Mayan calendar

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You quickly glance around the arena. You notice that everyone is aware that the perfect time has come for the ceremony. As the Mayan king makes his way to the top of the staircase, the sun begins to set. The sun, the ruler of the cosmos, plays a big part in your calendar, which, in turn, demands respect and sacrifice.

During the course of this month, the accuracy of the calendar has helped the Maya with planting and harvesting. These sacred harvesting cycles represent the purpose of tonight's ceremony. This purpose relates to the creation and destruction of the world, and having a stable relationship with the gods. If you shared the same beliefs as most Mayans, you would calculate everything according to the gods and the sacred calendar, from your work schedule to when you place your party poker or schedule family reunions. For them, the gods were all-important and their royalty were pretty much gods as well. It might sound like faraway legend, but many people today buy into the Mayan prediction that the world will end in 2012.

As the king stands at the top of the main pyramid of Zempoala, an eclipse begins to take place. The three perfectly placed stone rings below help him keep track of this astronomical cycle. It is also the end of a katun of the Long Count calendar, which points every fifth year to a public ceremony. As the eclipse creates one complete moment of darkness the crowd begins to chant, and the king begins this sacred meeting.

Early Thought About the Maya

In the past, the Classic Maya inscription was thought to directly relate to astronomy and calendrics. This is because astronomic and calendric symbols were found on many of the first texts to be deciphered. There were also many chronological expressions found in Mayan writing. Early epigraphers claimed that there was little in these texts beyond the study of time and astronomy. It was often thought, because of the profound consistency of recorded dates, that the Mayan's basis of religious worship was time. It is true that most Classic inscriptions deal with dating, however, time was not necessarily an obsession. A typical Mayan document consisted of a series of historical backgrounds, each followed immediately by a date or astronomical expression. In the book, The Blood of Kings, Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller address this very topic. "The prominence of calendric material in Maya inscriptions was initially taken as evidence of an obsessive fascination with time itself, but this is no longer true."

Areas of Scholarly Attention

In 1832, a Franco-American savant and polymath named Constantine Rafinesque used his time to research the Mayan culture. He examined pages of the Dresden Codex (a very important surviving Mayan book). He became intrigued with the series of black and red bars and dots found in the texts. He noticed that the dots never exceeded four in number, and he correctly concluded that the dots stood for "one" and the bar for "five." This was a very big step in understanding the Mayan counting system.

The Maya Numbering System and Long Count Units.

Ernst Forstemann, a Royal Librarian of the Electorate of Saxony, also added onto Rafinesque's discovery. He identified the third digit which was a stylized shell that stood for "zero." These numbers were arranged vertically with the lowest values on the bottom. This was a big help in deciphering positional numeration and organization.

Eric Thompson's contributions, although sometimes over-analyzed, have helped with new discoveries. Besides the fact that he completely overdid the cosmological aspects of this culture, he pinpointed another cycle in the ancient calendar. This measured 819 days, which he discovered was the product of the magic numbers seven (number of the earth), nine (the heavens), and thirteen (the underworld). This is another reason why some claimed that the Mayan's worshiped time. The question still remains as to what this cycle was used for. There is evidence that the cycle was important among the elite for ceremonies associated with world directions, colors, and with the patron gods.

Although there are many who have diligently studied Mayan culture, we will learn about one more. David Stuart was an incredibly smart man, who, while still in high school, made a direct link between the Long Count and the Calendar Round. He found that not only did the Maya use both of these systems, but they run concurrently. These two calendars, now referred to as the Initial Series, are connected through the Mayan use of cyclical time recording. This is helpful because we can now begin to see the cyclical thought of the Mayan calendar system.

Construction of the Calendar

The sun or day has always been the fundamental unit of timekeeping for Mayan peoples, and the road of the sun specifically expresses the concept of time (Aveni). The Maya calendar system was viewed in a cyclical manner; events take place at points within cycles of specific duration. These cycles are contained within larger cycles of elevating proportion, until one reaches a super-cycle so enormous that time becomes almost linear. For example, our 365 day year and the Mayan "Almanac year" of 260 days fits into a bigger picture of a super-cycle.

Schematic representation of the 260-day count.The calendar combined many different counts. Each had an independent cycle running without reference to another cycle. This is very similar to our naming of days. Monday, November 9, 1999 is composed of a cycle that runs independently of the "November 9"; not all days named November 9 will occur on Monday or during 1999, (Schele, 317). Just as I would say that today is November 9, in the year 1999, the Maya people could also accurately describe time. Although the Maya used a different system, their purpose was the same.

