Tzolkin section in the Dresden Codex, starting from the day 1, Manik'.

Sacred Calendars and New Years: Cycles of Time and Ages

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The global holiday of a new year symbolizes all we have experienced for the duration of the year, and all our hopes and dreams for the year ahead. Such observances date back over 4,000 years, often in conjunction with the solstices and equinoxes that marked the cycles of natural seasons.

In ancient Mesopotamia, the celebration of a new year over 4,000 years ago might have taken place on the Spring Equinox, in the middle of March, a date also revered throughout the Middle Ages. Egyptians began their new year with the Autumnal Equinox, and Greeks with the Winter Solstice. Ancient Romans dedicated the day to the god of beginnings (as well as doors and gateways), Janus, for which the month of January is named. The Chinese New Year coincides with the first day of the lunar calendar, usually falling between January 20th and February 20th. No matter which date chosen, the emphasis was, and still is, on the importance of the cycles of time and the ends and beginnings they symbolize.

The World Ages of the Mesoamericans

Maya mask. Stucco frieze from Placeres, Campeche. Early Classic period (c. 250 - 600 AD)

Maya mask. Stucco frieze from Placeres, Campeche. Early Classic period (c. 250 - 600 AD) ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

For Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, cycles of time were marked and measured with the variety of calendars they utilized. One of these, the Sacred Calendar, also known as the “tzolkin” or “count of days,” was a 260-day calendar used by the Mayan until the rise of the Gregorian calendar in 1582. The tzolkin measured time by the usage of a 13-day count and a 20-day cycle that parallels it, with a differing sign ascribed to each day, collectively known as a “uinal.” The 13-day count and the uinal together give each day its own unique number (kon) and corresponding sign. The total number of possible number/sign combinations is 260, with each number and corresponding sign recurring every 260 days.

The Mayan “Long Count” consisted of thirteen baktuns, periods of 400 tuns (360-day periods). One baktun is thus 400 x 360 = 144,000 days (394.3 solar years). A period of 13 baktuns, totaling 5,125.36 years, is called a World Age. Five World Ages equal a precession cycle of approximately 25,627 years. At the height of their cultural achievement during the Classic period (250 AD – 900 AD) the Mayan gained a stunning understanding of astronomy and the cosmos, including the precession of the equinoxes, which many historians and archeologists suggest was “discovered” by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus around 120 BC, and later refined and expanded upon by Newtonian physics in 1687.

East side of stela C, Quirigua with the mythical creation date of 13 baktuns, 0 katuns, 0 tuns, 0 uinals, 0 kins, 4 Ahau 8 Cumku – corresponds to August 11, 3114 BC in the proleptic Gregorian calendar. ( Public Domain )

The precession is a slow westward shift of the equinoxes along the plane of the ecliptic, resulting from the precession of the earth’s axis of rotation, causing the equinoxes to occur earlier each sidereal year. The precession of the equinoxes occurs at a rate of 50.27 of an arc a year, with a complete precession requiring 25,800 years. This precession is caused by the gravity of the Sun and Moon acting on the Earth’s equatorial bulge, creating a wobbling in the orientation of the axis of the Earth at cycles of approximately 25,627 years. This cycle is called a Great Year.

Western astrologers typically mark the beginning of the year at the Spring Equinox, when the sun is located in the constellation Aries. As the sun progresses through the zodiac signs, the precession is complete, although the beginning of the year does change slightly each spring equinox, due to a slight alteration in the positioning of Aries. An Astrological Age is defined as one movement of the sun from one zodiac sign to another, and takes approximately 2,150 years. The twelve signs total a precession Great Year, approximately 25,000 years.   

Precessional movement of the Earth.

Precessional movement of the Earth. ( Public Domain )

Eastern Calendars Marking Life and Time on Earth

The World Ages of the Mesoamericans have a counterpart in the Vedic Yugas, part of the vast mythology of the Hindu describing the evolution of life and time on Earth. Each successive Yuga is one quarter shorter in duration then the one before it. The standard approach to the Yugas states that an entire Yuga cycle takes 4,320,000 years to complete. This is called a rotation of the Yuga cycle, and Hindu scripture also measures an even greater cycle of time, the Kalpa, which is one thousand Yuga cycles, or 4,320,000,000 years. These cycles rotate over and over, for all of eternity.

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Myths & Legends

Open Book Photo
A legend is a tale regarded as historical even though it has not been proven, and the term “myth” can refer to common yet false ideas. Many myths and legends describe our history, but they are often treated skeptically. This is because many of them, while explaining a phenomenon, involve divine or supernatural beings.

Ancient Places

Some of the Mitla mosaics.
Unique and curious designs plaster the walls of the most popular Zapotec archaeological site in Mexico. They are called the Mitla mosaics and are unrivalled in their precision and quality of workmanship. But a mystery surrounds the carved symbols as some researchers suggest they contain a coded language just waiting to be deciphered.

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Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
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