The Maya had no telescopes to help them study the night sky, yet their astronomical records were astonishingly accurate. They believed that events took place in repeating cycles — “What has happened before will happen again,” as Lord 6-Dog puts it in MIddleworld — and they developed a variety of calendars to track the movements of the sun and the stars. Maya kings and priests used their elaborate calendar systems and their advanced knowledge of astronomy to help manage their kingdoms, to know when to plant their crops, to determine when to wage war, and to predict the future.
Cycles of time
Lesson plans and activities to download
Drawing by John Montgomery
What the glyphs say
Note: the reading order of Maya glyphs goes from top to bottom and left to right in paired columns.
A page from the Chilam Balam de Chumayel
Drawn in the style of a Maya codex, this is the clue that Max gets in Jaguar Stones Book Two: The End of the World Club. It includes dates in the Tzolk'in calendar. Find out what it says here.
The Haab - a Solar Calendar
The Haab is the Maya calendar most like our own annual calendar. It's based on the solar year, and has 365 days. Where we have 12 months of varying lengths, the Maya have 18 months of 20 days (adding up to 360 days) plus a 5-day period called the Wayeb. The Wayeb was thought to be a time of uncertainty and bad luck when the portals between the mortal realm and the underworld dissolved, and demons roamed the Earth. The Maya used the Haab as a farmers almanac to plan when to prepare their fields and predict when the rains would come.
The Tzolk’in - a Sacred Calendar
The Tzolk’in was the sacred calendar, used to determine the most auspicious dates for rituals, weddings, travel and so on. It was observed by most Mesoamerican cultures and is still in use in many Maya areas today. It has been kept, without interruption or losing a day, since ancient times. The calendar is made up of 20 day names and 13 numbers, so it takes 260 days (the average length of a human pregnancy) to go through the full cycle of name/number combinations. Each day name has a quality, some good, some bad. For example, Imix (“Crocodile”) is full of complications and problems, and thus bad for journeys or business deals. The number of the day (1–13) determines how strong the characteristic would be. So, for example, 13-Imix might be a good day to stay home. To help priests mark the days, the Tzolk'in calendar was represented as a meandering set of 260 dots and glyphs that circle around what looks like a game board. The picture on the right is a spread from the Madrid codex. (You can request your own Maya birthday in the Maya Tzolk'in calendar here.)
The Calendar Round - a 52-Year Cycle
The Calendar Round brings together the Haab and the Tzolk’in. Scholars often illustrate it as a series of interlocking cogs and wheels to show how the days and numbers interact - which, in Middleworld, was the inspiration for the time machine in the Temple of Itzamna. However, it’s important to note that there’s no evidence of the ancient Maya ever representing the Calendar Round in this fashion. Starting at any specific Haab/Tzolk'in date, it takes 18,980 days (approximately 52 years) to cycle through the 260 Tzolk’in days and the 365 Haab days and get back to the start date. The average life expectancy for an ancient Maya man has been estimated at less than, often much less than, fifty years.
The Long Count - a Storytelling Calendar
Just as our Gregorian calendar counts the years from the birth of Christ, the Long Count calendar counts the days from the Mayan creation date - a mythological date, equating to August 11th, 3114 BC in the Gregorian calendar.
Of course, the Long Count uses Maya math, a (vigesimal) base-20 system, rather than our (decimal) base-10 system. It counts the number of days (or k'in), the number of 20-day months (or winal) and the number of 360-day/18-month years (or tun). Twenty tuns is a k'atun. Twenty k'atuns is a bak’tun - the important 400-year marking (like our century but four times as long!) inscribed in stone to chart the stories of Maya monarchs.
The Long Count was a calendar for storytelling. Its endless count of days since the world began allowed each successive king or queen to place their actions in the grand context of Maya history and legend. They told their stories on large carved stone monuments or on elaborate staircases running up their towering pyramids.
