The Mayan Calendar: An Explanation and Overview

The Mayan (Maya) calendar was the subject of interest for several years leading up to the end of the 2012. Luckily for us, all of the predictions claiming that the end of the world would occur in December of that year were wrong. With all of the books, time, and energy devoted to that theory, one must wonder what gave them that idea.

Join us as we provide an explanation of the Maya calendar, and a better understanding of how it functions. We’ll also explore the rumors surrounding the 2012 phenomenon in the past and why they were incorrect from the beginning.

An Overview of these Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Calendars

While this ancient method of counting the days and years is referred to as a single calendar, there are actually several of them that work in tandem. This system of tracking time was used in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, and is also used to this day in various area of the Guatemalan highlands.

These include Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Chiapas, Mexico. The basic concepts of these calendars have been used since the 5th century BCE. There are common characteristics between this calendar and the ones used by other civilizations in the region like the Zapotec and Olmec. Even later civilizations kept the same concepts, including the Mixtec and Aztecs.

In Maya mythology, the god Itzamna was credited with giving the Mayans knowledge of the calendar and how to use it. While little is known about this figure, Spanish colonial reports described him as a creator deity who lived in the sky. This god is also credited with providing knowledge of writing and other major facets of the Mayan culture.

The calendar itself is composed of several counts or cycles that vary in length. The first is called the Tzolkin which is 260-days long. This is combined with another 365-day solar year known as the Haab’. Together they form a cycle that lasts for 52 years called the Calendar Round. The aforementioned modern civilizations utilize this method of counting days still.

These two Maya calendars were used to count days and set religious ceremonies, but they could not count years, nor could it track calendar dates to show when one event occurred in relation to another. This is where the Long Count comes in. This is a count of days since a mythological beginning point.

A group of Maya researchers known as the Goodman-Martinez-Thompson (GMT) correlation, used a Mayan calendar conversion to discover that this starting point is equivalent to August 11, 3114 BCE in the Gregorian calendar. In the Julian calendar it is September 6th of the same year.

The Long Count can refer to any date far into the past or future. It works by using a positional notation system, which essentially means that each number represents a certain interval of time when looking at a Long Count date. The Maya numeral system worked in multiples of twenty also known as a vigesimal system.

Each position of the date represents 20 times the unit of the position before it. There is an exception for the second position which instead represents 18 x 20 (360) days to better align with the solar year. That being said, the cycles of the Long Count itself are not dependant on the solar year.

A majority of these Long Count dates also include extra numbers to designate various other things like the lunar phase, and more which will be covered in detail below. Now that you have a basic explanation of the Maya calendar, let’s explore these individual pieces in more detail.

The Tzolk’in Calendar

The name of this calendar can be written with an apostrophe in the name (as above) or you can write it without (i.e. Tzolkin). The modern day interpretation of this meaning is a neologism that was coined in Yucatec Maya as “count of days.” A neologism is a word that was coined in recent history but has yet to be widely used.

The name for this calendar varies throughout pre-Columbian history and historians still debate on the true name for it. This method of telling time is a combination of twenty names for days and thirteen day numbers. In total there are 260 unique days.

Each day is assigned a number ranging between 1 and 13. At the same time, each day is also given a name in a sequence of 20 days that continues throughout the cycles of 13 known as the trecena. There are twenty total trecenas in a full year of the Tzolkin calendar which allows for one unique combination of each named day and number.

The names of each day are also paired with a glyph and a specific meaning or association with a natural event. Below is a short overview of each named day and its meaning:

Many sequences begin with the first day being Imix’ and the thirteenth being B’en, but there is no fixed starting point. Starting from there, the second trecena begins at one with Ix and goes on to thirteen again before starting at one with Manik’ and so on. The origins of this calendar are significant in that it is widely regarded as the oldest and most important calendar systems.

