An excerpt from "Tzolkin: Visionary Perspectives and Calendar Studies"
(1992, 1994; pages 23-30).

Introduction to the Mayan Calendar

And  so we begin our journey. There is much to discover  and much  to  learn  about the Sacred Calendar. By the  end  of  this chapter  we  will  have covered a lot of ground, and  I  will  be sharing some advanced ideas. In an effort to make this accessible to the beginner, we should try to get a firm understanding of the basic mechanics of several different cycles and how they  relate. And don't worry, a lot of the basics covered here will be repeated when necessary throughout this chapter. I'll try to keep  this introduction  short and simple. The full meaning of these  interlocking cycles will be explored in later sections.

There  are  two types of Mayan time keeping:  1)  the  Venus Round  system,  consisting  of the tzolkin, haab  and  the  Venus cycle,  and 2) the Long Count. Let's start where it  all  begins, with the tzolkin.

Tzolkin, Haab, The Year-Bearers and Venus

The Sacred Calendar, the Earth Calendar, the Sacred Almanac, the Count of Days, the Tzolkin - all of these terms refer to  the 260-day  cycle. The term Sacred Calendar, however, is often  used to  denote  the multiple interrelated systems,  ie.,  the  entire framework  of cycles. 260 days is roughly nine moons.  The  cycle consists  of  20  day-signs combined with a number  from  one  to thirteen.  Each  day is named by its number  and  day-sign,  thus giving a total of 260 unique days. The day-signs are glyphs,  and on one level are used in divination. Their meanings cover important  themes  in Indian culture and can be loosely  translated  as follows:


These  day-signs  also  have  linguistic,  astronomical  and mythical  references.  The order of the  day-signs  is  universal throughout  Meso-america, and there is evidence that the  260-day Sacred  Almanac has been followed unbroken for some  3000  years; Wind follows Alligator, House follows Wind, and so on. The 13-day number  cycle parallels the sequential passage of  day-signs.  In other words, 1 Wind is followed by 2 House, followed by 3 Lizard, etc.  In this way, 7 Jaguar (for example) occurs 40 days after  6 Jaguar.  Most likely, the count doesn't "begin" on  any  specific day, although the conventional listing begins with Alligator.

The way in which the day-signs have meanings on many different levels of Mayan culture is characteristic of Sacred  Calendar studies.  It  would be difficult, indeed inaccurate,  to  promote just one origin or use for the day-signs; the Calendar has what I call "multiple meanings." So why is the 260-day cycle so  important? First and foremost, it corresponds to the 9-month  gestation period  of human beings, which has everything to do  with  growth and unfolding. It also corresponds to the interval between  Venus emerging  as eveningstar and its emergence as morningstar  (about 258  days), the interval between the planting and  harvesting  of certain  types of corn, and is related to planetary cycles.  Here we see biological, agricultural and astronomical references.

The Haab

The  260-day  cycle does not directly  correspond  with  any known astronomical period, yet it serves as a common  denominator to synthesize the cycles of Sun, Mercury, Venus, Moon, Earth  and and  Mars (as well as the other planets). In essence, it  is  the key factor of all the planetary periods. Strange to think that it corresponds  to our own gestation period. The solar cycle,  which is  really  the  365 days or so that it takes for  the  earth  to travel  around the sun, was conceived as a partner cycle  to  the tzolkin. It was called the haab (cycle of rains) and consists  of 18  months  of twenty days, with a short month of 5 days  at  the end.  Haab dates are indicated by a month name and a  day-number. (Unlike  the  tzolkin dates, the months and numbers of  the  haab follow  like our own month and days - e.g. 2 Zec in the  haab  is followed  by 3 Zec, 4 Zec, 5 Zec and so on.) In one sense,  these two  cycles  represent the secular and sacred  interests  of  the culture. The haab is the obvious yearly cycle, while the  tzolkin structures  a  hidden  dimension, closer  to  the  sacred  spirit realms.  Together,  the tzolkin/haab serves as  a  framework  for predicting eclipses, timing festivals, and for scheduling  visits to  shrine  sites. The nineteen month-names we will use  in  this book come from the Yucatec Maya language:

Vayeb (5 day month)

The Tikal haab began on 0 Pop and numbered months from 0  to 19.  The  Quiche  and Ixil haab begins on 1  Kayab  and  numbered months  from  1 to 20. We will explore this further in  the  next section of this chapter.

