Blinking snake

Mayan Creation Dates

by Linda Schele
(with minor editing by Ivan Van Laningham)

To Steve Stearns:  You asked about the page of dates I put in “Maya Cosmos” and why I had 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in. I think a discussion of the dates and how the calendar works in these matters would be helpful.

First of all, we associated 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u  with because we have a large number of texts (about 15) that record <tzutzah oxlahun <pi> with the era event. Nikolai and I have written a “Texas Note” showing that the <pi> glyph (the double kawak sign and the bird with the hand on its lower jaw) is a word for a ’bundle.’ That’s why it shows up as the glyph for both 400-year and 20-year cycles.  The era date, therefore, corresponded to the “ended or closure of 13 bundles,” but the size of the bundle is usually not specified. We take them to be bundles of 400-years.

At Quirigua we have a long count notation of on Stela C and at Coba we have two long counts that have 20 units above bak’tun all set at 13. Furthermore, the long count dates from the TC and TFC tell us that the bak’tun count cycled from 13 to 1 because we have long counts of and These long count dates are essentially the count of days after the beginning of the era. On the otherhand,  Lady Huntan’s birth is written in a long count on the TC as, so that we know that the long count just before the era was in the 12th cycle.

I suspect that the Maya thought of all of the other numbers in the huge Coba dates as having had accumulated 13 completed cycles, but no dates are written that would let us test this assumption. They cast distance numberss that far into the past to reach calendar round dates, but they never wrote long count positions for the calendar rounds. Therefore, any long count further back than 13 bak’tuns before 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u is a modern reconstruction— until we find one that the Maya themselves wrote in ancient times. Nevertheless, this data shows the way the numbers worked. After 4 ahaw 8 Kumk’u, “13” changed to “1” after the passage of 400 tuns, and dates in the last 400-year cycle before the era date were in the 13th cycle.

If you add 13 bak’tuns to the same 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u, you get 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in. This is the famous 2012 date that everyone treats as the end of the world. Well, Pakal wrote something in the west panel of the Temple of Inscriptions that does not agree with this interpretation. I think you’ve probably worked both of the passages out yourself. In one passage he said explicitly that the 1st piktun will end on 10 Ahaw 13 Yaxk’in. Check it out. If you add 8,000 tuns to 4 Ahaw 8 K’ank’in you get 10 Ahaw 13 Yaxk’in. And notice that he recorded the ends of the nine k’atuns of his history, then the end of the current  k’atun 13, then the current bak’tun of 10, then the current piktun of 1. He was creating a symmetry of every larger cycles.

But he went further. He added a long distance number to connect his birth date ( 8 Ahaw 13 Pop) to t the 80th calendar round anniversary of his accessio. Furthermore,  he said that this date will be celebrated 8 days after the end of the 1st piktun.  If the 2012 date were a new era date, the count would have to start all over again with everything “zeroing”—that is, if it is to work the way the ancient Maya treated their era date.   According to Pakal, it will not “zero”.

But we can learn more from what he cause to be writeen. The numbers in the distance number tells us that one must add 20 units of any cycle in this creation to click the next higher unit by one.  If you apply these principles to the Coba dates: that the long count number click from 13 to 1 in each place unit, and that 20 units of the lower place is required to accumulate 1 in the next higher one, then it will take 20 to the 20th power years (that’s 142 with 36 zeros) to click all of the thirteens to one. I once figured it out and it will take about 142 nonillion years  [I did that from memory . . . so if you want to check it, please do. I discovered my computer can’t do it in real integers. I had to do it by hand].

For me, Pakal’s information is unequivocal evidence that they did not view the coming 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in as a world ending date, but rather just another terrribly important date that would have been celebrated much like we are going to celebrate the millennium. I’m sure there would have been prophecies of doom just as there are now—but just as we contemplate that time will simply continue to 2001 etc (or we would not have Startrek and Starwars), so they contemplated that time would also continue in their concept of the world or Pakal would not have written what he did.

The 80 calendar round anniversary is also a very special number and one of those things Floyd Lounsbury calls fortuitous beyond the bounds of expectation. The 80 calendar round number is one critical to the Venus pages. It is an even number of tzolkins (5,840), of haabs (4,160), of Venus cycles (2,600), of the five Venus-8 haab cycle (2,920 *520), of the Grand Venus Round (37,960 *40) of the calendar rounds (18,960 * 80), and of the 520 day number (520 * 2,920) that tracks the lunar nodes. That the addition of this number to his accession hit just 8 days after the end of the first pictun must have tickled their fancy. The distance number he wrote, however, does not tie not his accession to the later date, but his birth. They managed to tie two birds to one distance number.

Playing with numbers like this was the primary way that the Maya structured the symmetries of time. Floyd first figured it out in this paper on contrived numbers. My graduate student Christopher Powell is finding out even more. He has especially investigated the way profound geometries fall out naturally of the process of using a cord to measure and to square space. The Maya had a magnificent and subtle system combining  numbers like these with the geometry of coming fromthe use of cords to measure the world. Combining these two systems locked together the symmetries of time and space in a very special way. As other have noted, these same symmetries occur in the Borgia and the Vendobonensis so that it is probably a Mesoamerican way of understanding the world. Manipulating the numbers may have taken some learning, but the use of the cord was something that every farmer did when he measured his milpa or laid out a new house. If you have other questions, let me know.

—Linda Schele

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