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The Ancient Mayans

Mayan Calendar
The Mayan Calendar

The ancient Mayans welcomed spirit into their everyday living. Every movement was lived as a ritual edifice. Their religious perspectives and practices helped align their consciousness with the sanctity and unity of all that was around them. The earth, the deserts, the mountains, the rivers, and the stars were all alive and patterned with meaning. The Mayans belonged to these worlds of nature. They remembered them, maintained them, took care of them, and lived their sacred life with them.

The Mayans are among the oldest of the Mesoamerican peoples. They were a diverse people speaking 31 languages (David Webster, The Fall of the Ancient Maya Thames and Hudson, London 2002, p40). They occupied the geographic areas known today as southeastern Mexico, especially the Yucatan Penninsula, and the Central American areas known today as Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Belize.

Of the pre-Columbian Americas, the Mayans are the principle people who developed a fully written language. The script is called logosyllabic. Individual symbols ("glyphs") could represent either a word (actually a morpheme) or a syllable; indeed, the same glyph could often be used for both. Recent archaeological finds in Guatemala date the earliest Mayan writing found so far to about 250 BCE. The Mayan culture had spectacular art, monumental architecture with pyramids, and a sophisticated mathematical and astronomical understanding.

It is interesting that in 1935 Sylvanus Griswold Morley wrote,

When the material achievements of the ancient Maya in architecture, sculpture, cermaics, the lapidary arts, feather-work, cotton-weaving and dyeing are added to their abstract intellectual achievements -- invention of the positional mathematics with its concomitant development of zero, construction of an elaborate chronology with a fixed starting point, use of a time-count as accurate as our own Gregorian Calendar, knowledge of astronomy superior to that of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians -- and the whole judged in the light of their known cultural limitations, which were on par with those of the early Neolithic Age in the Old World, we may acclaim them, without fear of successful contradiction, the most brillian aboriginal people on this planet. (Guidebook to the Ruins of Quirigua)

Some think that the earliest record known of the Maya in Belize date back to 2500 B.C. when they inhabited the area now known as Cuello. Others think that the Mayan civilization began with villages of farmers in the area of Cuello around 2000 BC in an area that has been associated with the ancient Olmec people. Such dates, however, are not certain. The Mayan archeaologist, Arthur Demarest, writes

... the data on the early development of lowland Maya civiliation is currently so poor that it virtually defies synthesis and interpretation. (Ancient Maya, the rise and fall of a rain forest civilization, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007, p. 58)

The truth, however, is that we do not know what may have been going on in the Maya lowlands before about 1000 BC and whether that region had its own precocious Early Preclassic centers with their own original local developments and direct contacts with the other evolving cultures of this period, including those of the Gulf coast Olmec region. (ibid, p. 66)

Archaeological evidence of the preclassic period Mayans in small agricultural communties appear to be dated around 1400-1200 BCE. These archaeological finds include pottery, permanent houses, and outer accouterments of settled life (The Fall of the Ancient Maya p. 44). Centers such as Paso del la Amada and Chiapas had large stone structures that are thought to have been used for ritual feasts.

Indeed, it is certain that the red pottery used for dishes and bowls, called the Swasey pottery, found at Cuello dates from about 1200 BCE - 900 BCE (Nicholas Saunders, Ancient Americas, Sutton, Gloucestershire, 2004, p.75). Other Maya cultural features were found in this period: houses clustered around a central patio; the dead buried beneath the floors of house; maize a staple food; and chert used to make stone tools (Ancient Americas p. 75).

Preclassic Mayan Map
Map of the main archaeologic sites of the preclassic Mayan civilization.

The Mayan Calendar

Perhaps the Mayans are most known for their multiple calendars which have various cycles. Astronomically, the calenders were used for keeping track of the planetary positions of Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter and predicting astronomical events such as eclipses and sunspot cycles. But these astronomical events were not lived as external. They were lived as internal: each astronomical event was spiritualy tied to a state of being and aliveness.

It is interesting that none of the Mayan languages have a word for time. The Mayans considered time not as linear time but as cyclic. The Mayans believed that the cyclical influences of the past synergistically create the context for the present, and by knowing the context for the present and the past cycles, one can forsee its cyclical influence into the future. Thus the events of one period of linear time would be contextually repeated in another period of linear time occupying the same position in the cycle.

For the purpose of keeping track of cycles,the Mayans had multiple calendars. The Mayan long count calendar, a calendar of 1,872,000 days, slightly more than 5125 years, has been aligned or correlated to our Gregorian calendar. The most commonly held correlation to the beginning of the Mayan long count calendar is Julian Day 584,283, (known as the Goodman-Martinez-Thompson correlation) although some think 584,285. This puts the beginning of the Mayan calendar to be August 11, 3114 BCE on the proleptic Gregorian calendar or September 6, 3114 BCE on the proleptic Julian calendar. (Note that those, like astronomers, who use the convention that the year that precedes 1 CE is 0 BCE will write 3113 BCE or simply -3113. This is what Arguelles (personal communication) does in his book The Mayan Factor, Bear and Company, Sante Fe, 1987 p. 41.) The Mayans considered as special the time of the ending of a cycle and the beginning of the next. They associated the end of the long count calendar and the beginning of its next cycle as a propitious time in which change and enlightenment would occur.

There are other Mayan calendars with shorter cycles of 20 days, 260 days, 365 days, 52 years. The 13 cycles of 20 days, a total of 260 days, constitutes the sacred calendar, called the Tzolkin. 52 cyles of the 365 day calendar, called the Haab, equals 73 cycles of the 260 day calendar (52x365=73x260). So one sometimes reads, though not quite correctly, that the Mayan 260 day calendar syncs with our solar calendar every 52 years. Our solar year is about 365.2422 days long. The synchronization mentioned in the popular literature is between the Mayan 260 day calendar and the Mayan 365 day calendar.

There are many properties of the pyramids that the Mayans built that correspond to these various cycle lengths. Arguelles, in his book The Mayan Factor, discusses how the various symbols of the Mayans have within their shapes these cycle lengths and other related numbers. He describes how the Mayan calendar, their writing symbols, and their architecture are the keys to a resonance phenomena, a resonance between the Mayan consciousness and the galaxy. Thus the historical events associated with the various calendar times in the cycles become a kind of guide for consciousness in experiencing time, as well as a kind of prophetic history. The internal experience and the historical events of the external world are in resonance. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Mayans were careful historical record keepers. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who accompanied the Spanish conquistador Cortez, reported that the Mayans had books made from the bark of a tree. In these books they recorded past events and deeds by means of signs and symbols.

The multiple cultures in which the word Maya occurs is also interesting. In the Hindu culture, Maya, is a Sanskrit word meaning the sense-world of the manifold phenomena of physical reality. It is maya which conceals the absolute. Thus maya is an illusion. In the Buddhist culture, Maya is the mother who gave birth to Buddha. In the Greek culture, Maia was the virgin mother of Hermes, who is the god of communication and commerce. One of the seven sister stars in the Pleides group is named Maia. Ancient Ceylon was divided into three provinces and Maya was the central division of the island. The Ceylonese Maya were known for their impressive astronomical knowledge, their architectural marvels, temples, and irrigation ponds. (William Knighton, The History of Ceylon, Colombo Ceylon, 1845.) All this suggests that there is some ancient universal teaching associated with the concept of maya, different parts of which are remembered and modulated by different cultures.