Sunday, December 05, 2010

Mayans and the End of the World

December already!  Hard to believe.  In honor of how fast the year's vanishing on me and how much this week totally escaped me, today we're going to discuss calendars.  Specifically, the Mayan calendar.

Now the notes I'm using for this post come from Astronomy 341, Archeoastronomy, a class that unfortunately sounds far more interesting that it was.  Therefore, my notes are not the best, but we should be able to get something good out of them. And it wasn't boring because of the material, just the way the class proceeded, so hopefully you'll enjoy this!

The Mayan calendar has been very popular lately, because everything thinks it says the world's going to end in 2012.  I hate to burst your bubble if you were looking forward to this, but it's not really true.  The only thing that will happen in 2012 is the end of the current Long Count, one tier of the Mayan system of calendars.  As this has happened before and the world is still here, I think we're safe.

What we term the Mayan Calendar is actually three separate but related calendars.  There is a religious one (the Tzolkin), a solar one (the Haab) and a third one, which is known as the Long Count.

The Long Count was the Mayan method for keeping track of dates with regards to one another over a long period of time.  The other two calendars reset every fifty-two years (more on this later), so they are only able to track things that occur within a single generation or so.  The Long Count, true to its name, provides a longer view of things, lasting for 5,126 years.  The current Long Count, when matched up to our calendar system, began on or around August 11, 3114 BC-- there is some debate on this among academics and other interested parties.  In a way, the Long Count is kind of like our centuries and millennia.  We say that the current year is 2010 AD/CE (two thousand and ten years since the birth of Christ or the beginning of the Common Era, whichever you prefer), while the Mayans would say that it's a certain number of days since the Long Count began.  Both situate the current moment in a historical context surrounding a past event.

The Long Count date consists of five parts- the kin, uinal, tun, katun and baktun.  The kin is the smallest unit, equivalent to a day.  A uinal is similar to a month, but consists of twenty kin.  A tun is eighteen uinals or 360 kin, so about equal to a year.  One katun is twenty tun (twenty years) and a baktun is twenty katun (about 394 years).  A full Long Count cycle has thirteen baktun, to make up the 5,126 years.  Dates in the Long Count were written in glyphs by the Mayans but can also be translated to numbers, with the largest component, the baktun, written on the left and the smallest component, the kin, written on the right.  The day of this post has a Long Count date of  As you can see, these numbers are all relatively high (remember that there are a total of thirteen baktun and twenty tun in a full Long Count cycle), showing how close we are to the 2012 date when it will reset.  Today's date in glyphs can be seen at this website.  The textual content of the page is questionably accurate or just plain wrong (i.e. the author's claim that Mayans are extinct), but the date is correct and kind of cool to see.  The glyphs represent the components of the dates, with baktun on the left and kin on the right.  The bars and dots next to each represents its current number, with bars standing for five and dots standing for one. 

The next section of the Mayan calendar, the Tzolkin, is arguably most important.  It's a 260 day cycle created as a way to track and decide on dates for religious ceremonies and events.  Like the Mayan calendar in general, the structure of it is rather confusing.  The Tzolkin has twenty different "named days", and each of these has 13 different segments (what we would call a day).  So, for instance, the first named day would be Imix', designated by the glyph below.
Say Imix' started on a Monday for us.  This means that Monday would be 1 Imix', Tuesday would be 2 Imix', Wednesday would be 3 Imix' and so forth up to 13 Imix'.  Then it would become Ik', and proceed from 1 Ik' through 13 Ik', then the named day would be Ak'b'al.  For a full list of the named days and the Mayan glyphs associated with them (which are pretty cool looking), check out the Wikipedia page

Each of these named days and their corresponding numbers has a different meaning.  For instance, Imix', the day I was discussing above, is associated with the waterlily and crocodiles.  While the way ancient Mayans used their calendars is often under speculation, modern Mayans use these meanings to choose good days for different actions and ceremonies.  "For instance, a low-numbered Ak'ab'al or B'en would be a good day for a wedding, whereas K'an would be a good day for building or maintaining a house, " says Wikipedia.

Why a calendar of 260 days made sense to the Mayans when it has no association with astronomical movements, the key factors is our calendar, is unclear.  Speculation is that it was created due to the ritual importance of the numbers twenty and thirteen (the Mayans counted and did math using a base twenty system, rather than our base ten.  This was one of the hardest things for me to conceptualize during my archaeoastronomy

The last major component of the Mayan calendar system is the Haab, a 365 day cycle that was based on the solar year, similar to our calendar system.  The Haab has eighteen months of twenty days each, and then fills in the end of the year with five "nameless days".  Like the Tzolkin, days are numbered, although they start with zero (also known for some reason as "seating").  This means that the first day of the first month is Seating Pop, while the second day is 1 Pop, the third is 2 Pop and so forth.  That month proceeds up to 19 Pop, then the next day is Seating Wo.  The five nameless days, also known collectively as the Wayeb, are similar to our All Hallow's Eve, with the belief that they were a dangerous time with weakened barriers between the mortal world and the Underworld of death and gods.  The days were filled with rituals to protect people, and Mayans would generally not leave their houses during this time.

The Haab and the Tzolkin together make up what is known as the Calendar Round, a system of two calendars that resets (the two sync up and have their first day together) every 52 years.  Dates in the Calendar Round are listed by Tzolkin day, then Haab Day.  For instance, according to calculations from this "Maya Links and Calculators" website, the date of this post is 11 B'en 6 Mak, or the eleventh day of the thirteenth named day on the Tzolkin calendar and the sixth day of thirteenth Haab month..  The day when the Calendar Round resets would be 1 Imix' Seating Pop.

If these three major components weren't confusing enough, there are a number of smaller, less significant calendars and ritual cycles, such as the Age of Moon (the current date within a cycle of six lunations  or lunar periods) or the Nine Lords of the Night (a nine-day cycle similar to our week in which each night was associated with one of nine different gods).  But I think I've thrown more than enough ancient calendrical information at you for now.  The last thing I'll include is an image of what a full date in glyphs looks like and a cool chart I found online that shows what each glyph means.

ISIG just means Initial Series Introductory Glyph, a glyph meant to explain why the following glyph was important.  Remember that the bars and dots next to glyphs mean numbers (i.e this image shows a Long Count date with a baktun of 10).  This particular glyph image has a number of glyphs for the smaller calendrical components we didn't go over, but hopefully you get the idea.  The Mayan calendar can be a remarkably confusing one!

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