In the Mesoamerican calendrical system we have the realization of a cosmos mathematically ordered — that in the magic of number the mystery of being ultimately resides. The system according to which time moves must have preceded the existence of time itself and must be (or be directly issue from) the ultimate creative power itself. The human form, the geometry of space, astronomical periods and other natural cycles are at the origins of this complex, numerologically interrelated whole.
This system of cyclical time reckoning rests on the count of days. Kin (translated as sun, day, or time) is the basic unit. Embracing all cycles and all cosmic ages, it is primary reality, divine and limitless. Through the concept of kin, we grasp the importance of the solar life-force and its movement in cosmological thought. For the Mayas, time is a sacred living entity enmeshed in the world of myth as a divine being. Since the solar lord is indivisible, whole-day approximations are employed, with no fractions, even when calculating precise astronomical periods.
The Tzolkin is the foundational cycle of the Maya calendrical system. The word derives from the K’iche term ch’ol q’ij and can be translated as count of days, ordering of days, or lining up of days. Similarly, the Tonalpohualli (the Aztec variant) is the count of day-signs. The word stems from the verb tonalli (to irradiate), hence carrying the meaning of an animating force possessed of vigor, energy, and soul. The most ancient known version is the Zapotec Piye, an appellation that derives from the root pi, meaning breath, spirit or wind.
A no-beginning-no-end model of cycling time, the Tzolkin is made of 2 interlocking sequences of 20 signs and 13 numbers. Each progress concurrently and in sequence at the rate of 1 unit per day, creating a complete cycle of 260 days (13 x 20 possible permutations). Note that the beginning/ending time of the day varies among Mesoamerican groups, who adopt either sunset or midnight.
Maya time cycles are exacting abstractions from nature, pure mathematical biorhythms. Central to the entire Mesoamerican calendar intermeshed construct the 260-day period has been linked to human physiology and biology, in particular the average length of the gestational period in humans (266 days, or 9 lunations, shorter for many ethnicities). It is certainly connected to the cultivation cycle of the maize plant (this fundamental pillar of the Mesoamerican world) but also display significant ties with several astronomical cycles and intervals — namely Venus (in particular), eclipses, Mars, solar zenith passages, and soli-lunar relationships. Because the Tzolkin is (most likely) not the representative of any one cycle per say — but instead is the common denominator of many — it seems a more direct expression of sacred knowledge and ultimate reality. Its exact origins remain shrouded in mystery.
Each of the 20 day-signs and 13 numbers is a sacred entity. The 20 day-signs are especially sacred — living entities or gods created and named before even the world came into being. Each embodies a specific set of energies with related correspondences in the plant and animal kingdoms. Together, the 20 faces of the sun express all of the basic forces of creation and destruction, good and evil, yielding and immutable, that operate in the world, society, and the heart of man. The day-sign at birth will become the daemon of an individual, guiding his destiny.
A glyph, or logograph, is a metaphoric or symbolic image encoded with a large amount of psycho-spiritual information. It holds and conveys sacred unspeakable meaning. The day-glyphs always appear in a cartouche, which is perhaps itself a glyph representing '20'. Another possibility is that the day-signs are depicted in a protective nest or cave, where they are formally ‘seated’, or enthroned, on a legged stool. In representing numbers, the dot for '1' stands for a fingertip, the bar for '5' an extended arm with fingers closed. Using only three symbols, this system can write numbers in the hundreds of millions and beyond. Tallying fingers & toes, 20 is a ‘person-full’ of days. Extending the analogy, we note that the human body is articulated with 13 principal joints.
The 13 numerical forces are sequenced like a wave building up in energy: the momentum is weak in the first few numbers (1 to 4 – considered gentle, weak, young, new), balanced in the middle numbers, at the tip of the wave or pyramid (5 to 9 – considered even, measured), and strong, at times incontrolably so, with the last numbers (10 to 13 – considered strong, powerful, violent, old, ripe); as a new wave cycle begins farther out at sea. Every moment is in a state of flux.
The Tzolkin and Long Count calendars transpose into our civil calendar using a Traditional/True Count correlation known as the Goodman-Martinez-Thompson correlation, or GMT (Julian day 584283). This correlation is backed up by ancient stone inscriptions, historical records, astronomical data, the oral tradition of the most conservative Maya in Guatemala, and the empirical observations of modern Western astrologers. Using the True Count, 12-21-2012 has a Long Count date of 18.104.22.168.0 and Tzolkin date of 4AHAU.