The Mayan Calendar

A Brief Introduction

When we talk about the Sacred Calendar, we are really talking about two calendars—one that measures ordinary time, and one that measures sacred time. These two calendars interpenetrate in such a way as to integrate and synthesize the secular and sacred dimensions of reality. In this book we shall be primarily concerned with the measure of ritual time, called the tzolkin in Yucatec Maya and sometimes referred to as the Ritual Almanac or Divinatory Almanac. To lay the groundwork for discussion, we shall consider briefly the nature of both calendars and the manner in which they combine to weave the patterns of human life and history.

The Solar Calendar

Let us first consider the solar calendar, the yardstick of secular time. The Maya recognized the solar year of 365 days, just as we do. However, they divided it differently. Whereas we use a calendar of twelve months, each of approximately thirty days, the Maya divided the year into eighteen months, each one of twenty days, followed by five extra days at the end of the year.

This solar calendar is called the haab in Mayan, and it has several peculiarities that are worthy of our notice. For instance, there is the matter of the twenty days within each month. The days are not numbered from one through twenty. Instead, the first day of each month is called the "seating" of that month (i.e., the seating of Pop, the seating of Uo, and so on). This terminology derives from the fact that each month was a kind of deity or spiritual entity unto itself, and, like a chieftain or lord, took its "seat" upon its throne. The first day of each month—the seating day—is numbered 0, then the days proceed from 1 through 19. At the end of 360 days come five final days, called the uayeb. These five days were traditionally considered unlucky, especially by the Aztecs who fasted, prayed, and quenched all fires throughout the uayeb period.

Note that the haab equals 365 days, whereas the true solar year is a little longer than that. This is why our Gregorian Calendar includes an extra day every four years—to bring the 365-day calendar back into harmony with the actual cycle of the sun. The Mayans were aware of the true duration of the year, but for reasons of ritual timing they made no attempt to reconcile the haab with the solar cycle; the haab kept moving ahead of the solar year. In 1553, the first day of the solar year, 0 Pop, occurred July 26 (according to the most recent revision of the Gregorian Calendar), whereas the Calendar shamans of Guatemala now celebrate the arrival of 0 Pop near the end of February.

This, then, is the haab, the solar calendar and measure of secular time. Let us now consider the yardstick of ritual time.

The Ritual Calendar

We do not know what the ancient Maya called this ritual or sacred aspect of the Calendar. Some scholars use the word tzolkin (from tzol=count and kin=day, hence "count of days"), but this is purely a term of convenience and may not have been used by the Maya. The tzolkin is a unique method of reckoning time. It consists of twenty named days combined with thirteen numbers. Twenty Day-Signs of the Sacred CalendarEach day-name is repeated thirteen times during the Calendar cycle, for a total of 260 days (13 x 20=260). The twenty days, with their glyphs, directional correspondences, Mayan names, and some of their most common English meanings, are shown here as “The Twenty Day-Signs of the Sacred Calendar.”

Because the tzolkin is comprised of twenty days but only thirteen numbers, the cycle of days and numbers will soon set up an interlocking rhythm of its own design. Beginning with 1 Imix, the days will proceed in order until 13 Ben. Then will come 1 Ix, 2 Men, 3 Cib, and so on until 13Cimi, which is followed by Manik. At last, the final day 13 Ahau will be reached, after which the whole cycle begins again with 1 Imix, repeating eternally.

We begin our count with the day 1 Imix. The complex interpenetrating cycles of the Sacred Calendar and the twenty-year cycles called katuns made 1 Imix a logical place to begin the counting of days, and hence 1 Imix was sometimes called the "beginning." However, this is an arbitrary point of origin. The rhythm of the Sacred Calendar is circular; many contemporary Calendar shamans insist that it has neither beginning nor end.

The Wave of Time

The Mayan Calendar is a symphony of cycles within cycles. The 260-day tzolkin is interwoven with the solar year, and with larger cycles of time called katuns, which span about twenty years each. The tzolkin may be divided into four "seasons" of sixty-five days each, and most importantly, into twenty periods of thirteen days, commonly known by the Spanish term trecenas. Our pyramid of days reveals the inner meaning of these thirteen-day trecena cycles.

The trecena periods are essential to an understanding of the Calendar. The number cycle runs from 1 through 13, then returns to the number 1 again. Each time the number 1 recurs, it will do so on a different day-sign.

The trecenas are the essential component of what we may call "living the Calendar." They set the clock for the major rituals of Mayan life. The Daykeepers of Guatemala say that low numbers are "weak" and lack strength, while the middle numbers -- 6, 7, 8, and 9—represent the days of balanced energy and power. The final days, 10 through 13, are "too strong," so powerful as to be potentially dangerous. Therefore, all major rituals are performed on the days of balanced power at the center of each trecena. A cycle of ritual activity for any given trecena typically begins at sunset of day 7 (or sometimes on day 6), continues through day 8, and reaches a conclusion on day 9.

The cycle of the trecena can best be shown as a pyramid, equivalent to the pyramid of the Thirteen Heavens which was part of the cosmology of ancient Mexico.

Pyramid of TimeThe energy inherent in a particular trecena cycle is still tentative or weak in the beginning, not yet fully established in its own nature. As it climbs the pyramid, it begins to grow in power. It reaches the peak of the pyramid on day 7. Since the Maya count their days from sunrise to sunrise, the exact middle of any given cycle must occur at sunset of the seventh day. This is the top of the pyramid—and precisely when many Daykeepers begin the round of ritual appropriate for each given trecena. As the current cycle begins its course down the pyramid, it will grow in power, just like a wave that has reached its crest and then begins to crash downward. This descent of power is still in a balanced condition on the eighth and ninth days; after that, the energy inherent in the current cycle of time becomes more and more intense—too intense to be safely dealt with on ritual terms.

