Essay: History of the Mayan Calendar

Image Source - Wikimedia Commons

Although most people believe the Mayan Calendar was invented by the Mayans, there is evidence that pre-Columbian cultures in Central America used the same calendar. Perhaps they took that calendar from the Mayans, we’re not sure. But, the rest of the history of the Mayan Calendar appears to be pretty clear.

It dates back to the 5th Century BC at the very minimum. And, it was still being utilized by Mayan communities within that area until its course came to an end on Dec. 21, 2012. Many people believed that this was the Mayan way of predicting the end of the world. However, it is more likely that it was designed to draw considerable attention to the December Solstice which was particularly important to their religious beliefs.

The Way the Calendar Works

Most people envision a calendar as a bunch of boxes with numbers in them. The numbers represent the days of the month and the boxes represent the actual days. We write on them, or type in our agendas on them. They are, for the most part, two dimensional tools.

The Mayan Calendar is very different. It is composed of three corresponding but completely separate calendars. The calendar represents time in a cyclical manner and a specific day count must pass before the calendar begins a new cycle. There are three wheels that represent the different calendars.

The three calendars and their explanations can be a little confusing given our personal frames of reference, but we will attempt to enlighten readers with the following descriptions. The three calendars are:


The Haab lasts 365 days. It is a solar calendar that appears slightly inaccurate because it lasts exactly 365 days. That may seem odd, but a true solar calendar lasts 365.2422 days. Our Gregorian calendars make up for that problem with the addition of Leap Year every four years. We add that extra day to compensate for the true length of a solar year.

Haab allows for 18 months with 20 days a piece and one month that only lasts 5 days. That month is known as Uayeb. So, on the calendar, the 19 months are represented by various images (or glyphs), and they make up the outer ring of the whole calendar. Every day on the calendar is represented by the day of the month and the name of the month it is in. The images are representative of the month’s personality.


The Tzolkin is also referred to as the Sacred Round and is known by many as the divine calendar. Its name translates to the “distribution of the days.” This calendar only represents 260 days and is specifically designed to illuminate religious festivals and ceremonies. There are twenty, 13 day, periods allotted for these celebrations and other religious imperatives.
Every individual day has a 1-13 numerical correspondence. Then, it was given its own glyph. There are 20 different glyphs utilized and they become the names of the days they are associated with. After each cycle, this calendar repeats itself.

Long Count

We’ve seen a solar and religious calendar. Now, the Long Count provides us with an astronomy-based version. Its job is to track what the Mayans referred to as the “Universal Cycle.” They believed that the universe would be destroyed and recreated at the end of each Universal Cycle. These are sun cycles, and are believed to last 7885 solar years.

Prophecies still abound because of the Mayan Calendar and its belief systems. In fact, researchers have determined that the “Universal Cycle” we are in, began August 11, 3114 BC. That’s according to the Gregorian calendar, but for those who adhere to the Julian calendar, it would be September 6.

Understanding Mayan Calendar Dates

The previous descriptions of the three calendars were pretty brief. They are certainly far more complicated that the initial descriptions imply. And, when you see the names and methods of counting delineated here you will understand just what we mean about that.


In Haab, as we shared previously, there are 19 months. The names of those months are:

  1. Pop
  2. Uo
  3. Zip
  4. Zotz
  5. Tzec
  6. Xul
  7. Yaxkin
  8. Mol
  9. Chen
  10. Yax
  11. Zac
  12. Ceh
  13. Mac
  14. Kankin
  15. Muan
  16. Pax
  17. Kayab
  18. Cumku
  19. Uayeb

These names changed every 20 days with the exception of the 5-day month, Uayeb. Those days were bad luck because they were the “days without names.”


This consisted of two different week designations. There was a week of 13 days, which consisted of numbers and then there was a 20-day week with names for each day. The names and numbers of the Tzolkin were synchronized with the digits in the Long Count. Those named days are:

  1. Ahau
  2. Imix
  3. Ik
  4. Akbal
  5. Kan
  6. Chicchan
  7. Cimi
  8. Manik
  9. Lamat
  10. Muluc
  11. Oc
  12. Chuen
  13. Eb
  14. Ben
  15. Ix
  16. Men
  17. Cib
  18. Caban
  19. Etxnab
  20. Cauac

It’s important to note that the years of the Tzolkin calendar were not counted.

Long Count

The Long Count is made up of units. The smallest is the day (called kin). This is the last number listed in the Long Count. Next is the uinal, which lasts 20 days. The tun, which is roughly 1 year. Twenty years are represented by katun, and 394 years are a baktun.

The kin, tun, and katun received numbers 0-19. Uinals are numbered 0-17 and baktun are assigned 1-13. This means that the first date on the Mayan Calendar reads: and it represents, as we stated previously, August 11, 3114 BC.

Complicated Computing

It is not hard to accredit the Mayans with brilliance. Their architecture and agricultural feats are hugely impressive. However, it appears the Mayans loved complicated computing.

What is most interesting about the Mayan Calendar is that it was so popular during its time. And, even though vast arrays of people truly believed it predicted the end of the world, it is easy to see that the Mayans were just as ill-informed about that date as the rest of humanity is today.

Written by and its essay writers


<<<<<< More Mayan Calendar Articles