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The Sacred Calendar

by Kenneth Johnson

from: Mayan Calendar Astrology: Mapping our Inner Cosmos

The Sacred Calendar is about time.

We all know what time is—or think we do. It is a succession of dawns and sunsets, days and nights and seasons. We may divide it into hours and minutes or years and centuries, but we can never step outside of it—except perhaps in moments of special awareness which constitute the peak experiences of life. Time is one of the essential words. Life itself is subject to the regimen of time—not just human and animal life, but the life of planets and galaxies as well. Time is an inescapable fact of existence. Our personal quantum of biological energy will wind down in time, and time will overcome us in the end. We as a species have always been inclined to regard time as a kind of taskmaster, a relentless clock that holds us always in its grasp, ticking away the minutes toward our eventual extinction. Time is the linear reality that gives shape and pattern to our lives, defining our mortality.

According to many traditional societies, there are two dimensions of time: ordinary time and sacred time.

What has just been described is ordinary time.

If ordinary time represents a process to which all of us are subject and before which all of us are ultimately powerless, then sacred time represents cosmic order. It is the foundation of rhythm and motion. It is the glue that binds the universe together. Without the sense of cosmic order implied by this sacred dimension of time, nothing could happen. There would be no loom upon which to weave the tapestry of life. In many ancient mythologies, the gods do their work of universal creation in a world where time does not yet exist. Time itself is the summit of creation, for it is only when time exists that the new-made world is ready for humankind. The creation of time replaces original chaos with cosmic order.

Sacred time exists contemporaneously with ordinary time. It is fashioned of the same elements—seasonal and celestial—which comprise ordinary time. It is simply our altered or ritualized perception of time that allows us to enter its sacred dimension.

When the shaman draws his magic circle, or when a priest approaches the altar to celebrate the mass, he enters ritual space. This is a sacred place where the ordinary laws of reality do not apply. This is where magic happens. The center of the shaman's circle, the altar with its bread and wine—here lies the center of the universe.

We enter ritual space in our daily lives whenever we pray or meditate, whenever we create – in short, whenever we pay homage to the presence of the divine in our lives. For that moment, we are at the center of the universe. Whenever we enter ritual space, we enter ritual time as well. Ordinary time may be going on all around us, but we are no longer a part of it. Our perception of time has changed. It is no longer a mere progression of hours and minutes, but a living, vital, spiritual presence. This is what the sacred dimension of time is all about.

Both ordinary and sacred time are generally measured by the patterns of heaven and earth, for it is these patterns, these constantly recurring cycles, that integrate us with the cosmic order underlying all things. Honoring these recurring changes is yet another way for us to enter the sacred dimension of time. Thus humanity has devised rituals to mark the four major changes of the solar and seasonal year—the equinoxes, when day and night are of equal length, and the solstices, when the sun appears to stand still and then "turn back" to the north or south. Priests and magicians of all cultures have charted the progress of planets and fixed the positions of the stars, for the orderly cycles of the heavens are among the most potent symbols of the cosmic order.

The Mesoamerican spiritual tradition exemplified its vision of the universe in cosmograms, diagrams of the infinite. The double pyramid construction of the Mayan universe was one such diagram; the geomantic city was another. But these cosmograms are essentially static; they are not in motion. The Maya believed that the universe, both human and cosmic, was constantly evolving through different worlds or "suns," different epochs of cosmic time. They believed that every moment in time was in a state of flux, a shifting tapestry of energies that manifested in earthquakes and volcanoes, in the wars of gods and men and the changes of the human heart and spirit. Hence the theme of transformation is central to all Mesoamerican mythology. In one story, a deformed and rejected god is transformed into the glorious sun of the new world epoch. In another, the god-king Quetzalcoatl is transformed into the planet Venus. The world is constantly evolving. Human beings must constantly struggle for the sense of universal order and harmony even as they struggle towards their own evolution.

To pluck order out of chaos we must understand the ebb and flow of energy in time, the vast transformations and metamorphoses that make up life on earth. Yet how shall we find the sense of cosmic order in this shifting, restless world of volcanic passions, both human and terrestrial? How shall we sense both the order and the chaos entwined in one vast scheme?

