Tzolkin: Visionary Perspectives and Calendar Studies
by John Major Jenkins
Published in the August 1994 issue of the Borderlands Journal
This article summarizes my recent book which will be published with Borderlands Science and Research Foundation this year. The word tzolkin refers to the sacred cycle of 260 days which is the centerpiece of a sophisticated calendar system developed almost 3000 years ago by the indigenous people of Mesoamerica. The Classic Maya civilization (200 A.D. to 900 A.D.) brought this system to its highest and most profound expression. They utilized the tzolkin cycle and the solar year cycle to predict eclipses, planetary motion, and to schedule agricultural activities. Overall, I feel that this subject, which I call "Mayan Time Philosophy", has been treated much too carelessly in the previous literature. The incredible properties of "Mayan Calendrics" could engender entire schools of thought. We read a lot of popular books these days about breakthroughs in glyph decipherment and the latest archeological excavation (Michael Coe's Breaking the Maya Code; Schele and Freidel's Forest of Kings and the recent Maya Cosmos), but many controversial and intriguing aspects of the tzolkin have simply been glossed over. My book, Tzolkin: Visionary Perspectives and Calendar Studies, attempts to fill this vacuum.
Tzolkin is divided into two sections, indicative of my dual approach to the Mayan Calendar: "Visionary Perspectives" and "Calendar Studies". The reasons behind the writing of Tzolkin are threefold. First, I feel a need to set the record straight concerning the correct correlation between the Mayan Sacred Calendar system and our own. In academic circles, there is a continuing debate between two proposed correlations. In the free-lance realm, independent researchers such as José Argüelles (The Mayan Factor) and Richard Balthazar (Celebrate Native America) have unaccountably gone ahead and contrived their own correlations. This is contestable because the Sacred Calendar is still being followed in the villages of Guatemala, by the descendants of the Classic Maya civilization which flourished some 1200 years ago. One of the characteristics of the tzolkin calendar - evidenced in the archeological record - is that it has been followed unbroken for over 2700 years (see Munro Edmonson's Book of the Year). In other words, the same sequence of 260 days, consisting of a combination of 20 day-names with 13 numbers, has been preserved throughout the entire range of Mayan history, up to the present day. Furthermore, this same count was shared by many different groups, the Aztecs among them. This continuity is analogous to the preservation of the 7 weekday names in our Gregorian Calendar. In this system, the unbroken sequence of the 7 day-names, named after gods and goddesses and corresponding to the seven known planets, was always considered critical to the maintenance of time. The true sequence could never be broken for fear of upsetting the balance of planetary forces. Even at the Gregorian reform in 1582, in which 10 days were skipped, the weekday sequence was prudently left unscathed.
So the count still being followed in the Highlands of Guatemala, the last surviving flicker of an unbroken Sacred Calendar tradition almost 3000 years old, allows us to say that today, April 16th, 1994 is 5 Owl (5 Ajmac) in the ancient tzolkin calendar. The Quiché Maya daykeepers in Guatemala would agree. This corresponds with one of the proposed academic correlations mentioned above. The Argüelles and Balthazar counts are greatly different from this, and hardly deserve to be called Mayan or Aztec. I don't have any problem with independent researchers (I'm one of them) or even visionary speculations (my forté), as long as ideas are properly acknowledged for what they are. Disinformation about the true tzolkin (i.e., promoting the wrong count) is not exactly laudable. This is an important point if we are to act in solidarity with the present day Maya, whose traditions and, indeed, lives, are constantly being threatened by the dubious agenda of dominator culture.
So the debate between the two academically reconstructed correlations continues in some circles, even though one of them is directly supported by the Guatemalan Maya of today. I deal with this question, among others, in the Calendar Studies chapter of my book. This chapter provides a well researched and documented survey of the academic work done up to this time. As just mentioned, the correlation question is addressed. In addition, a "Calendar Basics" section is included here for the newcomer to the Mayan Calendar. The major offering in this part of the book is my reconstruction of the Mayan Venus Calendar. This is the second reason I wrote Tzolkin: to reconstruct and reinaugurate the ancient Venus Calendar of the Maya. Scholars have, in fact, reconstructed the Venus Calendar of the Maya, but haven't bothered to start it up again; to do this is considered irrelevant. But I don't feel that it is irrelevant for the millions of Maya who still live in Mexico and Central America, nor for the myriads of knowledge seekers who are interested in what ancient civilizations can teach us. The problem is that the details of the Venus Calendar are complex and hidden in obscure journals, written in discipline-specific jargon. As a result the meaning and value of the Venus Calendar is shrouded. Since I have immersed myself in this field of inquiry for some years now, and yet am really just a regular guy, I have made a point to "distill" these academic studies into an accessible form.
