Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Calendar explained

We are racing towards December 21, 2012, a perceived crisis promising to be even bigger than that experienced eleven years ago with Y2K.  How and why is this being brought on by the Mayan calendar? 

The basic Mesoamerican system for recording time makes use of two calendars, a 365-day solar calendar called the Haab and a 260-day ritual calendar known as the Tzolkin. 

The Haab, or solar calendar, is similar to the one we use today.  It has 19 named months.  Months are made up of numbered days.  The difference is that 18 months all have twenty days and the 19th month has only five days. The 5 days of the 19th month, Wayeb, are considered unlucky days.  The word Wayeb means straw mat or where the year goes to sleep.  Woe to those born during Wayeb. 

Tzolkin is the 260-day ritual calendar.  It is made up of 13 numbers that combine with twenty names.  The first day has, as its name, the first number and the first name --1 Imix.  The second day has the second number and the second name -- 2 Ik -- and so on.  It has no months.  The numbers and names get scrambled upon getting to the fourteenth day whose name is the first number and the fourteenth name in the list.  Total possible combinations are 13x20=260.
It sounds complicated to have two calendars progressing simultaneously but we do the same thing.  We have a 365-day calendar of the year and a seven-day calendar of the week and we have no problem keeping track of two calendars at the same time.  Indeed the Tzolkin is a bit more complicated than our calendar of the week but Mesoamericans were as accustomed to their calendars as we are to ours and had no more trouble than we do. 

It is the Haab and Tzolkin that together give us the often referred to 52-year cycle.  To understand a 52-year cycle you'll need to remember fourth grade math, prime numbers and lowest common denominators.  If you -- like I did -- wondered "When is this ever going to be of any use to me?”, consider yourself having prepared for today.  The lowest common denominator of 260 and 365 is 5.  Five goes into 260 fifty-two times and into 365 seventy-three times.  If you cross-multiply those numbers you'll get 18,980 for both of them (260x73 = 365x52).   If you start both calendars on the same day, you won't start them on the same day again until 18,980 days, or 52 years, have passed!

Very few ancient Mesoamericans lived to see their fifty-second birthday and thus did not live through a full cycle of time. Every day of their life was ruled by a different combination of gods -- they never repeated the same name of a day. 

The Mesoamerican world is ruled by a council of gods of time making up the name of each hour, day, month and year.  It was as though in our world on this very day the sun is accompanied by the god of Tuesday, the god of 2, the god of August, and again of 2, the god of 0 and the god of 1 who is carrying a double burden and like the god of 2 is probably doing a great bit of grumbling.  As they keep the sun company on his journey through the days and nights, some stick around for only an hour, some a day, some a month.  The sun, on his long journey, can never be late, can never take a day off,  and, on occasion, must put up with the other gods' whining and chit-chat.  He gets very tired and even more bored.

The sun only commits itself to ruling over the earth, and leading the procession of the gods of time, for 18,980 days. The completion of a 52-year period was always cause for fear that the sun would not come back and humanity would come to an end.  The return of the sun could never be assumed. The only reason the sun does come back is because of the rich offerings it is promised by the Mesoamerican priest class. 

Mesoamericans knew that if the sun failed to rise, humanity would die and soon after, with no people to feed them, the gods would also die.  The gods knew this too.  

Four times in the past the sun has decided to give it all up and plunged the world into darkness.  Each time the gods hurriedly gathered in Council and created a new sun and a new humanity. As a result, we live under the fifth sun and are part of the fifth humanity.  The gods knew that for their own existence they need the offerings of people.  It was well understood that people cannot live without gods and gods cannot live without people. 

To all of this the Mayas added their era date -- the day on which this humanity began -- the concept of zero, and periods of time.  Next week let’s continue with the story of the calendar and Mesoamerican time with its implications for December 21, 2012. 

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