The Year Bearers

This  is  where it starts getting a little  tricky,  and  we start  to see the mythological uses of the Sacred  Calendar.  The quality  of a year is determined by the day-sign which  falls  on New Years Day - which is the first day of the haab. This  special day  is called the year-bearer, or, to the modern Ixil Maya,  the mam.  The  365-day haab is an approximation of the  year.  It  is referred  to as the vague solar year, or casually, as  the  year. Since the twenty day-signs divide into the 365-day haab 18  times with  5 left over, the year-bearer advances by 5 day-signs  every year.  Furthermore, five goes into 20 four times; thus there  are four  possible year-bearers. They correspond to the  four  directions  and  (for the Quiche Maya) the four sacred  mountains.  In this  way, the Calendar's "windows to the New Year" are  anchored in the directional pillars of the cosmos. The year-bearer system, then, is the 4-year cycle of senior day-signs which consecutively fall on New Year's Day. Because the year began on different  days for  different  Mayan groups, there are  5  possible  year-bearer systems, and they are indicated by Roman numerals in the day-sign chart given above. In practice, however, only the Type II  system seems  to  still be in use, among the Mayan  groups  of  Highland Guatemala.


Venus  has a 584-day cycle. In other words, it will rise  as morningstar  approximately every 584 days. This was an  important cycle to the Maya. The astrolo-mythic adventures of Sun and Venus were  no  doubt tracked closely by the early Maya, and  there  is some reason to suspect that the tzolkin arose, in part, to structure  the  related cycles of the two prominent  celestial  lights (Sun  and  Venus). This is because the relationship  between  the solar  and Venus cycles is quite simple: 5 Venus cycles equals  8 haab. The influence of the third celestial factor, the Moon,  was built  into  the tzolkin cycle itself.  The  cyclic  relationship between Sun and Venus indicates that Venus traces a  five-pointed star  in the sky over a period of eight years. And eight  is  the musical octave, the number of harmony. More on this later.

Since the twenty day-signs divide into 584 twenty-nine times with  4  left over, the Venus cycle begins on one of  5  possible day-signs.  As  with the year-bearer system, the  Venus  day-sign system repeats sequentially, over and over. The beginning of  the Venus  cycle is considered to be the day on which it  emerges  as morningstar,  about  4 days after inferior conjunction  with  the sun. The five day-signs which indicate when Venus will emerge  as morningstar  serve as a prediction mechanism; the  Mayan  priest-astronomers  thus tracked, charted and predicted future  morningstar  appearances.  When the number-coefficients  are  considered (which we have ignored for awhile), the calculations become a bit more complex, and the cycles become larger.

The Calendar Round

The  first  large cycle we come to is  called  the  Calendar Round. This is when all the possible combinations of the  tzolkin and haab are exhausted and the same tzolkin day and haab day come together. For example, let's presume that the year-bearer 1  Wind initiates  a New Year. Now, the year-bearer day-sign  alone  will return  to initiate a New Year in only 4 years time, but when  we consider the 13 number-coefficients, then (13 x 4) = 52 years (or haab)  must pass before 1 Wind returns to initiate the New  Year. This  52-haab cycle is called the Calendar Round. It  was  widely used  by  the Aztecs as well as the Maya, and  is  still  vaguely remembered by the Ixil Maya of Guatemala. The math of this is  as follows:

260 x 73 = 365 x 52 = 18,980 days

This,  again, is the shortest time in which the tzolkin  and haab can synchronize. But where does Venus fit into the picture?

The Venus Round

The  big cycle of tzolkin, haab and Venus is completed  when they synchronize on the senior emergence day-sign, the Sacred Day of  Venus:  1 Ahau. The nature of the tzolkin,  haab,  and  Venus cycles  are such that they all synchronize every 104 haab,  which just happens to equal two Calendar Rounds. The math:

260 x 146 = 365 x 104 = 584 x 65 = 37,960 days

This is an amazing calendrical accomplishment. In  addition, the  Maya mythologized this sacred link-up in the Popol  Vuh  and the  Dresden  Codex. The five possible day-signs on  which  Venus could emerge as morningstar are recorded in the Dresden Codex as: Flower (Ahau), Lizard, Rabbit, Grass and Owl. Ahau was the senior day-sign  of  the five, and 1 Ahau was the Sacred Day  of  Venus, representing the big synch of tzolkin, haab and Venus.

