Symbolized by Chichen Itza, that was used as a calendar: four stairways, each with 91 steps and a platform at the top, making a total of 365, equivalent to the number of days in a calendar year.
The calendar uses three different dating systems in parallel, the Long Count, the Tzolkin (divine calendar), and the Haab (civil calendar). Of these, only the Haab has a direct relationship to the length of the year.
  • The Long Count is representing the number of days since the start of the Mayan era. It's divided into 5 pieces. Day 0 of the long count was September 6th, 3114 BC. There are varying bases in the different parts of the system - either 18 or 20.
  • The Tzolkin corresponds more or less to the week system that we've got - it's just 10 times more complicated, as there are two week systems - one having 13 days, another have 20. This means that the 'name' of the day cycles every 260 days.
  • The Haabwas the closest we get to a normal western calendar. It had 18 months of 20 days each, followed by 5 extra days. This gives a year length of 365 days. The years of the Haab are not counted - the long count takes care of that

Each of the three Mayan calendar cycles had a day zero, which was the beginning and end of the cycle. Normally, when one cycle came to an end, at least one of the others was still in mid-arc. However, very rarely, the three zero days would coincide.

The Mayans took their calendar very seriously - the cycles of the calendar determined the seasons, harvest time, the days that the gods demanded sacrifice, and everything else. They were also the first people of the Mesoamericas to come up with the concept of "zero," and they found it terrifying - they worshipped the God of Zero as one of the main gods of the underworld. This coincidence of zero days, the ultimate End to All Cycles, was thus an occasion of great dread to them. What, they wondered, will ensure the continuation of time, when everything has come full-circle and returned to Zero?

The only answer was to placate the gods, which - typically for the Mayans - meant sacrifice. The victim was dressed in the regalia of the God of Zero, and worshipped throughout the great festivals held in the gods' honor. At the climax and end of the celebration, the priests sacrificed the victim by ritually tearing off his lower jaw - perhaps symbolically removing the "teeth" of the awful Zero. The gods were then placated, and all things - demarcated by the endless turning of the cycles - could resume again.

Source: Robert Kaplan's The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero

The Mayan calendar seems alien upon first learning about it. It seems excessively difficult, complicated, at first reading. This is because we are not hyper-religious farmers. If we had to track the phases of the moon, planting and harvesting times and dozens of civil and religious holidays - without cheap and easy printing and digital watches - we might appreciate an extra calendar or two.

The Calendar Round

The Calendar Round refers to two separate calendars used in conjunction. The first calendar is known as the Tzolk'in. This calendar spanned 260 days and served as their ritual calendar. For this reason it is also known as the Sacred Round. The second calendar, the civil calendar, is called the Haab. It is 365 days long.

Mayans told the date by referring to a day name and number from each calendar. As the calendars are offset, they have different numbers of days, the unique combinations take 52 years to repeat. In general, 52 years is long enough that referring to a day in this way is not confusing, is specific enough. If I tell you that I was born on "6 Ix 2 Pax" you can guess that I am 29 years old rather than 81 years old.

Fun Fact! - The Mayans did not have telephones or broadband internet connections. So when one Mayan told another Mayan his birthday was on 6 Ix 2 Pax, it was done face to face!

The Tzolk'in Calendar

Tzolk'in refers both to the calendar that marked the days (the K'in) of the Sacred Round as well as the ceremony, "the distribution of the days," at which the astronomer/priest would give out the new calendar and tell the people what day corresponded with what event. Using a cycle of 20 day names and the numbers 1-13 as modifiers, each successive day increased the number by one and took the next name in line. The day after a 13 would be a 1 again, the day after Ahaw would be Imix again. So, the calendar begins on 1 Imix, the day after that was 2 Ik', then came 3 Ak'bal and so on.

Given that we are talking about an ancient civilization, in a different language, it is understandable that spelling issues might come up. Below are the 20 days of the Tzolk'in along with alternate1 spellings where appropriate and approximate meanings.

Imix - Water lily
Ik' or Ik - Wind
Ak'bal or Akbal - Night
K'an or Kan - Corn
Chikchan or Chicchan - Snake
Kimi or Cimi - Death head
Manik' or Manik - Hand
Lamat - Venus
Muluk or Muluc - Water
Ok or Oc - Dog
Chuwen or Chuen - Frog
Eb - Skull
Ben - Corn stalk
Ix - Jaguar
Men - Eagle
Kib or Cib - Shell
Kaban or Caban - Earth
Etz'nab or Etznab - Flint
Kawak or Cauac - Storm cloud
Ahaw or Ahau - Lord

The Haab Calendar

The Haab, or Vague Year, was a solar calendar similar to our own. It is comprised of 18 months, Uinal, each of 20 days, onto which is appended a 19th "month" of five days known as the Wayeb, or Uayeb, for a total of 365 days. This calendar progresses like our own save for one minor difference - the Mayans numbered their days 0-19 for the 18 months of this calendar, and 0-4 for the Uayeb, as opposed to 1-20 or 1-5.

