The Maya had an elaborate and accurate calendar system – because of this they became great astronomers, noting the movements of the sun, moon, stars and even planets!
The ancient Maya predicted that the world would end on 21 December 2012.
No, they didn’t! A great cycle of the Maya Long Count was to end on 21 December 2012, but the next day the Maya believed that a new cycle would begin, much like our New Year’s Eve. In fact, in the temple of inscriptions at Palenque, where we find the tomb of King Pakal, it was written that in AD 4772 the people would be celebrating the anniversary of the coronation of their King Pakal!
- Introduction: The Maya Calendar
- The 260-day count (Tzolk’in)
- The 365-day count (Haab)
- Maya Calendar Round
- The Long Count
- Children’s Activities
- Find out any date in the Maya Calendar (Calendar Converter)
- KS2 Resources to Download
- Other Resources
Introduction: The Maya Calendar
NB: specialists say “Maya calendar” and not “Mayan calendar” (see: 10 red-flags for spotting an unreliable online resources).
Time was extremely important to the Maya, they made elaborate and accurate calendars and used them in charting the movements of the sun, moon, stars and even planets.
These calendars served a variety of purposes both practical and sacred. They were used in astronomical calculations, recording important events, the reigns of rulers and their conquests and also in divination.
In the late 19th century, Ernst Forstemann worked out how the Maya marked time. The Maya used what is now known as the calendar round which is made up of 3 interlocking cycles. A cycle of 20 names, a cycle of 13 numbers (which forms the 260-day sacred calendar) and a 365 days solar year. 52 years will pass until the three cycles line up again.
The following video -taken from the acclaimed documentary Cracking the Maya Code– gives a great overview:
The Sacred Calendar (Tzolk’in) 260 days
The 260-day calendar, also known as the Sacred Calendar or Tzolk’in, has 20 days associated with the numbers 1-13 (20 x 13 = 260). It would run as follows: 1 Imix, 2 Ik, 3 Akbal, 4 Kan… to 13 Ben, then number 1 would return and be associated with the fourteenth day: 1 Ix, then 2 Men, 3 Kib and so on continuing in an endless cycle.
Listen to how the Maya word is pronounced:
Notice that there is an apostrophe between the “k” and “i” in Tzolk’in. The apostrophe is actually a glottal stop, and you will hear it in Dr Diane’s pronunciation above.
You can achieve this by constricting the airflow in your throat – it is sort of similar to saying “water” without the “t” – “wa’ar”. You will find the glottal stop in many other Mayan words.
Also note that the Maya did not have numbers like ours, they only had three digits; a dot standing for ‘one’, a bar standing for ‘five’ and a shell for ‘zero’ (see Maya Maths).
For example: 4 would be 4 dots, 5 would be 1 bar, 10 would be 2 bars and 13 would be 2 bars and 3 dots.
The Solar Calendar (Haab) 365 days
This calendar contained 19 ‘months’ – 18 months of 20 days and a closing month of 5 days (Wayeb).
For example: 0 Pop would be followed by 1 Pop, then 2 Pop, up to 19, then it would be 0 Wo, 1 Wo and so on.
When these two calendars (Tzolk’in and Haab) are working together, one day in this round such as “3 Kan 8 Pop” did not repeat until 52 years passed, which was called the Calendar Round.
So you basically have a number + day + number + month.
The Long Count
Moving on from this was their absolute dating system, which we call the Long Count.
Like our own calendar the Maya marked dates for more extensive time from a fixed starting point. In our calendar it is the birthdate of Christ, for the Classic Maya the beginning of the present creation was 13th August, 3114 BC.
Each great cycle lasted 5128 years and it repeated indefinitely. The first great cycle was to end on 21 December 2012. This led to the popular belief that the Maya prophesied the world was to end on that date. However, this is completely a modern invention, time was not lineal for the Maya, but cyclical and ever repeating.
Now that you have a general idea of the Maya calendars, let us have a look at them in more detail.
