Thursday, February 16, 2006

the Mayan Tzolk'in Calendar

The Tzolk'in calendar system or "count of days” continues being used in modern day Central America by the indigenous descendants of the Mayan culture. Its symbolism can be traced as far back as the stone age civilizations of Central America and because it was used consistently in Mesoamerica for more than a thousand years, it has allowed scientists a higher than usual level of accurately dating archaeological finds. The preservation of numerous inscriptions in stone and paint, the study of surviving pre-conquest codices relating specific celestial cycles and written accounts from the era of Spanish conquest, as well as, modern linguistic studies of various indigenous languages and sociological accounts of ritual and divinatory practices have provided me with a background to study this system. These many fragments add up to a complex and unique world view of the Classic Maya, surviving today as the rich and detailed shamanist tradition of Central America.

The Tzolk'in itself is built up from several counting cycles that juxtapose to create an entire repeating system of 260 consecutive days. From this basic unit, the Classic Maya extrapolated further calculations and cycles, but because the system progresses against the seasonal year, it is clear adjustments were regularly made and separate calendar cycles were maintained. This progression and a lack of following any known astronomical cycles, lead earlier groups of researchers to mistakenly conclude that it is not based on solar or celestial cycles.

In fact, the Maya developed several day-counting systems and one called the Haab, is used to sync the Tzolk'in along its seasonal progression. Later Classic Maya inscriptions included Haab symbols along side Tzolk'in dates. And so, recent interpretation has conclusively linked the stories and characters of Maya legend to astronomical observations and records of heavenly phenomena and cycles, such as the Venus cycle. Unfortunately, in all my reading I've not found much evidence linking the specific Classic gods to specific day names, although there remains much scholarly speculation on the subject.

The most basic cycle followed in the Tzolk'in is a symbolic cycle of four represented by the cardinal directions and designated by four colors: red for East, white for North, black for West (sometimes depicted as blue) and Yellow for South. Legends indicate that when the sky was set up like a house at the beginning of our current world, four figures called the Bacabs set the four corners of the sky. The Bacabs, as sky gods, seem closely connected to the four Chacs or weather gods who were responsible for bringing rain. Also it is suggested that the Bacabs are youthful aspects of not only the Chacs but the Pauahtuns which seem to be older aspects of these same deities. Additionally, there seems to be a connection between these figures and the Mam or "Year Bearers" which are an aspect of how the Tzolk'in is synced with the seasonal calendar. Today modern shaman honor the four cardinal directions when setting up shrines through a ritual setting of the shrines four corners.

The core count of the Tzolk'in is a cyclical numbered count of thirteen days imposed on a cycle of twenty named days represented during the Classic period with unique hieroglyphic symbols. These symbols depict animistic forces in nature honored by modern Maya shaman but depicted in Classic times as the many gods of the Maya cosmology. Among the modern Maya, explanations for the 20-cycle and the 13-cycle relate the twenty-based system to counting fingers and toes and the thirteen-based system to phases of the moon. The entire 260 day count is said to estimate the human gestation period in the womb.

My main goal working with this system, while expanding on my understanding of Western spiritual traditions, is to understand the specific meanings ascribed to each day in order to reveal its cultural wisdom. Only a small amount of writing ascribing specific meanings to the system comes from sociologists working with indigenous peoples. Most of the information I’ve found comes from the Internet and represents more spiritual beliefs than specific scientific research. As a result there is some confusion between Maya, Aztec and other classic Mesoamerican cultures; although there is plenty of evidence in the historical record to conclude cross-fertilization between these cultures occured frequently through trade and war. Additionally, the information I've gleaned from the Internet includes other spiritual traditions such as North American or Asian cultures which are often included without specific referencing to sources making it difficult to sort out where specific ideas originate. Although these ideas are varied and span many cultures, I do not believe they are unsupported by the scientific studies of Classic Maya and Modern Maya cultures.

Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life trans. by Dennis Tedlock, Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group 1996

Time and the Highland Maya by Barbara Tedlock, University of New Mexico Press 1982

Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path by David Freidel, Linda Schele and Joy Parker, HarperCollins Publishers 1995

Star Gods of the Maya by Susan Milbrath, University of Texas Press 2000

Carol McCloud

Ian Xel Lungold

Saq’ Be’, Organization for Mayan and Indigenous Spiritual Studies

Aluna Joy Yaxk'in

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