The Mayan Calendar: It’s Complex, Not Complicated

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The Maya civilization began sometime around 2600 BC and lasted until the arrival of the Spanish in Central America in the 16th century. The Maya were skilled astronomers and mathematicians. They were aware of the concept of zero and understood modular arithmetic. The Maya made important discoveries in many fields, with one of their most profound discoveries being the Mayan calendar.

You may have heard of the Mayan calendar concerning the 2012 doomsday prediction. The Mayans were so wrong, weren’t they? In reality, the Maya never really predicted the end of the world – most of the hype and hysteria surrounding December 21, 2012, was a result of faulty interpretations of the Mayan calendar.

So…what was the whole apocalypse buzz about? What is the Mayan calendar? And is it really all that complicated? In this article, we’re going to break it down for you. Trust me, by the time you’re done reading this article, most of the questions you’ve ever had about this mystical calendar would’ve been answered – from the Mayan calendar symbols to the Mayan calendar months to how the entire system even works. Let’s go!

What is the Mayan calendar?

The Maya were extremely knowledgeable about the world and discovered invaluable truths about it. They perceived time in a sophisticated manner, which is relayed through their use of the Mayan calendar. The Mayan calendar was widely used in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. While it is not used extensively in modern times, you may just come across some communities using it in certain parts of Central America!

When we talk about the Mayan calendar, we’re talking about a calendrical system rather than a single calendar. The Mayan calendar system dates back to the 5th century BCE and consists of three interlaced calendars, each serving its own unique set of purposes. Scholars have spent decades trying to decipher it.

The current Gregorian calendar, adopted in most parts of the world in the modern era, is different from the Mayan calendar in the sense that while the Mayan calendar was all about counting days, our calendar is tied to the length of the solar year. The Mayan calendars are based on solar, lunar, planetary, and human cycles.

Where was the calendar discovered?

Time was an essential topic for the Maya, and this comes through in their intricately detailed, though today poorly understood, calendar system. Many of the Mayan books that consisted of invaluable knowledge were destroyed by Franciscan missionaries from Spain in the 16th century out of fear that they could interfere with their mission. Only recently, around the 1990s, have archeologists been able to fill many gaps in their knowledge of the Mayan civilizations.

The learned astronomy with the Mayan civilization has been due to an ancient set of texts known as the Maya codices. These codices, which were reported to have around 800 years of history, provide insightful facts about the Mayan civilization.

However, that changed in 2012 when a team of researchers from Boston University, in an evacuation funded by National Geographic, dug up the oldest known Mayan calendar in a 16-kilometer city called Xultun in Guatemala. This newly discovered calendar is centuries older than the Dresden Codex, which was supposedly made sometime around the 15th century. The Mayan calendar symbols were most likely based on the Mayan hieroglyphic system. The inscriptions were painted on the building’s east walls and were decorated with small and complex glyphs. Researchers discovered that this was a calendar – the paintings represented astronomical cycles of the Maya.

According to archeologist David Stuart, the calendar seemed to have been added after the mural had been completed. Like a whiteboard in your office where you’re writing down formulas that you want to remember.

How does the Mayan calendar work?

These three calendars are cyclical in nature and consist of the Tzolkin (divine/sacred calendar), the Haab (civil calendar), and the Long Count. These calendars were used together, with the former two being used to identify the days and the Long Count being used to identify longer periods.

Tzolkin, the 260-day Mesoamerican calendar originated by the Maya civilization of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Calendar with description of the thirteen numbers and twenty day names. Vector illustration.

Tzolkin – The sacred calendar

Each of the three Mayan calendars served a different purpose. The first calendar is known as “Tzolkin,” which means “to count days” in Yucatec Mayan and as Chol Q’ij in K’iche’ Maya. The calendar is also called the Divine Calendar and the Sacred Round.

