The Maya Calendar – Part 3 -Tzolkin, the Sacred Calendar

This post “The Maya Calendar” is an excerpt of the second edition of my book “The Maya Sites – Hidden Treasures of the Rain Forest”, a travel guide to the most important Maya sites on the Yucatán peninsula – in México and Guatemala. The second edition will be published as print and ebook in spring 2018.

I split this article into seven parts:

The Tzolkin Calendar

In addition to the Haab calendar, the Maya used a second calendar, which is known as Tzolkin calendar. Tzolkin or Tzolk’in  means “count of days”.

The Tzolkin consists of two different cycles that were used in combination to designate a single day. For this purpose, two lists were linked together. On the one hand, these were the numbers  1 to 13 and on the other hand, the 20 day names.

13 times 20 then results in the length of the Tzolkin year thus determined by 260 days. After that, another year started.

The Tzolkin calendar is also given the name “Sacred Calendar”. The reason for this is that it is the calendar that is still used today for ceremonial or prophetic purposes in some areas of the Maya region, especially by ethnic groups in the highland region.

Looking closer to the Tzolkin,  a reference to agriculture can be seen, similar to the Haab. Some researchers assume that the Tzolkin is a calendar that has developed independently of the Haab calendar. Originally this calendar was used to determine the exact days for various activities in maize cultivation.

As mentioned above, the research assumes that the entire calendar system of the Maya was mobile and not anchored as ours that is fixed and synchronized with the actual position of the sun. How this can be reconciled with the purpose of the calendar as a tool for growing corn is puzzling.

The names and order of the day names are shown below: Imix, Ik, Akbal, Kan, Chicchán, Cimí, Manik, Lamat, Muluc, Oc, Chuen, Eb, Ben, Ix, Men, Cib, Cabán, Etznab, Cauac, Ahau.

Nummer

Monat

Übersetzung

Cholan

1

Imix

Water or water lilly

Ha’

1-imix

Imix’ , the first day of the 20 day cycle is represened by a sign showing the symbol of the water lily. The sign itself reads Ha’, what means water in ancient Maya. The water lily is considered by the Maya as a symbol of the hidden. Other depictions show a reptiloid monster known as the “water lily monster”. Maybe it is a crocodile.


2

Ik

Wind

Ik’

2-ik

The T-shaped structure inside the symbol represents the wind. Ik ‘also serves as a symbol for the wind, life, air, breath and voice.


3

Akbal

Nacht

Ak’Ab’

3-akbal

Night, darkness, dusk, snake. Inside the cartouche you can see the detail of a serpent body viewed from the side with the lower belly scales and an spine mark above.


4

Kan

Yellow

Ol

4-kan

The word K’an can mean both yellow and ripe maize. The symbol in the center of the Tzolkin sign has two different readings in the inscriptions. Most widely it was used for waaj, what means “tamales” or oohl, what means as much as “maize dough”. It is assumed, that the Cholan word Ol means “in the middle of”, the heart, an opening or simply describes the ball used in ball game of the Maya.


5

Chikchan

Feathered Serpent

Chikchan ?

5-chikchan

This day is represented by the depiction of a snake head. Chikchan could be a synonym for Kukulkan, the feathered serpent. Just the symbol itself reads Kaan in the inscriptions, meaning “snake”.


6

Cimi

Death

Cham

6-kimi

The symbol is similar to a percent sign. It means “death” On other Cimi symbols is a skull with the% sign on the cheek. In classic texts the symbol reads as Cham = Death or to die


7

Manik

Deer

chi

7-manik

The back of a human hand. The inner symbol reads Chi, meaning “deer”


8

Lamat

Star

Ek’

8-lamat

Shows the symbol Ek ‘- star or Venus


9

Muluk

Water animals and water

?

9-muluk

The sign Muluk stands for water and also aquatic animals.


10

Ok

Dog

Ok / Tz’i

10-ok

The symbol shows the head of a dog, it stands for friendship and loyalty.


11

Chuwen

Monkey

?

11-chuwen

According to traditions of the Maya, the year of the Tzolkin calendar begins with 8 Chuen. It symbolizes a (roaring) monkey. Chuwen is also the title the scribes wear. In connection with Sak, the word is used as a title “Sak Chuwen”: brilliant, glorious or outstanding scribe


12

Eb

God of Death

?

12-eb

Shows a skull. On the back of the head is sometimes the sign of Kawak, the 19th Tzolkin symbol.


13

Ben

Throne

?

13-ben

Shows the stylized side view of a throne.


14

Ix

Jaguar

Hix

14-ix

Is the sign for Jaguar, symbolized by the three dots. Hix also means motherhood and earth mother.


15

Men

Eagle

?

15-men

Shows the head of a bird, possibly an eagle.


16

Cib

Sea shell

?

16-kib

The symbol shows a shell…


17

Kaban

Earth

Chab’

17-kaban

Kab’an symbolizes the earth. It also stands for knowledge and science. The sign Kab ‘in the center means earth.


18

Etznab

Flint Stone

?

18-etznab

The symbol stylized shows the machined surface of an obsidian or flint blade


19

Kawak

Rain

?

19-kawak

Kawak represents storm and rain. The central symbol means Tun = year or stone. It shows a grape-shaped rain symbol on the left and a symbol for a rainbow on the right.


20

Ahau

Lord

Ajaw

20-ahau

Ajaw means lord or king in the sense, a title for a ruler. It is also a symbol of the sun god.


To define a day, a number between 1 and 13 was combined with a day’s name. Then the number was increased by one and at the same time, the next day’s name was used.

So if one year started with 1 Imix, then 2 Ik followed the day after, then 3 Aakbal, then 4 kan, and so on.

When the 13 was reached, the numbers started all over again but continued with the names in the order above.

13 Ben was followed by 1 Ix, then 2 Men, until the 20th day with the name 7 Ahau was reached.

At this point, then the numbers were continued and the day names began again from the start point.

7 Ahau was followed by 8 Imix, then 9 Ik and so on.

Sounds complicated, but it is not. The following table shows how it works.

First, take a number and combine it with a day sign. Then increase the number by one and combine it with the next day’s sign.

The Maya Calendar - Tzolkin Calendar - Combining numbers and days
The Maya Calendar – Tzolkin – Combining numbers and days

Originally, the Tzolkin seems to have been anchored in the course of the year, which means that it always began on the same day in the year.

And indeed, in the highlands of Guatemala, it is still used today to determine the exact dates for maize cultivation.

However, anthropologists have also discovered other uses of the calendar, such as determining the length of pregnancies or simply astrological reference prophecy calendars.Anyway.

The Maya researchers agree that the Tzolkin was not anchored when used in inscriptions, but simply repeated after 260 days.

A big amount of recent archaeo-astronomical examinations of buildings of the classical Maya period have shown evidence, that these buildings were aligned in a way that corresponds to the 260 days of the Tzolkin calendar.

>>> Continue with: The Maya Calendar – Part 4 – The Calendar Round


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Christian Schoen

Christian Schoen is a globetrotter, travel writer and author of the very successful travel guide "Die Ruinenstädte der Maya", published in Germany. He loves to visit temples, pyramids and any kind of ancient ruins. The SLR in his hand, he can be met on adventurous hiking tours in tropical jungle landscapes - sometimes - or just somewhere in his neighbourhood, the Black Forest Mountains in Germany.