The Symbolic-Temporal Principle of the 260-day Calendar In Mesoamerican Religion(s)

We have seen that there were a great variety of calendars and associated ritual practices of time in Mesoamerica. The temporal principal (religious) status and function of the 260-day calendar in the Mesoamerican religious system(s) is, however, conspicuous.[1] Among the numerous calendars and time computations, the Mesoamerican cultures held a special regard for the 260-day calendar, which was interconnected in various ways with the 365-day calendar, the 52-year calendar and the Long Count calendar (Short Count calendar).

The Mixtecs (Nuu Savi) of southern Mexico employed an extraordinary language—various versions are known from the different dialects—for the day signs and day numbers of the 260-day calendar recorded in their manuscripts. For instance, the famous Mixtec ruler Lord Eight Deer would be named Naa Cuaa after the day of the 260-day calendar he was born and not by the conventional number una (“eight”) and word for the animal idzu (“deer”) in colloquial speech (Dahlgren 1954: 282-287; Smith 1973: 23-27; Lipp 1983: 203; Boone 2007: 4). Also the Mixe or Mije (Ayuuk) of southern Mexico had an extraordinary vocabulary for the calendar numbers but presumably not for the days of the 260-day calendar (Lipp 1983: 203-205; 1991: 62-63; Duinmeijer 1997: 180-181) Apparently, the special language gave the 260-day calendar an exceptional status.


As we have seen, the 260-day calendar exercised influences upon other major calendars—the 365-day calendar, the 52-year calendar, the Short Count calendar and the Long Count calendar—of Mesoamerica.

As noted, the 260-day calendar was in various ways connected to the Long Count calendar where the day-name Ajaw enjoyed a particular prominence as “temporal lord”.[2] Associated with the later Short Count calendar, the Ajaw of the 260-day calendar was the divine lord of the time period k’atun (winikhaab) according to the so-called k’atun pages (2-12) of 13 k’atuns of the late postclassic period according to the manuscript Codex Paris (cf. Taube 1987) and the early colonial books of the Chilam Balam.

Moreover, the mathematical composition of the 260-day calendar—i.e. 20 days multiplied with 13 numbers = 260—reflect, although with one exception, the numerical organisation of the previous Long Count calendar. We also recollect that Long Counts or time ages (world eras) had existed before the present time era. Stelae 1, 3 and 5 of Coba record the beginning of the current Long Count era, 4 Ajaw 8 Ohl (Kumk’u) in relation with twenty Long Counts set at 13. It is therefore quite intriguing and probably not a coincident that the components 13 x 20 equal the 13 numbers and 20 days of the 260-day calendar.[3] More important is the fact that the 260-day calendar had a remarkable significance in the ritual practice of time of the Long Count calendar. According to a mathematical logic the “period-ending” stations of the Long Count calendar had to take place on the twentieth day, Ajaw, of the 260-day calendar. It was this day name of the cyclical 260-day calendar that was symbolically emphasised in the ritual practice of time of the interval temporal stations of the linear Long Count calendar. This may explain why the ritual practice of time of the

Long Count calendar were celebrated at different intervals. It was the position of the Ajaw from the 260-day calendar within the (zero date) Long Count calendar that was celebrated not only the termination and inauguration of intervals of a linear calendar. The day-sign the Ajaw of the 260-day calendar was synchronised with identical (pattern) dates of former, contemporary and future Long Count stations. Moreover, Ajaw was the title of the lord of the Maya city or city-state. We have seen that the ruling lord was in various places related to the day-sign Ajaw of the 260-day calendar in the classic inscriptions and iconography.

In order to distinguish a 365-day calendar cycle from another in the 52- year calendar the people in Mesoamerica called every year after one of four particular days in the 260-day calendar for a “Year Bearer”. The Year Bearer is a designation for the transition from one 365-day year to another 365-day year in the 52-year calendar cycle or Calendar Round. Only four days from the 260-day calendar can mathematically be a Year Bearer. Since 260 and 365 have 5 as a common mathematical factor, only every fifth date of the 260-day calendar can coincide with a date of the 365-day calendar. Each Year Bearer increases every year until it reaches the number thirteen. It will then re-begin at number one. After 52 years will the same Year Bearer with a corresponding coefficient, reoccur (Thompson 1978: 128; Taube 1988: 181182). In this manner the Year Bearer of the 260-day calendar categorised and accordingly gave temporal identity to each 365-day year in the 52-year calendar cycle. The Year Bearers of the 260-day calendar structured Meso- american historiography recognising each year of the 52-year calendar. In addition, according to Mesoamerican creation stories the world and humanity were created on dates from the 260-day calendar. Moreover, as we saw the 260-day calendar constituted the dates of the 52-year calendar ritual.