The "key" to the Venus Calendar of the Maya is the 260-day tzolkin cycle. The framework of days created by the tzolkin cycle allowed the ancient Maya to predict exactly when Venus would rise as morningstar. The full "Venus Round" period created by the combination of tzolkin, Venus cycle and solar year, amounts to just under 104 years. Evidence concerning the details of this system are contained in the Dresden Codex, one of the few remaining Mayan books. It is generally agreed that complicated correction schemes kept the predictions very accurate, but the Venus Calendar fell into disuse sometime before the Conquest. My hypothetical reconstruction of this predictive system suggests that the next Venus Round begins on the traditional Sacred Day of Venus (1 Ahau) in the year 2001 A.D., when Venus rises as morningstar on April 3rd. The system proposed is an important exercise, for it endeavors to not only reconstruct but perfect the Venus Calendar of old. This system, regardless of the new corrective mechanism that I propose, is still basically the same one presented in the Dresden Codex.
One of the interesting things that I noticed from my charts and tables was a connection between the larger Venus Calendar cycles and the cycles of Neptune and Uranus. In other words, I discovered that the conjunction cycles of Uranus and Neptune, each lasting about 172 years, could be predicted using the Mayan Venus Calendar (specifically, 12 Uranus/Neptune conjunctions equal 20 Venus Rounds). These large rhythms are observed to relate to historical events, especially in Mesoamerica. Since Uranus and Neptune are not visible to the naked eye, this suggests that Mayan cosmo-conception, rooted in the sacred tzolkin cycle, may have applications beyond the borders of Mesoamerica. The system is probably better understood as an insight into the organizational tendencies within nature rather than the arbitrary invention of one cultural group. The philosophical implications of all of this really deepen when you remember that the 260-day sacred cycle is modeled after the 9-month cycle of human gestation. This is one of the data-bits often mentioned in academic literature, yet scarcely dealt with. Many aspects of Mayan thought such as this alert ones intuitions and beg to be explored more deeply. And so the deeper meanings of Mayan Time Philosophy are addressed in the second half of my book under the heading "Visionary Perspectives." This third reason for writing Tzolkin involves giving voice to the visionary and intuitive approach in Mayan Studies. This perspective allows us to 1) gain insight into a certifiably Mayan worldview and 2) experience gnosis in working with the universal principles upon which Mayan Time Philosophy is based. In other words, in working closely with this system, one often realizes something about the nature of time and the cosmic order which is not specifically "Mayan" in nature. Subsequently, my book is in part a testimony revealing the insight-bestowing nature of the Sacred Calendar. And how is this?
Because the Mayan Calendar is rooted in certain universal principles, manifesting in human biological processes as well as the cycles of the planets, we may study these things with an eye toward gaining an understanding of the cosmos which is not exclusively "Mayan". The situation in Mayan Studies right now is analogous to the state of Egyptology in the 1870's. At that time, new artifacts and studies of the dimensions and ratios in the Great Pyramids painted a picture of the ancient Egyptians for which many scholars were unprepared. Ultimately, scholars admitted that the ancient Egyptians were much more advanced than previously thought, and indeed utilized an entire Sacred Science based on the universal principles of Sacred Geometry. These are wisdom teachings which we are still struggling to appreciate and understand. So too, with the state of Mayan Studies, and that is why a "Visionary Perspectives" approach is valuable: to give voice to the hidden foundations of Mayan philosophy; to invoke ancient wisdom longing to return to the light of consciousness; to dust off the shrouded artifacts - the universal principles - hidden within Mayan cosmo-conception. Because appreciating this ancient cosmology has a lot to do with learning to perceive the world from viewpoints alien to our own, sometimes it's just a matter of looking very closely at facts previously dismissed out of hand. Take, for example, the fact that the tzolkin cycle - the critical "key" to a larger calendric system which can predict eclipses and planetary cycles - corresponds to the human gestation period. This should immediately alert our visionary sensibilities. What can this possibly mean?
