How Does the Mayan Calendar Work?

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Mayan calendarThe Mayan calendar has a long and deep history. But its premise is quite simple. Maybe not as simple as our Roman calendar, however. One of the defining characteristics of our Roman calendar is that it is based on various cycles. From minutes, to hours, days, weeks, months – we divide our calendar into increments that repeat on their own cycle.

For example, each hour has a first minute, each week has a Monday, each year has a first of January, and so on. However, it’s not every year that a Monday is also the first of January – this occurs only every seven years or so. The Mayan calendar works on a similar premise. As we examine the history of the Mayan calendar, we are given insight into its workings.

Roman vs. Mayan calendar – Working in Cycles

Mayan calendar tabletsYou might say that the Mayan calendar works the same as the Roman calendar, but with more complex, and overlapping cycles. A 52 year cycle on the Mayan calendar, for example, is called a Calendar Round. Now, similar to the way the first of January only occurs on a Monday every seven years or so, each day in the Mayan Calendar Round, referred to as a Long Count, is given a unique name based on a combination of various cycles.

Base 10 vs. Base 20

Unlike the Roman day, which is calculated using base ten, the Mayan Long Count is calculated using base twenty. What is base twenty? Just like our base ten system uses 10 numbers (zero through ten), the Mayan base 20 system uses 20 numbers (zero through twenty). So, while moving the decimal one spot in the Roman system changes our result by a factor of 10, moving the decimal in the Mayan system changes the result by a factor of 20.

Breaking Down the Mayan Long Count

The Mayan Long Count breaks down into the following units, where a kin is one day in the 52 year period:

  • 20 kin = 1 uinal
  • 360 kin = 19 uinal = 1 tun
  • 7200 kin = 360 uinal = 20 tun = 1 kactun
  • 144000 kin = 8000 uinal = 400 tun = 20 kactun = 1 bactun
  • 13 bactun = 1 Mayan epoch
  • 1 epoch ~ 5125.26 Mayan years

Subtracting from today, that puts the beginning of the current Mayan Long Count at August 11, 3114 BC, and the end at December 21, 2012 AD.

Does that mean the world will come to an end on December 21, 2012? We don’t think so but welcome your thoughts. Feel free to post your theories as a comment below on December 21, 2012, and how it relates to our world today. You can also read our article on the 2012 Planetary Alignment to find out why.

The Mayan 20 Day Period

The Mayan calendar is broken into 18 periods of 20 days each. They are outlined, along with their meanings, in the table below:

Duran TimeSahagun TimeFiesta NamesEnglish Translation
1. MAR 01 – MAR 201. FEB 02 – FEB 21Atlcahualo, CuauhitlehuaCeasing of Water, Rising Trees
2. MAR 21 – APR 092. FEB 22 – MAR 13TlacaxipehualiztliRites of Fertility; Xipe-Totec
3. APR 10 – APR 293. MAR 14 – APR 02TozoztonliSmall Perforation
4. APR 30 – MAY 194. APR 03 – APR 22Huey TozotliGreat Perforation
5. MAY 20 – JUN 085. APR 23 – MAY 12ToxcatlDryness
6. JUN 09 – JUN 286. MAY 13 – JUN 01Etzalcualiztli.Eating Maize and Beans
7. JUN 29 – JULY 187. JUN 02 – JUN 21TecuilhuitontliFeast for the Revered Ones
8. JULY 19 – AUG 078. JUN 22 – JUL 11Huey TecuilhuitlFeast for the Greatly Revered Ones
9. AUG 08 – AUG 279. JUL 12 – JUL 31MiccailhuitontliFeast to the Revered Deceased
10. AUG 28 – SEP 1610. AUG01 – AUG 20Huey MiccailhuitontliFeast to the Greatly Revered Deceased
11. SEPT 17 – OCT 0611. AUG 21 – SEPT 09OchpaniztliSweeping and Cleaning
12. OCT 07 – OCT 2612. SEPT10 – SEPT 29TeotlecoReturn of the Gods
13. OCT 27 – NOV 1513. SEPT 30 – OCT 19TepeilhuitlFeast for the Mountains
14. NOV 16 – DEC 0514. OCT 20 – NOV 8QuecholliPrecious Feather
15. DEC 06 – DEC 2515. NOV 09 – NOV 28PanquetzaliztliRaising the Banners
16. DEC 26 – JAN 1416. NOV 29 – DEC 18AtemoztliDescent of the Water
17. JAN 15 – FEB 0317. DEC 19 – JAN 07TititlStretching for Growth
18. FEB 04 – FEB 2318. JAN 08 – JAN 27IzcalliEncouragement for the Land & People
18u. FEB 24 – FEB 2818u.JAN 28 – FEB 01nemontemi (5 day period)Empty-days (nameless, undefined)

Source: Wikipedia

About The Author:

Kimberly received her Bachelor of Arts in multimedia journalism from Simpson College. She is one of Exploring Life's Mysteries most experienced researchers. When reviewing products and services her natural curiosity helps her dig deep and unearth the truth behind the marketing.