Let's take a little side track here - I'll present a  puzzle which  we  will return to and solve later. Look at the  cover  of this book. The four day-signs above the title are of the Type  II year-bearer system, the one allegedly used in the Dresden  Codex. They are, from left to right:

Wind, Deer, Grass, and Quake.

The  five day-signs at the lower border (one is in the middle  of the rising sun), are the five predictive emergence day-signs from the Dresden Codex:

Lizard, Rabbit, Grass, Owl, and Flower.

Now  let's  think about this. Obviously, if the three  cycles  of tzolkin, haab and Venus are to synchronize, then at least one  of the  4  year-bearers must correspond with at least one of  the  5 beginning day-signs of the Venus cycle. The one that does,  which I have placed in the middle of the rising sun, with Venus  rising on the left and the Mars glyph on the right, is Grass, not  Flower! Is our reasoning faulty? What is the truth behind this? Could it  be that Calendar Round and Venus Round observances  were  not synchronized? Even though one VR equals exactly 2 CR's, it  seems as  though (from evidence in the Dresden Codex) that  during  the Late  Classic  Period  the Maya had not  yet  synchronized  Venus emergences with Calendar Round beginnings. This imperfect  situation,  to a people who apparently strived to reveal a harmony  of the heavens, must have been intolerable. As we will see,  perhaps the  Venus system in the Dresden Codex was not the most  perfect, and  perhaps the Maya continued to perfect the system - during  a period  of  Mayan  history lacking in substantial  data.  So  the smaller cycles of this dating system, the tzolkin, haab and Venus cycle,  are encapsulated by the Venus Round, a period  of  almost 104 years. Here's a brief summary:

Tzolkin: 260 days. 20 day-signs combined with 13 numbers.
Haab: 365 days. 18 months of 20 days each, + a 5-day month.
Venus Cycle: 584 days between each morningstar appearance.
Calendar Round: Synchronization of tzolkin and haab every 52 haab (18,980 days).
Venus  Round: Equals 2 Calendar Rounds.  Synchronization  of tzolkin, haab, and the Venus cycle every 104 haab (37,960 days).

The Long Count and the Great Cycle

Another  time-keeping  system was used by the  Maya.  It  is known  as the Long Count because it deals with larger  cycles  of time. It is written using dots to indicate placement values  (for example:  The  leftward placements  are  of  higher value. The Long Count dating method is based on a hierarchal day-count based on twenty. The above date represents the passage of 8 baktuns,  15  katuns, 6 tuns, zero uinals, and 4 days  since  the zero  date.  The  placement of this zero date has  been  a  tough question for Mayanists, and we will discuss this in detail in the next section. The hierarchy of days is as follows:

1 day = 1 day1
20 days = 1 uinal20
18 uinal = 1 tun360
20 tuns = 1 katun7200
20 katuns = 1 baktun144,000
13 baktuns = 1 Great Cycle1,872,000

In  this way, 1 Baktun equals 144,000 days, 1  katun  equals 7200  days,  1 tun equals 360 days, and a uinal equals  20  days. Also  of importance, in that it reveals the relationship  between humans and the cosmos is the term for the twenty-day period:  the uinal. The similar term uinac means person!

The 5-decimal Long Count dating system is found on  hundreds of inscriptions from the archeological record. Fortunately,  they often  occur  alongside  tzolkin/haab dates,  which  has  allowed archeologists to correlate the two systems (they are consistently related). As can be seen, the Long Count generates a large period of  time known as the Great Cycle. This period of 13  Baktuns  is about  5125 years in length, and is due to end in 2012  A.D.  The end date in 2012 is designated in the Long Count as  - which  means that 13 baktuns, or some 1,872,000 days have  passed since  the  Great Cycle beginning date. Specifically,  the  Great Cycle  began on the tzolkin date 4 Ahau, and will also end  on  4 Ahau. The Long Count seems to be the more abstract dating method. Yet,  we  will  see that the cycles it  generates  are  strangely connected to planetary phenomena and ultimately to the  processes of human unfolding.

