By: Holly Sax
The ancient Maya used three different calendars to measure time: the Tzolk’in, the Haab, and the Long Count calendar. A fourth time cycle, called the Calendar Round, was created by combining the Tzolk’in and the Haab.
The Tzolk’in calendar is made up of 13 months, each with 20 days. This calendar may have been used to measure human gestation periods, which are approximately that long, says Phyllis Messenger, president of the Maya Society of Minnesota.
The Haab calendar is made up of 18 months, each with 20 days, plus an additional five days. This calendar, at 365 days, measures a solar year.
Each of the 20 days and each of the months is associated with a deity, who is signified with an icon on the calendar. Many of the deities represent animals such as jaguars, monkeys, and serpents, Messenger says.
The Calendar Round was created to measure more than one year at a time.
The Calendar Round combines the Tzolk’in and the Haab, which rotate like gears to create a unique combination of deities each day for 52 years, at which point it realigns, according to Messenger.
After the Tzolk’in and Haab realigned, Messenger says, the ancient Maya looked for a promise from the gods that they would receive another 52-year cycle.
The Long Count calendar lasts 5,126 years, running through 13 cycles of 400 years each. Each Long Count year contains only 360 days, unlike the Haab calendar year of 365 days.
Dates on the Long Count are recorded very similarly to how we record Gregorian calendar dates today. However instead of having three categories (month/day/year), the Maya Long Count has five.
These five categories stand for days (kins), months (winals), years (tuns), 20-year cycles (k’atuns), and 400-year cycles (bak’tuns). Written out, day one looks like: 0.0.0.0.1 and day 20 looks like: 0.0.0.1.0.
20 days is equal to one month; 18 months is equal to one year; 20 years is equal to one k’atun, and 20 k’atuns is equal to one bak’tun. The Long Count measures 13 bak’tuns.
The ancient Maya thought the number 13 was important. “Number, symbols, and references to gods are very important,” Messenger says. “These symbols were everywhere to reinforce their beliefs, authority, culture, and legitimacy.” Instead of having the last base reach 20, like most of the others, it only reaches 13.
The 13th cycle will complete on Dec. 21, 2012, and will read 188.8.131.52.0 and reset at 0.0.0.0.0 on Dec. 22, 2012.
Messenger says the ending of this cycle is important because it represents the ending of a very large cycle—one that has lasted over 5,000 years.