The Mayan Calendar

The ancient Maya Indians of Central America developed a remarkable calendar which was not only extraordinarily accurate but also laden with the most profound of spiritual significance.

To really understand the exceptional aspect of this calendar one must first truly understand the nature of calendars in general. Calendars are time-measuring devices based on the fundamental unit of a 24 hour period called a “day”. Whenever we speak of any aspect of any calendar we use terminology that sums up how many days there are in any given subdivision of the calendar; 365days in a year, 30 days in a month, 7 days in a week, and so on.

A calendar could actually be quite arbitrary and any number of days can be assigned to any subdivision of a calendar. However, most cultures attempt to adjust the length of their calendars to the length of some kind of naturally occurring time cycle. The year is a very good example of this. Generally in all parts of the world there is a period of about 365 and one fourth days for the sun to cycle from one point in the sky all the way back to that same point. That is because this is the length of time it takes our planet to go around our sun. Most peoples of the world notice that period of time quite early in their history and create a calendar based around it. Since various weather and other climatic phenomena are usually associated with different times of that cycle, and since human activities must be planned around those weather changes, it is important to have some idea of when each phase of that yearly cycle is going to occur. The yearly cycle is so closely associated to the movements of the sun that it is usually called the “solar cycle” or the “solar year”.

As I said earlier the solar year is approximately 365 days plus one fourth of a day in length. And that is the root of all the problems in creating an accurate calendar. That fourth of a day and a few minutes make a big difference when one is trying to create a calendar. If the year were exactly 365 days long (without that pesky fourth of a day) it would be easy to design a calendar. All you would have to do is create your calendar cycle around a period of 365 days and keep going on and on without any problems indefinitely. But that fourth of a day and the extra minutes more that it takes for the Earth to make its complete loop around the sun makes it impossible to do that.

Since no calendar can have 365 days and one fourth of a day the solution in the Gregorian calendar that is used by our civilization is to accumulate those quarters of a day each year until you have four of them saved up and then create a special year that is an extra day long by adding up the four quarters of a day that we had saved up into one full day and tacking it on to the end of the month of February. This special year is called a “leap year” and the extra day that is added to that year is called a “leap day”.

The Gregorian “solution” to the extra fourth of a day that it takes the Earth to go around the sun is a little too tidy to work properly. This is because the extra fourth of a day is actually a bit longer than just a fourth of a day. As a result of that the Gregorian calendar is not completely accurate. In fact not only is it not accurate now that we have precise scientific devices and methods of calculating time, but back at the end of the Middle ages the Gregorian calendar was revised by order of Pope Gregory from the earlier even more inaccurate Julian calendar that Europeans had been struggling with since the days of Julius Caesar.

As it turns out there were people in another part of the world at that time that had somehow succeeded in perfecting a calendar even more accurate than the Gregorian one we follow now. These were the Maya.

The Maya dedicated themselves through minute astronomical observation, without the aid of telescopes to refine their calendar to an exquisite level of perfection. Somehow they struggled through the complicated arithmetic that their superior numbering system allowed them. With that complicated arithmetic they managed to calculate the movements of heavenly bodies more accurately than almost anybody else on the face of the Earth.

Several centuries before the birth of Christ, at a time when Europeans were arithmetically encumbered by the awkward Roman numeral system, the Mayas had already developed a number system that used both the zero (a concept still unknown in Europe) and the system of assigning special places to ascending quantities (like the units place, tens place and hundreds place that we now routinely use in the decimal system). Both of these sophisticated concepts were only achieved in Europe During the Middle Ages from the Arabs, which is the reason we still call our modern numbers “Arabic Numerals”. In fact, to this day one of the most useful mathematical fields of studies bears an obviously Arabic name. In contemporary mathematics we in the West use the system that got its name from the medieval Arabic word “Al-Gabr”. We call it “algebra”.

To the ancient Mayas, numbers held one of the keys to the sacred secrets of the of the Universe. So numbers and the study of numbers became a sacred thing. In fact visionaries are constantly discovering astonishing mystical revelations hidden in the world of numbers and mathematics. One of the latest and most fascinating of these revelations is the fabulously beautiful realm of fractals and the magical Artforms they are capable of producing with the help of computers.

“Fractal Digitals” by Manfred W. Rupp

back | next