The tzolkin calendar lasts for 260 days and then starts over again. It is considered to be the sacred calendar because it was used to determine the time for religious ceremonies. Unlike the calendar we use today, the Tzolkin calendar is not divided into months. Instead, it consists of day numbers and day names. The day number ranges from 1 to 13, and the day names, or glyphs, are given from a sequence of 20-day titles. The day names and numbers increase incrementally together. The calendar completed one round once the day number and day name came back to one. This happens only after 260 days, and thus, the calendar is said to be 260 days long. This does not mean that one year is over. This calendar does not work in terms of years.

However, the calendar does correspond to nine cycles of the moon, the gestational period of humans, the movements of the zenith sun, and the growing cycle of corn. Priests would use this calendar to determine days for sowing, harvest, religious ceremonies, and divination.

Haab – The secular calendar

The second calendar, known as Haab, is a nineteen-month calendar. It consists of 365 days divided into eighteen 20-day months and one 5-day month known as “Wayeb.” This 5-day Wayeb was considered a dangerous time since it was believed that the portal between the mortal realm and the underworld dissolved. Each day in the Haab calendar was identified by a day number in the month and then the month’s name. Like the Tzolkin calendar, months within the Haab calendar were represented using hieroglyphs (or variants). Each glyph represented a personality associated with that month.

Offerings and ceremonies that take place in the Yucatan by Maya farmers are in accordance with the Haab cycle. Further, during the month of Wayeb, the Maya in parts of Guatemala take part in special ceremonies and rituals – perhaps as a way of warding off evil.

The Haab calendar cannot be compared with the Gregorian calendar we use today because it is exactly 365 days long. The actual time it takes for the Earth to revolve around the sun in 365.24219 days. To adjust for this discrepancy, we have a leap year after the completion of three 365-day years. However, the Haab calendar does not make up for this discrepancy though there is some evidence to prove that the Maya knew about this slight discrepancy.

The Calendar Round

The Tzolkin calendar taken along with the Haab calendar makes the Calendar Round. Within a Calendar Round, any given combination of a Tzolkin day and a Haab day will not occur again for 52 periods (or 18,890 days since each period is 365 days long). According to the Mayans, when a person reaches the age of 52, they attain an elder’s wisdom.

Long Count Calendar

To specify dates over 52 years, the Maya used the Long Count calendar. The Long Count calendar is used for historical purposes since it can define any date for millennia in the past or future. If you ever happen to come across a date etched on a Mayan monument, it’s likely to be the Long Count date. The Maya used it on monuments most probably because they happened to be unambiguous. A complete Long Count date includes the five digits of the long count calendar followed by two tzolkin calendar characters and two of the Haab calendar.

The Long Count calendar is both cyclical and linear in nature. It is cyclical because each period will repeat itself. However, it is also linear in the sense that it takes into account dates far into the future or way back in the past.

The Long Count calendar system counts by 20s, just like in Maya mathematics. The basic unit of this calendar was the kin (a day). There were four others, too, known as the winal or unial (twenty kins/days), tun (eighteen unials), katun (twenty tuns), and baktun (twenty baktuns).

The Maya Long Count calendar counts days in chronological order, much like the current Gregorian calendar. However, unlike the Gregorian calendar, which begins with the birth of Christ, the Maya Long Count calendar begins with the Mayan creation date of 4 Ahaw, 8 Kumku. In the proleptic Gregorian calendar, this date corresponds to August 11, 3114 BC.

Did the Mayans really predict the end of the world in 2012?

Now that we know enough about the Mayan calendar, it is time to answer the question that may have been looming in your mind from the get-go: did the Mayans or did the Mayans not predict that the world would be coming to an end on December 21, 2012?

The Maya recorded time in a series of cycles. The Long Count calendar’s misinterpretation led to widespread rumors regarding how the world would come to an end on December 21, 2012. Each baktun consists of 400 years and on that day, the 13th baktun cycle was completed. This was the date when the Long Count calendar went into another baktun (at Long Count 13.0.0.0.0.). The end of the 13th cycle just meant that the cycle would be completed – not that the world would come to an end. Thus, the Maya did not predict that the world was going to end in 2012.

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