The Ritual Practice of the Long Count and the Short Count Calendar of Postclassic Yucatan

Stone monuments with Long Count calendar dates were no longer erected in the southern and central lowland region at the end of the classic period. But the Yucatec of the northern Maya lowlands continued within the classic lowland tradition of observing the rituals of the k’atun. As noted, as late as in 1566 AD, Landa comments on a Maya concert of high numbers:

They have often very long counts and they extend them in infinitum, counting the number 8000 twenty times, which makes 160,000; then again this

160,000 by twenty, and so on multiplying by 20, until they reach a number which cannot be counted (Tozzer 1941: 98).

Daniel Grana-Behrens maintains that he has identified “period-ending dates” on stelae from postclassic Yucatan.[1] [2] [3] The latest known inscribed Long Count dates are found in the eclipse table of the Codex Dresden. These were all dates before 11th bak’tun (1225 ad).25 From the beginning of the classic period to c. 1750 AD the k’atun or winikhaab have been one of the basic time units in the Maya culture. Landa claims that:

Not only do the Indians keep track of the year and the months, ..., but they had a certain way of counting the periods of time and their affair by ages, which they did by periods of twenty years, counting thirteen twenties by means of one of the twenty letters of the months called Ahau, .... They call these katuns in their language, and by them they kept the account of their ages marvelously well (Tozzer 1941: 166-167).

The count of the k’atun, u kahlay katunoob, is categorised as the Short Count. The Short Count is an abridged form of the Long Count that existed into the colonial period among Yucatecan speaking people of the Maya lowlands. In the postclassic and colonial period the k’atun-cycle was the fundamental time unit to record historical event like the creation and destruction of the world, wars and invasions etc. The historical accounts and prophecies and the recording and prediction of the creation and the destruction of the worlds in postclassic and colonial Yucatan is narrated within this k’atun-cycle (Taube 1988: 205; 212-213). The Short Count calendar6 is not anchored to a base date. It was designed by the date and coefficient from the 260-day calendar (always on the day Ajaw) on which the winikhaab or k’atun ended. The individual k’atun was identified with a number of the Ajaw because of the mathematical relation between the winal and the k’atun. A k’atun always has an Ajaw date, for the reason that 7, 200 days of the k’atun can be divided by twenty (the number of day signs). Since the number of the coefficients that succeed the day names does not evenly divide a k’atun (7, 200 divided by 13 leaves a remainder of 11), it has a coefficient of two less than the preceding k’atun. The k’atun 11 Ajaw is followed by 9 Ajaw, 7 Ajaw, 5 Ajaw, 3 Ajaw, 1 Ajaw, 12 Ajaw, 10 Ajaw, 8 Ajaw, 6 Ajaw, 4 Ajaw, 2 Ajaw, 13 Ajaw. 13 Ajaw is the last k’atun of the k’atun round. This Short Count amounts to a little more than c. 256 years. 13 x 7, 200 days = c. 256.26 years. It is not a coincidence that K’atun 11 Ajaw begins the K’atun Round. K’atun 11 Ajaw starts on 1 Imix. The day 1 Imix is the first day after the “period-ending date” of K’atun 13 Ajaw. The Chilam Balam Books of Chumayel, Tizimin and Mam relates that the destruction and creation of the previous and contemporary world were undertaken at K’atun 11 Ajaw and the later K’atun 13 Ajaw. The erection of the four Imix trees of creation came about in K’atun 11 Ajaw according to the Chilam Balam Books of Chumayel, Tizimin and Mam (Roys 1933: 132; Taube 1988: 214). The giant stone discs from Caracol and Tonina are the classic predecessor of the postclassic Yucatec k’atun notations. The Short Count system of reckoning time is employed in the postclassic literature from Yucatan. Chronicles, written by members of the ruling Maya lineages some years after the Spanish conquest, include genealogies combined with a historical narrative in a chronological order. The Short Count was recorded in the Books of Chilam Balam for constructing mythic-history and prophecy. The Books of Chilam Balam states that the k’atun (winikhaab) shared both the same ending day (1-13 Ajaw) and the same prophecy, which has to do with the conception of cyclic history among the Maya (Martin and Grube 2000: 88-89).