Kimberly grew up camping at the nearby lake with her family when she was a young girl. It wasn't until she met her husband that she rediscovered her love for the outdoors and began taking regular vacations to the national parks. Some of Kimberly's favorite memories include camping in a tent, hiking beautiful terrains, sitting around a campfire eating s'mores and sipping on a cold craft beer.

After three years of dating and exploring different regions of the U.S., Kimberly's husband proposed to her with the help of Exploring Life's Mysteries' online engagement content that she had researched and written. Not only was he able to design her ring himself, he was able to do so at great cost savings.

Kimberly likes starting her days with a warm cup of Nespresso, and she enjoys going for walks with her family and hound mix, Sally. In the evenings, she likes indulging in a glass of red wine and some dark chocolate while cozying up by the fire pit in her backyard.

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Random person
October 3, 2016 1:17 pm


January 21, 2013 12:04 pm

Okay I was not looking forward to the end of the world and were did NASA get the end of the world from and now NASA only God knows when that will come.

Guess Who
December 21, 2012 3:58 am

Do the Mayans include leap years? Because if not the world should have ended last year, in December…(another person told me)

December 21, 2012 12:59 am

All these theories are crud, the world will end tomorrow, because a friend and I are going to set of thousands of dollars worth of fireworks, end up overdoing it, and end the world.

(This is a JOKE to make people laugh, I am in no way serious, please laugh or ignore it as you see fit, and not nitpick over violence or other blown out of proportion things.)

December 20, 2012 3:08 pm

Don’t you think if the Mayans could foresee such happenings that there would still be Mayans? lol…

December 20, 2012 3:14 pm
Reply to  ryan

Speaking of needing to read up before you speak – there ARE MAYANS living today all over the world but especially in Guatemala and other Central American countries.

December 22, 2012 12:24 am
Reply to  Anonymous

Most people don’t seem to know how to research and educate themselves these days even with all the technology we have at our fingertips. It’s refreshing when you find those few people still left in the world who put in the little extra effort. This last week especially I’ve had to correct a number of people who thought the whole “planets aligning” thing was factual. That’s been refuted on countless occasions by most of the scientific community. NASA and amateur astronomers alike.

December 19, 2012 10:38 am

We are not of this earth.

December 17, 2012 6:58 pm

Has anybody ever considered our leap years? Add those days in and we passed the date already. Didn’t we its all a scam people to get you to spend more money. They are selling fear as always.

December 20, 2012 6:44 pm
Reply to  n8

We can’t just tell people the universe has its own time, that cant be changed!

December 20, 2012 8:30 am
Reply to  n8

Leap years are only a factor on the Roman calendar. The Mayan calendar has a different way of measuring years and does it more precisely, without the need for leap years. The final date was found using the Mayan calendar, then translated to the Roman one directly based on the position of the Earth, not just boxes on a piece of paper. Regardless of this, you’re right to say nothing will happen, just like the article explains.

December 17, 2012 5:05 pm

OK if you think the world is going to end then you have very little time to get a mate and start screwing. You might as well go out with a bang!

December 19, 2012 6:58 pm
Reply to  Kevin

I swear I will take good care of your stuff. Really.

December 20, 2012 4:13 pm
Reply to  Fritz

lmao – I want the girl ones!!

I know the Truth
December 16, 2012 10:23 pm

It is a giant monopoly from all the governments of the world. They want us to spend money on stuff that will not help 99% of the population because if the world was truly ending we will not be here to even have to worry about material items. I mean why are you going to buy a Mayan calendar, clock, T-shirt or poster when it is going to be destroyed. What I know is that the government gets richer as we keep getting poorer. Planets will align and our normal days will keep on going, and everyone will still be poor except for the rich that never have to pay taxes. Like the President, Congress, House and all those in that general area. It is politics that they all they found something to scam everyone on so they use it. That is why all the little people have to pay 45-55 % of our hard earned money to the crocked Government

December 20, 2012 12:23 am

I would have to agree with you 110%. It’s all a big money grab if you ask me! Anything to totally drain you of your last penny; they wouldn’t miss that opportunity for the world! lol. I guess people are hoping that they might survive so having those items on hand would bring peace of mind. My Mom keeps telling me that all it is, is just “fear mongering.” Hopefully we’re right… But you’ll never really know. I just hope it’ll be quick! Best of luck to you!

