Every year around March 21st, when the length of day equals the measure of night, a “snaky” event occurs at the ancient ruins of Chichen Itza, Cancun’s most famous archeological site. On the sides of El Castillo, the site’s main pyramid, the shadow of a serpent can be seen slithering down the stairs as the sun reaches its place in the spring sky, astonishing onlookers and validating the exactitude with which the Mayans viewed the cycles of Earth. Mayan calendar experts claim that this phenomena reaffirms the accuracy and precision of the Mayan calendar.
The Mayan Calendar
The Mayan calendar, which dates back to before the 5th century, was created with such incredible precision that it is highly admired even today. Its three parts, the Long Count, the Tzolkin (divine calendar) and the Haab (civil calendar), work together to measure the various cycles of the Earth and the Universe according to Mayan tradition.
The Long Count
The Long Count is an astronomical calendar that represented a universal cycle to the Mayans. They used the calendar to track longer periods of time, hence its name, the Long Count. Each cycle in the calendar lasted 2,880,000 days, about 7,885 solar years, and its end marked what the Mayans considered a rebirth of the universe. A large New Year’s Eve type celebration would generally occur on this date, indicating the beginning of a new universal cycle.
The Tzolk’in calendar, or Sacred Round, utilized a 260-day cycle, which is believed to have been either a representation of the cycle of human fertility or indicative of the time it took to cultivate corn, a staple in the Mayan diet. Many believe that the numbers 13 and 20 were also of extreme importance to the Mayans, and thus the calendar uses a series of 13 numbers, called tones, in combination with 20 glyphs, or images, to tell time. Each tone represented one day and each glyph represented a month. Much like the hands on a clock, the two components worked on a rotation, indicating the day and month in the cycle of the Tzolk’in calendar. While this form of telling time was extremely important to the Mayans, it did not match up with a complete solar year, and therefore required the use of an additional calendar, the Haab.
The Haab is the calendar most comparable to the one we use today. It is based on the cycle of the sun and was used for a variety of civil activities, such as accounting, economics and farming. This calendar worked on a 360 day cycle, leaving 5 nameless days at the end of each year, which were believed to be the days in which the gods rested. During these five “dangerous” days, when Earth was left unprotected, the Mayans would honor the gods in a series of rituals that would help motivate them to return.
The precision of each of the calendars allowed the Mayans to construct large temples that would indicated certain astronomical events throughout the year. The snake that appears to descend the steps of El Castillo on the Northern Hemisphere’s Spring Equinox is a unique phenomenon that serves as evidence to the profound astronomical knowledge of the Mayan civilization.