The Maya were an intelligent and forward-thinking people that held astronomy and the developing concepts of time and space in high esteem. There’s quite a bit of speculation surrounding developments of their calendars and cycles, and many theories behind that all-important date of December 21, 2012, but the truth is, the Maya calendar system is as accurate as any known today, and we’re here to break it down for you.
The creation of a sophisticated calendar system is the most lasting contribution to modern civilization from early Mesoamericans. First developed by the Olmecs, the three interlocking calendar cycles were perfected by the Maya in their Classical period. The most important system is the continuous record called the Long Count Calendar, which is the most complex calendar system ever created, and is used in conjunction with the 260- and 365-day calendars. The Maya calendars are the best-documented and most completely understood, and kept in a precise way not known elsewhere in the New World; the importance of this accurate system in history should not be underestimated.
The oldest of the calendar systems in Mesoamerica is the 260-day cycle, called the Tzolkin, which is still used today in parts of Guatemala. This calendar was not subdivided into weeks or months as we know them today, but into a round of 20 different day names, which were also associated with a cycle of 13 day numbers running at the same time. Each day, having one of 20 day names and one of 13 day numbers, takes 260 days to complete a full cycle. 260 days is also the period of time that elapses between solar zenith passages – when the sun lies directly overhead at noon at a latitude of 15 degree North – the latitude along which the important sites of Izapa and Copan lie.
In conjunction with this 260-day Tzolkin calendar, a 365-day calendar was used, corresponding roughly with the solar year. The 365-day calendar, or the Haab, is divided into 18 ‘months’ of 20 days each, plus 5 nameless days at the end of the year. When these two systems are set into motion together, a synchronized cycle is created that lasts 52 Haab, known as a calendar round. For the Maya, the completion of this 52-year cycle was widely celebrated, as the last 5 nameless days that preceded the round completion were especially dangerous; it was during this time that the gods might choose to end life on Earth.
A third calendrical system, the Long Count, was created by the Maya as a way to record linear time, rather then short intervals. It was a quite sophisticated system in which events could be recorded in a linear relationship to one another, and also with respect to the calendar – or linear time – itself. It showed a clear understanding of the concepts of past, present, and future, and their relationships to each other.
Long Count dates record the complete number of days since a starting point – the Maya creation date – one which corresponds to a date in 3114 BC in our modern calendar. In Long Count, time was recorded in periods of 400 years, 20 years, years, 20 days, and days. Or, to five places versus our four places (example: 2007). For example, the Mayan date 188.8.131.52.0 records the day 23 January, 663. It takes 13 periods of 400 years for a new grand cycle to begin for the Long Count Calendar.
The Maya held that the ‘zero’ date fell within an era of divine activity, much as we do today: think midnight on January 1. However, as opposed to our ‘blank slate’ way of thinking, for the Maya a ‘zero’ date meant the end of a previous cycle. In many Maya creation accounts, a cyclical interpretation is found in which our present world and everything in it were preceded by other worlds, which were fashioned in various forms by the gods, but subsequently destroyed. The Long Count’s ‘zero’ date was set at a point in time marking the end of the previous world and beginning of the current one – one that will complete its cycle on 21 December 2012. In such accounts, our present world also has a tenuous existence.
The current Long Count cycle will reset to 184.108.40.206.0 on December 21, 2012, or the winter solstice.
The coming solstice is important on another level, too. At the Sun’s December (or winter) solstice, the Earth and the galactic center (or the Milky Way) will align – an alignment that some scholars believe the Maya were not only aware of, but its position in the sky was given an important place in their cosmology. The Maya plotted their calendrical systems around significant events, and possibly on an astronomical level. Many Maya Long Count inscriptions contain a supplementary series, which provides information on the lunar phase, and a 584-day Venus cycle was maintained, tracking the heliacal rising of Venus as the morning and evening stars.
The significance of this crossing of paths is insurmountable, as this galactic alignment happens only once every 26,000 years. This cosmic event will take place on December 21, 2012, the same day in which the Long Count cycle of the Mayan calendar will reach full completion, or zero.
We just thought you should know.