The Tzolk’in: the 260-day count
Dr Diane talking about the Tzolk’in
The 260-day count, which approximates the human gestation period (the time between conception and birth), as well as the time it takes for a maize plant to ripen, is still used in some Maya communities today, mostly in the highlands of Guatemala.
It was, and still is a sacred calendar that provided a chronological framework for Maya ceremonial life and a basis for prophecies (predictions of what will happen in the future).
The Tzolk’in is a succession of 260 days made up of 13 numbers with 20 names (13 x 20 = 260), very much in the same way our months consist of the association of 7 weekdays (Monday to Sunday) and 28, 29, 30 or 31 numerals (for example Friday the 13th which is the 13th day of the month and the 5th day of the week).
Not until every single one of the numbers 1 through 13 had been attached to every one of the 20-day names was the cycle complete = 260 days.
The first day of the Tzolk’in is “1 Imix”, the second is “2 Ik’”, the third is “3 Ak’bal”, the thirteenth is “13 Ben”, the fourteenth is “1 Ix”, the twenty-first is “8 Imix”, and so on.
This sacred calendar is still used by the highland Maya people today. Each community has their day keeper, generally a shaman, who carries out ceremonies on particular days of this calendar. People will go to the day keepers to ask questions about their future or help in curing an illness. Day keepers then ask the spirits for guidance.
Both the ancient and highland modern Maya believe that they have a spirit/animal companion, the ancient Maya called it Way (pronounced ‘Why’) and the Maya today call it their nahual/nawale. Your birthdate defines what animal/spirit companion you have and also tells you your character traits.
The Haab: the 365-day count
Dr Diane talking about the Haab and the 52 year calendar round
The Haab is made up of 18 months of 20 days, and an extra month, called Wayeb, of only 5 days at the end of the year, which gives a total of 365 days. Those 5 extra days were usually considered to be a special time.
How to pronounce the word Haab:
The months’ names are all taken from the Maya Yukatek list given to us by Bishop Diego de Landa in the 16th century: Pop, Wo, Sip, Sotz, Sek, Xul, Yaxkin, Mol, Chen, Yax, Sak, Keh, Mak, Kank’in, Muwan, Pax, Kayab, Kumku and Wayeb.
The 365-day count operates very much like our own calendar: the first month is “Pop”, and the first day of the year is “1 Pop” followed by “2 Pop”, and “3 Pop”, and so on until “19 Pop”. The following day is referred to as the “seating”, or “putting in place”, of the next month (Wo) and written as “0 Wo”.
The unusual aspect of this calendar is that the “seating” of a given month is not considered as the first day of the month but rather as the last day of the previous one. This is akin to the tradition of calling December 31st “New Years Eve”.
In the Maya concept of time, the influence of a given month started on the last day of the previous one.
The Maya Calendar Round
A Calendar Round date gives the position of a given day in both the 260-day count (Tzolk’in) and the 365-day count (Haab).
It is always written in the same order: (1) day number + day name in the Tzolk’in, and (2) day number + month name in the Haab. For example the calendar below shows the date 12 Ben 11 Yax.
It will take 18,980 days, approximately 52 years, before a specific date in the Calendar Round recurs.
The Maya Long Count
Dr Diane explaining the Maya Long Count
Moving on from this was their absolute dating system, which we call the Long Count. Like our own calendar the Maya marked dates for more extensive time from a fixed starting point. For the Maya the beginning of the present creation was 13th August, 3114 BC. Each great cycle lasted 5128 years and it repeated indefinitely.
Every inscription began with the date, usually the long count date and then followed by the calendar round (Tzolk’in date + Haab date).
The base unit in the Long Count was the day (K’in). Since the Maya used a vigesimal numeral system (i.e. based on 20, the same way our decimal system is based on 10), they used a period of 20 days (Winal) which was in turn grouped in packs of 18 (not 20, probably to approximate the solar year), called Tun, and then the Katun which is 20 Tuns, and the Baktun which is 20 Katuns, etc.