If, for the moment, we leave behind the somewhat static or architectonic image of the pyramid, we may return to the metaphor of the wave as a concept that is closer both to the world of nature and the world of post-Einsteinian physics. Each trecena cycle may be regarded as a particular quantum of energy, an energy that travels in a wave-like motion. Precisely like a wave, it begins as an underground surge, symbolized by the sun's emergence from the Underworld on the first day of the cycle. This wave of energy grows in power until it crests. Then it begins to descend, discharging its quantum of energy in a thundering crash to the shore. As the energy inherent in the wave trickles away into the sand on the night of the thirteenth day, a new wave cycle has already begun farther out at sea. The power of the day-sign that will begin the new trecena is already present. At sunset on the thirteenth day, the Daykeepers welcome the spirit of the coming day, the one who will begin the next trecena cycle. They think of the next day as a "guest" who is already entering the sacred space limned by their communal and family altars.

The Year Lords

Now let us look at the way in which the haab and the tzolkin combine. Each day has a position in both the secular and sacred calendars—a specific resonance in terms of both ordinary and sacred time. Consider the date March 2, 1977. This was the Mayan New Year's day, 0 Pop. In terms of the Sacred Calendar, it was also the day 4 Ik. Because of the disparity between the number of days in these cycles, the Sacred Calendar completed an entire cycle and returned to the day 4 Ik on November 17, 1977, while the solar calendar had only reached the day 0 Kankin.

How long will it take before 4 Ik and 0 Pop once again fall on the same day? How long a time must pass before the solar and sacred calendars once again coincide? The answer is 18,980 days—just a few days short of fifty-two years. On February 28, 2029, it will once again be 4 Ik 0 Pop.

This cycle of fifty-two years is called the Calendar Round. It was recognized as a significant cycle by the Maya, and attained paramount importance among the Aztecs, who referred to it as a "bundle of years."

Due to the way in which the two calendars interpenetrate, the New Year's day of 0 Pop can only coincide with one of four tzolkin day-names. These four New Year's days were called Year Bearers by most Mesoamerican cultures, and different Native cultures used different sets of Year Bearers. For instance: the Aztecs used Ben, Etznab, Akbal and Lamat as their Year Bearers, while the Yucatec Maya, during early Spanish Colonial times, used Muluc, Ix, Cauac, and Kan. The great Mayan city of Tikal, as well as Teotihuacán, celebrated New Year's on Ik, Manik, Eb, and Caban. The Ki’che’ Maya of today use the same Year Bearers.

The Meaning of the Calendar

What, then, does the Sacred Calendar symbolize? Why thirteen numbers and twenty day-signs? What sort of cycle is this that chronicles the sacred dimension of time? One clue, of course, lies in the fact that there are thirteen divisions of Heaven in the Mayan cosmos. Therefore, we may say that the number 13, far from being "unlucky" as it is in Western folklore, was to the Maya a symbol of Heaven itself.

Martin Prechtel says: "The thirteen numbers correspond to the thirteen joints in the human body." These are: the two ankle joints, the two knees, the two hips, the hands, the elbows, the shoulder joints, and, finally, the neck or thirteenth joint.

The twenty day-signs may also be related to the human metaphor, the microcosm as macrocosm. The number 20 was regarded in ancient times as the number of humankind, because it is the number of all the digits—fingers and toes—on the human body. Thus, the equation 13 x 20 unites Heaven with humankind.

Esoteric writers have theorized that the Sacred Calendar may include even more complex cycles, and that it may in fact be a cosmogram that embodies the orbital periods of various planets. Mars takes 780 days to circle the sun, and 260 x 3=780. The synodical period of Venus is 584 days, and 58.4 revolutions of the Sacred Calendar will equal 26 synodical Venus years.

Anthropologists working among the contemporary Maya have asked their informants what the Calendar symbolizes. The answer given by Mayan Calendar shamans is remarkably consistent: It is the term of pregnancy, the cycle of human gestation. This, they say, is the foundation of the Calendar.

Scientifically, we know that the actual period of pregnancy is somewhat longer than 260 days. The 260-day interval is a fair rule of thumb for the period which elapses between the time a woman first misses her menses to the time when she gives birth; hence the tzolkin is symbolic of the gestation period. It is primarily an earthly, human cycle rather than an astronomical one—though as we shall see, the cycle of the sun's zenith passage also played a role in its formation.

Though it is the cycle of human gestation that, after so many centuries, the Maya still cite as the basis of the tzolkin, the gestation cycle itself is yet another metaphor. All the world's great myths are essentially concerned with the journey of human consciousness—the archetypal hero's journey. The Mayan Calendar is no different. Consciousness, like life, must journey from conception to full birth. If we take Imix as the "beginning" of the tzolkin, we may say that the Calendar begins its cycle in the primordial swamp of the unconscious with the day-sign of the crocodile, and culminates with the union of human and divine consciousness in the sign Ahau, symbolizing the spirit of the enlightened collective mind and often represented by a flower. However, if we rely on a more contemporary teaching, we may note that the day-sign Eb in Yucatec Mayan signifies "the road"—what other Native Americans have called the Road of Life. In Yucatec Maya, the word eb also means "stairway"—perhaps in reference to the stairways that led to the top of Mayan temples by which the ancient kings mounted to the world of the gods. The Calendar, as a symbol of the growth of human consciousness, leads us up the Pyramid of Time. It is the Road of Life, and its roots lie in the eternal journey we all must make, the journey from conception to birth.