Not only the traditional 365-day calendar and the 52-year calendar but also world ages or world periods were categorised by the 260-day calendar. A prophecy of the end of world ages was associated with the 260-day calendar. A general agreement exists among scholars that the postclassic Aztecs had a concept of five world ages. The sequence of the five world ages (“Suns”) in Aztec religion each has a distinctive set of characteristics and hence identities represented by names of the 260-day calendar. These world periods were respectively terminated by a particular cataclysmic destruction and its inhabitants were either destroyed or transformed into another form (Elzey 1976: 117-118). The majority of the sources give each world age the names Nahui Ocelotl (“4 Jaguar”), Nahui Ehecatl (“4 Wind”),

Nahui Quiahuitl (“4 Rain”), Nahui Atl (“4 Water”) and Nahui Ollin (“4 Movement”). The following five world ages or world eras in a chronological or linear order can be identified as:

  • 1. Nahui Ocelotl (4 Jaguar).
  • 2. Nahui Ehecatl (4 Wind).
  • 3. Nahui Quiahuitl (4 Rain).
  • 4. Nahui Atl (4 Water).
  • 5. Nahui Ollin (4 Movement).

Each world age was named after a date in the 260-day cycle and associated with and presided over by a particular deity and a particular group of beings that were either exterminated or transformed into different kinds of beings in the first four creations. These were the dates on which the Suns or worlds were terminated. For example the world that we are now living in will end on the date Nahui Ollin (4 Movement). Ollin in this context refers to a world-devastating earthquake (earthquakes are not uncommon in Central Mexico). Thus the names from the 260-day calendar of the Five Suns refer to the quality of the world age and the way its inhabitants will be demolished.

Furthermore, days of the 260-day calendar named and gave identity to quadripartite space or the four cardinal directions of the world. Diagrams of 260-day calendar were associated with the four cardinal directions recorded in for instance the Aztec Codex Fejervary-Mayar (p.1) and the Maya Codex Madrid (p. 75-76). We have seen that a Calendar Round was completed when the four Year Bearers of the 365-day calendar each had ruled 13 vague years. The Aztecs conceived the 52-year cycle as comprising four 13-year cycles. Each cycle, which represented a cardinal direction, contained thirteen years. The 52-year cycle subdivided into four periods of thirteen years contained the four Year Bearers. The Year Bearer of the 52- year computation received its name and identity from the 260-day calendar. The 52-year cycle began with Ce Tochtli (1 Rabbit) where the number one proceeded through thirteen four times (of the four Year Bearers) until the return of same date. The 52-year cycle was divided into the four quarters, tlapilli, which began respectively with the date of the four Year Bearers, Ce Tochtli (1 Rabbit), Ce Acatl (1 Reed), Ce Tecpatl (1 Flint) and Ce Calli (1 House). Tochtli (Rabbit) was oriented toward the south, Acatl (Reed) to the east, Tecpatl (Flint) was associated with the north, and Calli (House) with the west. Each cardinal direction ruled thirteen years. We get this spatial-temporal order of the 52-year calendar:

  • 1. Tochtli (Rabbit) of the south
  • 2. Acatl (Reed) of the east
  • 3. Tecpatl (Flint) of the north
  • 4. Calli (House) of the west

Space, the cardinal directions, and time received designations and differentness from the 260-day calendar. These day-names of the 260-day calendar defined the quadripartite world in a spatial-temporal naming system.

Not only names of other calendar systems, world ages and deities but also human beings derive from certain days of the divinatory 260-day calendar. In various Mesoamerican cultures a calendar name from the 260-day calendar constituted a part of the anthroponym. Besides having conventional personal names, both human beings and deities carry day-names from the 260-day calendar. The calendar sign, the child was born under in the Mesoamerican 260-day calendar, determined the character, temperament and behaviour of the human being, e.g. the individual’s identity and destiny or fate. This phenomenon has been given the designation “tonal- ism”, after tona, tonal (“day”; “sun”) in Nahuatl (cf. Lopez Austin 1988; Pharo 2010).[4] The onomastic practice of giving personal names to human beings from day-signs of the 260-day calendar is related to Mesoamerican concepts of destiny and to what is classified in history of religions as the “free- soul”. Human beings obtain a substance, which can leave the body during its lifetime—connected to the day of their birth according to the 260-day calendar. This phenomenon associated with the traditional 260-day calendar has been recognised among the contemporary K’iche’ of Highland Guatemala. Every day has its face, identity or character of the 260-day calendar, rajilabal k’ij, which influence events. A person’s fortune or destiny is named uwach uk’ij (”the face of one’s day” or “one’s character”, i.e. the personality or character of a human being). Religious specialists impart the uwach uk’ij to a child according to the 260-day calendar (Tedlock 1992:

110). Uwach uk’ij can leave the body when the individual being sleep and may encounter other people’s uwach uk’ij (Tedlock 1992: 315).