In general, the Maya recognized a connection between human cycles and planetary cycles. The easiest thing to do at this point might be to convince yourself that the Maya merely invented this system, in a somewhat arbitrary or haphazard way, thus dismissing closer inquiry. But at least we can say, if models must be made, that the Maya chose to create a very comprehensive and sophisticated system of timekeeping, being, and becoming. The scope of their "calendar" extends from the unfolding of flowers on earth to the conjunction of far-off celestial objects; from the microcosm to the macrocosm. And with human gestation as the prerequisite "key", humanity's place is to unite and mediate both realms. The calendar is, apparently, much more than a calendar.
To be more open to the deeper meanings of Mayan Time Philosophy, we can entertain the idea that perhaps the gestation-tzolkin-planet connection indicates that the Maya had discovered a principle within nature uniting the processes of heaven and earth. This would be a kind of "Mayan Unified Theory". The tzolkin cycle seems to be some kind of mytho-computer interface between external objective reality and the inner rhythms of human life. To observe that the first great cycle of human unfolding (embryogenesis) - and therefore a whole range of human rhythms from individual life transits to the ebb and flow of cultures - is intrinsically related to planetary cycles is to observe a very basic property of the cosmic order. Yet this kind of "as above, so below" statement, based upon observations of nature, is quite threatening to relativistic science. It points us right at astrology.
And now I need to backpedal a bit. Because the discussion of the tzolkin ultimately gets around to astrology, I begin the book with a treatment of this controversial topic. Due to common misconceptions, I thought it would be valuable to offer a more progressive explanation of astrology - something that goes beyond the standard "cause and effect" interpretation. This is nothing new, really, it just involves a more sophisticated terminology. "Causal thinking" simply can't account for the mysterious interconnections of astrology, and it also betrays our limited linear perceptions which require "cause and effect" postulates. To overcome this limitation, synchronicity is compared to the old god Causality. It becomes apparent that while causality certainly works for 3-dimensional physics, some kind of principle of affinity or correspondence is necessary to explain a whole range of human experiences in the realm of spirit or depth psychology. Synchronicity - an expanded definition of Jung's concept - is offered to explain affinities between apparently separate realms. For example: the morphic similarity between trees and lungs, the correspondence between planets, metals, and parts of the human anatomy, and the correspondence between human biological cycles and planetary cycles. To paraphrase Ira Progoff's words in the book Jung, Synchronicity and Human Destiny, this all suggests a hidden ordering principle operative within nature; a mysterious principle of correspondence drawing together phenomena in acausal ways. What emerges is a dawning understanding of a very different world-view, a symbolic intelligence, one probably shared by many ancient civilizations, which directly perceives that sky and earth are really interwoven. A causal explanation of how they are related is only necessary to the culture that has lost the original vision of wholeness. To posit a causal base for astrology is missing the point. Thus, the elevation of the tzolkin to its central position in Mayan Time Philosophy is a testimony to the comprehensive vision of a people from which we can still learn much. And comprehensive vision - the wholistic perspective - may be much more important than the scrutinizing deconstructionism of our present world-view. Indeed, since the ruling paradigm of "separation of mind and nature" has joined with the politics of industrial capitalism to produce some startlingly foul fruits, to realize that mind is, in fact, inseparable from nature may be our only hope.
