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Mayan calendar systems and astronomy

The age-old Maya civilization blossomed in Mesoamerica, a region now split up into Central America and Mexico. The Maya had more advanced astrology from the beginning, which continued to improve over the centuries.

The ancient Maya had relatively little external influence, and yet its people were able to succeed and reach the heights of their civilization. Until around 500 years ago, when the Spanish came and the Aztecs ruled as the prevalent empire.

Mayan astronomy and astrology

The Mayans had an advanced understanding of the cosmos. They closely observed celestial bodies, and the movements of the Sun, Moon, and planets. Their astronomical knowledge was closely intertwined with their spiritual and religious beliefs.

The Mayans considered time as a significant aspect, with the basic unit being one day. They measured the day by one full rotation of the Earth and used it as the foundation for other elements in Mayan astrology.

One of the most distinctive features of the Maya civilization was indeed their complex calendar systems. They had 2 primary calendars: the Tzolk’in for religious purposes and the Haab’ for civil and agricultural purposes.

Mayan cosmology was deeply intertwined with their calendar systems. They believed in a cyclical view of time, where events repeated themselves over vast periods. The end of one cycle marked the beginning of another.

The Maya’s advanced calendar systems and astronomical knowledge were highly influential in Mesoamerica.

Other civilizations, such as the Aztecs, adopted and adapted these calendars for their own use. This shared calendar system facilitated trade, communication, and cooperation among different Mesoamerican cultures.

Tzolk’in calendar

This calendar was used for religious and ceremonial purposes.

The Tzolk’in played a vital role in guiding the timing of religious events, rituals, and divination.

It was closely tied to Mayan cosmology and the worship of their deities. Priests and astrologers used the Tzolk’in to determine auspicious days for various activities, such as planting crops, going to war, or conducting ceremonies.

This sacred calendar consisted of 260 days, with each day represented by a unique combination of 20-day signs and 13 numbers. The Mayans counted their days in repeating sets of twenty. Each day had symbolic representations.

The Mayan calendar combines the twenty-day signs to create a thirteen-day cycle, called the Tzolk’in. The tzolkin is a sacred 260-day astrological calendar that’s followed not just by the Mayans, but all of the other Mesoamerican civilizations.

For over 2000 years, Mesoamerican astrologers devoted themselves to monitoring each 260-day cycle. Tracking each day was consistent across Mesoamerica.

If it was the first of twenty days in Tenochtitlan, the main city of Aztecs, then it was also the first of twenty days in the remote territories of the Maya. That allowed trade together with the economy, politics, and government to survive more successfully.

The Tzolk’in was used for divination, to guide daily activities, and to gain insights into personal destinies. It played a significant role in Mayan astrology, where the day of a person’s birth was believed to influence their personality and fate.

The Mayans held the belief that one’s birthdate held the key to their unique individuality. According to their calendar, the day on which a person was born provided insights into the type of character they would possess.

Haab’ calendar

The Haab’ calendar was a solar calendar consisting of 365 days divided into 18 months of 20 days each, plus an additional period of 5 “unlucky” days at the end, known as the “Wayeb”.

The Haab’ calendar was primarily used for agricultural and civil purposes. It helped the Maya schedule activities related to farming, trade, and governance, such as determining planting and harvesting seasons.

The five-day Wayeb period at the end of the Haab’ calendar was considered an inauspicious time, and some rituals and ceremonies were performed during this period to ward off negative energies.

Long count calendar

In addition to these calendars, the Maya also used the long count calendar to track longer periods of time.

This calendar was essential for historical records and inscriptions on monuments. It counted days from a specific starting point, known as the “Creation Date,” which corresponds to August 11, 3114 BCE in our Gregorian calendar.

The long count calendar was a sophisticated and precise system to record and measure extended periods of time. It served not only as a practical timekeeping tool but also as a fundamental aspect of their culture and belief system.

Key Characteristics:

Counting system

The long count calendar used a complex counting system based on:

  • k’in = 1 day
  • winal = 20 days
  • tun = 18 winals = 360 days
  • k’atun = 20 tuns = 7,200 days
  • b’ak’tun = 20 k’atuns = 144,000 days

These units allowed the Maya to track time with remarkable precision.

Creation date

The long count calendar commenced from a specific starting point known as the “Creation Date”. According to Maya calculations, this date corresponds to August 11, 3114 BCE in our Gregorian calendar.

The significance of this date lies in its representation of the mythical creation of the world, marking the beginning of the current era.

Monuments and inscriptions

The long count calendar played a crucial role in the inscriptions found on Maya monuments, stelae, and temple walls. These inscriptions often recorded historical events, reigns of rulers, important rituals, and celestial events.

These inscriptions provide valuable insights into Maya history and culture.

Cyclical nature

Similar to other Maya calendars, the long count calendar operated on a cyclical basis. While the b’ak’tun (the largest unit) would reset to zero after reaching 20, the other units would continue to cycle.

This cyclical nature allowed the Maya to not only record historical events but also predict future ones.

End of the 13th b’ak’tun

The completion of the 13th b’ak’tun cycle in the Mayan long count calendar on December 21, 2012, garnered significant attention in popular culture as the supposed “end of the world”.

However, it’s essential to clarify that this event was not a doomsday prediction by the Maya. Instead, it marked the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new one, signifying renewal and transformation in their cosmology.

The long count calendar was a complex and versatile system for tracking time, recording historical events, and shaping the worldview. Its precision and longevity are testaments to the remarkable achievements of the Mayans.

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