presentation of the Mesoamerican sacred calendar (Tzolkin) and its larger offspring (Long Count)
historical, traditional, psychological, evolutionary, and stylistic perspectives
weaved by non-linear threads of a self-created metahistory
heralding the onset of planetary posthistory
Time is the moving image of Eternity 1
Ancient Mesoamerica was a diverse cultural terrain densely populated with speakers of hundreds of languages, living in hamlets, villages, and cities over the course of some two thousand years. They resided in marshlands and mangroves, rainforests, arid plains, and under snow-capped volcanoes. And yet out of all that difference arose common threads regarding their life, history, and worldview — a common perspective on the world and how it operates. This was Mesoamerican civilization. Most important was a singular calendar. Through this profound creation, the seers of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica were able to look behind the mask of nature to see the face of divinity itself. Its nature and continuity suggest that knowledge of time was the root of theological thought.
The Mesoamerican daykeeper and astronomer built for an eternity of cyclical order. Over 2-3 or more millennia, at least 60 variant calendars came to be used. They were based on a shared structure and could be traced to a relatively single origin. Commensuration of various time periods with the 260-day Sacred Cycle was always a prime consideration.
Its original native name is lost to us. Nowadays called Tzolk'in, the inviolable tradition was universally followed across Mesoamerica (by the Olmecs, Zapotecs, Mayas, Mixtecs, and Aztecs, among others). For the Mayas, it became enmeshed with the Long Count and the approximate solar year cycle (H’aab) in a triumvirate of calendars that was used throughout their history. Their early development is still shrouded in mystery. We do not know the exact place and time when they were first used; for a device as magical as the Tzolkin, and superlative as the Long Count, this is perhaps how it should be.
It seems clear that shamanism was a big contributor in providing the conceptual framework for this grand cosmological structure. Shamans are the first finders and exposers of those inner realities we recognize today as of the psyche, the masters of myths and rites that touched and awakened the deep strata and springs of the human imagination. Through rites of death and transformation involving the ingestion of psychotropic substances and with totemic allies such as the Jaguar, they engaged the multidimensional otherworld. Transcending human time and space, they gained direct insight into the divine order.
Shamanism, day-keeping and sky-watching were likely entwined at the onset. Small congregations of individuals may have conferred about calendrical matters and compared calendars on regular basis. They probably had done so for hundreds if not a few thousand years. To facilitate transmission down successive generations, logographic writing may have developed in parallel — with the first glyphs being for the Tzolkin’s 20 day-names and 13 numbers.
As the body of knowledge about celestial and terrestrial cycles expanded, so too did the sociopolitico-ritual role of these individuals. Time and the control of time became a legitimizing basis for power in its own right.
Mesoamericanists understand the Isthmian region of the Gulf of Mexico as the original ‘mythogenetic zone’ — the place from which a language of mythic symbols and related rites sprang into being, before their diffusion throughout Central America and even, eventually, North America. In the Northern part of this region, Zapotecs and Olmecs became the initial idea of Mesoamerica, with a codification of art, religion, and political ideology. In the South, the high culture of Izapa with its complex, cohesive cosmology is a likewise candidate for breakthrough calendar developments and other initiating metaphysical insights. In time, sites like La Venta and Izapa became revered ‘tollans’: cradles of civilization — engines for the creation of time.
The current bracket range offered by scholars for the creation of the 2 calendars is (from earliest date proposed to earliest known markings) 3500BCE - 600BCE for the Tzolkin; 1600BCE - 100BCE for the Long Count.
However far back the calendars origins may go, something definite happened during the 1st millennium BCE: calendar dates started to be carved in stone — time became materialized. Classic lowland Maya rulers are the epitome of this millennium-long process, showing off their control of time and its rituals in beautiful, intricately carved monuments.
To mark time’s passage, the erection of stelae and sometimes whole monumental complexes commemorated period endings of the Long Count calendar — dedicated to the kingly responsibility of renewing the grand cycles of cosmic time. Katun period endings in particular were considered critical times and the greatest of ritual occasion. These ceremonies involved casting incense, drilling fire, human sacrifices, and binding of stones rituals. Large erected stones portrayed divine kings in a perpetual state of ritual action, tending to the proper coming and going of time periods — much like one tends to a cornfield. Active participants and intermediaries in a great cosmic drama, vital to the passage of time. Mortal kings associated with immortal ancestors, lords of time.
Thus the Long Count became inextricably woven with kingship, astronomy, building dedications, sacrifice, warfare, mythology, huge-distance number calculations, and ritually timed ceremony. Rulers calculated their genealogical descent to exalt and proclaim the exceptional longevity of their bloodline — both mythological and historical. With this fusion of political history and time, power was reinforced, stability maintained. In this grand and serious cosmic game, the calendar stood above all — its count serving to shape and fold entire dynastic histories (such as in Copan and Palenque).
Gradually, the Long Count faded from usage along with the decline in divine kinship. After collapse of scores of kingdoms in the 9th Century CE (with end of the Long Count 10th baktun approaching), it ceased to be a prominent part of Maya cosmology. It stopped being carved in stone, dematerialized, and was relegated to the heads of day-keepers and perishable bark paper books.
The Tzolkin continued to provide the calendrical basis of all later Mesoamerican cultures, the Aztecs among them. It kept migrating further North and came to cultures of North America (like the Cherokees). Incredibly, it also survived the brutal missionary zeal of the Spanish conquest to eradicate all traces of pagan worship — with indigenous communities of the Guatemalan highlands and elsewhere keeping the day-count alive.
The Tzolkin and Long Count calendars were eventually ‘re-discovered’ by early Mayanists (explorers, archeologists, epigraphists, historians, ethnologists). In the last few decades the deciphering of Maya hieroglyphic writing has bridged many gaps in our modern knowledge of the calendars. Further important breakthroughs occurred when the Tzolkin was imported into the modern astrological and New Age cultures of contemporary America. Perhaps inevitably, the revitalization of such an ancient and foreign gnosis has at times come with considerable distortion.
Having run unbroken for at least 2700yrs, the Mesoamerican Tzolkin is today the oldest continuous calendar tradition in the world.
freely adapted from:
David Stuart, The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth about 2012
Prudence M. Rice, Maya Calendar Origins: Monuments, Mythistory, and the Materialization of Time
John Major Jenkins, The 2012 Story: The Myths, Fallacies, and Truth Behind the Most Intriguing Date in History
Bruce Scofield, The Long and Short of The Mayan Calendar [essay]
Bruce Scofield, Signs of Time
Peter & Roberta Markman, Masks of the Spirit: Image and Metaphor in Mesoamerica
Antony Aveni, The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012
1 Plato, Timaeus
eternal plant of Time
in rapture and granite rooted
ever since the Eternal Return
breathing architecture of Time
the moving image of Eternity