Mayan Calendar - Full Details

The Maya calendar is a system of distinct calendars and almanacs used by the Maya civilization of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, and by some modern Maya communities in highland Guatemala.

These calendars can be synchronized and interlocked in many ways, their combinations giving rise to further, more extensive cycles. The essentials of the Maya calendric system are based upon a system which had been in common use throughout the region, dating back to at least the 6th century BCE. It shares many aspects with calendars employed by other earlier Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Zapotec and Olmec, and contemporary or later ones such as the Mixtec and Aztec calendars. Although the Mesoamerican calendar did not originate with the Maya, their subsequent extensions and refinements of it were the most sophisticated. Along with those of the Aztecs, the Maya calendars are the best-documented and most completely understood.

By the Maya mythological tradition, as documented in Colonial Yucatec accounts and reconstructed from Late Classic and Postclassic inscriptions, the deity Itzamna is frequently credited with bringing the knowledge of the calendar system to the ancestral Maya, along with writing in general and other foundational aspects of Maya culture.

The Maya developed a sophisticated calendar. The ritual calendar that developed in Mesoamerica used a count of 260 days. This calendar gave each day a name, much like our days of the week. There were 20 day names, each represented by a unique symbol. The days were numbered from 1 to 13. Since there are 20 day names, after the count of thirteen was reached, the next day was numbered 1 again. The 260-day or sacred count calendar was in use throughout Mesoamerica for centuries, probably before the beginning of writing.

Maya Day Names & Approximate Meanings
Imix Waterlily Chuwen Frog
Ik' Wind Eb Skull
Ak'bal Night Ben Corn stalk
K'an Corn Ix Jaguar
Chikchan Snake Men Eagle
Kimi Death head Kib Shell
Manik' Hand Kaban Earth
Lamat Venus Etz'nab Flint
Muluk Water Kawak Storm cloud
Ok Dog Ahaw Lord

The Maya also tracked a vague solar year in which they counted 365 days per year. Because they could not use fractions, the "quarter" day left over every year caused their calendar to drift with regard to the actual solar year. The 365-day year contained months were also given names. numbers 0-19 before they changed, so that the count goes Zero Pohp to 19 Pohp, then continues with Zero Wo.

Month Names and Approximate Meanings
Pohp Mat Yax Green ??
Wo ?? Zak White ??
Sip ?? Keh Red ??
Sotz' Bat Mak ??
Sek ?? K'ank'in ??
Xul Dog Muwan Owl
Yaxk'in New Sun Pax ??
Mol Water K'ayab Turtle
Ch'en Black ?? Kumk'u ??

To the eighteen regular months the Maya appended a special five-day month called Wayeb composed of 5 days which were considered unnamed and unlucky. Thus the days were counted: One Imix, Zero Pohp, Two Ik, One Pohp. When the thirteenth day was reached the next day was Thirteen Ben, Twelve Pohp; then One Ix, Thirteen Pohp, Two Men, Fourteen Pohp. After Seven Ahaw, Nineteen Pohp, the next day was Eight Imix, Zero Wo.

The Maya practiced a form of divination that centered on their elaborate calendar system and extensive knowledge of astronomy. It was the job of the priests to discern lucky days from unlucky ones, and advising the rulers on the best days to plant, harvest, wage war, etc. They were especially interested in the movements of the planet Venus — the Maya rulers scheduled wars to coordinate with its rise in the heavens.

The Mayan calendar was very advanced, and consisted of a solar year of 365 days. It was divided into 18 months of 20 days each, followed by a five-day period that was highly unlucky. There was also a 260-day sacred year (tzolkin), divided into days named by the combination of 13 numbers and 20 names.

For longer periods, the Maya identified an elaborate system of periods and cycles of various lengths. In ascending order, these were: kin (day); uinal (20 days); tun (18 uinals/360 days); katun (20 tuns/7,200 days); baktunbaktun (20 katuns/144,000 days), and so on, with the highest cycle being the alautun (23,040,000,000 days).

These units were used in the Maya Long Count, which calculated the time elapsed from a zero date set at 3114 BC. In the Postclassical Period, the method of notation was somewhat simplified, and the Long Count katuns end with the name Ahau (Lord), combined with one of 13 numerals; and their names form a Katun Round of 13 katuns.

This change makes it difficult to correlate the Mayan count with the Christian calendar, but scholars are fairly confident that the katun 13 Ahau, which seems to have had great significance for the Mayan, ended on November 14, 1539. It has been calculated that the next katun, which the Popul Vuh describes as the catastrophic end of the world, will end on December 21, 2012. Naturally, this has inspired quite a bit of speculation as to what might happen on this date.

Until the mid-20th century, scholars believed the Maya to be a peaceful, stargazing people, fully absorbed in their religion and astronomy and not violent like their neighboring civilizations to the north. This was based on the Maya's impressive culture and scientific discoveries and a very limited translation of their written texts.

But since then, nearly all of the Mayan hieroglyphic writings have been deciphered, and a much different picture has emerged. The texts record that the Mayan rulers waged war on rival Mayan cities, took their rulers captive, then tortured them and ritually sacrificed them to the gods.

In fact, human sacrifice seems to have been a central Mayan religious practice. It was believed to encourage fertility, demonstrate piety, and propitiate the gods. The Mayan gods were thought to be nourished by human blood, and ritual bloodletting was seen as the only means of making contact with them. The Maya believed that if they neglected these rituals, cosmic disorder and chaos would result.

At important ceremonies, the sacrificial victim was held down at the top of a pyramid or raised platform while a priest made an incision below the rib cage and ripped out the heart with his hands. The heart was then burned in order to nourish the gods.

It was not only the captives who suffered for the sake of the gods: the Mayan aristocracy themselves, as mediators between the gods and their people, underwent ritual bloodletting and self-torture. The higher one's position, the more blood was expected. Blood was drawn by jabbing spines through the ear or penis, or by drawing a thorn-studded cord through the tongue; it was then spattered on paper or otherwise collected as an offering to the gods.


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