The reasoning behind the Tzolk’in is not known, but several theories have been put forward. One example is that the calendar’s origins come from the numbers 20 and 13 because these are significant numbers to the Maya. Twenty was the basic interval of their counting system (derived from the total number of human fingers and toes) and thirteen represented the levels of the Upperworld where the gods lived.

The Haab’ Calendar

The other Maya calendar is the Haab’. This is a solar calendar with a set of eighteen months consisting of twenty days in each. In addition, there are five extra days known as Wayeb’ which are thought to be a dangerous time each year. In Foster’s 2002 book Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World she describes the belief surrounding these five days:

“During Wayeb’ portals between the mortal realm and the underworld dissolved. No boundaries prevented the ill-intending deities from causing disasters.” Various rituals and ceremonies were held during this time each year to ward off the evil spirits. One such example is people not leaving their homes or washing their hair during the five days.

While the Tzolk’in calendar doesn’t have an astronomical or geographic cycle, the Haab’ is based around the solar year. The eighteenth months of this calendar, along with their meanings, are listed below:

Each of the Haab’ months begins with a “seating day” that preceeds the beginning of the new month. This means that Pop for example will start with 0 and go to 19 at which point the next day is 0 Wo and so on. While this calendar was meant to track the changing seasons, it was flawed in the sense that it didn’t account for the movement of the year’s length each year.

This resulted in a drift after several centuries in which the months and seasons no longer lined up.

The Calendar Round and Year Bearer

There is a final piece to fully explain the Maya Calendar, but before we move onto it, we should first discuss how the previous two, the Tzolkin and Haab’ are intertwined. The first term we’ll need to know is the Calendar Round. This is a period that occurs once every 52 years (18,980 day). This term is applied to the day when the first new cycle of each calendar falls on the same day.

Since the two calendars run independently of one another, this is a rare occurrence. The recurrence of this event was celebrated well before the use of the final calendar. The second term that ties these two cycles together is the Year Bearer. This term is used in regards to the Tzolk’in day name that matches up with the first day of the Haab’ year.

There are only four Tzolk’in day names that can coincide with the first day of the Haab’ calendar. They are written as the day name, followed by the first day of the Haab’ cycle. These are the year bearers:

The year bearers are important to the Mayans because each year has its own patron deity that marks the characteristics of that year. This classic system was originally discovered in the Dresden Codex which is known as the oldest book written in the Americas.

It is written in Mayan hieroglyphs and describes a number of different instructions and astronomical tables that had surprising levels of accuracy. It is a total of 39 sheets that have inscriptions on both sides. It was written by six different scribes who both used different styles of writing, glyphs, and subjects.

The Final Piece: The Long Count

The final piece of the puzzle is the Mayan Long Count Calendar which is a non-repeating method of measuring the days that have passed since a mythical creation date which after research is thought to correspond to August 11, 3114 BCE in the Gregorian calendar. It uses a vigesimal or base-20 interval of counting the years.

While the Calendar Round does occur every 52 years, the Long Count calendar was used to measure time periods longer than this. A date written out in the Long Count is tallied using intervals of twenty, except for the second digit which represents 365 days like the solar calendar (the two are not related though).

A few examples to help you picture the dates better:

By the time the Spanish arrived in the Yucatan Peninsula, the numbered Long Count was no longer being used. One of the major intervals, the b’ak’tun was invented by modern scholars. The Mayans of this time used a short count which had smaller cycles. In terms of the numbered Long Count, the intervals are named as follows:

The Long Count was used on monuments because of its ability to accurately track time into the foreseeable future. Putting all of these calendars together, a typical Mayan date would look something like this:, 2 Cimi, 4 Zotz. This is the Long Count, followed by the Tzolkin date and the Haab’ date.

A New (Old?) Way of Telling Time

While most of us are used to our personal calendars that divide the years into months and days based on our own familiar intervals, the Mayan calendar was among the first to piece everything together into a long term way of telling days from months and years. It wasn't perfect in predicting seasons, but the simple existence of it is astounding.

It is still used to this day by modern civilizations in Mexico and Guatemala.