For this, the people of ancient Mesoamerica needed a cosmogram that was fluid rather than static—a cosmogram that moved in time, capable of embodying the flux and reflux of life.

This was the Sacred Calendar.

The Structure of the Calendar

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. Scholars call the Sacred Calendar by the Yucatec word tzolkin, a word invented by the scholars themselves and not used by the Maya, though the academics based their reference on the K’iche’ Maya term chol q’ij, meaning “the turning of the days.” This calendar is often called the Ritual Almanac or Divinatory Almanac. To lay the groundwork for discussion, we shall consider briefly the nature of both the secular solar calendar of ordinary time and the sacred calendar of ritual time, as well as the manner in which they combine to weave the patterns of human life and history.

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. In Figure 1, the names of the months in Yucatec Maya are given with the hieroglyphic symbol used by the Classic Maya to denote each month.

Figure 1:  The Mayan Solar Months

This solar calendar is called the haab in Yucatec, 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 ritual mat of authority. (The word pop, which is the name of the first month of the solar calendar, means “mat.”) 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 wayeb. These five days were traditionally considered unlucky, especially by the Aztecs who fasted, prayed, and quenched all fires throughout the wayeb 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 Maya 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 count of the haab kept moving ahead by one day every solar years. The Calendar shamans of Guatemala now celebrate the arrival of 0 Pop on February 19 (as of the Gregorian year 2021). This, then, is the haab, the solar calendar and measure of secular time.

Let us now consider the yardstick of ritual time. The chol q’ij is a unique method of reckoning time. It consists of twenty named days combined with thirteen numbers. Each 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 given in Figure 2.

Figure 2: 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 B’atz’, the days will proceed in order until 13 Aq’ab’al. Then will come 1 K’at, 2 Kan, 3 Kame, and so on until 13 Ajmaq, which is followed by 1 No’j. At last, the final day 13 Tz’i will be reached, after which the whole cycle begins again with 1 B’atz’, repeating eternally.

The Mayan Calendar is a symphony of cycles within cycles. The 260-day chol q’ij is interwoven with the solar year, and in ancient times it was interwoven with with larger cycles of time called katuns, which spanned about twenty years each, and with even larger cycles, stretching into infinity. The chol q’ij is divided into twenty periods of thirteen days, commonly known by the Spanish term trecenas.

Figure 3: The Calendar Board

Figure 4: The wave of time

The Wave of Time

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 order of trecenas differs from the order of days. For instance, we may begin with 1 B’atz’, but this initial trecena will come to a close with 13 Aq’ab’al, as can be seen in Figure 3. The next cycle begins with 1 K’at, the next with 1 No’j, and so on. The order of the trecenas is as follows:

B'atz' - K'at - No'j - Tz'I - Aq'ab'al - Ajmaq - Toj - Iq' - Tz'ikin - Q'anil - Imox - I'x - Kej - Ajpu - Aj - Kame - Kawoq - E - Kan - Tijax

Though the order of the trecenas may be different than the order of days, one thing has not changed is the sequence of the four directions. The four directions of time continue in their appointed rounds, whether in the cycle of days or of trecenas. Take a look at the first four periods: B’atz’ is attributed to the East, K’at to the West, No’j to the North, Tz’i to the South, and then we return to the East again with Aq’ab’al.

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 on the day 6. Then, depending on the community, it may or may not include the day 7, continues to the day 8, which is typically the most important ritual day of all, and reaches a conclusion on day 9.  The hieroglyphic dates on monuments from the Classic Period show that 5, 6, 7, 8, and especially 9 appear more often than other numbers. From this, we may assume that the Classic Maya, like their modern descendants, also performed their important rituals on these days.

If we turn to the diagram I have called the Pyramid of Time (Figure 4), we can see a definite pattern emerging. The 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, reaching a balanced position of power on day 6. It culminates at the peak of the pyramid on day 7. 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 other side of 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. The Aztecs thought of these days as "holy" rather than "dangerous." Were the Aztecs, a warrior people, attracted to precisely those moments of power that were too intense for others to handle? One is reminded of Barbara Tedlock's statement that everything in Zuñi spirituality can be classified as either "the beautiful" or "the dangerous," and that sometimes the two polarities overlap—the beautiful may become dangerous and vice versa.

