The Beginning of the Day Count

[Note: Although I was trained in the K’iche’ language, I use primarily the Yucatec terms here, due to their greater familiarity on the Internet. More often than not I have included the K’iche’ names only in parentheses.]

Now that 1 Imix rolls around again, it is time to address that eternal question: Where does the tzolk’in begin?

There is no clear answer. In the highlands of Guatemala, where the ancient calendar remains alive, there are many beginnings. In the 1930’s, Ruth Bunzel recorded that the daykeepers of Chichicastenango began their count on 8 Manik (Kej). In Santiago Atitlan, they often begin the count on 8 Men (Tz’ikin). In Momostenango, the beginning of the tzolk’in is celebrated on 8 Chuen (B’atz’).

And if that isn’t sufficiently confusing, there are also variant traditions that are in danger of disappearing altogether. For example, the Momostecan count beginning on 8 B’atz’ is becoming standard all over Guatemala, even among the Mam in Todos Santos. But in the 1940’s, Todos Santos began its count on 9 Eb (E’). Todos Santos suffered greatly during the Guatemalan Civil War, and most of its daykeepers were slaughtered during the dark days of the 1980’s, so that currently the younger people who seek out traditional ways tend to study with the more numerous K’iche’ and have adopted 8 B’atz’ as a start date rather than 9 E’.

Sometimes there are local reasons for the starting dates. For example, the word tz’ikin (which simply means a bird) is etymologically related to the word Tz’utujil. The Tz’utujil of Santiago Atitlan are “the bird people,” so it makes sense for them to begin their count on 8 Men (Tz’ikin). The most sacred of the ancient dances still performed in Momostenango is the Monkey Dance, hence 8 Chuen (B’atz’).

If we turn to times past, the picture is no better. Bishop Diego de Landa, writing in 16th century Yucatan, tries to have it both ways. At one point, he states that the count of days begins with 1 Imix, but in his diagram of the calendar he begins with Kan (K’at). The Chilam Balam books of Yucatan also start their count with Kan, but de Landa seems not to have been familiar with these manuscripts – which is a good thing, since he was notorious for destroying ancient manuscripts.

The Aztecs began their count with 1 Imix. But was this count of days traditional, or was it part of the Aztec elite’s “re-write” of ancient history?

There is evidence to suggest that the Imix count was part of the old Toltec Tradition. When the Aztecs first entered the Valley of Mexico, they were among those known as “Chichimecas,” nomads from the northern deserts. They had to establish their credentials as rulers by allying themselves with the Toltec Tradition which had its ultimate roots in the great city of Teotihuacan. They accomplished this by marrying members of the aristocracy from the city of Colhuacan, which was believed to keep the “purest” Toltec Tradition in the Valley of Mexico. Among the surviving Aztec codices is one which is commonly believed to have been created in Colhuacan itself. It is known as the Codex Borbonicus and is nothing less than a pictorial manual for professional astrologers. The Codex Borbonicus begins its count with Imix.

If the Toltecs of Teotihuacan began their count with Imix, what can we say about the Classic Maya (200 – 800 CE)? We know that Teotihuacan had a military and political presence in Tikal as early as 378 and in Copan as early as 425, but does this mean that the Classic Maya followed the Teotihuacan count beginning with Imix?

Apparently not. Many of us are familiar with the bar-and-dot numeration in which Mayan numbers were commonly written. But a number could also be written out in syllabic hieroglyphs which were meant to be sounded out phonetically as they were read. The full syllabic hieroglyph for the number 1 contains something called an “infix.” An infix is an abbreviated form of a hieroglyph, merged with or “fixed in” to an entirely different glyph.

The glyph for the day sign Caban (No’j) is infixed into the syllabic glyph for the number 1. Next, the glyph for Etznab (Tijax) is infixed into the glyph for the number 2, and so on until Muluc (Toj), which is infixed into the number 13.

This might seem arbitrary, but upon examination it reveals a few startling symbolic complexities.

First of all, a beginning date of Caban is anything but coincidental. An Aztec source entitled “The Legend of the Suns” tells us that each of the four Worlds of Emergence had a name, and that each World was named for a specific day sign. The Fourth World – by most counts the world in which the Classic Maya believed themselves to be living – went by the name of Earthquake in “The Legend of the Suns”: in other words, Caban was the name of the world age during the Mayan Classic period.