The Supplemental Series
While the Haab, the Tzolk'in and the Long Count were the main calendar components, there were additional records that could be added to provide more information about any given date. The Maya charted the Lunar Cycle (which moon it was, how many days that moon would last, and how many days had transpired in that moon's cycle). Another common cycle was similar to our days of the week, though these Maya "weeks" were nine days long rather than seven. Each of these days is associated with a god, but we don’t know their individual names yet. Archaeologists have dubbed them the Lords of the Night and it is thought they each ruled a level of Xibalba, the Maya underworld.
The monument on the right is Stela 3 from the Maya city now known as Piedras Negras. It tells the story of a Maya queen named Lady K'atun Ahaw of Namaan. (Namaan was the Mayan name for the present-day city of La Florida in Guatemala.) The inscriptions begin with an introductory glyph like a drumroll signaling to the reader that a date is coming. The glyphs that follow are the Long Count dates showing how many bak’tuns, k’atuns, tuns, winals, and k’ins have passed since the world began. These are followed by the specific day from the ritual Tzolk’in calendar (5-Kib). Next comes the supplementary series, which in this case includes one of the nine Lords of the Night who ruled each day, as well as a cluster of glyphs to show the precise day within the Lunar Cycle. Last, the mason carved the day and month of the Haab calendar (14-Yaxk'in). In the sidebar you'll find a translation of the calendar glyphs that start this inscription.
Did the Maya calendar end in 2012?
The short answer is no - absolutely not. The worldwide panic about the ending of the Maya calendar was simply another fallacy based on ignorance. The calendar count did not end and the cycles continue to turn. Moreover, the Maya did not predict that 2012 - or any other date, for that matter - was the end of the world. Nevertheless, there was a lot of crazy speculation on the internet. To find out what the Maya really thought of 2012 click here.
How do we know all this?
The Haab, the Tzolk'in and the Calendar Round were still in use by the Maya when Spanish conquistadors arrived in Central America. Friar Diego de Landa included a lot of information about them in his book Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan.
These calendars continued to be used by the Maya for many years after the conquest. There are several Maya books of prophesy dating from the 17th and 18th centuries that employ the Calendar Round. Although the Haab eventually fell out of use, the Tzolk'in is still used by many traditional Maya today.
The Long Count was not in regular use by the Maya at the time of the conquest, but Long Count dates were included in the few Maya books that the conquistadors sent back to Europe. Ernst Förstemann was a librarian at the Royal Library in Dresden, Germany that held one of these Maya books (known as the Dresden Codex). He was a keen mathematician and was fascinated by the Maya. Using Landa’s book in conjunction with the Codex, he was able to figure out how the Long Count worked, as well as many of the planetary cycles described in the Codex.
The Maya Calendar in the Jaguar Stones Series
The Maya calendar features throughout the Jaguar Stones series. In Book One: Middleworld, Max and Lola discover a machine in the temple of Itzamna which is a physical manifestation of the interlocking cycles of the Calendar Round. Setting the machine in motion, they discover that the next Bak'tun will be ruled by Ah Pukuh (the Maya god of violent and unnatural death). They then use the Tzolk'in and Long Count calendar to help identify the day that Ah Pukuh will make his move.
Jaguar Stones, Book Two: The End of the World Club explores the misconceptions surrounding the Maya calendar and the fallacies of 2012. It also includes a clue (see right) given to Max by the Maya Lords of Death that cryptically tells him what he needs to do and how many days in the Tzolk'in calendar he has to do it in.
The Tzolk'in calendar as pictured in the Madrid Codex
The Calendar Round - linking the Tzolk'in and the Haab.
Q: Was the Maya calendar recorded on a circular “calendar stone”?
A: There is no such thing as a Maya calendar stone. The stone carving shown above (that’s often captioned as the Maya calendar) is actually the Aztec sun stone. And although it has calendar glyphs on it, it is not a calendar. And it is definitely not Maya. The Maya also never created a clock-like set of gears for their calendar system, although it’s a common and helpful illustration to describe how the system works.
NOT a Maya Calendar