A Manifesto for Clarity

By John Major Jenkins on the day 1 Cib (True Count), December 27th, 1995
Copyright. Four Ahau Press. 1995.
4300 words
Excerpt from an essay written for the The Institute of Mayan Studies, Margate, Florida
also published in the Wacah Chan newsletter, issue #2 (1996)

The True Count

Before the Conquest descended upon the Americas, before the Gregorian calendar was introduced and confused native calendars in 1582, one basic time cycle served as the foundation for all Mesoamerican calendar systems. This was the 260-day cycle, and it consists of 20 day-signs combined with a number from 1 to 13. Of the 20 day-signs, different groups, from Aztec to Mayan, speaking different languages, had different names for each of the day-signs. But 3 or 4 of the day-signs had over-arching and universal significance, and thus comparative lists show that the various day-signs followed by these different groups are cognate with each other. 1 Xochitl to the Aztecs equals 1 Ahau to the Maya, and so on. The common root of the 260-day calendar appears to be found in the Olmec civilization, with the 260-day cycle being formulated in the early 1st millennium B.C. Most of our documented information to answer the correlation question - that is, how did the 260-day cycle correlate with the western Julian calendar - comes from the so-called Classic Period Maya. This great civilization spread throughout Mexico, Belize and northern Central America beginning around 100 A.D., and left many dated monuments. In the 1920's, Mayan scholars Goodman, Martinez and Thompson worked independently to solve the riddle of the correlation question. They at first used historical sources such as Landa's information, the Chronicle of Oxcutzcab, the Books of Chilam Balam, various chronicles from Highland Guatemala, and dated accounts of the Aztec conquest. Eventually, it was deemed necessary to consider data from other fields of research. Soon, the final solution was to be informed by an interdisciplinary tour de force of mutually confirming sources: archaeology, astronomy, mathematics, ethnohistory, epigraphy, ethnography, and Carbon-14 analysis all contributed to solving this problem. In 1950 the correlation debate finally seemed settled. The main concern in this endeavor was to decode all those dates on the Classic Period monuments. Did they all conform to the same count? Was the count a universally shared Mesoamerican institution? Because some dated monuments record astronomical alignments of planets, and modern astronomers have calculated planetary positions for these eras, the answer to both these questions is a resounding yes. The Classic Period Maya followed one count of days, known by its Julian day number 584283. This is the Julian day number of the first day of the Mayan Long Count, making 4 Ahau 8 Cumku ( in Long Count notation) equal to August 11th, 3114 B.C. in the Gregorian calendar. How did this great universal sacred count of days evolve with the changing history of Mesoamerica? Does this particular placement survive today? Are their existing today, in remote areas of Mesoamerica, true heirs to the True Count, the count followed by the ancient Maya at the great cities of Tikal, Kaminaljuyu, Uaxactun, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Mayapan, Caracol, El Mirador, Becan, Kohunlich, Palenque, and dozens more? The answer is yes, but historical disruptions - most notably the conquest itself - have clouded this simple answer.

Confusion of the Sacred Count in Some Parts of Mesoamerica

Without belaboring facts that are summarized in Munro Edmonson's Book of the Year (University of Utah Press, 1988), let's summarize here the situation at the time of the conquest. All Mesoamerican groups were following the same count of days, the same placement, i.e., the 584283 placement. From the Aztecs and other groups in Central Mexico, to the Yucatan in the east, to the Quiché and other tribes in the highlands of the south, everyone everywhere is following the same universal count of days. This is the count descended from the ancient Olmec count, passed on through the Classic Maya to the eve of the conquest. By this time these different groups are calling the day-signs names according to their own languages, and there are differences in other features of the calendar complex. For example, different groups might recognize different year-bearers, celebrate New Year's at different times, or even count haab months from either 0-19 or 1-20. But the 260-day cycle was universally synchronized, and a high priority was always placed on the inviolability of this count. 1 Ahau would always occur at 260 day intervals, period. The count followed by the Classic Maya had survived the so-called collapse of Mayan civilization around 870 A.D. up until the conquest. It was especially present in cultural areas that were flourishing at the time of the conquest, notably the Zapotecs, Aztecs and Quiché. Even in the Yucatan, a vigorous society with tenacious traditions, influenced by Toltec influxes from the west, had preserved the ancient count of days. But now a dark force entered into the historical momentum of Mesoamerican civilization. Men with crosses and iron suits hell-bent on destroying all forms of native genius arrived in 1519 and spent the next 80 years - and more - methodically wiping out Mesoamerican religion, science, and culture. All for the love of gold, precious resources, and the quick return. How did this effect the calendar tradition? Barbara Tedlock sums it up in her book Time and the High land Maya:

"Among the Lowland Maya of Yucatan, the ancient ways of reckoning and interpreting time are known from inscriptions on thousands of stone monuments, from the few ancient books that survived the fires of Spanish missionaries, and from early colonial documents. But the contemporary indigenous people of that region have long since forgotten how to keep time in the manner of their ancestors. With the Highland Maya, and especially those of the western highlands of Guatemala, the situation is reversed. Here, the archaeological monuments are bare of inscriptions, and not one of the ancient books escaped the flames, though the content of a few such books was transcribed into alphabetic writing and preserved in colonial documents. But it is among the Highland Maya rather than among their Lowland cousins that time continues to this day to be calculated and given meaning according to ancient methods. Scores of indigenous communities, principally those speaking the Maya languages known as Ixil, Mam, Pokomchi, and Quiché, keep the 260-day cycle and (in many cases) the ancient solar cycle as well" (1) - italics added.

