Understanding The Mayan Calendar

What is the Mayan calendar?

The Mayan calendar has been a hot topic for the past few years, thanks to Nostradamus and the 2012 myth of a doomsday apocalypse. However, despite the end of the world not happening, 2012 was definitely a year of significance for the Mayas.

Now, one of the images frequently popping up alongside the mysterious and ancient calendar is the round stone calendar of the Aztecs, not the Mayas. The Aztecs and Toltec adopted the its mechanics, yet changed the names and calendar construction.

A classic Mayan calendar would in fact be a monument like the “El Castillo," or Temple of Kukulcan in Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. It has four stairways of 91 steps each and a top platform, for a total of 365 surfaces (91*4+1), each used to count the days of the year.

So, what is it?

Mayan Calendar: "El Castillo, Yes, the Mayas used a 365-day per year system, but that’s not the only calendar they possessed. In fact, the Mayas used three separate calendar systems, all at the same time.

One is the Long Count calendar, off of which is based the whole 2012 doomsday apocalypse myth. Then, also used is the Tzolkin, a cyclical religious calendar for feasts and celebrations counting 260 days, and the Haab, the civil calendar which counts a total of 365 days and is the only one actually amounting to a solar year (roughly).

We’ll go over each of the three in greater detail below.

What is the Long Count Calendar?

The Long Count calendar is perhaps the strangest of the three. The Mayas didn’t really keep track of years that much – rather, they used this system to count decades, even centuries ahead in a base-20 (and at one point, base-18) system, for prophecies but also to keep track of history.

The Long Count calendar consists of five different units of counting – the kin, which is equal to a day; the uinal, which is equal to 20 kin/days; the tun, which is equal to 18 uinal, or 360 days; the katun, which is equal to 20 tun, or nearly 20 years; and the baktun, which is equal to 20 katun, or approximately 394 years.

Kin, tun, and katun are counted from 0 to 19, with the 20th being 0 again; uinal are counted 0 to 17, with the 18th being 0 again; baktun are numbered 1 to 13.

There is an exception made when counting even further ahead than 13 baktun. This exception is a pictun, made of 20 baktun (around 7885 years) – however, units past the baktun are rarely found, and their names are actually made by modern-day Mayanists rather than ancient Mayas.

If you really want to know though, 20 pictun make a calabtun, which is equivalent to around 158,000 years; 20 calabtun make 1 kinchiltun, which is about 3 million years; and one 20 kinchiltun make an alautun, which is about 63 million years. I think we can safely say that they never really needed to count that far ahead though.

As for the 0 to 19 business, it’s said that the Mayas were the first to actually discover the number 0. They designated it with a bread-like shape ; 1 was seen as an orb; 5 a line. Thus, 19 was 2 lines and 4 orbs, and with a base-20 system, the Mayas never went past that.

2012 Doomsday Apocalypse and The Long Count System

Now, the 2012 myth is based off of a Mayan creation myth based on their Long Count system. They believed that every time 13 baktun passed, a world would come to an end and a new one would begin. By their belief, 13.0.0.0.0 (13 baktun, 0 katun, 0 tun, 0 uinal and 0 kin, the end of the Third World and beginning of the Fourth World) was August 11, 3114 BC.

According to the Popol Vuh, an ancient Mayan collection of creation myths, the first three worlds failed, whereas the fourth produced mankind. The end of the fourth, when assuming that one world would age 13 baktun, would be the next time the Long Count strikes 13.0.0.0.0 – in our case, this was December 21, 2012.

Does this mean the count is reset? No, not really. Since we can assume the count is reset every time a world ends, we’ve been counting onwards (with the Long Count date of, say, December 21, 2014 being 13.0.2.0.10). However, there doesn’t seem to be an official concensus on the matter.

What is the Tzolkin Calendar?

The Tzolkin calendar is a 260-day calendar composed of two separate week-counting systems – the numbers 1 to 13, and 20 named weekdays: namely Ahau, Imix, Ik, Akbal, Kan, Chicchan, Cimi, Manik, Lamat, Muluc, Oc, Chuen, Eb, Ben, Ix, Men, Cib, Caban, Etznab and Caunac.

The way the year would be counted is that it would start with 1 Ahau, 2 Imix, 3 Akbal etc., until reaching 13 Ben. Then, the next day would be 1 Ix – even though Ix is the fourteenth day of the year, and the fourteenth name.

This strange way of counting the year is thought to have been chosen due to the fact that you cannot get another 1 Ix throughout the entire year, making each weekday unique to the year despite repeating the numbers and the names.

Furthermore, although the numbers only went to 13, the names were 20 in all, corresponding with the Long Count. Meaning no matter what number it was, if the Long Count was at x.x.x.x.5, that day would always be Chicchan. August 11, 3114 BC (13.0.0.0.0) is agreed to be 4 Ahau.

What is the Haab Calendar?

The Haab calendar is what the Mayas actually used for everyday life. It consisted of 18 months (Pop, Uo, Zip, Zotz, Tzec, Xul, Yaxkin, Mol, Chen, Yax, Zac, Ceh, Mac, Kankin, Muan, Pax, Kayab, and Cumku) of a uniform 20 days, with another 5 added at the end of the year – totalling 365 days a year.

Days weren’t given names, but months were – so the naming system would go 4 Chen, then 5 Chen, 6 Chen – all the way to 19 Chen, then leading to 0 Yax. This is the simplest of the three systems, and was used as such – however, the last five days of the year (called Uayeb) were nameless, giving them a superstituous reputation of being very, very bad news.

Usually, these last five days were spent mourning and praying, and births were considered cursed to a sorrowful life.

Fun fact: The number 13 seems to have ‘fulfilling’ qualities in Mayan calendar systems. Each of their worlds lasted 13 baktun, and there are only 13 numbers to the Tzolkin calendar. Furthermore, the current Mayan date at the time of writing (December 15, 2014 AD in the Gregorian calendar) is 13.0.2.0.4 13 Kan 17 Mac.