There are indications that what has been called the Short Count, which consisted of Tun-Ajaw notations, replaced the Long Count in the postclassic period. This Puuc-style of inscriptions does not contain Initial Series dates, “period-ending” designations and distance numbers. A new (Yucatec) calendar syntax or formula of dating was accordingly introduced in the postclassic period.[4] [5] The Initial Series dates became less common in the Terminal Classic in the north. The new Puuc-style of dating has been found at several sites.28 In this way a northern calendar identity was created (Grube, Lacadena and Martin 2003: II-4-II-5). The Tun-Ajaw nota?tion does not present the precise date but only names the tun in a k’atun period. Historical, and ritual events were thus not precisely dated. This compares with the Mesoamerican traditions of Central Mexico and the Maya Highlands where the year was used as a chronological narrative of political and dynastic history in Annal writing.[6] The later Chilam Balam Books of Yucatan applied the system of the Tun-K’atun or k’atun notations in recording political history and prophecies in a chronological sequence (Taube 1988: 213-214; Milbrath 1999: 5-7; Grube, Lacadena and Martin 2003: П-4-П-5).[7] [8]

A range of ritual practices of time of the Short Count/Long Count calendar are in various ways indicated from the postclassic period and the colonial period. K’altun “period-ending” rituals were conducted according to postclassic inscriptions in Chichen Itza and Campeche (Stuart 1996: 155-156). “Period-endings” were moreover observed in the terminal classic (from, 830 ad). The last date of a recognised recorded “periodending” k’altun and scattering ritual is on 1 Ajaw 3 Yaxk’in (May 2, 889 ad), inscribed on Stela 12, Waxaktun (Schele and Grube 1995: 204).

As mentioned, Taube (1988b) identified a k’atun-wheel on the back of a turtle excavated in Mayapan of Yucatan, Mexico.3i The calendar wheel on the back of turtles was a way of recording and conceiving time. The turtle symbolise a k’atun cycle or a k’atun-wheel with 13 Ajaw signs (“periodending dates”). There are archaeological and iconographical evidence for blood letting in postclassic k’atun-ending rituals associated with these k’atun-turtles.

Richard N. Luxton maintains that the first 892 lines of the Book of Chumayel delineate the ritual recitation of the inauguration of the new Colonial Chilam Balam and a new kahlay katunoob, i.e. a c. 256 years period or a bak’tun, in K’atun 11 Ajaw or 1539 AD (Luxton 1995: 223-224). Munro S. Edmonson has argued that Chapter 29 of the Book of Chumayel, ‘The Creation of the World’ constitutes the ritual celebration through a ritual drama of a bak’tun (kahlay katunoob) as late as in 1618 AD ( (Edmonson 1980). Song 12, kilis tuupyok uitz, ‘the extinguishing of the old wealthy man upon the hill’, of the colonial Cantares de Dzitbalche (Barrera

Vasquez 1965), besides outlining a New Year Ceremony of the 365-day calendar, also delineates the ending of k’atun (Barrera Vasquez 1965: 72). Furthermore, Craine and Reindorp (1979: 98-100, note 110 & 111) maintain that a simultaneous k’atun and haab ritual is outlined in Codex Perez and the Book of Chilam Balam of Mam:

13 Kan is the first day of Pop, and the stone (idol) for the Katun 5 Ahau was taken (engraved) in the year 1593, which passed on 15 Tzec (Craine and Reindorp 1979: 98).

There was a ritual homage to the “idols” at the change of each k’atun. Stones were employed as time reckonings. The tradition of the erection of large stones at “period-endings” of the Long Count calendar is attested at the time of the arrival of the Spanish.[9] [10]

Based upon his reading of the Books of Chilam Balam, Edmonson asserts that the postclassic and colonial Yucatec not only had individual divine lords (e.g. time deities) of the k’atun but that the real capital of the region was the seat of the k’atun (hetz’ k’atun) and the cycle (may cu) (Edmonson N.D.; 1980; 1982; 1986). A seat of the Short Count, k’atun cycle was an honour for the individual city.33 It is said in The Books of Chilam Balam to take place in cities like Mayapan, Merida and Valladolid etc. (Edmonson 1986)[11] That postclassic Yucatan was systematically ruled from a different region in each k’atun is however, not corroborated.

