World History

Writing, Numbers, and Calendar of Maya Civilization

The Maya culture in ancient America created one of the most sophisticated writing and numbering systems. They also kept track of time and religious rituals using a sophisticated calendar system.

Writing

Hieroglyphics, a sophisticated kind of writing, was utilized by the Maya. Although their writing appears to be similar to that of the ancient Egyptians, it is very distinct. Symbols (also known as glyphs) were used in Mayan hieroglyphics to depict words, sounds, and objects. The Maya used several symbols to create phrases and narratives.

Only the rich Maya were able to become priests and acquire literacy. Long sheets of bark or leather-based paper were used by them for writing. To create books, these sheets were accordion-folded. A codex (or codices for many copies) is the name given to a Maya book.

Numbers

While we use a base-10 number system, the Maya employed a system with a base of 20. They employed a system of bars and dots to represent numerals. The number 5 was symbolized by a bar. They added extra bar every five numbers. The symbol used to represent zero has the appearance of a shell. An illustration of how the Maya wrote the numerals 0 to 19 can be found below.

Calendar

The Tzolk’in, a calendar used for religious purposes, and the Haab, a solar calendar, were both used by the Maya. The two calendars would begin on the same day every 52 years. On this day, they would observe the New Fire Festival (El Fuego Nuevo). They would extinguish all of the fires in their homes and discard all of their clay cookware. It was a period of rebirth and fresh starts.

The 18 months of the solar calendar, known as the Haab, each had 20 days. In order to reach a total of 365 days in a year, there were five more “unlucky” days in the 19th month. From 0 to 19, they assigned numbers to the days of the month. The 19 Maya months in the Haab’ calendar are listed below:

  • Pop
  • Wo
  • Sip
  • Sotz’
  • Sek
  • Xul
  • Yaxk’in’
  • Mol
  • Ch’en
  • Yax
  • Sak’
  • Keh
  • Mak
  • K’ank’in
  • Muwan
  • Pax
  • K’ayab
  • Kumk’u
  • Wayeb (month with only 5 unlucky days)

The 260-day Tzolk’in liturgical calendar was used. There are two cycles in this calendar: a 20-day cycle and a 13-day cycle. There is a name and a number for every day. The number and name are both derived from cycles of 20 and 13 days, respectively. The names of the 20-day cycles are listed below:

  • Imix
  • Ik
  • Ak’b’al
  • K’an
  • Chikchan
  • Kimi
  • Manik
  • Lamat
  • Muluk
  • Ok
  • Chuwen
  • Eb
  • B’en
  • Ix
  • Men
  • K’ib
  • Kab’an
  • Etz’nab
  • Kawak
  • Ajaw

World’s Beginning and End

A third calendar was also employed by the Maya for historical purposes. The Long Count Calendar was its name. The first day of the Long Count began on August 11, 3114 BC. The Maya thought that the world was formed on this day. Some believe the Maya also foretold that the world will end on December 21, 2012.

Maya Writing, Numbers, and Calendar: Interesting Facts

Sadly, the Maya codices (books) were burned by the Spanish because they believed they were evil. Few managed to survive.
The Maya used quills made of turkey feathers and black ink derived from coal to write.
A glyph was used by the Maya to designate each month. Animals were also portrayed by several of the glyphs. For instance, the glyph for the month of Sotz also denoted the meaning of the bat, dog, owl, and turtle, respectively.
The word “Kin” served as a symbol for a day. “Sun” was another meaning of the word.
The vigesimal system is the name given to the base-20 number system. The Maya used powers of 20 to write huge numbers.