The Maya Sacred and Annual Calendar System

The Maya kept track of time by more than a Long Count. They had an additional two systems of cyclic time they called the Tzolkin and the Haab. The Haab was an annual solar calendar of 365 days. Because it was short by a quarter-day from the movement of the planet around the sun this solar calendar drifted through the centuries. The Tzolkin was a religious observance calendar of 260 days. These two calendars were locked together in such a way that they rotated through one another and did not come back to the same point in time for 52 Haab cycles or 73 Tzolkin cycles. (Since the Haab lost synchronism with the sun a quarter day for each year, after 52 cycles (years) it would be behind the sun by 0.25 X 52 = 13 days.)

The Tzolkin

The Tzolkin was a 260-day cycle calendar. This was known as a religious or divine calendar.

The calendar is made up of a set of 20 day names, symbolized by images called glyphs, and 13 numerals called tones. The 13 tones would each cycle through the 20 glyphs, but not in a regular manner.

The 20 glyphs are shown to the left.

The Tzolkin calendar begins with the first day name, Imix, and the number one. The second day would continue with Ik and the number two. The days and numbers would continue in this sequence until all 13 tones are used when they reach the glyph Ben.

Once the calendar reaches the day 13, denoted by Ben and the number 13, the numbers begin again with one, but the day names move forward with the 14th glyph, Ix. When you reach the end of the glyphs with 7 Ajaw, the day names begin anew at Imix, and the numerals continue: 8 Imix, 9 Ik, 10 Akbal and so on. By rotating like this, the two sets form 260 unique combinations of a day glyph and a number.

Think of two interlocking gears, with the 13 numerals spaced around a smaller circular gear that fits inside the larger gear of day glyphs. If you lock those gears together at the number one and the day name Imix, then rotate the gears until you reach one and Imix again, you'll get 260 unique days. Those gears spin until the final combination clicks into place at 13 Ajaw, marking the end of the 260-day year.

To play the animation below you may need Flash Player

The Haab

Haab dates were very much like our modern calendar. Except that the Maya had 18 periods of 20 days each, instead of 12 months and 30 days. The first day of each period is numbered 0, and the last day is 19. After that, the period name advances by one, and the day goes back to 0. This was known as a secular or civil calendar. With 365 days in its count, it is obviously based on solar observations. It's called the "vague" year because, unlike the Christian calendar, it does not include a leap year. For this reason the year drifts through the solar cycle, without correction. However, the Maya had a technique for observing a correction, as I shall discuss in a separate paper. The Haab was in use by at least 100 BC and was created to be used in conjunction with the Tzolkin.

The figure to the left shows the eighteen periods of the Haab (Image adapted from Voss 2000). 19 glyphs are used because the last glyph, called the Wayeb, is only five days long. Alternate representations of each glyph are shown.

One cannot find a Haab date that is not recorded with a Tzolk'in date within ancient hieroglyphic texts. In operation together, the Haab and Tzolk'in create a larger, 52-year cycle called the Calendar Round that was used not only by the Maya but also by every other culture in Mesoamerica.

Each day in the Haab calendar is written by simply giving the number of the day followed by the name of the period, as in the Gregorian calendar. Thus the first day is 0 Pop, then 1 Pop, 2 Pop, and so on. The last day of the first period is 19 Pop, so it is followed by the first day of the second period, 0 Wo. After that comes 1 Wo, 2 Wo, and so on. The last named period is Kumku, so the last day of the 360-day calendar is 19 Kumku.

The five extra days that the Maya added at the end of the yearly Haab calendar were considered as an independent part of the year. Cultures from other parts of the world also numbered their 360-day calendar with five extra days. The Egyptians are an example. This practice was based on the unique properties of the number 360. The Mayans thought that these days were bad luck; they tried hard to avoid doing anything risky on these five days. The days acquired a very derogatory reputation for bad luck; known as "days without names" or "days without souls," and were observed as days of prayer and mourning. Fires were extinguished and the population refrained from eating hot food. Woe to those born on these five days! 

Remember that Wayeb is not a period name, but the collective name for these days at the end of the calendar. The first is named 0 Wayeb, which is followed by 1 Wayeb, 2 Wayeb, and so on. Following the last Wayeb day the Haab calendar starts over again, so 4 Wayeb is followed by 0 Pop, and the process restarts for another 365 days.

The Mayans didn't bother to keep track of how many times the Haab calendar rolled around (that is, they didn't count the years as measured by the Haab calendar, as we do in the Christian calendar). This concept differs from ours; it was merely a measure of rolling time, not of absolute years. Since they always specified the Tzolkin and Haab dates together with the Long Count they never lost track of where they were in time. Together, the Tzolkin/Haab and the Long Count serve as a framework for predicting eclipses, timing festivals, for scheduling religious events, and stating kingly reigns.

Typical Maya Calendar

This is an example of the Maya calendar I borrowed from


The example can written from baktun to k'in as  This is a total count of   (9 x 144,000) + (16 x 7200) + (0 x 360) + (2 x 20) +  (0 x 1) = 1411240 days.