      The Maya recognized the same things that we do, but because their number system was vigesimal, that is, base twenty rather than base ten, their marks fall at different points in a sequence of time. A base-twenty system simply means that the Maya would count in groups of twenty rather than counting in groups of ten (as we do). Their way of writing numbers was also different. "While we use ten marks in a place-notation system, they use only three signs, also in a place notation system, which was aligned vertically, with the higher values on the top . . . Since their number system was vigesimal, the places in their vertical grids stood for 1, 20, 400, 800, 160,000, 3,200,000, and so forth. Abraham Lincoln's "four score and seven" is the Maya way of indicating numbers," (Schele, 317).

The most common cycles found on monuments or in text are the Long Count, the Calendar Round (Tzolk'in and Haab), the Lord of the Night, and the Age of the Moon. They are also associated with the Initial and Lunar Series.

The Long Count

The Long Count was a day to day count of consecutive days. This was a linear system that was capable of tracking extended cycles of time. The Maya did not invent the Long Count, they brilliantly refined it. The Long Count recorded accumulated years of 360 days consisting of 18 months and 20 days.

A typical Mayan date looks like this:
12.18.16.2.6, 3 Cimi 4 Zotz.
12.18.16.2.6 is the Long Count date.
3 Cimi is the Tzolk'in date.
4 Zotz is the Haab date.

http://www.webexhibits.com/calendars/calendar-mayan.html

The smallest Long Count unit was the day, or kin. The second was composed of twenty kins, which equaled one uinal. The third was called a tun which equaled eighteen uinals or 360 kins. Above the third cycle are the katun and baktun, consisting of twenty uinals and 400 tuns, respectively.

Long Count dates are expressed in place-notation system. However, in this situation, the glyph for each portion on the calendar (kin, uinal, tun, katun, and baktun) follows the number. These are usually recorded with the dots, bars, and shells. They may also have characterized portions in both head and full-figure forms. The representations of these glyphs are often called "gods" because they appear in mythological scenes that decorate pottery, (Schele, 318). Refer to figure #1. Along the left side are the dots, bars, and shells. Along the right are the representations of the kins, uinals, tuns, katuns, and baktuns.

Long Count dates are given on a day to day count, which began in 3114 B.C. and will end (according to Maya calendar dates) in 2012 A.D. There is still some remaining scholarly debate on this date, yet most place the last date for the Long Count near the end of the fourth millennium B.C.

The Calendar Round

The TZOLK'IN, or the Sacred Round, and the HAAB, or the Vague Year

The Calendar Round was the most sacred count in the Maya calendar, (the divine calendar). It names the same day in two different calendars. Its first calendar was known as the "Almanac," or 260-day count. It is also referred to as the Tzolk'in or the Sacred Round. The Calendar Round is a combination to two "week" lengths. While our calendar uses a single week of seven days, the Mayan calendar used two different lengths of the week. This, the first, can be visualized as having been composed of two connected wheels or cycles of numbers. One cycle ran from one to thirteen, while the other consisted of twenty named days. The combination of a number and a day name formed a unit that would not recur until 260 days had gone by - at which point the cycle began again. An excellent example of this is found in The Blood of Kings.

Since the days are arbitrary, we will use the first twenty letters of the English alphabet (A through T), combined with Arabic numerals (1 to 13) to see how the system works. The first day would be 1A; the second, 2B; the thirteenth, 13M - but on the fourteenth day the arabic number cycles back to 1, giving the day name 1N. The next would be 2O, then 3P, etc. The twentieth day will be 7T; the twenty-first 8A; and the 260th, 13T. Two hundred and sixty days are required for the combination of 1 and A to recur.


The second calendar section is known as the Haab, or the Vague Year. This is the civil calendar of the Maya. This, because it is "about six hours short of a solar year, is composed of 365 days divided into 18 months of 20 days each, and a short month of 5 days at the end of the year," (Schele, 318). To bring the count of the full 365 days, they added a 5-day period called Wayeb "resting days" at the end of the year. It took 52 years, or a Calendar Round for the same combination of days in the Tzolk'in and Haab to continue. "The Wayeb days acquired a very derogatory reputation for bad luck; known as "days without names" or "days without souls," and were observed as days of prayer and mourning. Fires were extinguished and the population refrained from eating hot food. Anyone born on those days was doomed to a miserable life," (Website).