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. 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 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 chol qij 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 Iq’. 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 Iq’ on November 17, 1977, while the solar calendar had only reached the day 0 Kankin.

How long will it take before 4 Iq 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 13 days short of fifty-two years. On February 28, 2029, it will once again be 4 Iq’ 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." The Aztec New Year was celebrated with a ritual called the New Fire Ceremony, in which all the hearth-fires extinguished during the five unlucky days of the uayeb were once again rekindled. By combining the Calendar Round with the cycle of the planet Venus, the Aztecs selected a special day every fifty-two years when the New Fire Ceremony became a ritual of cosmic significance symbolizing the renewal of the entire world.

The cycle of fifty-two years was also meaningful to each individual. Let us say that you were born on September 10, 1963, which would be 9 Ajpu 8 Mol. The day 9 Ajpu would come around again every 260 days. The day 8 Mol would recur every 365 days. But the combination 9 Ajpu 8 Mol would only recur after 18,980 days—in this example, on September 2, 2015.

This fifty-two year Calendar Round "birthday" symbolized a second birth among the peoples of Mesoamerica. This, presumably, was the date that marked one's passage into full maturity; this was when one became an "elder.”

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 chol q’ij 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 Aj, Tijax, Aq’ab’al and Q’anil as their Year Bearers, while the Yucatec Maya, during early Spanish Colonial times, used Toj, I’x, Kawoq, and K’at. The great Mayan city of Tikal, as well as Teotihuacán, celebrated New Year's on Iq’, Kej, E, and No’j. The Ki’che’ Maya of today use the same Year Bearers; we shall do the same.

Although this may all seem a bit arbitrary and confusing, there is a kind of logic to it. As shown in Figure 2, each day-sign of the chol q’ij is associated with one of the four cardinal directions. No matter which four days were designated as Year Bearers, there was always one day for each direction, as seen in Figure 5. Any given year had certain characteristics according to the directional attribute of the day that served as Year Bearer. In Classical and Post-Classical times, years governed by the East and South were considered more favorable than those governed by the North or West, while in the current system the K’iche’ consider E, the Western Lord, to be the most favorable, with Kej and No’j being somewhat mixed and Iq’, Lord of the South, as rather difficult.


Figure 5: The Year Bearers

 The years succeeded each other in an orderly fashion. As we have seen, 0 Pop fell on the day 4 Iq’ in 1977. Thus the year received the name 4 Iq’. In 1978, 0 Pop fell on 5 Kej, in 1979 upon 6 E, and in 1980 upon 7 No’j — the number of the year increasing by one each time. By 1986, 13 Kej had been reached, so that 1987 received the name 1 E. How long did it take until our initial year 4 Iq’ came around again? The answer, of course, is fifty-two years (4 day-signs x 13 numbers=52). The year 2019 was 4 Iq’. This progression of the Year Bearers played a major role in what we might call "political astrology"—the prediction of future events through studying the cycles of time. The Year Bearers were also important in the prediction of climatic and agricultural cycles, forming a kind of "farmer's almanac" for the Maya.

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.

And yet Heaven lies within us, as the microcosm encompasses the macrocosm. 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 number twenty is of prime importance in Mayan culture because it is the basis of their mathematics. In the Western world, we practice a system of mathematics which is “decimal,” which is to say that it is based upon the number ten. The Maya practiced (and still do practice) a “vigesimal” mathematical system – it based upon the number twenty. And yet the twenty day-signs, like the thirteen numbers, 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 is a grand metaphor for humankind.

Anthropologists working among the contemporary Maya have asked their informants what the Calendar symbolizes. The answer often given by Mayan Calendar shamans is the calendar is also the term of a human pregnancy, the cycle of human gestation.

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 chol q’ij is symbolic of the gestation period.

Though it is the cycle of human gestation that, after so many centuries, the Maya still frequently cite as the basis of the chol q’ij, 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. We may note that the day-sign E (Eb in Yucatec Maya) 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.

