JOHN HENDERSON: Of all the aspects of Maya religion and philosophy, it was ideas about time that had the most profound effect on Maya life. The Maya used a complicated set of interlocking calendars to track movements of the sun, the moon, the planets, to monitor seasonal changes, to schedule agricultural activities and civic events and a whole variety of rituals, and above all to determine the effect of the supernatural on daily life. The main Maya calendar was what's called the ritual almanac. It was a calendar of 260 days that gave a label to each day made up of the numbers 1 through 13 and one of 20 names or hieroglyphs. Each of those names or glyphs was associated with a god, and that god was the main influence on Maya life, so the ritual almanac was really the key to Maya divination.
A second calendar was based on the cycle of the sun. The solar year had 18 months of 20 days each, plus a five day period at the end. The year is actually slightly longer than that. It's about 365 and 1/4 days, but the Maya didn't correct for that with leap years the way we do. They just kept track of the slippage. Each month had its own patron god who had to be taken account of when they did divination, and so did the year itself. So there was a great deal of ritual activity around the new year when several deities changed at the same time.
The solar year was used mostly to schedule ceremonies connected with farming. There was also an administrative calendar. Every day had a position in both of those cycles-- in both the ritual almanac and the solar year. And the combination of the two names, one from each cycle, formed a larger cycle called the Calendar Round. If you work out the arithmetic, that turns out to be 52 of the solar years, or 73 of the ritual almanacs.
As if that weren't enough, each day had a position also in the long count calendar, which was a Maya way of keeping track of how many days had elapsed since the zero point that was in the distant past. The long count was actually cyclical, too, though even though the zero point was so far away. The zero point at 3,114 BC actually began a great cycle that's not going to end until 2012. That zero point is about 3,000 years earlier than the first actual use of the long count that we know about, so the Maya priests must have set the zero point by calculating backward into mythical time. There are texts at Palanque that talk about the birth of the gods around the zero point, and some Maya calculations go back even farther, going back millions of years into mythical time.
Almost all the long count dates we have come from classic period Maya cities, but the system actually developed before that, in the first century BC, and it developed outside the Maya world. By about 300 AD, though, it was in use only in lowland Maya cities, and it stayed in use there, mostly for historical inscriptions through the classic period. After about 900 AD, it went out of use, and that's what makes it hard to correlate the long count with our calendar.
The Maya also use their calendars to keep track of what was going on in the sky. Maya astronomers made very precise celestial observations, but the real goal was astrological rather than astronomical. They kept track of the solstices, of the equinoxes, of the movements of the moon. They had worked out the relationship between lunar cycles and eclipses so that they could predict very accurately days when eclipses might happen. Planets and stars and constellations were all important to them, too, particularly Venus, especially when Venus appeared as morning star, because that's when it was especially dangerous. They worked out the cycle of Venus with amazing precision. They came up with a value of 584 days, which is within 8/100 of a day of what modern astronomers figure it.
The Maya also design buildings to mark celestial events. There's a building called the Caracol at Chichen Itza that has windows that point to key rising and setting points of the sun and the moon. There are temple groups at Tikal and neighboring cities that mark where the sun rose on the days of solstice and the days of equinox. At Palanque, you can actually see how this kind of astronomical marking plays into politics. In the cross group of temples, which was built to celebrate the succession of King Kan Bahlam after the death of his father Pakal. The main temple has an inner sanctum that shows the transfer of symbols of power from Pakal to Kan Bahlam, all presided over by the sun God who seems to have been the special deity of that family.
The temple was built so that on the day of winter solstice, and only on that day, when the sun sets it lights up that panel with all of the solar imagery and the symbols of power, so the sun itself seems to confirm the succession of Kan Bahlam. This kind of calendrical and astronomical calculation required very well-developed mathematical systems, and Maya mathematicians not only came up with the concept of zero, they also used it to develop a system of place notation based on 20 rather than on 10, as our system is. The degree of sophistication that you can see in Maya calendars and astronomy and mathematics is truly extraordinary. It's one of their greatest achievements.
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Maya civilization is mysterious and fascinating, and probably the least familiar of the great civilizations of the ancient world. This part of CyberTower introduces the ancient Maya, puts them in the context of the larger cultural tradition of ancient Mesoamerica, and provides a point of entry to the sometimes daunting array of more detailed information on their cities, art, and writing.
This video is part 4 of 6 in the Maya Civilization series.