The Maya Calendar System

The ancient Maya kept track of time differently than how we do today and used a calendar system which had remarkable accuracy and complexity.

It was a calendar system that was utilized and expressed in many forms, including pyramid temples which acted as calendars.

The Pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichén Itzá in Yucatan, Mexico was built around sometime between the years 550 to 900 AD. The earliest hieroglyphic date discovered at Chichen Itza dates to 832 AD, when the Toltec culture from Tula became politically powerful and dominated the region.

The pyramid built there has four stairways for each quarter of the year and each stairwell has 91 steps that lead to a platform at the top. This makes for a total of 365 steps/platforms, the same number of days in a calendar year.

The pyramid also has nine main platforms which are thought to represent the 18 months of the Maya calendar they called the “haab’.” Additionally, there are 52 panels on the pyramid which represent, not only the number of weeks, but the number of years that it takes for a calendar round date to recycle. More impressive, on the Spring and Fall Equinoxes of each year, a special occurrence happens with the Pyramid to mark the occasion.

During the Equinox, the Sun projects a waving pattern of light on the northern stairway for a few hours in the late afternoon. This pattern of shadow and light is caused by the angle of the Sun in the sky during the Equinox as it hits the edge of the nine steps of the pyramid’s main construction. These triangles of light connect with a massive stone carving of a snake’s head at the base of the stairs, giving the impression of a massive serpent snaking down the structure. 

The famous decent of the snake god Kukulkan during the Spring Equinox.

Twice a year, when the lengths of day and night are equal, this pyramid dedicated to “Kukulcan” (or “Quetzalcoatl”) is visited by the feathered serpent god. On every equinox, “Kukulcan” returns to Earth to commune with his worshipers and provide blessings for a full harvest and good health before entering into the sacred water, where he descends through on his way to the underworld, “Xibalba.”

Early MesoAmericans took their calendars as astronomy serious.

Their temples were aligned to meet the needs of a particular god and accurately counted off the days ever year to mark when the god was to be celebrated. The Maya calendar system was also used by the other MesoAmerican nations, such as the Aztecs and the Toltec. They adopted the mechanics of the calendar, but changed the names of the days of the week and the months to meet their language and cultural differences.

The Maya calendar used a system that moved in cycles, with the last cycle ending on our modern date of December 21st, 2012. This is the last day of the Maya calendar which corresponds with the Winter Solstice, which occurs on the date of December 21st. This has been the reasoning behind the hype in 2012 about the Maya predicting when the World was coming to an end. This was just a cycle of their calendar, which merely mean that the count began again at one.

We’re still here, so obviously that wasn’t the meaning behind the new cycle of the Maya calendar. The World did not come to an end. 

maya calendar
The Maya Long Count Calendar’s dates were written out as five hieroglyphs separated by four periods. Photo credit: Hannah Gleghorn.

The Maya calendar worked in cycles which they called, “B’ak’tun.” A Maya calendar’s B’ak’tun runs for 144,000 days long per cycle. The thirteenth B’ak’tun on the Maya Calendar ended recently on the modern date of December 21, 2012. The following day on December 22 marked the start of the fourteenth B’ak’tun of the Maya calendar. The Maya calender continues its count in these cycles for ‘octillions’ of years into the distant future.

Octillion (n) – the number that is represented as a one followed by 27 zeros ( 1027 ). 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

The Maya Calendar consists of four separate corresponding calendars; the Long Count, the Tzolkin (divine calendar), the Haab (civil calendar), and the Wayeb‘. 

Read more about the Maya Calendars:


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written by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing

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