The Tzolk'in and Haab are independent of each other, but they also run simultaneously, so that any whole day has a different name in each cycle. These two kinds of names are combined into a longer designation, such as 4 Ahau 8 Cumka - a combination that does not repeat for 52 years. This longer, fifty-two-year cycle is the Calendar Round.

While the Classic Maya were aware that the tropical year was actually 365.25 days, they did not use a leap year correction. This was because the connection with the Almanac year cycled back to its original start every 52 solar years. Therefore, the dates on the Calendar Round are fixed with a never-ending cycle of 52 years. During the Haab, however, the five day resting period (the Wayeb) made up the difference for the leap year.

Lords of the Night

      The Nine Lords of the Night is a cycle of nine glyphs, believed to be names of gods who held offices on successive days. This succession of nine deities were thought to rule over the hours of darkness, each with his or her own prophecy (good, bad, or indifferent). Since the combination of the Lords of the Night and the Calendar Round date will not repeat for 467 years, it was used to locate far more precise moments in time than is possible using the Calendar Round date. This cycle, like the rest of them, runs simultaneously with all the others. There is still some question because the names of the Mayan gods on glyph G cannot be read yet, but this was an important part of specific dating for the Maya.

Age of the Moon

This was also recorded by the Mayan people. This gave the numbers of days elapsed since the start of a lunation, its position in a lunar half-year of six months, and its duration as a twenty-nine or thirty day moon. Each of these cycles is a cyclic count (we see this pattern repeated in all aspects of the Mayan recording of time), that, like a twelve-hour clock, repeats continually.

Initial and Lunar Series'

The Initial Series simply refers to the two concurrently running systems - the Long Count and the Calendar Round. The Lunar Series' purpose is to fix in time the action being undertaken by the royal figure sculpted on the monument. For example, the act of an accusation, a war, a ceremony marking, or the conclusion of a grand event.

All of these organized patterns helped with the phenomenal calendar that the Mayan's had. "It has not slipped one day in 25 centuries," (Coe, 61). This accuracy displays how phenomenal this system was. This leads us to our next question. Why was this extremely accurate recording of time so important to the Mayans?

Purpose Surrounding Mayan Time

Michael D. Coe gives us the first insight into why the Mayan's placed specific dates on buildings and texts. "The ancient Maya liked to name things, and they liked to tell the world who owned these things. We shall find that even temples, stelae, and altars had their own names." Alsop also agrees with Coe. He explains that "In the larger context of world history of art...a signature on a work of art must be seen as a deeply symbolic act. By signing the artist says, in effect, I made this and I have the right to put my name on it."

To record this history, the first apparent area of purpose was found through the use of astrology and astronomy. The calculation of eclipse periods, lunar calendars, stars, and planets, played a very important role in the Maya calendar. For example, the Mayan's believed that Venus was an exceptionally malicious heavenly body. Considering this contradiction of terms "malicious heavenly body," it is also interesting to note, that the Venus deities were shown hurling weapons and making them themselves unpleasant. The cycle of Venus was also expressed with the use of numbers - by a ring of numbers equaling 584 days. The 584 days relates to the orbit of Venus. Notice that the count for Venus was also in a circle - as a ring. Zempoala as viewed from the top of the main pyramid.

Another main display of the Maya detail of the use of these calendar systems is through their architecture. Most, if not all, of the Maya buildings were built according to the direction of the sun, on specific dates. For example, there are three stone rings of Zempoala near the main pyramid. The three rings are surmounted by 13, 28, and 40 step-like pillars, respectively. It appears that the stone monuments were used by the Totanac priests as counting devices to keep track of eclipse cycles.

There is also amazing accuracy while overlooking Tikal. Between Temple I, II, III, IV, and V, they all have a unique purpose in location. Temple II serves not only as an architectural counterweight to Temple I, but also as a horizon marker for the enigmatic "eight degrees west of north" orientation viewed from Temple V. Temple III defines the equinoctial sunset positions as seen from Temple I, while being the highest of the skyscraper pyramids. Temple IV fixes the sunset position on August 13 as seen from Temple I, (Malmstrom, 169).

      Another significant monument at Tikal is known as Stela 29, exhibited as the earliest known and well-known inscriptions in the Maya lowlands with a Long Count date of 292 A.D. For archaeologists, Stela 29 is an approximate marker for the beginning of the Mayan Classic period, an era during which the Long Count was used on countless Maya inscriptions, (Price, 318).

