The Maya Calendar: A Complex System 

October 28, 2022

The Maya Calendar is a complex system of timekeeping that was used by the Maya civilization. The Maya used three main calendars, the Long Count, the Tzol'kin (sacred), and the Haab (year). The Long Count was used to track long periods of time, into the ancient past and into the far future. The long count began on a date that is equivalent to August 11th, 3114 BC in the Gregorian calendar. 

The Tzol'kin was used to measure shorter periods of time, and it was based on a cycle of 20 days and 13 named numbers. The Haab was also used to measure shorter periods of time, but it was based on a cycle of 365 days. The Haab worked with the Tzol’kin to create a year of 365 days, and 19 months. The first 18 months were all made of 20 days, while the last month was made of 5 days, to account for the irregularity of the solar year.

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They used these calendars to keep an incredibly accurate count of the solar year, as evidenced by their year having 365 days, same as us. They were also able to use this system to keep accurate track of astronomy, paying special attention to Venus and the phases of the Moon.

The Tzol'kin: A Sacred Calendar

The Tzol'kin calendar is based on a cycle of 260 days, which is divided into 20 archetypal named days and 13 named numbers (think like our Thursday the 12th, but slightly different). This continual cycle of 20 names and 13 numbers combined to make 260 days, which made up the Sacred Calendar for the Maya.

Each of these days has a Nawal that represents it. A Nawal is an archetype that has its own unique energy and destiny. Each of the named elements of the Tzol’kin combined to create a Nawal, which embodies the spirit or energy of that name, lending to that day’s events or people born on that day.

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As a result, the Tzol'kin calendar is said to be a calendar of destiny, as it can be used to determine the Archetypal energies that will be present in an individual's life at any given time. Some days were more sacred or important than others, about the Tzol’kin would keep track of those days to hold ceremonies or perform rituals.

Glyphs: The Names of the Days

carved glyphs on a stone Mayan calendar

The day glyphs are one of the most important aspects of the Maya calendar. Each day is represented by a unique glyph which was made of the names for the day and number on which it fell. These glyphs could then be combined with other glyphs to form words and phrases. It was only until the mid-20th century that we began to decipher the Maya glyphs and realize that it was a full-fledged language. The day glyphs are used to track the progress of time, as well as to communicate information about the future, including astronomical events.

In addition to their practical uses, the day glyphs also have a deep spiritual significance. For the Maya, time is not linear but cyclical, and each day glyph represents a different stage in the journey of the soul, the community, and their culture as a whole. By understanding the day glyphs, we can gain insights into the Maya conception of time, the universe, and the cosmology of their beliefs. 

The Use of the Calendar

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The Maya calendar has been used for centuries to track important events. The use of all three calendar systems is largely limited to the Classic Period (300 – 900 CE) when it was used to record important dates or events on monuments to show the glory of kings.

In ancient times, the calendars were used to mark the passage of time and to track the seasons. It was also used to record births, deaths, religious ceremonies, and important historic events. One of the most notable examples of depicting historic events are seen on stelae found at Tikal and other large cities, all which talk about the same event.

January 16th, 378 CE marks the “arrival of strangers” at Tikal, one of the largest and most powerful of the Classic Period cities. These strangers are depicted in clothes and styles typical of Central Mexico and likely they came from Teotihuacan. But this wasn’t just a nice friendly visit. The story told on these stelas is that upon the arrival of these strangers, the current ruler of Tikal “entered the water” (a lovely euphemism for dying) and one year later, a new king was crowned. This new king, however, was not from the same family dynasty as the previous king. Instead, he was said to be the sun of a king from the west, named Spearthrower Owl. 

This event went on to drastically change the landscape of the Classic Maya world. And until Maya glyphs were deciphered, it was almost impossible to understand this event. And because the Maya had such an accurate calendar and obsession with recording time accurately, we know the exact day and year this event took place. 

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