Counting Time with Ancient Maya Calendars

One of the most accurate and intricate calendars in the world was invented by the Maya. We look at this fascinating calendar in more detail.

Dec 24, 2022By Nita Gleimius, BA Ancient Near Eastern Cultures & Biblical Archaeology
maya calendars round

 

It is believed that the Maya civilization based their calendars on an Olmec invention. Images of the Maya calendar are often confused with the 500-year-later Aztec Sunstone. Nevertheless, the Maya developed a series of distinctly Maya calendars before the common era. Their solar calendar is one of the most accurate calendars ever invented, even when compared to the standard (Gregorian) calendar in use today.

 

It all came together for the ancient Maya civilization like a proverbial perfect storm—astronomical observations, advances in mathematics, the accuracy of agricultural-related weather predictions, and the invention of the concept of zero as a starting point.

 

A Perfect Storm for the Maya Calendar

maya zodiac constellations signs paris codex
Maya civilization Paris Codex Star Constellations, painting by Patricia Martin Morales, via Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

 

Before telescopes, before Keppler, before Galileo, before Copernicus, before computers and electronic time measurements, more than 2000 years ago there were Maya priests, brilliant mathematicians, and excellent astronomers. The components to record time accurately were in place.

 

Like all ancient civilizations, the Maya civilization was fascinated with the heavens. They tracked the sun, moon, planets, and stars to an amazingly accurate level. They calculated the sun’s cycle (equatorial) as 365.242 days; ours is 365.2425 days.

 

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They worked out that a lunar month is 29.5308 days; modern calculations put it at 29.53059 days. The Maya identified thirteen astronomical constellations—their version of the zodiac—which were depicted as animal symbols, although some translations replace a few of the animals with symbols for house, wind, storm, and so on. Their astrology was centered on the moon cycles and, similar to modern-day astrologers, they believed that the birthdate of a person had an influence on their lives.

 

time solstice observation
Maya window marking the solstice, via Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

 

Venus played a significant role in their myths, stories, and cycles of nature. They calculated and predicted its path and coupled ceremonies to its appearance just above the horizon as the morning star. Their calculation of the cycle of Venus came to 583.92027 days; ours today with modern technology is 583.93 days. 

 

They observed and recorded events that happened across the expanse of the sky, and predicted eclipses, solstices, equinoxes, and more. But the Maya Civilization’s main reason for tracking the cycles and keeping exact almanacs and calendars was their agricultural and religious needs.

 

Calendrical records were kept for the reigns of kings, special celebration days for specific gods, and other notable events. Thanks to this meticulous practice which was carved in stone stelae and on monuments, we are able to track kings’ lists for some of their city-states, adding valuable information to the deciphering of the Maya civilization timeline and history.

 

The Civil (Haab) Calendar of the Maya Civilization

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Haab Maya calendar, painting by Maria Martin Morales, via Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

 

The Haab calendar is a solar calendar. It has 18 cycles or months of 20 days each, with one short five-day month tacked on at the end, thus 18 x 20 +5 = 365. The Maya folk were superstitious about these five odd days. The days were filled with rituals to placate their gods and spirits at all costs to avoid catastrophes. These ceremonies were blended and merged with the Catholic religious festivities after the Spanish conquest.

 

This Maya calendar, its calculations, explanations, and ceremonial days are set out in the Dresden Codex. They were well aware that their calendar years were not exact but worked out an intricate method of adjustment over a much longer period of time than our leap year.

 

Tzolk’in Sacred Maya Calendar 

maya sacred calendar tzolkin
The Sacred Calendar of the Maya Civilization, painting by Patricia Martin Morales, via Smithsonian Latino Center

 

The ceremonial calendar of the Maya civilization was called the Tzolk’in. It has thirteen sets of twenty specific named days to total 260 days, measured to cycles of the moon. The names of each day cannot be repeated until the calendar has run its full cycle of 260 days. This is achieved by combining the 20 day-names with the specific number of each of the thirteen numbers as the 20-day phase completes itself.

 

The Maya civilization, and their descendants today, considered their Tzolk’in Calendar sacred. It is linked to the cycles of nature represented by the human reproductive cycle and the growing cycle of their staple food, maize. It is intricately linked to Maya deities and religious ceremonies.

 

Ceremonies conducted according to this Maya calendar included a sacred ritual of praying, offering, and communicating with the all-important deities, spirits of the sky, earth, and ancestors in caves, on mountains, or at springs. The new year ceremony was performed every time the 260-day cycle of the sacred Maya calendar was completed. The Maya initiated a new Maya calendar keeper or spiritual guide on this day to guide them culturally and spiritually during the next cycle.

