Mesoamerica and Ritual Calendars of Time

Despite the numerous particular traditions and languages, the people of Mesoamerica had several cultural and religious traits in common. Meso- america has been defined as a cultural-geographical region incorporating northwestern, central and southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and the western part of Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. In this area various cultures—for instance: Maya, Nahua (Aztec), Olmec, Zapotec, Toltec, Tlapanec, Teotihuacano, Tarasco, Otomf Mixtec etc.—lived in advanced civilisations before the European arrival, i.e. c. 1000 BC - 1521 AD (fig. 1).[1] Contacts existed between the different Mesoamerican cultures through migrations, pilgrimage, trade, diplomacy, war, tribute and conquest. To some extent, the Mesoamericans shared principles of writing and narrative visual systems, which were for instance employed in screenfold books, called codices by contemporary scholars. Many civilisations had a ball game, monumental architecture, certain religious symbols, deities, rituals and stories in common.

What interest us here is that several Mesoamericans cultures, apart from a vigesimal counting system, also had quite a few calendars in common— in particular a 260-day calendar and a 365-day calendar, which together is permutated into a 52-year calendar cycle called the Calendar Round.[2] The civilisations of Mesoamerica represent an especially interesting case in world history since they operated with numerous calendars. The many time-cycles and calendar calculations have been recorded, to some extent, in the various Mesoamerican sources. The fundamental time units and calendars in Mesoamerica were 13 days (Sp. “trecena”), 20 days (Sp. “vein- tena”), a 260-day calendar, a 365-day calendar, and the Calendar Round of 52 calendar years or 18,980 days. There were also cycles of 7 and 9 days, 819 days, and 4 x 819 days, and a stellar calendar with observations of various lunar and Venus appearances (Lounsbury 1981: 760).[3] Mesoamerican peoples meticulously dated a variety of historical, military, religious, political and social events.[4] The various calendars served different functions not only because of the computation system but also how they were applied by the individual culture. The calendars were accordingly respectively employed to record history, prophecy, divination, agriculture or the seasonal cycle of nature (ecological time), astronomy etc. As documented in archaeological, epigraphic, narrative visual, colonial and contemporary ethnographical sources, Mesoamerican cultures executed many rituals of the assorted calendars. The numerous calendars accordingly played a cardinal role in the cultural and religious systems, socio-political institutions and the daily life of the people of this vast cultural-geographical region. It is therefore quite exciting that various extant primary and secondary sources outline Mesoamerican executed temporal ritual practices in connection with four calendars i.e. the 260-day calendar, the 365-day calendar, the 52- year calendar and the so-called Long Count calendar.[5] These Mesoamerican ritual calendars of time are the subject of the analysis of this book. The calendar systems have different foundation and historical development in the many cultures of the region but this is not relevant issue to consider in the comparative theoretical analysis (methodological model to be outlined below) of the various temporal ceremonies.

It is important to mention that Mesoamerican religion constitutes not a minor tradition. I emphasise, however, that the mentioned general Mesoamerican cultural and religious elements are far from homogeneous.

There is no evidence supporting that Mesoamerican cultures recognised a common identity. The designation Mesoamerica, as constructed by contemporary scholars, therefore serves as an “ideal type” (Weber 1969). Mesoamerica has nonetheless been analysed as one religious and cultural system by quite a few scholars. Apart from the numerous languages, several elements of the Mesoamerican cultural and religious traditions continue to exist, even if they are more or less modified by Catholicism— evangelised by colonial Spanish missionaries between the 16th and 18th centuries—and today challenged by globalisation and in particular missionary representatives of US Protestantism.[6] Indigenous peoples in the Americas have, however, in many cases continued to define Christianity within their own cultural, linguistic, philosophical and religious systems. The languages, histories, philosophies. religions and cultural traditions are essential parts of the Indigenous Mesoamerican (and other Indigenous American) people’s threatened identity and important in theirs struggles for religious, political, economic, judicial, linguistic and social rights. Unfortunately, apart from some Mixe aka Ayuuk (southern Mexico) and Maya communities (Highland Guatemala)[7] [8] [9] , there are no longer any practice of the traditional Mesoamerican calendars today. But fundamental components of traditional Mesoamerican time counts persist among Zapotecs, Chatinos, Mazatecs, Chinantecs, Tlapanecs and Mixtecs of Southern Mex- ico.11

  • [1] Paul Kirchoff originally outlined Mesoamerica as a cultural and geographical unity(Kirchoff 1943). Other definitions of this region have been suggested as well (cf. Carrasco2001: ix,. xiii).
  • [2] Cf. Prudence M. Rice about various theories of the origin of calendars in Mesoamerica (Rice 2007).
  • [3] There were many other time computations like for instance, the linear Long Countcalendar of the Olmec and Maya civilisations. For instance, a ritual structure of a 40 day-period may be detected in the 260-day calendar of the Mixe in southern Mexico (Lipp 1993:182-183; Duinmeijer 1997: 192). The Kakchikel of Highland Guatemala computed a 400-daycycle (kuna). They also used a cycle of c. 20 years or 8000 days (may), a 260-day cycle(cholquih) and most likely a 365-day cycle (Recions and Goetz 1953: 28-31).
  • [4] Cf. Aveni (1980; 1989); Broda de Casas (1969), Brotherson (1982), Caso (1967; 1971),Edmonson (1988) and Tena (1987) for general works about Mesoamerican calendars.
  • [5] The Long Count calendar is, however, only known from the Maya and Isthiman region.
  • [6] African religions have, although to a lesser degree, influenced some Indigenous religions of Mesoamerica.
  • [7] K’iche’, Ixil, Akateko, Q’anjob’al, Mam, Popti and Chuj.
  • [8] Cf. the research project “Time and Identity” under the direction of Professor Dr.Maarten E.R.G.N. Jansen at Leiden University (
  • [9] Roy A. Rappaport has made an interesting theoretical analysis of time, ritual andreligion (1999: 169-235) but do not consider ritual practice of (calendar) time.
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >