The end of the world as we know it? The Mayan calendar explained

Written by tristán argüelles
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A precise calendar

The end of the world as we know it? The Mayan calendar explained
(Getty Premium images)

"There is no prophecy about the end of the world in 2012 in the Mayan codices. Nowhere in the three codices have epigraphers found signs of apocalyptic prophecies related to a specific date. Anyone looking through the Mayan codices trying to find evidence for the apocalyptic prophecies, as followers of the esoteric field suggest we do, will be disappointed. "

— Nikolai Grube, Professor at the University of Bonn

The Mayan calendar has become famous for its supposed predictions about the end of the world. Many people have jumped on the apocalyptic bandwagon in an attempt to use the calendar to gain a few minutes fame. However, the alleged prediction has overshadowed the true relevance of the Mayan calendar, namely that it is a miracle of astronomy that measures time more accurately than the western Gregorian calendar. Many experts have attempted to unravel and understand the workings, meaning and usefulness of the Mayan calendar. It is important to be very cautious in attempting to assess such a complex and ancient system. Here we offer an overview of the mysteries and certainties of the Mayan calendar.

How the calendar works

The end of the world as we know it? The Mayan calendar explained
(Angelo Cavalli/Photolibrary/Getty Images)

The Mayan calendar is actually three calendars. On the one hand, there is the lunar calendar (Tzolkin) of 260 days and then there is the solar calendar (Haab) of 360 days plus 5 unlucky days. Finally, there is the calendar round of 18,980 days - which is the union of the two calendars and is used to designate days. Every 52 years corresponds to a Mayan century, the way 100 years correspond to a century in the Gregorian calendar. The three calendars are correlated to the cycles of the sun, moon and Venus.

The Tzolkin

The Tzolkin corresponds to the count of days (the kin) of which there are 20. These are combined with 13 numerals to add up to 260 combinations. On closer examination, it becomes clear that the figure of 260 days relates to the length of human pregnancy and also to the whole process of planting and harvesting corn in the Americas in the period before the Spanish conquest. This reveals the close relationship the Mayans had with the stars, spirituality and mortality.

The Haab

The Haab has 18 months (uinals) of 20 days and one month of five days. Each uinal represents a spiritual task to achieve in order to grow as a person and gain a stone (tum) which symbolises evolution. It is mainly an agricultural calendar and that is why the division 18/20 marked agricultural activities from the slashing and burning of land to the harvesting of corn. The five remaining days are used to reflect on the actions of the year, correct mistakes and plan for the coming year.

Calendar round

The Calendar round is the combination of the Haab and the Tzolkin. The united calendars give a total of 18,980 days - a Mayan century which is equivalent to 52 years in the Gregorian calendar. Each time the cycle is completed, a spiritual and material renewal is experienced. Many Mexicans are still guided by this calendar to this day and rites and ceremonies are performed upon the completion of the cycle.

The long count and the end of the world

As incredible as it sounds, the Mayans also had a long count calendar to help them designate dates that went beyond the 52 year period. This calendar counted the days up to a period of 5,125 years. According to most sources, the long count started arbitrarily on 13 August, 3113 BC. However, other sources argue that the start date relates to the start of the long cycle of Venus relative to Earth, which ends with the winter solstice of 2012. This account represents the importance this planet has not only in Mesoamerican cultures, but in the Americas in general. It is difficult to find a pre-Hispanic culture that does not take Venus into account in defining its worldview.

The kin and the chances of establishing yours

The end of the world as we know it? The Mayan calendar explained
(Paul Franklin/Oxford Scientific/Creative Commons)

Kin literally means sun and metaphorically it means day. We all have a kin that symbolises our personality. There are 20 kins that when combined with a numeral give us the equivalent of our zodiac sign. Recent times have seen a dramatic growth of interest in Mayan culture. Most of the information relates to spiritual aspects and apocalyptic themes. Many people are using the Mayan calendar as a tool to determine what the Mayan equivalent of their zodiac sign is. While there is a real possibility of calculating your kin it is very difficult to do so without the help of an expert. There are websites and books, such as those by José Argüelles, which help you calculate your kin. However, it is worth pointing out that no expert has been able to establish with rigor and certainty all the dates involved in the calculation and for this reason the debate over its impreciseness rumbles on.

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