So the count of days, as shown through the infixes, would go like this: 1 Caban, 2 Etznab, 3 Cauac, 4 Ahau…

Hold on. Let’s stop right there. The Mayan Cross of the Directions has four arms. Four is the number that represents totality, the universe as a whole. It is a number of completion.

What was the tzolk’in date of Dec 21, 2012, the completion of the Fourth World Age? It was 4 Ahau.

The Caban count is by no means arbitrary, but contains great symbolic meaning. While the infixes and the symbolism do not prove beyond doubt that the Classic Maya counted from Caban, they are certainly strongly suggestive.

In the end, though, this little essay remains inconclusive. It is simply not possible to establish an unquestioned, absolute beginning to the tzolk’in.

The circle of sacred time is, after all, a circle rather than a straight line. And a circle has neither beginning nor end.


Sacred Astronomy and the Modern Maya

People often ask me how much “sacred astronomy” is still remembered by the Maya. All I can do is to share a few of the experiences I had while living in Momostenango.

First of all, despite the predilection of anthropologists to describe everything as some sort of “sun god,” I never heard anyone actually refer to the sun as a god. Most people used the Spanish word “Dios” to describe the divine power, even though many Momostecans feel only a remote connection to the Catholic Church, and in some cases their understanding of the word Dios may be quite different than anything that would be recognizable to the pope. Some people actually use the word Ajaw (Yucatec: Ahau), the ancient, pre-Christian word for the divine. But the sun? No.

It is not the same when it comes to the moon. This luminary was often called Qati’t Ik’, which means “Grandmother Moon.” It is generally agreed among scholars that Xmucane, the “First Grandmother” in the K’iche’ Pop Wuj or Mayan Creation Epic, represents the waning moon, and that this is the same deity as Ix Chel in Yucatec lore. In both K’iche’ and Yucatec mythology, Grandmother Moon is a healer and a midwife. Here the connection between the ancient and modern Maya remains strong and very much alive. Victoria Qiej, who is both a healer and a midwife, always conducted her herb-gathering expeditions on the full moon.

The juncture of our Western constellations Scorpio and Sagittarius, which also marks the Galactic Center and which has gained much attention through the writings of John Major Jenkins, is the crossroads in the sky which marks the entrance to Xib’alb’a, the “awesome place,” the ancient Mayan Otherworld. It is also the place where the Milky Way crosses the path of the ecliptic – this is what makes it a crossroads. Many contemporary Maya from Momostenango can still point to this part of the sky and tell you that this is the road to Xib’alb’a.

The opposite point in the sky – which is to say, the other crossing of the Milky Way and ecliptic – is in the constellation we call Orion. During the Mayan Classic period, this was the “creation place.” It symbolized our entry into life, just as its opposite point, the Galactic Center, symbolized our entry into the Underworld. It is said that here the first “three hearthstones” were laid out in the sky during the act of creation. I was surprised to discover that this corner of the sky is very well remembered. Some people are under the impression that the hearthstones are formed by what we call the Belt of Orion; this isn’t quite true. The three hearthstones are a triangle; the belt is a straight line. The actual three hearthstones are formed by the central star in Orion’s Belt as well as his two feet. I am unlikely to forget this, as it was pointed out to me while rattling along a mountainous dirt road in the back of a pickup truck late at night. There is a nebula in the center of the triangle; this represents the hearth fire, although you need a very good eye (better than mine) to see it.

In Momos, most of the Maya still cook on wood stoves. In very traditional houses, three stones are laid out upon the top of the stove, and the family comal or tortilla griddle is placed on the stones, which are likewise referred to as “the three hearthstones.” Don Rigoberto Itzep’s wife Maria cooked all our tortillas on a comal perched upon three hearthstones. I don’t quite remember whether it was Rigoberto or Maria who told me that “with the three hearthstones, the cosmos is present in your own kitchen.” Maybe it was both of them.

This, then, is what I remember being told about the sky. On some future journey, perhaps I can learn even more.

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13 Manik

13 KEJ

Today is a real power house.