Let's get back to the specifics of this "mind-nature" link-up. My work proposes that the Maya discovered and incorporated universal principles into their calendric philosophy. Perhaps I should be a little less cryptic and explain exactly what I mean. The Golden Proportion is a unique ratio responsible for the generation of self-same similarity in nature. "Self-same similarity" refers to an organism or process which replicates itself based upon its previous form. For example, seashells or pine cones tend to grow by replicating the same pattern over and over; these forms are typically spiral shaped. But self-same similarity is not limited to spirals. Tree branching, human reproduction and cell mitosis are processes ruled by self-same similarity. The specific mathematical growth pattern followed in these processes is governed by the Golden Proportion (symbolized by the Greek letter f; PHI). The Pythagorean school of thought believed that the celestial order was determined by the Golden Proportion. It is also one of the foundation principles of ancient Egyptian Sacred Science. Not surprisingly, this universal principle can be found everywhere. The navel bisects the human body into a PHI division; 89 clockwise and 55 counterclockwise seeds in the head of a sunflower approximate the PHI ratio, which is 1.618. Perhaps the simplest demonstration of the nature of the Golden Proportion is when you divide a line into mean and extreme PHI sections:
f = 1.618 or .618; the proportional
relationship of both to 1 is the same
a is to b as a+b is to a The a:b PHI ratio is responsible
b x 1.618 = a; a x 1.618 = a + b for those swirling rectangles
I argue in my book Tzolkin that the Golden Proportion is at the core of the tzolkin's mathematical and philosophical dynamics which connect human unfolding with the planets (the subject-object interface). This is primarily because 13:20 (the two core numbers of the tzolkin) approximates f, and 100f2 ˜ 260. The equation must also take into consideration the existence of functional similarities between gestation, f and the tzolkin (namely, unfolding and replication via self-same similarity at successive generations). In this way the Golden Proportion, like the tzolkin, provides a connection between organic spirals in nature (including the "spiral-unfolding" of gestation), and planetary cycles such as the 5:8 Sun/Venus ratio. For readers unfamiliar with this amazing fact, this is just to say that Venus passes through exactly 5 morningstar risings every 8 years. 5:8, like 13:20, is a PHI ratio. The actual movements of Sun and Venus, easily observed in the sky, mirror in principle the organic growth of life on earth. This describes the paradigm which many ancient cultures found self-evident, that the "microcosm reflects the macrocosm." It is a paradox that our otherwise highly advanced culture has such a hard time with this that it needs to be demonstrated via mathematical and philosophical arguments.
So the Golden Proportion is one of the "universal principles" which the Maya seem to have intuited and incorporated into the structure of the tzolkin calendar. This is the central insight opening the way to a more detailed discussion of the "core principles" of Mayan Time Philosophy. That these "core principles" are universal is, in itself, a breakthrough in our understanding of the Mayan calendar.
There are many, many topics covered in the "Visionary Perspectives" chapter. These include: Numerology, the 13 numbers and 20 day-signs, the Mayan 13-sign zodiac, the Golden Proportion and the tzolkin, natal horoscopes for Pacal, Shield Jaguar and other Classic Period rulers, the Popol Vuh creation book of the Quiché Maya, the hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque and the moon cycle, Argüelles' Harmonic Convergence and Dreamspell, Mayan Goddesses and Uranus/Neptune conjunctions in Mesoamerican history. I also conceived Tzolkin as a kind of data-base for future students of the Sacred Calendar, and therefore provide many useful tables. These include: Glossary of terms, dates for Venus emergences for over 600 years, day-sign concepts in 24 different Indian groups, a simple method for calculating tzolkin dates for some 8000 years, and practical day-to-day reference calendars up to the year 2013 with which you can track the tzolkin in solidarity with the present day Maya.
For readers interested in hardware applications of ancient science, it just may be that studies of Mayan mathematics and philosophy will lead to a new and progressive understanding of universal principles. For example, the entire revelation of the Golden Proportion within Mayan Calendrics. Despite its amazing qualities, the Golden Proportion seems to have played an overly marginal role in the development of technology. So in terms of hardware applications of the PHI principle, could experimental motors or engines constructed with PHI ratios in mind yield unusual results? And one might imagine nanotechnological devices or superconducting generators built according to the Root Principles of Egyptian Sacred Science. The field is open.
In summary, there are three major goals which inspired the writing of Tzolkin:
1) To clear up the disinformation concerning the correlation between the tzolkin calendar and the "western" Gregorian Calendar.
2) To reconstruct, perfect, and reinaugurate the ancient Venus Calendar of the Maya. The next Venus Round period of 104 years is determined to begin on the Venus morningstar rising of April 3rd, 2001 A.D. This is on the traditional tzolkin date 1 Ahau according to the unbroken ancient count of days, still followed by the Maya of Guatemala.
3) To promote a "visionary" approach to give voice to the profound implications within Mayan Studies not usually addressed, suggesting as a result that Mayan Time Philosophy is a gnostic path to true understanding of universal principles.
This brief article can only provide glimpses of the ground covered in Tzolkin. Many original ideas are presented, some of which threaten to redefine how we are to approach studies of the Sacred Calendar. I am open to receiving criticisms, counter-arguments and feedback from readers of all backgrounds. Overall, I hope this book will open a new era in Mayan Calendar Studies; one that rests on thorough, accountable research yet highlights the universal core principles of Mayan Science which are capable of bestowing a profound understanding of the cosmos and humanity's place in it.