The Sacred Tzolkin Calendar of the Maya

The “Tzolkin,” also called the Sacred Almanac or Sacred Round, is a sacred cyclical count calendar which consists of 260 days (called “k’in”) within the ancient Maya system.

It is considered by most to be the region’s oldest calendar count.

The “Tzolkin” was used to mark the dates for the ceremonies performed on the astronomical new year. In these ceremonies, the priests indicated the days when agricultural plantings and religious ceremonies were to take place within the 260 day cycle. Besides the religious purposes, the calendar was very important for farmers to know when to plant their crops.

The ancient Maya name for this ‘divine’ 260 day period is not known.

The word, ‘Tzolkin,’ meaning “Division of Days,” is a modern word used in the Yucatec Mayan language. The K’iche’ Maya call this calendar the “Ch’olk’ij” which means the “Count of Days.” The K’iche’ and Kaqchikel Maya of modern Guatemala, who have spoken their variation of the Mayan language for over 500 years, call this calendar: the ‘Aj Ilabal Q’ij,’ meaning ‘Sense of the Day’ and ‘Chol Q’ij,’ meaning the ‘Organization of Time.’

It’s speculated that the 260 day cycle calendar was created to help keep track of the period of time a human baby is carried in the womb from conception to birth, or perhaps the growing cycle of maize from plating to harvest, or even more likely, recording the interval between the solar zeniths which happen at local noon on two different days of the year in the Maya area.

The ‘Tzolkin’ uses the numbers 13 and 20 are considered to be of great significance to the Maya, as well as all other Mesoamerican cultures. When these two numbers are multiplied together the result is equal to 260, which is the number of days in the Tzolkin calendar before it restarts its cycle.

The Tzolkin calender has twenty days, each with their own names, cycled in a total of thirteen periods known as “trecena.” These named days are similar to our modern calendar system’s seven named days in the period we call a Week, i.e. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc..

The 20 days in the Tzolkin with their associated deity glyph (Day Sign) in the modern Yucatec Mayan language.

Each of the twenty days in the Tzolkin are considered to be sacred and are connected to its own deity. So each specific day in a ‘trecena’ is believed by the Maya to have the personality and characteristics of the deity the day is associated with.

The Maya also use the Tzolkin for the practice of divination in seeking answers to the future. They also used this calendar to know when to perform sacred rituals and religious ceremonies.

The Tzolkin is different than other Maya calendars. For example, the Long Count calender was began on the day believed to be the creation of the human world and then celestial measurements were used to set its length and cycles. In contrast, the Tzolkin’s with its 260 day cycle was based from mathematics and wasn’t calculated using any natural phenomenon at all. The Tzolkin calendar’s spiritual meanings behind its days and cycles were added for the performance of the Maya society’s most sacred rituals, celebrations, and religious prophecies.

Usage of the Tzolkin cycle can still be seen being used by the Quiche Maya priests and daykeepers in the Guatemalan highlands. It is also used today by some of the Maya inhabitants in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

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by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing

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