For one thing, it’s a 13 day. High-numbered days (10 or above) tend to be very intense – I often heard the Maya describe them as “muy fuerte.” Odd numbers express themselves in a more volatile way than even numbers. Since 13 is the highest possible odd number, it can be both volatile and intense. In Momos they used to say that people born on a 13 day are naturally psychic, and if they try to turn away from their intuitive gifts they will suffer from nervousness and morbid apprehensions. This means that on a 13 day, you have to “walk your talk.” Excuses are not allowed. You have to keep it real, and you have to maintain integrity with the world around you – which most definitely includes the Otherworld.

Kej (Yucatec: Manik) is a powerful day regardless of the number. This is the day of the deer, but the deer in question is not some gentle, soft-eyed fawn, but a mighty stag, the lord of the forest. To the ancient Maya, the deer was one of the most powerful animals of all. When the Spaniards first arrived, the Maya perceived their horses as similar to deer – the mightiest of the four-footed tribe. I can still remember walking through one of the villages and seeing a horse in a field nearby. I was surprised when my Mayan friend called it a “kej” – and indeed, in K’iche’ “kej” is the word for both “deer” and “horse.”

Kej is raw power in the aggregate. Power, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad – everything depends on the degree of integrity with which we use it. Kej is one of the Year Lords, and it is traditionally said that political leaders – people of power – will rise to acclaim in a Kej year if they are honest, but will be thrown down in disgrace – like being thrown from a bucking horse – if they use their power for inappropriate purposes. It is interesting to remember that 1974, the year of Watergate, was a Kej year.

How, then, shall we claim the tremendous power of this day and wield it with integrity, grace, and honesty?

Among other things, Kej is the nawal or guardian spirit of Nature – wild, beautiful Nature and all our four-footed brethren who live there. Upon this day, it is favorable to spend some time in Nature. The trees, the streams, the wild things – they all contribute to endowing us with the balance and the sense of harmony, unity and oneness which the awesome power of this day demands.

If you can manage it, take a hike. Even if your job confines you to an office cubicle, you can still take your lunch hour at a local park. Sit under a tree or on a bench next to a melodious stream. You will be glad you did, for you will sense the majesty and natural beauty of 13 Kej.

12 Cimi

Today is the day of Death, so… rejoice!

For the most part, my Mayan friends regard the day of Death as an auspicious day. When a Momostecan friend born on Kame (Yucatec: Cimi) had her “cumpleaños cosmico” (her tzolk’in birthday), we all enthusiastically went out for pizza.

In some ways, these people have it all. Those born on Kame are both mystical and practical at the same time. Best of all, they always have a youthful appearance. It is almost as if the guardians of their nawal – the Underworld Lords – have given them the gift of being “forever young.” These people look like they’re forty when they’re actually sixty.

This may seem strange to us, but let us remember that the notion of a dark, tormented place called Hell is a Christian concept that had nothing to do with the ancient Maya. To them, the Otherworld was the abode of the beloved ancestors. The famous king Pakal of Palenque (formerly mistaken for an ancient astronaut) is depicted traveling the Tree of Life to the world of the gods after his death, and the symbolism upon his sarcophagus is overwhelmingly positive.

If the ancestors live beneath us, then every flower that pushes its way up through the earth from below is a gift that they give to us.

Here is a “secret meaning” that I learned from the well known Mayan scholar Lem Batz. The word kame is derived from kaminaq, which really does mean “death.” But… In both the Tz’utujil and K’iche’ languages the word kamik, which has the same root, signifies the present tense in grammar. “Death” is “the Eternal Now!”

Living, as we do, in the Eternal Now, our eloquent poetic words and our beautiful lives feed the past – which is to say “the dead,” the world of the ancestors – and thus we create the blossoming of the future. Death can only happen in the Eternal Now. As Martin Prechtel once wrote, we are not fully “cooked” in the glorious oven of human life until we die; death completes us.

Therefore, welcome to the Eternal Now!

What to do today? Well, the answer is: Anything you please! Kame is just as favorable for worldly pursuits as it is for more meditative ones. Today is a 12 day, and some Daykeepers say that 12 means “completion,” so today is an excellent day to wrap up your projects, being them to a positive conclusion, and get ready to begin something new when the trecena of Lamat arrives on Tuesday.


11 Chicchan

Today is 11 Kan in K’iche’ (Yucatec: Chicchan). Yes, I know that yesterday was Kan in Yucatec and something else in K’iche’, and I agree that it is genuinely confusing.

