Introduction to the Sacred Calendar

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    Oxlajuj Qanil Erroll James Reykjalin

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    With kind permission by the author, here is the introduction and a few excerpts from the first chapter of the book along with an article on living the Mayan Calendar…

    Mayan Calendar Astrology: Mapping Your Inner Cosmos by Kenneth Johnson

    On the Nature of Sacred Time
    The Sacred Calendar is about time.

    We all know what time is—or think we do. It is a succession of dawns and sunsets, days and nights and seasons. We may divide it into hours and minutes or years and centuries, but we can never step outside of it—except perhaps in moments of special awareness which constitute the peak experiences of life. Time is one of the essential words. Life itself is subject to the regimen of time—not just human and animal life, but the life of planets and galaxies as well. Time is an inescapable fact of existence. Our personal quantum of biological energy will wind down in time, and time will overcome us in the end. We regard time as a kind of taskmaster, a relentless clock that holds us always in its grasp, ticking away the minutes toward our eventual extinction. Time is the linear reality that gives shape and pattern to our lives, defining our mortality.

    According to many traditional societies, there are two dimensions of time: ordinary time and sacred time.

    What has just been described is ordinary time.

    If ordinary time represents a process to which all of us are subject and before which all of us are ultimately powerless, then sacred time represents cosmic order. It is the foundation of rhythm and motion. Without the sense of cosmic order implied by this sacred dimension of time, nothing could happen. There would be no loom upon which to weave the tapestry of life.

    Sacred time exists contemporaneously with ordinary time. It is fashioned of the same elements—seasonal and celestial—which comprise ordinary time. It is simply our altered or ritualized perception of time that allows us to enter its sacred dimension.

    When the shaman draws his magic circle, or when a priest approaches the altar to celebrate the mass, he enters ritual space. This is a sacred place where the ordinary laws of reality do not apply. This is where magic happens. Here lies the center of the universe.

    We enter ritual space in our daily lives whenever we pray or meditate, whenever we create – in short, whenever we pay homage to the presence of the divine in our lives. For that moment, we are at the center of the universe.

    Whenever we enter ritual space, we enter ritual time as well. Ordinary time may be going on all around us, but we are no longer a part of it. Our perception of time has changed. It is no longer a mere progression of hours and minutes, but a living, vital, spiritual presence. This is what the sacred dimension of time is all about.

    Both ordinary and sacred time are generally measured by the patterns of heaven and earth, for it is these patterns, these constantly recurring cycles, that integrate us with the cosmic order underlying all things. Honoring these recurring changes is yet another way for us to enter the sacred dimension of time. Thus humanity has devised rituals to mark the four major changes of the solar and seasonal year—the equinoxes, when day and night are of equal length, and the solstices, when the sun appears to stand still and then "turn back" to the north or south. Priests and magicians of all cultures have charted the progress of planets and fixed the positions of the stars, for the orderly cycles of the heavens are among the most potent symbols of the cosmic order.

    The Mesoamerican spiritual tradition exemplified its vision of the universe in cosmograms, diagrams of the infinite. The double pyramid construction of the Mayan universe was one such diagram; the geomantic city was another. But these cosmograms are essentially static; they are not in motion. The Maya believed that the universe, both human and cosmic, was constantly evolving through different worlds or "suns," different epochs of cosmic time. They believed that every moment in time was in a state of flux, a shifting tapestry of energies that manifested in earthquakes and volcanoes, in the wars of gods and men and the changes of the human heart and spirit. Hence the theme of transformation is central to all Mesoamerican mythology. In one story, a deformed and rejected god is transformed into the glorious sun of the new world epoch. In another, the god-king Quetzalcoatl is transformed into the planet Venus.

    The world is constantly evolving. Human beings must constantly struggle for universal order and harmony even as they struggle towards their own evolution.

    To pluck order out of chaos we must understand the ebb and flow of energy in time, the vast transformations and metamorphoses that make up life on earth. Yet how shall we find the sense of cosmic order in this shifting, restless world of volcanic passions, both human and terrestrial?

    How shall we sense both the order and the chaos entwined in one vast scheme?

    For this, the people of ancient Mesoamerica needed a cosmogram that was fluid rather than static—a cosmogram that moved in time, capable of embodying the flux and reflux of life.

    This was the Sacred Calendar.