December 13, 2012 4:02 am

Ancient Sinhalease (Srilankan) people built Mayans, Babylonians as the said “they came by sky from lion city, and gave us this technology…” Sinhalease developed a science that will never collapsed with nature. Then they went to outer space for expedition. They will come back and correct us if we use our nature wrongly.

Any way Buddhism can give all answers to future manners. There is a chapter called ” brahmajala suttha” in Buddhism…. that is the revelation of the world’s end and start.

linda vigil
December 11, 2012 11:05 pm

Every body seems to forget that it is up to God when the world ends….not the Mayans!! And nobody knows when that will be!

Arcane Gale
December 12, 2012 3:31 pm
Reply to  linda vigil

The end of mankind will come in the common year 2280. At this time the world population will be well over 55 billion.

Alex Kuttner
December 14, 2012 8:51 pm
Reply to  Arcane Gale

The world won`t end on 12/21/12, the Mayan calendar will just simply restart back at zero, after a full 220,000 days (366 years). It works the same as a car mileage gauge, flips through numbers, and when its ready, hits zero and restarts.

Gemma shepherd
December 10, 2012 2:08 pm

I don’t believe the Mayan calendar predicts doomsday, I have an alternative theory. We all know the story of the man who died for 3 days and was resurrected, the sun of Christ. Well, I’m not religious but, like most beliefs there’s truth in it. So I’ll try and explain.

Every however million years there is a planetary alignment. When this happens there is a 3 day apocalypse (that Jesus story) and the poles in the Center of the earth shift, this is the time of change, a new era arises, we move into the next stage of evolution in our brains. The Mayans believe in aliens or astronauts from another planet, and they are seen as Gods, the all mighty ones, the giants. When the planetary alignment happens this opens port holes in our solar system which leads me to believe that the Mayans wrote this calendar to let us know when their next arrival is.

The Mayan calendar isn’t the only historical thing that has came up with the date 2012. People have discolored thanks to carbon dating the engravings on Stonehenge.

And not only that, most sculptures in history are linked to the Sky’s, the pyramids are linked to the stars, Stonehenge lets you witness extraordinary changes in the solstice, it. Is an observatory pretty much.

If you disagree with my logic do your own research.

it may not come exactly on the 21st of December though as Mayans didn’t have leap years so their calculations may be slightly off.

December 17, 2012 3:04 pm
Reply to  Gemma shepherd

When December 31 rolls around, everyone gears up for a party and suddenly it is January 1st and a whole new year. The world did not end. The Mayan calendar is a mix of astronomical calendars that repeat every 5125.26 years. December 21, 2012 is the end of that calendar period…or if you wish, a Mayan December 31st.

As to leap years, really? We created leap years and I would say our calculations are off, not the Mayans. They did their’s by the universe. We did our by some abstract math basing it solely on the amount of time necessary to revolve around our sun. I think the smarter we get, the dumber we are. I also believe the Ancients were very intelligent – even if modern man wants to call them barbarians or backwards. They lived in harmony with the land, not forcing the land to be something it was not. But that’s another battle.

See you all on Mayan Kin1 (December 22, 2012).

December 14, 2012 11:54 am
Reply to  Gemma shepherd

Oh give me a break. Here’s my theory: you’re full of crap.

Lucile Paurom
December 13, 2012 12:07 am
Reply to  Gemma shepherd

I agree with Gemma Shepherd, 98% have done my research too. The remaining 2% is when that doomsday will finally come. Its better not to prepare for it. I’d rather die than living after the doomsday. Imagine the place you will live in, back to stone age again!

December 12, 2012 6:53 pm
Reply to  Gemma shepherd

I just really appreciate what you have to say. I agree with you 98%. May the force be with you!

December 10, 2012 9:49 am

Well my predictions are that the world will end bause the Mayans predict it. I love you all!

December 22, 2012 12:10 am
Reply to  hernan

Too bad the Mayans didn’t predict it

big mitch
December 9, 2012 1:05 pm

it was never said that the world was going to end. The whole calendar was a countdown to the return of the Gods.