As I mentioned earlier, the archetype of Feathered Serpent manifests in three forms in the tzolk’in. The day sign Iq’ is his manifestation as the Wind God or symbol of the Divine Breath. The day sign Aj or Ben has a strong relationship with the historical Toltec teacher. Chicchan or Kan – the day of the Serpent – has to do with Feathered Serpent as a manifestation of pure energy.

The K’iche’ Maya of the Guatemalan highlands recognize a force within us called koyopa. The word literally means “lightning.” If someone is talking about the weather, they probably mean actual physical lightning, but if they are talking about spiritual matters, they are most likely referring to the inner lightning or “lightning in the blood.” This energy collects itself in the 13 joints of the body and may manifest in terms of spiritual messages, divinatory powers, and so on. I have asked several well educated Daykeepers whether they thought that the koyopa was the same thing as the Hindu concept of kundalini. The inevitable answer was: “What else could it possibly be?” This day sign symbolizes the koyopa.

As with the Hindu concept, the Mayan perception of koyopa is that it is an energy which is both sexual and intellectual – though here we are speaking of “intellect” not as arid speculation but as the curiosity which drives us toward deeper and deeper knowledge of the truth. It is often said that people born upon the day of the Serpent have a natural talent for the sciences, and especially for computers. I have found this to be true. This is the archetype of the sexy scientist.

But on an 11 day, it is perhaps better to allow the koyopa energy to be channeled into quieter pursuits. Even numbered days express their positive qualities somewhat more easily than odd numbered days, and the higher numbers tend to be extremely forceful and intense, which not everyone enjoys. 11 is one of the highest of the odd numbers. It is, however, very creative, and its energy can be easily directed towards artistic pursuits.

Chicchan/Kan days, like Akbal days, are favorable for spending romantic time with your loved one. All Chicchan days are favorable for the study of subjects related to the higher mind, and that is especially true of these high numbered days, wherein the energy is best channeled or directed into such pursuits – as opposed to letting it “run wild.”

In Momos, shamans who have mastered the koyopa and are believed to have unusual psychic abilities often receive special initiations on high-numbered Chicchan/Kan days. Therefore, be aware of flashes of intuition or psychic insight, as such windows into the other world may very well be wide open today.

10 Kan

Today is 10 K’at (Yucatec: Kan). In the Yucatec language, kan simply means “yellow,” and the reference is to corn. In K’iche’, k’at is a net bag. When the Maya go to the shrines to do ceremonies, they carry their offerings in bags slung over their shoulders. The traditional net bag has for the most part been replaced by black plastic hefty bags, but such is progress. The idea is that your bag is packed full of offerings because you have a lot of karma to make up for.

Sometimes a story – especially a mythic or legendary story – can be more informative than a mere description. As I said earlier, the deepest meaning of any day sign can be found in the pages of the Mayan Creation Epic or Popol Vuh, so here is a story from the epic.

Two Hero Twins, the sons of First Grandmother, journeyed to the Underworld to play handball against the Lords of Death. They lost, and the head of one of the heroes was placed in the branches of a tree that stood at a crossroads (the crossroads is the juncture of the Milky Way with the ecliptic, where the sun will always be found at the winter solstice on December 21). The daughter of one of the Underworld Lords, named Ixkik’, was walking by the crossroads. (Don’t worry about how to pronounce her name.) The head hanging in the branches still possessed its vital energy, so it spat into her hand and she became pregnant with a new set of Hero Twins.

Ixkik’ knew that her condition would not go over very well with the Lords of Death, so she made a run for it and found her way to the world above – to our world. She went to the home of First Grandmother and knocked on the door. She said, “Hi, I’m pregnant with your grandchildren.”

First Grandmother said, “People always come and tell me all kinds of crazy things. How do I know you’re for real?”

She gave Ixkik’ a net bag and told her to go to a certain place and gather corn.

But when Ixkik’ got there, she found the cornfield to be blighted and empty. Only one gnarled, pathetic ear of corn remained. She placed it in her bag, sad because she knew First Grandmother would be angry with her and reject her and her unborn children.

But as she walked, the bag became heavier and heavier. When she arrived back at the home of First Grandmother, she placed the bag on the ground as it overflowed with ears and ears of bright yellow corn.

First Grandmother said, “Today is a K’at day and look what’s in your bag! Now I know you’re for real!”

What’s in your bag today? Just a load of karma, or a wealth of pure abundance?




9 Akbal


Today is a sweetheart of a day.

