The Sacred Calendar of The Maya

Time was cyclical rather than linear

Calendar glyphs. Copan Stela N (Back)

Sacred time is that in which the gods manifested themselves and created; so each time man wants to ensure a fortunate outcome for something, he re-actualizes the original sacred event—creation; what is actually sought is the regeneration of the human being. Sacred time is reversible, it’s a primordial mythical time made present.

Mircea Eliade

Many of the ideas put forth by professor Eliade in his groundbreaking book, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion applies to the ancient Maya. While reading his book, I made notes and provide here some of the ideas born out by research.

The Maya viewed the cosmos as a living entity that is born, develops and dies on the last day of every year—and is then reborn on New Year’s Day, the day on which time began. It’s important to note that ancient Maya ceremonies and festivals represented the “re-actualization” of sacred events from the mythical past. They were taking place “in the original or sacred time.” They weren’t just “reenactments.” They were the sacred events happening in the present.

While scholars sometimes refer to shamanic dances as “deity impersonation,” the dancers actually felt themselves as the god. Through hallucinogenic trance, they allowed the spirit to use of their bodies to perform the acts of creation and other mythical events. This becomes more understandable when we realize that the “gods” were personified forces of nature with names, faces, personalities, biographies and stories about their power and how they behaved.   

For the ancients, time was cyclical with repeatable characteristics. Each of many periods was perceived as a deity who carried the “burden” of his assigned time. In art, they were Imaged as a gods carrying a bundle on their backs with tumplines or forehead straps. Each calendar-god had both positive and negative characteristics, ushered in as “winds” such as a bountiful harvest, famine or illness, and these would repeat when the god  came again to assume his burden.

Every 52 years the world would be created new again. If it pleased the gods it would be destroyed. So renewal, the continuation of human life, was not taken for granted. Fortunately, with each turning of the year the world and human beings recovered the sanctity they possessed at the original creation event.

Tikal stela dated 475 A.D. Dots stand for one day. A bar is five days. At bottom left, note the face of a king wearing a large earflare and deity headdress. He faces left.

At the end of their journey, each calendar deity set his burden down and the one next in line “assumed the burden” and carried it forward. On and on, virtually forever, the same deities representing many cycles, repeated their journeys—and the occurrences associated with them— to the present day.

At the end of each time period, the god who came “to rest” was celebrated grandly, usually with blood sacrifices of gratitude to ensure his return. As noted, these “Period Ending” ceremonies were elaborate re-actualizations of sacred events from the distant and mythical past.

The Spaniards reported that at one New Year feast, more than 15,000 people attended, some coming from 30 leagues away, about 75 miles. On these occasions, the kings, as bodily manifestations of time periods, erected stone monuments (stelae) and altars carved with the current date which was counted forward from the original Creation Day. For the Maya, that was 4 Ahaw 8 K’umk’u in their calendar. That was September 8, 3114 B.C. in our calendar. The reason for this date is not yet known.

Kings didn’t just “end” the cycles. They “replanted” or “repeated” them, in the sense that they actively tended to (as one tends a garden; chabi, “to do a cornfield” in Maya) the periods to ensure their proper coming and going. The word tzutz (end, complete) points to the idea that the passing of a k’atun (20-year period) is one stage in a sequence of many such passings in the past and the future. When a Maya king “completed” a period, he was participating in a long chain of similar kinds of transactions, stretching far back as one could imagine. Time and human action are but a part of a larger cyclical structure with inherent repetitions. Kings didn’t “end” time in their rituals. Using a basic agricultural metaphor, they perpetuated it through replanting. They were the bodily manifestation of the time periods.

David Stuart, Author, The Order Of Days: The Maya World and the Truth About 2012


They renewed on this day (The First of Pop) all the objects which they made use of, such as plates, vessels, stools, mats, and old clothes, and the stuffs with which the wrapped up their idols. They swept out their houses, and the sweepings and the old utensils they threw out on the waste heap outside of town; and no one, even he in need of it, touched it.

Frey Diego de Landa, Spanish priest and chronicler


 20-Year (K’atun) Period Ending Sacrifice and Prophecy at Uaxactun, Guatemala

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 360 )

WE CROWDED INTO THE PLAZA AT BLACK WATER SKY TO witness the completion of the k’atun, the day when the bearer of the twenty-year period set down his burden so the next god in line could assume it. It had rained most of the morning and all through the circuit that Nine Cormorant made around Uaxactun to confirm land holdings, receive presentations of tribute and give his blessing to the outgoing ministers. When we arrived for the ceremony, the smoke was already rising atop Three Sky Place and we could hear the lords chanting the count of days. The man next us, a merchant, said Nine Cormorant, now revealed atop the eastern stairway as Lord of the K’atun, had already let blood and the strips were being burned in the offering bowl.

A female slave painted blue and wearing white flowers in her hair was led up the steps. We couldn’t see, but Red Back told us her sacrifice was necessary to assure the continuation of the world for another twenty years.

Moments later, Lord Cormorant, lavishly attired in quetzal feathers and a jade-studded skirt, came down the steps with his jaguar prophet. Stopping on the first terrace, the prophet replaced the ruler’s k’atun helmet with the sak huunal. The prophet raised his arms and the drums called us to order. I judged there to be near to six hundred people there, all huddled in blankets. After several moments of silence, looking to the sky with arms outstretched, he gave the prophecy for the next twenty years.

“Ca Lord has shouldered the burden.

Before us, here at Uaxactun, he lifted it up—that we may live.

His journey begins.

Now hear his words for the coming k’atun.

The markers of this k’atun will be expansion and separation.

Words divide the worlds, above and below.

Divided are gods and men, nobles and commoners,

Men and women.

Scaffolds will rise to the canopy.

Measuring cords will stretch far into the forest.

The wilds will be ordered to the ways of men.

Hunters will need to journey farther.

Ca Lord favors the long-distance merchant—

He favors the holy ones and women who give birth to sons.

He gives to those who have, takes from those who have not.

He separates the dry from the wet.

Where one house falls, three will rise.

Calm winds come from the west; storms come from the east.

Evil winds blow strongest from the west.

Faces and families are split.

The high are brought down. The low are raised up.

Smoke and sweat was the burden of One Lord, the builder.

Blood and tears are the burden of Ca Lord.

He is the expander and separator.

Here at Uaxactun the prophecy is given.

Ca Lord Ox Kumk’u—

So it happens, the dawning of the new k’atun.”


Time Referenced to the Creation of the World

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 45)

The shaman’s assistant took the bloodied cloths and put them into a ceramic jar with a lid. Meanwhile, a daykeeper dictated the time periods to a scribe—3,082 years and 242 days since the beginning of the fourth creation of the world. He said the gods who carried the burden of the day were Chan Ik’, Laju’n Pax. After this, it was recorded that “Lord Jaguar Tooth Macaw, Great Tree of Kaminaljuyu and his son, Lord Flint Axe Macaw, underlord at Ahktuunal, took Thunder Flute Rabbit, master merchant at Cerros, in regard as their brother. Later, the cloths would be fed into the conjuring house censer but for now the shaman’s assistants applied “takes-away” to their wounds, a sticky pink substance that stopped the bleeding and eased the pain. With his arm now cleaned, Lord Macaw pointed to the warlord who had the largest spray of quetzal plumage streaming from his helmet. Holding up a blue-and yellow-feathered shield, the hulking warrior led a procession of warriors carrying bundles and baskets from the side of the pyramid to the front, where they set them down on a long bed of fresh pine needles.


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Here are the links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller  

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