 

The Maya Calendar Round

maya calendar round 52 year cycle
Maya combined calendar round, via Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

 

The Calendar round was invented to combine the timekeeping of the solar Maya calendar (Haab) and the sacred Maya calendar (Tzolk’in’). Thus, they combined the cycles of human and astrological events which started anew every 52 years.

 

maya interlinked two calendar round
Maya calendar round interlinking Haab and Tzolkin calendars, via Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

 

A date of the Maya calendar round would thus be expressed as a day’s number (1 to 13) plus a day name (one of 20) from the Tzolk’in plus a day number (1 – 19) and the month name (1 of 18) of the Haab calendar. The odd 19th month was simply called Wayeb (Uayeb by some) and formed the preparation days (5) or “seat” for the coming year rather than the end of the past year.

 

Long Count Maya Calendar – Forward and Backward

maya civilization 4th cycle creation date
Maya Civilization 4th Cycle Creation Date, painting by Patricia Martin Morales, via Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

 

The long-count calendar of the Maya civilization combined the cycles of the solar calendar Haab), the sacred calendar (Tzolk’in), and the calendar round, expressing five cycles simultaneously. This is a similar concept to our Gregorian dating of days, months, years, centuries, and millennia.

 

Where the Gregorian calendar uses the birth of Christ as starting point, the Mayas used what they considered the date of creation. It appears that they calculated backward via the cycles of Venus to a certain point, marked by what exactly scholars have not yet discovered. This date corresponds to 13th August 3114 BCE according to Ernst Fӧrstemann in the 19th century.

 

end maya 4th creation december 2012
21 December 2012 – long-count Maya calendar, painting by Patricia Martin Morales, via Smithsonian Latino Center

 

The Maya believed that the world was in a fourth creation phase which started on that date. The 4th phase of creation was scheduled to end on 21 December 2012. As the world approached that date, doomsday prophets had believers—and non-believers—in a frenzy all over the world. Social media was ablaze with predictions of the end of the world and speculations about how it would happen. The Internet was researched thoroughly, from scholarly papers to sensationalist websites.

 

Suddenly everybody knew about the Maya civilization, and especially the Maya calendar. Calming voices of Maya descendants and serious scholars only prevailed when the date had come and gone without any incident. The truth was that the long-count calendar actually recorded dates as far as 7000 years into the future, so they did not predict the end of the world on that date in 2012. The Maya counted and lived by cycles. The Maya calendar merely predicted the end of a cycle—a cycle of 5126 years, and the start of a new cycle.

 

The Maya Calendar – A Mechanism Guiding Maya Life

civilization tracking equinox
Maya building marking equinox, via Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian

 

If we subtract the cycle of corn planting in April to harvest time in August (105 days) from the Haab calendar we are left with the 260 days of the Tzolk’in calendar.

 

Maya people of today still follow the traditions, festivals, and celebrations while keeping their Tzolk’in’ and Haab calendars up to date. Some festivals now coincide with several of the Catholic religious days, so the Maya combined their traditional beliefs with the Christian faith. They follow the sun’s zenith and nadir, the equatorial equinoxes, still visible at their ancient structures for planting and harvesting like their ancestors.

 

corn cycle linked
Maize planting cycle influenced Maya calendar, via gardencollage.com

 

To the Maya civilization, everything in the universe was interlinked. We are only now realizing how their architecture and activities were astronomically aligned and dictated. The Maya calendars were therefore an essential instrument to enable them to live in harmony and balance with nature. The length of the Maya calendar round of 52 years was considered in human lives to represent reaching the age of wisdom—again coupling human life with the harmony of natural cycles.

 

The calendar ties together the past, the present, and the future. And so it has always been for the Maya people. In 2010 a student of archaeologist William Saturno discovered a room with magnificently preserved Maya murals at the ancient Maya ruins of Xultun, Guatemala. Excavations revealed that one wall was covered with calendar calculations, annotations, adjustments marked in red, and astronomical observations. It includes records of the cycles and eclipses of the sun, moon, stars, Venus, and Mars. The tables of calendar calculations stretch as far as seven thousand years into the future.

 

One last but important thought about the Maya calendars. The Aztec Sunstone, with its angry face and stuck-out tongue, often accompanies Maya articles to the frustration of many a Mayanist. There is an almost 500-year time difference between these two vastly different civilizations, and there is a definitive difference in their culture and art.



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By Nita GleimiusBA Ancient Near Eastern Cultures & Biblical ArchaeologyNita holds a BA degree in Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and Biblical Archaeology. Her subjects included Ancient (Classical) History and Ancient South Eastern Asia. She has written books, articles, and more as a ghostwriter. Nita has wandered around many ancient sites and museums in several countries. She is an avid reader of fiction and non-fiction alike, and retains a keen interest in reading, researching, and keeping up to date with ancient and prehistoric discoveries across many parts of the world.