First of all, it’s a 9 day. I have already mentioned that 9 is regarded as the number of life because we spend nine months in the womb of the mother. 9 is also said to be the number of the ancestors, and the number of women. In Momos, female shamans hold their own special ceremonies on 9 E’ (Eb) and 9 B’atz’ (Chuen).

You may wonder: If 9 symbolizes both ancestors and women, does that suggest that the Maya were once matriarchal? This is what the scholar Rafael Girard once asserted in his book “Esotericism of the Popol Vuh.” Girard had advanced university degrees, but none of them were in anthropology, so anthropologists ignore him. Maya Daykeepers tend not to have books by anthropologists on their own shelves (with the exception of Barbara Tedlock, a Daykeeper). They do have books by Rafael Girard. They say: “Sometimes the anthropologists don’t know what they’re talking about.”

The day Aq’ab’al (Yucatec: Akbal) is the day of romance. There used to be a rather charming custom in Momos, only parts of which remained by the time I got there. When a young man wanted to marry a girl, he would choose a group of “marriage singers” (many of whom seem to have been born on Aq’ab’al days) to walk down the street, serenading the girl until they reached the house of her parents, where they would negotiate the marriage arrangements. This kind of public serenade could be the most delightful moment in a girl’s life – unless, of course, she didn’t know the boy had feelings for her, in which case it could be jaw-droppingly embarrassing. At present, they still have specialists who do the negotiations, but to the best of my knowledge they no longer walk down the street and sing. In any case, I have never seen it.

Women born on Aq’ab’al days are known for their romantic temperaments. Aq’ab’al men are known for their artistic flair, especially when it comes to words.

What to do today?

Arrange a romantic evening with the one you love.

Write a poem.

Dust off the guitar you played in college and pick a few tunes.

If you are in need of a job, look for one today. They Maya say that Aq’ab’al is favorable for job hunting – probably because it’s such a charming day that people will have a good impression of you.



8 IK

Today is 8 Iq’ (Ik in Yucatec). This is the day of the wind.

Now, the wind can be anything from a gentle ocean breeze to a stormy hurricane. Among the Maya, they often think of it as a hurricane. (By the way, “hurricane” is one of the few words borrowed into English from a Mayan language – Hun Rakan. Another word is “shark,” first used by buccaneers along the Belize coast and derived from the Mayan “xoc.”)

Iq’ is also one of the four day signs that can serve as the Year Lord, and this year is 1 Iq’. Yes, there has been some discussion about changing the Year Lords, but in most traditionalist communities, they still think of this as the year 1 Iq’.

At least as recently as the 1970s, the Momostecans used to celebrate the recurrence of the Year Lord every 20 days by shooting off firecrackers and having a bit of a fiesta. I have never seen this, so I suspect the custom has died out during the last 35 or 40 years.

All the same, they always walked softly around Lord Iq’ because of his propensities to blow up a big hurricane wind. The year 2001 was an Iq’ year. So was 2005, the year of the literal hurrican Katrina.

Today, the good news is that it is an 8 day. The ritual cycle in many traditional Mayan communities runs from the 6 through the 9 day of every trecena. The most important ritual day is 8. This number has a habit of balancing any day sign’s energy and helping it to manifest at its highest potential.

So what is the highest potential of Iq’? The wind is also the breath. And when they say breath, they mean the breath of life. Centuries ago, a Mayan scribe, commenting on the death of a Yaxchilan king, said: “His white wind (saq iq’) became withered.” The “wind” is within us. It is the vital breath.

Iq’ is one of the three day signs that relates strongly to the archetype of the Feathered Serpent (the other two are Aq/Ben and Chicchan/Kan). Iq’ symbolizes Feathered Serpent as the God of the Wind, who is the divine breath within all of us.

Today, do yoga – especially if it involves pranayam, the science of breathing. And set yourself to work studying some lofty subject – Iq’ days are said to be helpful for intellectual endeavor. Do you have an altar or some other spot in your home that is devoted to “sacred space”? There is a Mayan tradition that Iq’ is the “sacred wind” that blows through the shrines and altars and purifies them. In Momos, Iq’ is a day to clean our home shrine or altar, a day to honor the sacred space we have created around us. So get out the dust cloth and polish up those candles, Buddha statues, and incense sticks on your personal shrine. Today is the right day for it.