Pohp or Pop - Mat
Wo or Uo - Unknown
Sip or Zip - Unknown
Sotz' or Zotz - Bat
Sek or Zek - Unknown
Xul - Dog
Yaxk'in or Yaxkin - New Sun
Mol - Water
Ch'en or Chen - Black(?)
Yax - Green(?)
Zak or Zac - White(?)
Keh or Ceh - Red(?)
Mak - Unknown
K'ank'in or Kankin - Unknown
Muwan or Muan - Owl
Pax - Unknown
K'ayab or Kayab - Turtle
Kumk'u or Kumku - Unknown
Wayeb or Uayeb

So, two calendars, each of which are referenced to arrive at a date. An example of progression might be useful here. I am writing this on 1 Kawak 17 Yaxk'in. As it is nearly the end of the day by the server's time, I may end up posting it on 2 Ahaw 18 Yaxk'in. For the Tzolk'in day, the first half of the combined date, both the number and day name progress. For the Haab day, the second half, the month does not change but the day does. If we go forward two more days, to 4 Ik' 0 Mol, we can cause the month to change as well.

As was noted above, the specific combination of 1 Kawak 17 Yaxk'in only occurs once every 52 years. What if we want to refer to a date farther removed in time or more specifically? A people clever enough to invent these two calendars would surely be able to handle that problem. They do so with a third calendar, the Long Count.

The Long Count

The Long Count is a linear system of dating that is capable of spanning a period of approximately 5000 years. The current Long Count began on 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk'u which equates to our August 13, 3114 BCE on the Gregorian calendar. Dates in Long Count are simply the number of days since the beginning of this cycle. Before we can get to the format of the Long Count date we need to define some more terms.

K'in or Kin - 1 day
Winal or Uinal - 20 K'ins = 20 days
Tun - 18 K'ins = 360 days
K'atun or Katun - 20 Tuns = 7200 days
Baktun - 20 K'atuns = 144,000 days

Notice, first, the return of the K'in and the Uinal. These come directly from the first two calendars. The second thing to note is the base 20 numbering system and the 'violation' of it which falls on the Tun. This simply maintains the symmetry of the 18 months of the year (less those 5 unlucky days of the Wayeb). It saves confusion on vocabulary and prevents conceptual difficulties. When Mayans did regular math they did not drop to base 18 at that third position from the decimal, they used based 20 as far up as they needed to go.

Using the glyphs for each of these sums of days and providing a number with each glyph would allow the ancient Mayan to figure out how many days it has been since the beginning of this cycle and how many are left until the end of it. Today, we simplify this a little bit by leaving off the complicated glyphs and just using the numbers of each, in order from Baktun down to K'in. Today's Long Count date is then That is 12 Baktuns, 19 K'atun's, 12 Tuns, 9 Winals and 19 K'ins. Tomorrow would be Notice how we adopt their 0-19 format - whenever a number would go to 20 it instead returns to 0 and the number to the left of it goes up by one (except, of course, for that middle Tun column which goes up after 18).

At the end of the Long Count, according to the Mayans, everything comes to an end and starts all over. This has always happened and will always continue to happen. There will be no extra credit question for figuring out the date of the end of the world, it has been noded here2 and the softlinks in there will lead those interested to tons of new information.

1 Current day Mayans in Guatemala are developing/have developed a new orthography. While it is certainly progressive of them, a great idea, they aren't the only Mayans. So, no consensus yet.
2 By special request: There is a minor controversy regarding the Long Count - the 584,283 correlation versus the 584,285 correlation. The 584,283 correlation is in current use by some Maya today. As well, the LC date using this correlation matches known, dated events from during the Spanish conquest.

The 584,285 correlation is based on dates as recorded by the Maya that correspond to astronomical events, events which we can date today.

The 584,285 date assumes a two day differential, a difference which would offset the end of the Mayan Calendar to December 21, 2012. While the 584,283 correlation has enjoyed consensus throughout the years, there has been a surge lately for acceptance of the 584,285 correlation. This difference in opinion is based upon matching dates for a specific event found both upon on the stela at Quirigua and in the Dresden Codex.

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