Scholars don't casually muse on something like this unless it is a well established fact. The point here is that the historical process of conquest was much more intense in the Lowland Yucatan (and, I would add, even much more intense in Central Mexico) than in the remote highland areas. Because of this, the ancient universal count of days was disrupted in the Lowland areas that were more intensely exposed to the genocidal tactics of the conquest. And, in fact, modern ethnographic studies bare out the facts of the matter. There are a few latter-day counts documented for Central Mexican communities and in the Yucatan that are in disagreement with each other. Why? Because they were purposefully disrupted and distorted. The overlords who had a vested interest in debasing native populations into total submission realized that the 260-day calendar was the glue of indigenous ritual, ceremony, and religion. If you could mess that up, the foundation was destroyed. In the Yucatan, the all-around confusion generated by the Gregorian reform in 1582 seems to have done the trick. And today, despite modern revivals among New Age teachers, the ancient rites of the 260-day calendar, especially its correct placement, have long since been pounded to dust in the Yucatan. There are other ritual ceremonies that survive in the Yucatan, discussed by ethnographers John R. Sosa, Robert Redfield and David Freidel, but none of them implicate the use of the 260-day sacred cycle. But the neo-Mayan revival in the Yucatan is very interesting, and can certainly serve to enthuse the modern Yucatec Maya and foreign friends with the sense of a living tradition. The litmus test of whether these new calendar traditions have a direct, unbroken genealogy back to the pre-conquest, is simply to compare with the Classic Maya placement. The true heirs to the ancient tzolkin tradition are those that still follow the ancient count. Modern survivals and modern revivals that don't, have either undergone the distortions of genocide or the obfuscation of well-intended but sketchy reconstruction. I don't know what count of days is followed by the most notable neo-Mayan revival group which revolves around the Solar Initiations of Hunbatz Men. But another example is the Dreamspell calendar and the count of days devised by Jose Arguelles. This tzolkin placement is presently 52 days out of synchronization with the Classic Maya count and, furthermore, because it skips leap days, its discrepency-factor is constantly changing. One might argue that revival counts have validity in some sense, because they have the power of people behind them, and thus they represent a kind of sectarian branch of the core tradition. However, I call the universal Classic Maya count (the so-called 584283 correlation) the "True Count", for obvious reasons. We are very lucky that, indeed, this ancient unbroken count survives among many different Mayan groups today, primarily in the Highlands of Guatemala. The documentation for this can be found in dozens of modern ethnographic studies, some of which are listed at the end of this essay. Because we have the litmus test of the "True Count", counts that don't agree with this can be presumed to derive from the dislocating events of the conquest, or other factors. This doesn't mean the distorted counts need to be stamped out, because consciousness allows for all variations. However, we certainly must recognize which traditions are truly heir to the ancient calendar, and which are, for whatever reason, variations of it. Thus, I propose the term "True Count" to designate any surviving count that corresponds directly with the same count followed by the ancient Mayan civilization, and the terms "Newly Created" and "Variant" count to designate counts that have some other pedigree. For example, the Dreamspell count can be known as a "Newly Created" count, while a distorted anomalous count recorded in a small dying Huastec village in 1907 would be called a "Variant" count.

I should say something about the credibility and respectability of ethnographic work. While it is true that archaeologists aren't concerned with local Mayan populations, ethnographers certainly are. And there are dozens of not-too-unobtainable studies that actually make for pretty interesting reading. Although I have no classes to pass or tests to take or degrees to master, I enjoy reading ethnographic accounts, and very many of these ethnographers are passionate about the Maya, just like you and me. Many of these "scholars" are deeply concerned about the disappearance of Mayan tradition, have shown clear survivals of much of the ancient wisdom, have contributed to elucidating deep wisdom within modern Maya traditions, and are very tuned in to the profound multi-dimensional qualities of Mayan cosmology. (See partial list of books below.)

I'm trying to create a middle ground of mutual space so that the continuing use of tzolkin counts that don't correspond with the True Count can be understood in their proper historical context. This isn't, therefore, a call for annihilation of these new counts, rather, it is a suggestion for giving them the correct designations. Thus, True Count is the term to use if a placement follows the ancient count of days of pre-Conquest Mesoamerica. This applies to the day-count followed by many Mayan groups in the Guatemalan Highlands today. Two other designations, Newly Created count and Variant count, apply to 1) new counts arbitrarily devised, such as the Dreamspell count, and 2) variant counts that have been distorted due to the ethnocidal agenda of the conquest, an agenda continuing today under the guise of NAFTA-esque policies.

c. John Major Jenkins. January 1996.


Aveni, Anthony F. 1980. Skywatchers of Ancient Mexico. University of Texas Press.

CHOLB'AL Q'IJ: Agenda Maya. (Annual Calendar). Editorial Cholsamaj, 7a Avenida 9-25, Zona 1 Aprto. 4, Guatemala City; Editorial Maya Wuj, 4a Calle 1-74 Zona 7, Col Landivar, Guatemala City.

Edmonson, Munro. 1988. The Book of the Year. University of Utah Press.

Jenkins, John Major. 1994. The Center of Mayan Time. Four Ahau Press. Boulder, CO.

Nuttall, Zelia. 1928. La Observacion del paso del sol por el zenit por los antiguos habitantes de la America tropical. Publicaciones de la Secretaria de Educacion Publica, 17 (20), Mexico City.

de Sahagun, B. Florentine Codex, General History of the things of New Spain, Book 7: The Sun, Moon, and stars, and the binding of the years, translated from the Nahuatl with notes and illustrations by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles F. Dibble (School of American Research, Archaeological Institute of America monograph 14, part 8, book 7; Santa Fe, 1953).

Tedlock, Barbara. 1982/1992. Time and the Highland Maya. University of N. M. Press.