Sunday, August 29, 2010

Mayan Day-Counters...Some Background

The final article on “The Jagaur Magicians – Mayan Day-Counters” will be published at some point this fall. Meanwhile, I came across some background material on the Maya that does a good job of explaining the context in which they developed their calendar and their astrology. What follows is excerpted from Susan Wise Bauer’s History of The Medieval World.


Both the Maya and the Zapotec wrote. The development of writing in much of the world was driven by economics, by the need to keep track of goods and payments. But for the Maya, writing was developed to keep track of time.

The Mayan calendar had a sacred calendar that placed great importance on birth dates and auspicious days. Its core was a series of twenty days, each with a different name. Each one of these days occurred thirteen times during the Central American “year”, each time paired with a different number and a different name (example: 5 Deer, 12 Flower). This yielded a total of 260 days before the sequence of names and numbers began to repeat again.

The 260 day calendar ran side by side with a 365 day calendar. It took 18,930 days, approximately 52 years – for each permutation of the two calendars to play themselves out, and each of those days had significance. The skimpy records of the Maya and the Zapotec fit each birth and death, each marriage and conquest, the ascension of each ruler, into this framework. The passage of time, and the connection between the day and its sacred meaning, was at the center of each kingdom’s history. Every creative act, every god, and every human came into being already slotted into the intricate patterns of the calendar.

On the day of his coronation, a king might glance at the written chronologies and see that on the very same day, in a previous cycle, a king had died or been born. Each of the 18,930 days of the cycle was the site of both past and present events. (See the source for Boone below.)

In this way of thinking, the past was always present; and the rulers of Central America kept their power by connecting themselves to the legendary beginnings of their world.


In 500, Teotihuacan was the 6th largest city in the world. It was home to 125,000 people who probably spoke a range of languages. They lived almost entirely within the city walls. It had the densest occupation of any Central American city. Observation of sacred time was built directly into the streets and walls. Its map was not shaped by rivers or the rise of land, but by the phases of the moon and the places of the stars.

The city’s main thoroughfare, the Avenue of the Dead, ran from the Pyramid of the Moon, on one end, to the Pyramid of the Feather Serpent (later known as Quetzacoatl). His greatest deed was to restore life to humanity after all men and women had been destroyed in a battle between rival gods.

My NOTE: There is an interesting parallel between this myth and the Norse belief that a man and a woman are said to shelter in the World Tree, and repopulate the world after the total destruction of Ragnarok.

Quetzacoatl went down into the Land of the Dead, ruled by the Bone Lord Mictlantecuhtli, and retrieved the bones of a man and a woman. He then slashed his own penis, dripped blood over the bones, and restored them to life. In the view of the Mayan and the Zapotec, bloodshed generated life.

The people of Teotihuacan, like the Maya and the Zapotec to the east, believed in a force called tonalli, a sort of radiance or animating heat that brings life. In the words of religion scholar Richard Haly, tonalli was the “blood link that binds generation to generation”; it “comes down to humans at the time of their birth, linking the newborn to the ancestors.” In return, humans offer blood back to the sky, in order to complete they cycle.

Carvings and pictographs hinted at complicated bloodletting rituals, echoing the shedding of blood that first gave life to humanity, carried out by kings. The king who cut himself on the top of a pyramid was not simply copying Quetzacoatl’s actions in the distant past; he was with Quetzacoatl, acting alongside of him, as his representative – and perhaps even as his incarnation.

There was a LOT of blood sacrifice in this culture. Some of it was voluntary and non-fatal. From what we know, however, much of it was coerced, performed on captives, and fatal in outcome. For example, Chichen Itza had one of the most elaborate ball courts of any Mayan city, a court where players who represented life and death battled to slam a ball through a stone ring in a sacred ritual that remains obscure to us (although reliefs of decapitated players suggest that bloodshed played a large role).

Most of the Mayan records – the elaborate calendars, genealogies, and chronologies – break off at 534, and the silence lasts for nearly a century. Archaeology must fill the gap: outlying fortresses of the larger Mayan cities were burned, the population dwindled, tree-rings show long, cool, wet summers. Hunger stalked the Maya as well –skeletons show malnutrition dating back to around 540. Susan Wise Bauer connects this decline with the explosion of the volcano Krakatoa in Indonesia in 535. (See my note below.)

The eruption had a devastating effect on the Mayan culture, which may have collapsed due to malnutrition and internal dissension. People voted with their feet and left the major Mayan cities to return to farms in the hinterland where they might have a better chance of eating. The people survived, but the kingdom died.


Southwest of the Mayan territory, in the fertile plain of what is now Oaxaca, lived another people, the Zapotec. Monte Alban was the capital city. It was occupied by over 20,000 people and extended for fifteen miles across ridges and valleys.

Contemporary reports from around the world point to climatic devastation caused by the eruption of Krakatoa, most likely in 535.

Krakatoa darkened the Sun for four to five years, which caused major famine in many parts of the world. Procopius reports in 536 that the sun “gave forth light without brightness, like the moon…and it seemed exceedingly like the Sun in eclipse, for its beams were not clear”. Michael the Syrian writes, “The sun was dark and its darkness lasted for eighteen months; each day it shone for about four hours, and still this light was only a feeble shadow…the fruits did not ripen…”

In early 538, the Roman Senator Cassiodorus, serving at the Ostrogoth court in Ravenna, writes, “We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon…and the phenomena which accompanies a transitory eclipse prolonged through an entire year. The Moon too, even when her orb is full, is empty of her natural splendor. We have had a winter without storms, a spring without mildness, and a summer without heat. Whence can we look for the harvest, since the months which should have been maturing the corn have been chilled?”


Elizabeth Hill Boone, Cycles of Time and Meaning In The Mexican Books of Fate(2007), p 14

Richard Haly, “Bare Bones: Rethinking Mesoamerican Divinity,” History of Religions, 31:3 (1992), pgs 280-281.

Susan Wise Bauer,The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade (2010), pgs 187-190.