  • [1] Cf. Grana-Behrens (2002: 458).
  • [2] Cf. Grana-Behrens (2002), Lacadena (2003) and Boot (2005) for references to “periodending” inscriptions on stone monuments in the northern lowland of Yucatan.
  • [3] The Short Count probably first appeared at Caracol (Satterthwaite 1965:626). In the city of Caracol there has been found 18 “Giant Ajaw Altars”. Each has a coefficientand the day-name Ajaw of the 260-day calendar inscribed. The day Ajaw is the only positionof the 13 days from the 260-day calendar that could end a given winikhaab-period. Theearliest date on the “Giant Ajaw Altars” is 2 Ajaw i. e. or 495 ad and the last is7 Ajaw, or the ending of 830 ad (Martin and Grube 2000: 88-89).
  • [4] Cf. Grana-Behrens (2002) and Bricker and Miram (2002: 43). The Yucatecan methodof recording dates has been summarised by Thompson (1978: 197-203).
  • [5] Tun-Ajaw dates are found in the western and eastern Puuc region and in inscriptionsfrom Chichen Itza and Ek’ Balam. This system is applied in a comparatively great extent inXcalumkin and Xkombec. These inscriptions are, besides on monumental architecture,inscribed in the Codex Paris and in books from the colonial period (Grube, Lacadena andMartin 2003: II-4-II-5).
  • [6] Tun-Ajaw dates were also employed to dedicate architectural structures.
  • [7] History and prophecy were intermingled. What happened on K’atun 13 Ajaw mightbe patterned on the next K’atun 13 Ajaw. Cf. Pulston (1979).
  • [8] K’atun-wheels, which depict a serie of 13 K’atuns, are recorded in The Books ofChilam Balam (Roys 1933: 132; Thompson 1978: 247-248; Craine and Reindorp 1979: 88; 97;99, note 107; note 109; 97, fig. 1; 98-99, see notes; 175-176).
  • [9] A ceremonial employment of stones in Yucatec calendar ceremonies is reported by:the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, the Codex Perez and the Book of Chilam Balam ofMam, the Chronicle of Chacxulubchen, Cronica de Yaxkkul, Cronica de Chicxulub, Andres deAvendano y Loyola in Relacion de las dos entradas que hice a la conversion de los gentilesytzaex, y cehaces, Diego de Landa in Relacion de las cosas de Yucatan, Fray Pedro Sanchezde Aguilar in Informe contra idolorum cultures del Obispado de Yucatan and Diego deCollogudo in Historia de Yucatan.
  • [10] The Santa Rita murals, from Belize in the postclassic period portray supernaturalbeings. The scenes contain place names like the ‘dancing place sign’, Wuk Ha’ Nal togetherwith the day-names 1 Ajaw, 9 Ajaw etc. , which observe the ending of a K’atun. The placenames describe the places where the k’atun was ended and established in the same mannerit is outlined in The Books of Chilam Balam (Stuart and Houston 194: 79-90).
  • [11] Cf. list by Edmonson on the seating and lordship of the k’atun in The Books of theChilam Balam (Edmonson 1986: 4-5; 275-276) There are series of the governance and countenance of the k’atun in Codex Perez and the Book of Chilam Balam of Mani (Craine andReindorp 1979: 77-88, note 60; 100, note 112). Fray Andres de Avendano describes the k’atuncycle of the Itza in the late 17th century. He had seen books with: ‘... ages and prophecieswhich their idols and images announced to them, or, to speak more accurately, the devilby means of the worship which they pay to him in the form of some stones. These ages arethirteen in number; each has its separate idol and its priest, with a separate prophecy of itsevents. These thirteen ages are divided into thirteen parts which divide this kingdom ofYucatan and each age, with its idol, priest and prophecy, rules in one of these thirteen partsof the land, according as they have divided it’ (Means 1917: 141).
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