Important Mayan dates
You quickly glance around the arena.
You notice that everyone is aware that the perfect time has come for the ceremony. As the Mayan king makes his way to the top of the staircase, the sun begins to set. The sun, the ruler of the cosmos, plays a big part in your calendar, which, in turn, demands respect and sacrifice.
During the course of this month, the accuracy of the calendar has helped the Maya with planting and harvesting. These sacred harvesting cycles represent the purpose of tonight's ceremony. This purpose relates to the creation and destruction of the world, and having a stable relationship with the gods.
As the king stands at the top of the main pyramid of Zempoala, an eclipse begins to take place.
The three perfectly placed stone rings below help him keep track of this astronomical cycle. It is also the end of a katun of the Long Count calendar, which points every fifth year to a public ceremony.
As the eclipse creates one complete moment of darkness the crowd begins to chant, and the king begins this sacred meeting.
Early Thought About the Maya
In the past, the Classic Maya inscription was thought to directly relate to astronomy and calendrics.
This is because astronomic and calendric symbols were found on many of the first texts to be deciphered. There were also many chronological expressions found in Mayan writing. Early epigraphers claimed that there was little in these texts beyond the study of time and astronomy.
It was often thought, because of the profound consistency of recorded dates, that the Mayan's basis of religious worship was time. It is true that most Classic inscriptions deal with dating, however, time was not necessarily an obsession. A typical Mayan document consisted of a series of historical backgrounds, each followed immediately by a date or astronomical expression.
In the book, The Blood of Kings, Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller address this very topic.
"The prominence of calendric material in Maya inscriptions was initially taken as evidence of an obsessive fascination with time itself, but this is no longer true."
Areas of Scholarly Attention
In 1832, a Franco-American savant and polymath named Constantine Rafinesque used his time to research the Mayan culture. He examined pages of the Dresden Codex (a very important surviving Mayan book).
He became intrigued with the series of black and red bars and dots found in the texts. He noticed that the dots never exceeded four in number, and he correctly concluded that the dots stood for "one" and the bar for "five." This was a very big step in understanding the Mayan counting system.
Ernst Forstemann, a Royal Librarian of the Electorate of Saxony, also added onto Rafinesque's discovery. He identified the third digit which was a stylized shell that stood for "zero." These numbers were arranged vertically with the lowest values on the bottom. This was a big help in deciphering positional numeration and organization.
Eric Thompson's contributions, although sometimes over-analyzed, have helped with new discoveries. Besides the fact that he completely overdid the cosmological aspects of this culture, he pinpointed another cycle in the ancient calendar.
This measured 819 days, which he discovered was the product of the magic numbers seven (number of the earth), nine (the heavens), and thirteen (the underworld). This is another reason why some claimed that the Mayan's worshiped time. The question still remains as to what this cycle was used for. There is evidence that the cycle was important among the elite for ceremonies associated with world directions, colors, and with the patron gods.
Although there are many who have diligently studied Mayan culture, we will learn about one more. David Stuart was an incredibly smart man, who, while still in high school, made a direct link between the Long Count and the Calendar Round. He found that not only did the Maya use both of these systems, but they run concurrently. These two calendars, now referred to as the Initial Series, are connected through the Mayan use of cyclical time recording.
This is helpful because we can now begin to see the cyclical thought of the Mayan calendar system.
Construction of the Calendar
The sun or day has always been the fundamental unit of timekeeping for Mayan peoples, and the road of the sun specifically expresses the concept of time (Aveni).
The Maya calendar system was viewed in a cyclical manner; events take place at points within cycles of specific duration. These cycles are contained within larger cycles of elevating proportion, until one reaches a super-cycle so enormous that time becomes almost linear. For example, our 365 day year and the Mayan "Almanac year" of 260 days fits into a bigger picture of a super-cycle.
The calendar combined many different counts. Each had an independent cycle running without reference to another cycle. This is very similar to our naming of days. Monday, November 9, 1999 is composed of a cycle that runs independently of the "November 9"; not all days named November 9 will occur on Monday or during 1999, (Schele, 317).
Just as I would say that today is November 9, in the year 1999, the Maya people could also accurately describe time. Although the Maya used a different system, their purpose was the same.
The Maya recognized the same things that we do, but because their number system was vigesimal, that is, base twenty rather than base ten, their marks fall at different points in a sequence of time. A base-twenty system simply means that the Maya would count in groups of twenty rather than counting in groups of ten (as we do).
Their way of writing numbers was also different.
"While we use ten marks in a place-notation system, they use only three signs, also in a place notation system, which was aligned vertically, with the higher values on the top... Since their number system was vigesimal, the places in their vertical grids stood for 1, 20, 400, 800, 160, 000, 3, 200, 000, and so forth. Abraham Lincoln's "four score and seven" is the Maya way of indicating numbers, " (Schele, 317).
The most common cycles found on monuments or in text are the Long Count, the Calendar Round (Tzolk'in and Haab), the Lord of the Night, and the Age of the Moon.
They are also associated with the Initial and Lunar Series.
The Long Count was a day to day count of consecutive days. This was a linear system that was capable of tracking extended cycles of time. The Maya did not invent the Long Count, they brilliantly refined it. The Long Count recorded accumulated years of 360 days consisting of 18 months and 20 days.
A typical Mayan date looks like this:
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