The  Long Count and tzolkin/haab/Venus system are  theoretically  unrelated,  yet 37 Venus cycles = 3 katuns. Here  are  two more connections between the "long" and the "short" counts: 1) 72 haab = 73 tun; 2) 13 tun = 18 tzolkin. Is this fortuitous, or  is there  a deeper, hidden pattern at work? Both the Long Count  and tzolkin/haab  are  used  together in many  of  the  archeological inscriptions   throughout  Mesoamerica.  With  these   connection points,  a complex interweaving between the two methods of  Mayan timekeeping  could  be demonstrated. For now, this will  have  to serve  as a basic introduction to the mechanics of  the  tzolkin, haab,  Venus, year-bearer, and Long Count systems.  Grasping  all these  different  systems and how they relate to each  other  can initially  be  confusing. But hang in there,  and  if  necessary, refer to this section or to the Glossary of Terms (Appendix I).

The Julian and Gregorian Calendars

I  should  explain these two calendar systems, as  both  are used  in  this  study. The calendar system known  as  the  Julian calendar  was established by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C., which  was the  year  709 of the Roman Empire. It made the  year-count  more accurate by adding an extra day every fourth year, thus  approximating  the solar year to 365.25 days. (By comparison,  the  Maya had  already  come up with their year-drift  formula  which  more accurately calculated the solar year as 365.2422 days.) The extra day  was  probably not officially used until 8 A.D.,  during  the reign  of  Augustus.  The expansion of the Roman  Empire  in  the subsequent  centuries made this calendar widely  recognized.  The system  of numbering years by A.D. designation (Anno Domini)  was instituted in 525 A.D. by the Roman abbot Dionysius Exiguus.

Since  the Julian calendar is still slightly  inaccurate,  a discrepency  built  up over the centuries,  causing  problems  in determining the occurrence of Easter. By the 16th Century, Easter was  slipping  towards summer. The problem was resolved  by  Pope Gregory  XIII in 1582. The reform resynchronized  the  time-count with  respect  to the equinoxes by skipping ten  days;  in  other words, October 4th of 1582 was followed by October 15th. However, the sequential cycling of the day-names of the week could not  be broken. This is an interesting fact. Remember, our week days  are named  after  planet-gods and mythical heros:  Sun,  Moon,  Thor, Wotan,  and Saturn among others. It suggests a European  feeling, similar  to  the Mayan need to track an unbroken count  of  days, that the cycling of day-gods was not to be fooled with.

The rule for leap year was also changed. In the new  Gregorian calendar a year which is divisible by 4 is a leap-year unless it is divisible by 100 but not by 400. Thus, 1700, 1800, 1900 and 2100 are not leap years.

It took a while for the new calendar to be adopted in all of the  European  countries,  although Italy,  Spain,  Portugal  and Poland began following it immediately. Britain and British  Colonies  didn't follow suit until 1752. English writers of the  time often indicated which system they kept by noting O.S. (old style) or  N.S.  (new style). Russia was the last to reform;  after  the Bolshevik Revolution January 31, 1918 (O.S.) became February  14, 1919 (N.S.).

Although it may be assumed that dates before 1582 are  going to be in the old Julian calendar, I prefer to clarify the  matter by indicating (J) or (G) whenever necessary.

The Use of Julian Day Numbers

Astronomers have standardized a conventional way of denoting dates,  to simplify long range calculations. By this method  days are identified in reference to an unbroken count begun on January 1st, -4712 (J). The Mayan zero date of the Great Cycle is  therefore  referred  to by its Julian Day number,  584283.  This  just means  that  584283 days have elapsed between 1.1.-4712  (J)  and 8.11.-3113 (G). Another important point is that -4712 is  written 4713  B.C.  In other words, astronomers recognize a  0  year  for calculational  purposes,  whereas historians do  not;  there  was never a "zero" year. Therefore, -3113 is the same as 3114 B.C.; a given  negative  year  number is always one less  than  its  B.C. equivalent.

This  should  serve as a basic introduction  to  the  Sacred Calendar cycles. From here, we will delve right into some of  the perplexing  problems  of  the Calendar. I  have  compromised  the accessibility  of what follows by gearing it toward the  academic community. In many ways I feel there are some valuable  contributions  here.  Yet,  in my own thinking, the  most  valuable  work spills  over into the mystical or visionary approach, which  will joyfully  receive full expression in Chapter Three. But first,  I will be happy to share the present state of my calendar studies.

Arectyng my syght towarde the zodyake,
The sygnes xii for to beholde a farre,
When Mars retrogradant reuersyd his bak,
Lord of the yere in his orbicular,
Put vp his sworde, for he cowde make no warre,
And whan Lucina plenarly did shyne,
Scorpione ascendynge degrees twyse nyne.

- John Skelton - 1495