The Maya is a Mesoamerican civilization, famous for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems. The Mayans are also noted for the renowned Mayan calendar. However, on contrary to people’s beliefs, the Maya didn’t invent the calendar, which was used by many civilizations in pre-Columbian Central America from around 2000 BC to the 16th century.
The Mayan civilization developed the calendar further and their subsequent extensions and refinements of it were the most sophisticated. In common with the other Mesoamerican civilizations, the Maya had measured the length of the solar year to a high degree of accuracy, far more accurately than that used in Europe as the basis of the Gregorian calendar. The calendars the Mayans used were crude, being based on a year length of exactly 365 days, which means that the calendar falls out of step with the seasons by one day every four years.
The Mayan calendar consists of three separate corresponding calendars:
- The Long Count
- The Tzolkin (divine calendar)
- The Haab (civil calendar)
Time is cyclical in the calendars and a set number of days must pass before a new cycle can begin. The three calendars are used simultaneously. The Tzolkin and the Haab identify and name the days, but not the years. The Long Count date comes first, then the Tzolkin date, and the Haab date last.
Here is an example. A typical Mayan date would read: 126.96.36.199.0 4 Ahau 8 Kumku, where 188.8.131.52.0 is the Long Count date, 4 Ahau is the Tzolkin date, and 8 Kumku is the Haab date.
The Haab is a 365-day solar calendar divided into 18 months of 20 days each and one month which is only 5 days long. The calendar has an outer ring of Mayan glyphs representing each of the 19 months. Each day is represented by a number in the month followed by the name of the month. Each glyph represents a personality associated with the month. The Haab is somewhat inaccurate, as it is exactly 365 days long. An actual tropical or solar year is 365.2422 days long. In today’s Gregorian calendar, this discrepancy is adjusted by making almost every fourth year a leap year by adding an extra day on the 29th of February.
The Tzolkin, also known as the divine calendar or the Sacred Round, means “the distribution of the days”. It is a 260-day calendar, with 20 periods of 13 days used to determine the time of religious and ceremonial events. Each day is numbered from 1 to 13, and then repeated. The day is also given a name (glyph) from a sequence of 20 day names. The calendar repeats itself after each cycle.
The Long Count is an astronomical calendar which was used to track longer periods of time, what the Mayans called “the universal cycle”. Each such cycle is calculated to be 2,880,000 days (about 7885 solar years). The Mayans believed that the universe is destroyed and then recreated at the start of each universal cycle. This belief inspired a myriad of prophecies regarding the end of the world.
Setting the date
A date in the Maya calendar is specified by its position in both the Tzolkin and the Haab calendars which aligns the Sacred Round with the Vague Year creating the joint cycle called the Calendar Round, represented by two wheels rotating in different directions. The Calendar round cycle takes approximately 52 years to complete.
The smallest wheel consists of 260 teeth with each one having the name of the days of the Tzolkin. The larger wheel consists of 365 teeth and has the name of each of the positions of the Haab year. As both wheels rotate, the name of the Tzolkin day corresponds to each Haab position.
The date is identified by counting the number of days from the “creation date”. A typical long count date has the following format: Baktun.Katun.Tun.Uinal.Kin.
- Kin = 1 Day.
- Uinal = 20 kin = 20 days.
- Tun = 18 uinal = 360 days.
- Katun = 20 tun = 360 uinal = 7,200 days.
- Baktun = 20 katun = 400 tun = 7,200 uinal = 144,000 days.
The kin, tun and katun are numbered from zero to 19; the uinal are numbered from zero to 17; and the baktun are numbered from one to 13. The Long Count has a cycle of 13 baktuns, which will be completed 1.872.000 days (13 baktuns) after 0.0.0.0.0. This period equals 5125.36 years and is referred to as the “Great Cycle” of the Long Count.
The Mayan calendar moves in cycles with the last cycle ending in December 2012. The last day of the Mayan calendar corresponded with the Winter Solstice (December 21st), which has played a significant role in various cultures worldwide. This is also what got many people to think that the world would end on December 21st, 2012.
The Mayan calendar completes its current “Great Cycle” of the Long Count on the 13th baktun, on 184.108.40.206.0. Using the most common conversion to our modern calendar the end of the “Great Cycle” corresponds to 11:11 Universal Time (UTC), December 21, 2012, hence the myriad of doomsday prophecies surrounding this date.
However, December 21st, 2012 is long gone and the world did not end. Later findings suggested that the Mayans did not chase death, but were rather seeking rebirth.