Time was extremely important to the Maya, they made elaborate and accurate calendars and used them in charting the movements of the sun, moon, stars and even planets.
NB: specialists say “Maya calendar” and not “Mayan calendar” (see: 10 red-flags for spotting an unreliable online resources).
- Introduction: The Maya calendars
- The 260-day count (Tzolk’in)
- The 365-day count (Haab)
- The 52-year count (Maya calendar round)
- Further resources
The Maya calendars
In the late 19th century, Ernst Forstemann worked out how the Maya marked time. They used what is now known as the calendar round which is made up of 3 interlocking cycles. A cycle of 20 names, a cycle of 13 numbers (which forms the 260 day sacred calendar) and a 365 days solar year. 52 years will pass until the three cycles line up again.
The sacred calendar (Tzolkin) 260 days.
This contained the numbers 1-13 and 20 day (13 x 20 = 260). Every day was significant, similar to an astrology chart.
For example: 1 Imix, 2 Ik, 3 Akbal, 4 Kan to 13 Ben, then 1 Ix, 2 Men, 3Kib and so on continuing in an endless cycle.
Notice that the Maya did not have numbers like ours, they only had three digits; a dot standing for ‘one’, a bar standing for ‘five’ and a shell for ‘zero’ (see Maya numerical system)
For example: 4 would be 4 dots, 5 would be 1 bar, 10 would be 2 bars and 13 would be 2 bars and 3 dots.
The solar calendar (Haab) 365 days
This contained 19 ‘months’ – 18 months of 20 days and a closing month of 5 days (Wayeb).
For example: 0 Pop would be followed by 1 Pop, then 2 Pop, up to 19, then it would be 0 Wo, 1 Wo and so on.
When these two calendars are working together, one day in this round such as 3 Kan 8 Pop did not repeat until 52 years passed, which was called the Calendar Round.
So you basically have a number + day + number + month.
Moving on from this was their absolute dating system, which we call the Long Count.
Like our own calendar the Maya marked dates for more extensive time from a fixed starting point. In our calendar it is the birth date of Christ, for the Classic Maya the beginning of the present creation was 13th August, 3114 BC.
Each great cycle lasted 5125 years and it repeated indefinitely. The first great cycle was to end on 21 December 2012. This led to the popular idea that the Maya prophesied the world was to end on that date. However, this is completely a modern invention, time was not lineal for the Maya, but cyclical and ever repeating.
21 December 2012 was only the end of a cycle for the Maya and a new one would begin the next day, much like our New Year’s Eve or end of the millennium.
The 260-day count (Tzolk’in)
The 260-day count, which approximates the human gestation period, is still used in some Maya communities today, mostly in the highlands of Guatemala.
It was, and still is, a sacred almanac that provided a chronological framework for Maya ceremonial life, and a basis for prophecies.
Birth dates were recorded by this calendar, and the patron deity of a particular day became closely associated with the destiny of babies born on that day.
Tzolkin (Sacred Calendar)
The Tzolk’in is a succession of 260 days made up of the permutation of 13 numbers with 20 named days (13×20=260).
Each day is uniquely designated by the combination coefficient/day-name, and not until every one of the numbers 1 through 13 had been attached to every one of the 20 day names was the cycle complete.
Below: names and glyphs of the Tzolk’in 20 days
The first day of the Tzolk’in is “1 Imix”, the second is “2 Ik’”, the third is “3 Ak’bal”, the thirteenth is “13 Ben”, the fourteenth is “1 Ix”, the twenty-first is “8 Imix”, and so on.
A particular combination will not recur until 260 days have elapsed.
Below: conceptual representation of the Tzolk’in cycle with numerals on the left (dot = 1, bar=5) and days glyphs and names on the right
The 365-day count (Haab)
Sometimes called the “Vague year” because leap year adjustment was never intercalated, the Haab is a 365-day period.
It is made up of 18 months of 20 days, and an extra month, called Wayeb, of only 5 days at the end of the year which gives a total of 365 days. Those 5 extra days were usually considered to be a special time.
Haab (Sacred Calendar)
The months’ names are all taken from the Maya Yukatek list given to us by Bishop Diego de Landa in the 16th century: Pop, Wo, Sip, Sots’, Sek, Xul, Yexk’in, Mol, Ch’en, Yax, Sak, Keh, Mak, K’ank’in, Muwan, Pax, K’ayab, Kumk’u and Wayeb.
The 365-day count operates very much like our own calendar: the first month is “Pop”, and the first day of the year is “1 Pop” followed by “2 Pop”, and “3 Pop”, and so on until “19 Pop”. The following day is referred to as the “seating”, or “putting in place”, of the next month (Wo) and transcribed as “0 Wo”.
The unusual aspect of this calendar is that the “seating” of a given month is not considered as the first day of the month but rather as the last day of the previous one. This is akin to the tradition of calling December 31st “New Years Eve”.
In the Maya concept of time, the influence of a given month started on the last day of the previous one.
Below: names and glyphs of the Haab the nineteen months.
The Maya Calendar round
It is always written in the same order: (1) day coefficient + day name in the Tzolk’in, and (2) day number + month name in the Haab.
For example, January 9th 2012 was be 8 Ben 1 Muwan in the Calendar Round.
Since 260 and 365 have a least common denominator of 5, it will take 18,980 days (260×365/5), approximately 52 years, before a specific date in the Calendar Round recurs.
The 52-year count was in use throughout Mesoamerica.
The Mexica (Aztecs), for example, called these periods xiuhmolpilli, meaning “year bundle”. The start of a new xiuhmolpilli was cause for much celebration. The Maya name for these 52-year period is not known.
The association of the 20-day cycle in the Tzolk’in and the 20-day months in the Haab creates a noteworthy phenomenon: for any given year, the first day of all the months in the Haab will start with the same Tzolk’in day. For example, if the first day of the year (1 Pop) falls on a day Ben in the Tzolk’in, then the first day of every month in that year will be on a day Ben. These days are called “Year Bearers”.
Given of the short month of 5 days (Wayeb) at the end of the Haab, the first day of the following year has to be 5 days later in the Tzolk’in.
Since there are only 20 days in the latter, there can be only 4 Year Bearers.
During the Classic times, these were Ak’bal, Lamat, Ben, and Etz’nab. The same traditional Year-bearer pattern continues to hold in some traditional highland Maya communities. By the time of European contact, however, the Year-bearers used in the Yucatec calendar were K’an, Muluk, Ix, and Kawak.
Maya calendar activities
- Calculate your birthdate in the Maya calendar: The FAMSI website has an interactive date conversion where can type in for example today’s date and it will give you the date in the Maya calendar.
- Ask your class questions about the Maya Calendar to aid in their understanding. For example, if today is 1 Imix, 3 Sip, what will be tomorrow, or yesterday, or next week? Using just the sacred calendar ask your class to make their own prophecies for each day. For example 1 Imix it will rain, 2 Ik is good day to plant seeds and so on.
- Make your own Maya calendar. (Free download) The pack includes the Maya calendar with 5 separate rings to be cut out in white card, a pin for fixing the rings, information about the calendar, instructions and a quiz.
Further Resources on the Maya calendar