The Aztec “Calendar Stone” aka “Piedra del Sol” (“Sun Stone”) is an intriguing representative of the predominant significance and multiple practices of the 260-day calendar in Mesoamerican temporal philosophy and historiography. The stone contain the day-signs of the 260-day calendar, the signs of the five world ages from the 260-day calendar, 260-day calendar signs recording postclassic Aztec historiography and personal names from the 260-day calendar. Remarkably, signs from the 365-day calendar are not inscribed on the Calendar Stone. The stone constitutes “an irregular basalt slab weighing roughly twenty-four and one—half tons, with a raised disk measuring eleven feet and five inches in diameter emerging from a planged flange”. It represents a symmetrical composition with a series of concentric circles, which radiates out from a central depiction of either the deity Tona- tiuh or the deity Tlaltechutli (Villela, Robb and Miller 2010: 1). The Nahui Ollin (4 Movement) sign enclose the centre of this stone monument with 260-day calendar signs of the four previous world ages chronologically beginning in the upper right in a counter clockwise procession: Nahui Oce- lotl (4 Jaguar), Nahui Ehecatl (4 Wind), Nahui Quiahuitl (4 Rain) and Nahui Atl (4 Water). In Aztec temporal philosophy, the Calendar Stone represented through the 260-day signs not creations but destructions of world ages. Moreover, four minor signs within the central circle around the Nahui Ollin (4 Movement) sign constitute 260-day calendar signs of the dates 7 Monkey (Chiceme Ozomatli), 1 Rain (Ce Quiahuitl), and 1 Flint (Ce Tecpatl). The next circle comprises the twenty day-signs of the 260-day calendar beginning with Cipactli (Caiman/Crocodile) proceeding counter clockwise and ending with Xochitl (Flower). A circle represents a quincunx symbolising the chalchihuitl (“greenstone”, a concept of preciousness). Two xiuhcoatl is carved in the outmost zone, their tails enclose the 260-day date 13 Reed (Matlactli Omeyi) at the top of the monument whereas their mouths reveal the faces of Tonatiuh on the left and Xiuhtecuhtli on the right (Villela, Robb and Miller 2010: 2).[5] Despite the recorded days of the 260-calendar, the stone was not a calendar with a time-keeping device or had an astronomical function. It might have been a cuauhxicalli, “eagle vessel” or a temalacatl for a gladiator sacrificial ritual (Villela, Robb and Miller 2010: 3). Concerning the spatial-temporal world ages signs inscribed on the “Calendar Stone”: the four cardinal directions and the centre are combined with the 260-day calendar. Townsend (1979: 63-70) focus attention on the quadripartite cosmological orientation with imperial territory and sovereignty as illustrated in the iconography of the stone. Despite it is difficult to establish whether these belonged to a day, a year, personal name or ritual or to which 52-year calendar cycle they pertained, Umberger argue that the five 260-day calendar signs refer to important dates of Aztec historiography creating a symmetry between events in cosmological and historical time (Umberger 1981; 1987).[6]

Of the many and varied (contemporary) calendars of the Mesoamerican cultural-geographic region, the 260-day calendar constitute a fundamental “temporal principle”, which ought to be subjected to a systematic analysis. The complicated temporal philosophy and practices of this calendar is to be explicated through simultaneous historical-philological studies and field research in collaboration with the Indigenous peoples.

  • [1] Despite extensive transcultural contact, it appears to be no employment of a linearLong Count calendar among Mesoamerican civilisations after the collapse of the classicMaya culture.
  • [2] The twenty K’iche’ day names of the 260-day calendar are addressed with the titleajaw or “lord” (Tedlock 1992: 107). The 13 numbers, associated with the day, are called “theThirteen Kings”. A calendar specialist in Nebaj said to the ethnographer J.S. Lincoln that:“The 20 day names are the King” (Lincoln 1942: 106-107). The Year Bearer and the day Ahauhad an influence on prayer and the ceremonial observances throughout the year amongthe Kanhobal speaking Maya of Santa Eulalia (Farge 1947: 165).
  • [3] The story of the creation of the winal’ in The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel(Roys 1933: 116-118) possibly refers to the 260-day calendar because 13 x 20 (winal)= 260 days.Callaway argues convincingly that p. 61 and 69 of Codex Dresden narrates the making (pahtaj)of the “piktun and the winik (winal): “He of twenty (the winal/winik) was formed (pahtaj),19 and he of zero (ajmik’in) day or 20 days, 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u” (Callaway 2009). Furthermore,Boone has pointed to the fact that there were Mixtec and Aztec accounts of a creation ofthe 20-day count (Boone 2006).
  • [4] Lopez Austin defines the lexeme tonal or tonalli as: “a. Solar irradiation; b. solarwarmth; c. summer; d. day; e. day sign,/! divine influence; g. a person's destiny due to theday of his birth; h. animistic entity that can either spontaneously or accidentally leave aperson and that relates him to the rest of the universe; i. something that is destined orbelongs to a certain person. It was also called TOTONAL, using the possessive of the firstperson plural” (Lopez Austin 1988: 297).
  • [5] Cf. Villela, Robb and Miller (2010) for a detailed description of the iconography ofthe Aztec Calendar Stone.
  • [6] Eduard Seler identified 13 Reed (Matlactli Omeyi) with the year at the beginning ofthe fifth world age. 1 Flint (Ce Tecpatl) was the year the Aztec left their place of origin,Aztlan (Umberger 1981; 1987: 243; 250).
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