That which we call the Mayan Calendar might more accurately be termed “the Mesoamerican Calendar,” for it was common to almost all the peoples of ancient Mexico. The use of the Mesoamerican Calendar, along with pyramid temples, shared mythologies, and a reverence for jade, almost defines the entire region as a civilization. The calendar may well be as old as Mesoamerican civilization itself; many scholars have credited the invention of the Mesoamerican Calendar – often called the Sacred Calendar because of its powerful spiritual significance – to the Olmecs, the oldest of Mesoamerican cultures, which began about 1000 BCE.

At its most basic and fundamental level, the Mesoamerican, or Mayan, Calendar is made up of:

  • the Tzolk’in or “ritual almanac” of 260 days, comprised of 20 symbolic day signs and a series of 13 numbers (13 x 20 = 260), plus..
  • a solar calendar of 365 days, called the Haab in Yucatec Maya.

The Tzolk’in and the Haab interlock and intermesh with one another like cogs in a wheel. The same combination of numbered days in the Tzolk’in and the Haab (for example, 13 Akbal in the Tzolk’in and 10 Yaxkin in the Haab) will re-occur once every 52 years. This 52-year cycle is known as a Calendar Round.

The Tzolk’in and the solar calendar were common to almost all peoples of Mesoamerica. They are still in use today among traditional peoples, especially the Tzolk’in; the ancient solar calendar is much more rare, but both of these calendrical factors are still used by the Ki’che’ Maya of highland Guatemala. The Tzolk’in forms the basis of much Mayan magic and ritual; it is a system of astrology as well as divination. The daysigns of the Tzolk’in comprise the essential myths and archetypes of ancient Mexico and the Mayan lands.

People such as the Maya, the Toltecs, the Aztecs and the Hopi all shared a concept which we might call “cycles of emergence.” According to this shared cultural view, the world has been created and destroyed a number of times. Each world the gods have brought into being has been created with the hope that humankind will worship the divine powers properly; more often than not, of course, the gods are disappointed. Their continuing attempts to create a perfect being, one who will honor the sacred, is the foundation of evolution. The Hopi say that humankind has been successively "emerging" through four different worlds. The world is always in a state of emergence, never static. It is constantly developing, and hence unstable. It must therefore be maintained. It is only through the prayers of human beings and their spiritual behavior that the world's equilibrium is made possible.

The idea of humankind's spiritual evolution lies at the heart of the history of the cosmos as the Maya understood it. Because each world carries with it the same eternal, recurring process, their view of the universe is circular, like that of other indigenous traditions. But the concept of continuing evolution also gives the Mesoamerican world view a linear quality, a sense of ongoing development. In Mayan thought, the linear and the circular world views are combined into what we might describe as a spiral, inherently circular but forever upward-moving. Indeed, the Hopi sometimes do refer to the “spiral of emergence.”

The so-called “end date” of December 21, 2012, that so many Westerners ask about, is based on the time-keeping system known as the Long Count, which was used to compute large cosmic and historical cycles. The Long Count endowed the Maya with a sense of cosmic vision that made them unique. Though all Mesoamerican civilizations made use of the Sacred Calendar, only the Classic Period Maya practiced the Long Count. Whether or not they invented it, they adapted it as their own and made it one of the foundation stones of their culture. In a way, it is a measure of their unique mathematical and philosophical gifts. The Great Cycle—that span of time which began in 3114 BCE and ends upon the much heralded event of December 21, 2012—is part of the Long Count. With the invention of the Great Cycle, the Maya were making a bold and powerful effort to mathematically quantify and define the cycles of world emergence.

Although the Maya and other Mesoamerican societies had a solar year of 365 days, the Long Count is based upon a “mathematical year” of 360 days, called a tun, which means “stone” in Mayan. 20 tuns was a k’atun, which means a “twenty stones.” 20 k’atuns constituted a bak’tun, signifying “a bundle of stones” and comprised of 400 tuns. 13 bak’tuns made up a Great Cycle, which adds up to 5,200 tuns and 260 k’atuns.

All Long Count dates contain the following elements, written in this order: the bak’tun, the k’atun, the tun, the winal or 20-day period, and the k’in or day. A Mayan date such as 9.12.2.0.16 (July 5, 674 AD) means that 9 bak’tuns, 12 k’atuns, 2 tuns, 0 winals, and 16 k’ins have passed since the creation date in 3114 BCE.

Those who perceive the end of the Great Cycle as a catastrophe or cataclysm may wish to note that the Maya conceived of epochs or ages that were much longer than the Great Cycle. A p’iktun was comprised of 8,000 tuns or 20 bak’tuns. A kalabtun was 160,000 tuns, and a kinchiltun was 3,200,000 tuns. The present p’iktun will end on October 13, 4772 AD, a date which was carved in the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque.

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