The Maya maintained an accurate record of cycles of time based on the movements of the heavenly bodies, most notably Venus' orbit and the rising and passing of the Maya Tree- Origin of All Life- and the Universe, the Milky Way, where the Maya Lords lived. The Maya were advanced mathematicians and astronomers who calculated the lunar and solar cycles. But because they were obsessed with time, perhaps even regarded it as sacred, the Maya kept a perfect almost fanatical track of time.
Perhaps you have heard that the Maya had a calendar that was more precise than our own. How did the Maya accomplish this great feat? First of all, the conception of one calendar is inaccurate, as the Maya had two different calendars, which when combined, yielded a date in a third element called the calendar round. Yet another element, referred to as the Long Count System is also important to understand.
If you watch closely at the stelae in Tikal, you will see that the inscriptions often begin with a date in the Long Count system. This inscription is also called the initial series, a system that counts the passage of time continuously from a beginning date. They kept perfect count of time, using their long count system and combining the two different calendars mentioned before.
Their Long Count started on a date some 5,000 years ago on 4 Ahau 8 Cumku, equivalent to our August 13th, 3113 BC. A Long Count is usually preceded by an Initial Series Introductory Glyph announcing that the count follows. The Introductory Glyph is composed of a Katun sign with the patron deity for the month and a superfix of three curlycues... Something very important for the lives of Mesoamerican peoples must have happened on that day for it to have been marked as a "zero" date, which we could compare to the beginning date on our own Gregorian calendar: the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Maya called the era that started 5,000 years ago on 4 Ahau 8 Cumku, the Fourth Creation. Dates in the Long Count System are expressed as 5 numbers, separated by periods, the first position indicates how many baktuns have elapsed since the beginning date, the second, how many katuns, the third, how many tuns, the fourth how many uinals and the fifth how many kins. The elapsed time since 0.0.0.0.0 4 Ahau 8 Cumku is stated in units of time, which serve the same function as do the units in our statements of dates. The five time periods employed in the long count are shown in the following chart that will hopefully help you understand what each of these represented:
Let us start with the Sacred Round, a calendar used in divinations. It was named Tzolkin. It had 260 days, formed by a combination of the 20 names of days with numbers from one to thirteen, resulting in 260 different number/ name combinations, comparable to our 7 day weeks. The Maya had, so to speak, thirteen day weeks they combined with the names of days, which totaled 20. Say, if today is Wednesday, in 7 days it will be Wednesday again. Each day and each month had a special name. The sacred names of days in the Tzolkin Calendar are:
it is a widely held conception the notion that the Maya did not use or know the wheel, seems
to be a misconception. Their calendar system was composed of wheels
turning within wheels, the fine interlocking gearing of the machinery of time, which we
know isn’t very simple. To
make things even more complicated modern day Maya don’t speak a pure Maya
dialect, as they are mixed with other peoples who migrated from present day
Mexico. The names of these days have changed to more modern versions of their
ancient language... The Maya New Year falls every year on 8 Batz, which may be
equivalent to saying 8 Chuen… If today is the Maya New Year, it will be the
New Year again in 260 days and it falls on a different day in the Gregorian
calendar every year. Sometimes
there are two Maya New Years in one of our years.
The next important day in our calendar round will come from combining and permuting a series of dates that were observed in the Civilian calendar or Haab, divided in a period of 360 days, subdivided into 18 “months” of 20 days each, to which one “unlucky” month of only 5 days named Uayeb was added. This is also known as the Vague Year, another repeating cycle of 365 days. The days were numbered from 0 to 19 and the days on the Uayeb “month” were numbered 0-4. These are the “months” on the Vague Year:
But this isn’t all there is to it… All three calendars described above, the Long Count, the Tzolkin and the Haab Calendars are combined to form a 52 year cycle called the Calendar Round. A Calendar Round includes both parts, 4 Ahau, from the Tzolkin, and 8 Cumku from the Haab. The same combination will repeat itself again in 18,980 days, or in exactly 52 of our years. However, to exactly pinpoint a date in time we must know the Long Count Date, expressing the number of Baktuns, Katuns, Tuns, Uinals and Kins elapsed since the zero date to be able to know a precise date! These are found in dates that usually supplement the inscriptions called the secondary series, or distance numbers.
The Maya didn’t devise this calendar, like the origins of their writing, the birth of their calendar may be traced back to the Olmec culture. However, its precision and the impressive degree of advancement are purely the Maya’s responsibility. There are other elements of the Maya's sintaxis that must be necessarily comprehended in order to be able to correctly interpret the movement and concept of time in the Maya's writings. These are named Hel Glyphs, which are accompanied by corresponding distance numbers. A Hel Glyph projects onto historical events whether they be in the past or in the future, these require the reader to read a short independent clause, which refers to ascensions, relating the central character to a family line, but usually referring to a specific time frame within the text. The central character, telling the story, may use a Hel Glyph, and say "In the year 3,113 B.C. my forefathers were present, during the Creation of the World," such as Lord Kan Boar says in legitimating his lineage on Stella 10 of Tikal. The Hel Glyph could also be used to make a prophecy, such as seen in the writings of the Chilaam Balaam of Chumayel. More often, though, the central character will use them to referr to his own and his family's accomplishments, as independent clauses, giving a fuller narrative content to a large body of text.
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