      Perhaps one of the most famous monuments is the Temple at Chichen Itza. This has been recognized as an astronomical observatory whose foundations are Mayan and whose adornments are Toltec. Perhaps the most significant alignments of this structure are those of its front door and its principal window, located just above it, both of which look out at the western horizon toward the sunset position on August 13, (Malmstrom, 157). Most of the dates on monumental inscriptions are associated with events in the lives of kings who built the monuments. Still, it is not unusual to find that some of those dates are marked with astronomical references.

The calendar was also valued among the Maya people because it helped them maintain accuracy during their planting and harvesting season. The Maya believed that these cycles of planting and harvesting were larger symbols relating to the creation and destruction of the world. They were also concerned with the birth of the gods and the origin of humankind. The knowledge of stars was also used to tell the time of night and to help determine the time of year for ritual and agricultural plans. The Maya would probably have considered many questions while deciding on planting and harvesting goals. For example, "What disease or pestilence of people and crops must we act upon to ward off today? Or, which patron god should be paid the debt of incense? And what time is he fit to receive it in which particular temple?," (Aveni ). With many of these questions to consider, the Maya maintained, through precise use of their calendar, a very efficient planting and harvesting season, which was also always correlated with celestial worship. Even seen today, in modern Maya communities, the sun is still a ruler of the cosmos for these people. It's annual passages were, and still are, used to fix dates in the agricultural calendar.

One of the biggest reasons why the Mayan's kept such an accurate account of time was for religious purposes. Many of the sacrifices and times of worship were required to be precise on the month, day, and year. They used their system of time as a tool to manage these cosmic forces. For example, the end of a katun points every fifth year to the occasion of public ceremonies that featured the bloodletting of the king. The Maya believed that significant moments in time had links with divinities and astrologically based prophecies, and these associations were known, and should be recorded. Time was not just a specific moment in existence when one needed to be at a meeting, or meet a friend. Time became a life or death situation for the Maya - especially during their sacrificial games and bloodletting ceremonies.

Finally, time was used to record historical records and genealogies. These were used to make their mark on the history of the universe, and prove themselves to deities.

The Maya developed their complex calendric system in order to locate the events of their lives precisely within its temporal framework. The information featured in their inscriptions - the reason for the existence of these monuments in the first place, is the history of human events. The calendric systems and the manner of recording point in time are the products of history itself (Schele, 317).

Recording and preserving history was a major motive to create and use such an amazingly accurate calendar. Just as we write in journals or study in a history class, so too, did the Maya preserve their records for future generations to learn. In the book The Sky in Mayan Literature, Aveni points out the historical intention on calendric inscriptions. "Make no mistake, the written context of Maya monumental sculpture [and recording of time], though woven throughout by the thread of astronomical time, is concerned basically with dynastic history and political authority. It tells about marriages, alliances, captures, and battles.

Genealogies were also very important to the Maya. For example, the sarcophagus text found in Pacal's tomb in Palenque was inscribed with many dates, such as births, deaths, family lines, etc. These documents represent how important it was for the Maya to keep records (and also maintain a positive relationship with the gods).

Time Today

As knowledge about the Maya progresses, it continues to become more clear that "The Maya were obsessed with royal histories, not time per se. The present view about the Mayan recording of time focuses on the principal theme of Maya inscriptions as a political or dynastic one," (Price, 324).

There are still unanswered questions that we continue to search for. What actually made the Maya so involved in astronomy and the study of the sky? How did astronomers acquire and decipher what they had seen? Were the Maya obsessed with time?

Eric Thompson comments on this remaining question, "Our outlooks are too far from the Maya and, on top of that terrible handicap, there are so many aspects of the problem which are imperfectly known or completely unknown to us."

How far away are our outlooks from the Maya? Do we not, as they did, record astronomy, history, births, deaths, even all of these studies with time? How dependent upon them are we?

We have seen the phenomenal brilliance in the construction of the Mayan calendar. Indeed, it is not a surprise that the Mayan system has gained the admiration of scholars. It is definitely a unique achievement. The importance of recording time is seen through Mayan monuments, astronomy and astrology, planting and harvesting cycles, celestial divinity, and dynastic records. The Maya invented a calendar of remarkable accuracy. Indeed, they were divine bearers of time. As progress continues to go forward, the closer we come to find the Mayan people in time. Where in time? That answer, lies beneath all of the knowledge the Mayan created in their calendar, so that one day, we might find them there.