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.