The Long Count then is the counting of days since the last creation and was divided into:
K’in = 1 day
Winal = 20 days (20 K’ins)
Tun = 360 days/K’ins (18 Winals)
K’atun = 7,200 days (20 Tuns)
Bak’tun = 144,000 days (20 Ka’tuns)
So let’s have a look at what a date in our calendar would look like in the Maya calendar, using the Long Count, Tzolkin and Haab.
Make your own Maya calendar!
The pack below includes the Maya calendar (Calendar Round) with 5 separate rings to be cut out in white card. It also includes a pin for fixing the rings, information about the calendar, instructions and a quiz.
The pack can also be used as a template for class photocopying.
Understanding how the Maya calendar works can be difficult for both children and teachers, so this is a wonderful teaching aid in 1) explaining how the calendar works, 2) including questions and answers, and 3) being able to make your own to keep.
The five wheels once cut out:
Add you can even add a bit of colour:
Maya Calendar Quiz
1. If today is 1 Imix, 2 Pop what would be tomorrow?
1. Find 1, that is 1 dot, on the nearest ring to your split pin, – you are working from inwards to outwards and line this up with your line marker so that you don’t lose your place.
2. Find the glyph Imix on the second ring and line this up with the line marker and your dot.
3. Find 2 (two dots) on the third ring and line this up with the 1 Imix.
Remember to work from the smallest rings to the largest
4. Find the Pop glyph on the fourth (largest) ring and line this up with the others – you should now have formed a straight line from the line marker – 1 Imix 2 Pop.
5. To find out what the day would be tomorrow, you need to move the first two rings up by 1 (in one day’s time) and line them up with the marker – you should have 2 Ik.
6. Then move the third ring up by 1 and line this up.
If you want to know the day in the future move the rings anticlockwise, if you want to know a day in the past, move the rings clockwise
7. Pop (the final ring) stays the same as remember a month lasts 20 days
So you should have 2 Ik, 3 Pop
Well done! You have just worked out a date in the ancient Maya calendar!
Remember that the month (final ring) only changes when you arrive at the shell (zero).
Can you read the Calendar Round Date below?
The image above is of a wooden lintel, from Temple 1 at Tikal, Guatemala. The first two paired glyphs on the left give the calendar round. One is a number and day of the Tzolk’in and other is number and month of the Haab. What is the date (answer at bottom of page)?
Find out any date in the Maya Calendar
If you want to use the calendar to find out real time dates then you can use the calendar below. Today’s date in the Maya calendar is automatically given and you can make this date on your paper calendar.
Now you can work out what tomorrow’s date might be using your paper calendar and then to check it, you can type the date in the converter below to see if you are correct.
Date: 05 December 2023
Tzolkin Date: 5 Lamat
Haab Date: 6 Sek
Resources to Download
These resources were written by teachers on a CPD trip with Dr Diane to the Maya area. You can download these below.
Please note – you will need to use your personal, rather than your school’s email address to download these files, as most schools disable the ability to receive items from outside their domain.
You can access the complete Maya scheme of work for a small fee, in the form of a donation to the charity Chok Education, which supports the education of Maya children.
And there is more….
Maya Calendar Activity (1 hr of class time required).
Dr Diane explains in detail how the Maya calendar works and also provides her own Maya calendar resource, so that children can make their own Maya calendar to keep. Children will be taught how to work out today’s date and Maya dates in real-time, so that the class can work out both present and future dates. Finally, using their birthdate, children will find out what their Maya spirit animal is.
Handmade Wooden Maya Calendar
This beautiful calendar is the perfect tool to explain and understand the concept of time and timekeeping of the ancient Maya.
Use the knobs to rotate the rings and work out a date in the Maya calendar!
Finally, If you would like a more in-depth knowledge on the subject of the Maya calendar system then have a look at Dr Diane’s article in the public resources section.
FAMSI website has an excellent discussion and powerpoint of the confusion around the 2012 phenomenon – http://www.famsi.org/research/vanstone/2012/index.html
The website also has colouring books you can download for the Maya months and days – http://www.famsi.org/research/pitts/MayaMonths_English.pdf
Answers to Calendar Round date above
9 Ajaw 13 Pop