle is the first in the Calendar Round. It is made by intermeshing the number symbols (dots for units and bars for fives) from 1-13 with the glyphs for twenty days named after deities who carry time acros the sky.

Since it still keeps track of time, priests today continue to use this "Tzolkin" calendar (also known as Sacred Calendar, the Earth Calendar, the Sacred Almanac, and the Count of Days) for divination.

Vague Year or Haab

A second, solar calendar (named "vague" because it only approximates the 365+ day calendar) is composed of
18 months with
20 days in each.
The 20th day makes use of the Maya's concept of
zero since, instead of its being numbered 20, it is described as the day of the seating of the following month.

Unlucky Uayeb

At the end of the 18 months, an unlucky five day period (Uayeb) is intercalated. Days are named according to both of these calendars (Tzolkin and Haab), so a day could be 1 Imix 1 Pop (1 Pop being the Maya New Year), but it would take 52 Vague years (18,980 days) before 1 Imix would line up again with 1 Pop. One problem with this system (called the Calendar Round) is that it only keeps track of events during its 52-year cycle, and makes no provision for keeping track of events in earlier or future cycles.

The Maya dreaded the five intercalated days (Uayeb) and the end of the 52-year period. Towards the end of the longer interval, they feared the gods might be dissatisfied with mankind and bring about the end of the world.

Long Count Calendar

But all this pales by comparison with the end of the 5125-year Long Count Calendar cycle which will be here in 2012. [To clarify, 5125 is the number of Gregorian calendar years in the 1,872,000 days since day zero of year zero of the long calendar cycles.]


Now try the Maya Calendar Quiz!

Most of the information comes from Linda Schele's and David Freidel's A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. New York: William Morrow and Co, Inc., 1990.

Continue with:
260-day count - "Tzolkin" Calendar
Maya "Vague" Agricultural Calendar

Maya Calendar Links

Forum Discussion:
"No one ever realizes the highly intelligent and intricate mathematics and astronomical calendars incorporated in the Mayan pyramids, or the Great Pyramid at Giza or Stonehenge and others while in 1492 Columbus and other explorers of that day believe in a geocentric universe!"

Online Resources
How to Read Maya Hieroglyphs
Maya Timelines
MesoAmerican Myth

The Maya
Introduction to the Mayan Calendar

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