The Mayan Calendar

In modern Western society we still make use of a solar calendar which was introduced in Europe in 1582 and is based on the best scientific knowledge then available: the famous Gregorian calendar. The Julian calendar, which it replaced, computed the period of the earth’s orbit around the sun at 365.25 days. Pope Gregory XIII’s reform substituted a finer and more accurate calculation: 365.2425 days. Thanks to scientific advances since 1582 we now know that the exact length of the solar year is 365.2422 days. The Gregorian calendar therefore incorporates a very small plus error, just 0.0003 of a day, pretty impressive accuracy for the sixteenth century. Strangely enough, though its origins are wrapped in the mists of antiquity far deeper than the sixteenth century, the Mayan calendar achieved even greater accuracy. It calculated the solar year at 365.2420 days, a minus error of only 0.0002 of a day.

Similarly, the Maya knew the time taken by the moon to orbit the earth. Their estimate of this period was 29.528395 days, extremely close to the true figure of 29.530588 days computed by the finest modern methods. The Mayan priests also had in their possession very accurate tables for the prediction of solar and lunar eclipses and were aware that these could occur only within plus or minus eighteen days of the node (when the moon’s path crosses the apparent path of the sun). Finally, the Maya were remarkably accomplished mathematicians. They possessed an advanced technique of metrical calculation by means of a chequerboard device we ourselves have only discovered (or rediscovered?) in the last century. They also understood perfectly and used the abstract concept of zero and were acquainted with place numerations. These are esoteric fields.

Unlike the Ancient Greeks, but like the Ancient Egyptians, the Maya understood that Venus was both the morning star and the evening star. They understood other things about it as well. The synodical revolution of a planet is the period of time it takes to return to any given point in the sky as viewed from earth. Venus revolves around the sun every 224.7 days, while the earth follows its own slightly wider orbit. The composite result of these two motions is that Venus rises in exactly the same place in the earth’s sky approximately every 584 days.

Whoever invented the sophisticated calendrical system inherited by the Maya had been aware of this and had found ingenious ways to integrate it with other interlocking cycles. Moreover, it is clear from the mathematics which brought these cycles together that the ancient calendar masters had understood that 584 days was only an approximation and that the movements of Venus are by no means regular. They had therefore worked out the exact figure established by today’s science for the average synodical revolution of Venus over very long periods of time.

That figure is 583.92 days and it was knitted into the fabric of the Mayan calendar in numerous intricate and complex ways. For example, to reconcile it with the so-called sacred year (the tzolkin of 260 days, which was divided into 13 months of 20 days each) the calendar called for a correction of four days to be made every 61 Venus years. In addition, during every fifth cycle, a correction of eight days was made at the end of the 57th revolution. Once these steps were taken, the tzolkin and the synodical revolution of Venus were intermeshed so tightly that the degree of error to which the equation was subject was staggeringly small one day in 6000 years. And what made this all the more remarkable was that a further series of precisely calculated adjustments kept the Venus cycle and the tzolkin not only in harmony with each other but in exact relationship with the solar year. Again this was achieved in a manner which ensured that the calendar was capable of doing its job, virtually error-free, over vast expanses of time.

Why did the ‘semi-civilized’ Maya need this kind of high-tech precision? Or did they inherit, in good working order, a calendar engineered to fit the needs of a much earlier and far more advanced civilization? Consider the crowning jewel of Maya calendrics, the so-called Long Count. This system of calculating dates also expressed beliefs about the past notably, the widely held belief that time operated in Great Cycles which witnessed recurrent creations and destructions of the world. According to the Maya, the current Great Cycle began in darkness on 4 Ahau 8 Cumku, a date corresponding to 13 August 3114 BC in our own calendar.

As we have seen, it was also believed that the cycle will come to an end, amid global destruction, on 4 Ahau 3 Kankin: 23 December AD 2012 in our calendar. The function of the Long Count was to record the elapse of time since the beginning of the current Great Cycle, literally to count off, one by one, the 5125 years allotted to our present creation. The Long Count is perhaps best envisaged as a sort of celestial adding machine, constantly calculating and recalculating the scale of our growing debt to the universe. Every last penny of that debt is going to be called in when the figure on the meter reads 5125. So, at any rate, thought the Maya.

All this should make clear that although the Maya believed themselves to be living in one Great Cycle that would surely come to a violent end they also knew that time was infinite and that it proceeded with its mysterious revolutions regardless of individual lives or civilizations.

*Source: “Fingerprints of the Gods” by Graham Hancock*