December 9, 2012 12:33 am

First how to say this, Mayan calendar is God’s equipment through this calendar. God announced your world to be come to an end (21-12-12) only one man to save our world (God).

December 8, 2012 11:27 am

If 20 kin = 1 uinal then 360 kin = 18 uinal, not 19.

20×19=380 *20×18=360

Tango Jack
December 11, 2012 6:44 am
Reply to  Nick

This is not the case on a Leap Tun.

December 8, 2012 7:42 am

No proof so continue our aims and goals. If we are thinking about such information which will spoil our present precious days. Nothing wood Happen. Happy New year 2013 friends.

johnny utah
December 7, 2012 12:50 am

the Mayans should have put cute little kitties or watercolors of rural America on their calendar! They would have sold so many more! Pyramids, glitter, ponies, soccer, hats with feathers, Kung Fu challenge, William Hung and Ricky, don’t you lose my number.

December 3, 2012 6:23 pm

The Aztec and Mayan Sun Stones are compasses. They were originally placed on their backs in vast market-like plazas like giant stepping stones. The 20 astronomical symbols around the center are for navigating at night. They faced the direction of each constellation in the sky at the time they were placed and knowing their original location would allow for them to be accurately dated based on this. The triangular markers on each ring mark out 90, 45, and 15 degree increments around the face to navigate during the day by taking a bearing standing on the center and making ‘radial arms’ with the sun to navigate. Rather than 18 x 20 it is 18 x 10 x 360 = 64,800 ‘grid vectors.’ Please see the Carl P. Muncks ‘The Code’ – it is in print and has been given to the United Nations.

Just Dave
November 29, 2012 11:46 pm

Time has been, will be and will continue. We realize time as – one trip around the sun is known as a day, we call 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. Once we had a calendar with only 10 months, July and August were added (after Julius and Augustus), October was actually the 8th month. What happened to change this? Questions to ponder. When was the beginning of time? Is our perception of time constant? If our universe ceased to exist, would time continue? So little time, too many worries…

December 11, 2012 3:38 pm
Reply to  Just Dave

a trip around the sun is a year….

December 9, 2012 12:21 pm
Reply to  Just Dave

Time is a human construct and only has relevance to the human experience. Once humans have disappeared, so will time.

December 11, 2012 3:42 pm
Reply to  FloraE

Sure the word “time” is. Time itself isn’t a construct. If we didn’t exist would mountains exist? would elements exist? would height, width, measurements? Yes, they would all exist. They just wouldn’t have definitions or words to them. Time is a dimension just as height, width and depth are. Those will all still be there, there will just be no perception of them without something to comprehend it. So no, time will never disappear.

November 27, 2012 6:57 am

I agree with the others. Just like we have 12 months in a year on our calendar, they happened to have thousands of years on theirs. It’s just resetting. Chill.

Spike J.
November 26, 2012 5:16 pm

Why do Mayans have Duran time and Sahagun time? What is the difference and meaning of the two? To me each looks similar to our zodiac? Why two zodiacs, so to say?

November 20, 2012 9:20 pm

The Mayan’s did not Have/believe in leap years, therefore, the world would have ended years ago.

December 5, 2012 6:07 pm
Reply to  Athena

You must not have a very good understanding of the Mayan Calendar, even after reading this article. The Mayan Calendar is so accurate, it doesn’t need leap years to make up for anything.

December 10, 2012 4:52 pm
Reply to  Mason

She does have a good point though. It makes perfect sense to me.

leticia ramires
November 20, 2012 4:39 am

I’m really confused with this whole situation. Who are the Mayans and the Aztecs? I don’t want to believe the world will end but hey you never know. I hope not. But I’m really concerned can anyone explain?

Somebody Somewhere
November 26, 2012 6:27 pm

The Mayans and Aztecs were Indians native to Central/South America. The whole debate revolves around the fact that the Mayan calendar stops on December 21, 2012. First of all, the would have no way of knowing when the world would end. Second of all, the Mayans had no concept of a leap year (an extra day in February every four years since each day is not exactly 24 hours long, more like 23 hours and 59 and a half seconds. After a while it builds up, so the extra day is to make up for that time). So for them, December 21, 2012 was a very, very long time ago.

an explorer of life
November 13, 2012 3:46 am

all of you are retarded… I know who owns this world and they clearly say it’s game over this year…