The Origins of the Calendar

The gestation cycle of humanity, a metaphor for the Road of Life, may explain the meaning of the Calendar, but it doesn't tell us how or where it came to be.

Zelia Nuttall pointed out that 260 days is one of the intervals between zenith transits of the sun at 15 degrees of north latitude. When we see the sun shining above us at noon, it appears to be at the zenith, the point directly overhead. This, however, is a purely visual perception. In fact, the sun only transits over the true astronomical zenith at variable intervals that are determined by latitude. True zenith passages take place only in the tropics, and form one of the most important reference points in all traditional tropical systems of astronomy, including the Polynesian. At 15 degrees north latitude, a geographic region comprising a large portion of present-day Guatemala and Honduras, the sun transits the zenith forty days after the spring equinox—approximately April 30. After 105 days, it transits the zenith again, this time around August 12 or 13, about forty days before the autumn equinox. Then there is an interval of 260 days until the next zenith passage, which again falls somewhere near April 30. Just as significant is the fact that the interval between the spring and summer zenith passages is 105 days. Half of 105 is 52½ , providing one of our most important Mesoamerican calendrical numbers, 52.

We know that the sun's zenith passage was important to the astronomers of pre-Columbian Mexico, as to other ancient astronomers of tropical latitudes, for it is marked by architectural alignments at Monte Alban in Oaxaca. Also, it can hardly be coincidence that the Mayan "creation date," August 11, 3114 B.C., falls so close to a zenith transit.

The Maya of today link the chol q’ij with the period of pregnancy, but 260 days is an imprecise approximation of that period. Other numbers could have been chosen—some more accurate—to approximate the gestation period. Why, then, was it fixed at 260 days? Perhaps because 260 days also correlated to the solar zenith cycle.

This surmise, however, only makes sense if the Sacred Calendar originated at 15 degrees north latitude, since that is the only place in Mesoamerica where the sun's zenith transit equals exactly 260 days. In recent years, much attention has been focused on the city of Izapa, an early site from the first few centuries before the Christian era which we explored in an earlier chapter. Lying in the steamy lowlands of the coast near the Mexican and Guatemalan borders, it was poorly known and not well studied until recently. Izapa lies at 15 degrees of north latitude. It is considered “proto-Maya,” meaning that it may be described as an early culture which powerfully influenced the development of Classic Maya civilization. It is highly likely that at least part of Copan’s splendid achievements in mathematics and the Calendar represent an inheritance from nearby Izapa, which flourished earlier. Archaeologist Vincent Malmstrom and independent researcher John Major Jenkins have argued strongly for an Izapa origin for the Long Count and possibly for the chol q’ij itself – although, as we have also noted in Chapter 1, the prodigiously inventive Olmec have an equally strong claim to the invention of the 260-day calendar, and it is even possible that the calendar predates civilized urban life itself in Mesoamerica, as the evidence from the village of Paso de Amado demonstrates. As we shall see in the next chapter, the symbolic meanings of the Calendar day-signs only reveal their full context when understood against the background of the Mayan epic of the Hero Twins as recorded in the Popol Vuh. It is therefore highly significant that the first sculptural representations of this important myth are to found at Izapa.

It is also worth noting another, and much simpler interpretation for the basis of the chol q’ij. My teachers in Momostenango always regarded the 260-day cycle as nine lunar months, and they also described my period of apprenticeship as a Daykeeper – which encompassed an entire chol q’ij cycle – as an apprenticeship of nine lunar months. Esoteric thinkers who seek to find a mathematics embodied within the Calendar which is more precise than our own will have trouble that nine lunar months – with a lunar month regarded by “rule of thumb” as 29 days, which is how the Maya always defined it to me – equal 261 days rather than 260. My teachers never seemed bothered by this small discrepancy.

Let us also remember that the Maya tend to perceive time in terms of lunar rather than solar months. Many Western scholars have described the tzolk’in as comprised of 8 ½ months, but I have never heard a Mayan Daykeeper employ such a description. It is universally said that the tzolk’in equals nine lunar months.