    The Structure of the Calendar

    When we talk about the Mayan Calendar, we are really talking about two calendars – one that measures ordinary time, and one that measures sacred time. These two calendars interpenetrate in such a way as to integrate and synthesize the secular and sacred dimensions of reality. It consists of twenty named days combined with thirteen numbers. Each day-name is repeated thirteen times during the calendar cycle, for a total of 260 days. (13 x 20 = 260)

    Because the Chol q’ij is comprised of twenty days but only thirteen numbers, the cycle of days and numbers will soon set up an interlocking rhythm of its own design. The rhythm of the Sacred Calendar is circular; many contemporary calendar shamans insist that it has neither beginning nor end.

    What, then, does the Sacred Calendar symbolize? Why thirteen numbers and twenty daysigns? What sort of cycle is this that chronicles the sacred dimension of time?

    One clue, of course, lies in the fact that there are thirteen divisions of Heaven in the Mayan cosmos. Therefore, we may say that the number 13, far from being "unlucky" as it is in Western folklore, was to the Maya a symbol of Heaven itself.

    It is commonly said that the thirteen numbers also correspond to the thirteen joints in the human body. These are: the two ankle joints, the two knees, the two hips, the hands, the elbows, the shoulder joints, and, finally, the neck or thirteenth joint.

    The twenty day-signs may also be related to the human metaphor, the microcosm as macrocosm. The number 20 was regarded in ancient times as the number of humankind, because it is the number of all the digits—fingers and toes—on the human body. Thus, the equation 13 x 20 unites Heaven with humankind.

    Anthropologists working among the contemporary Maya have asked their informants what the Calendar symbolizes. The answer given by Mayan Calendar shamans is remarkably consistent: It is the term of pregnancy, the cycle of human gestation. This, they say, is the foundation of the Calendar.

    Scientifically, we know that the actual period of pregnancy is somewhat longer than 260 days. The 260 day interval is a fair rule of thumb for the period which elapses between the time a woman first misses her menses to the time when she gives birth; hence the Chol q’ij is symbolic of the gestation period. It is primarily an earthly, human cycle.

    All the same, various astronomical cycles may have contributed to the over-all symbolism of the Chol q’ij. For example, 260 days is an interval between zenith passages in the Mayan country, the visibility cycle of Venus in regards to the moon can also be expressed as 260 days, and the moon itself has both a thirteen-day cycle of waxing as well as a twenty-day visibility cycle.

    And though it is the cycle of human gestation that, after so many centuries, the Maya still cite as the basis of the Chol q’ij, the gestation cycle itself is yet another metaphor. All the world's great myths are essentially concerned with the journey of human consciousness—the archetypal hero's journey. The Mayan Calendar is no different.

    Consciousness, like life, must journey from conception to full birth. The day-sign E’ signifies "the road"—what other Native Americans have called the Road of Life. In Yucatec Maya, the equivalent word Eb also means "stairway"—perhaps in reference to the stairways that led to the top of Mayan temples by which the ancient kings mounted to the world of the gods. The Calendar, as a symbol of the growth of human consciousness, leads us up the Pyramid of Time. It is the Road of Life, and its roots lie in the eternal journey we all must make, the journey from conception to birth.

    Living the Mayan Calendar

    I would like to tell you what it felt like to “live the Calendar” with traditional Mayan people in the highland town of Momostenango. In that community, people are likely to say, “Today is 4 I’x, isn’t it?” in precisely the same way that we would say, “Today is Tuesday, isn’t it?” The Mayan Calendar is that common and that well known; I am not exaggerating. During the time that I spent there, I was privileged to attend many rituals and ceremonies related to days of the Calendar, and I was fortunate enough to be able to talk to and interact with Daykeepers on a daily basis.

    Many have said that the Mayan Calendar is a road, a path. And this is true. While most Daykeepers in Momostenango do believe that various astronomical and cosmic cycles are embodied in the tzolk’in (or chol q’ij in their local K’iche’ language), the principal metaphor is that of the road, the path, specifically the path that we walk as we grow for nine lunar months in the mother’s womb, the path from gestation to full birth, full participation in the human world.

    But there is a major difference between our cultural conception of “the path” and that which is conceived by the Maya. We tend to see the “spiritual path” as something we walk by ourselves, as if we were lonely pilgrims, crossing a vast mountain range with staff in hand, guided only by a star or an inner voice.

    But to the Maya, we never walk the path alone. Each and every day connects us with another important part of the world around us, and it is this wider, more extended world which constitutes the real spiritual “path.”

    On Aj (Ben) days, we gave thanks for the children and the animals in our environment. On I’x (Ix) days, we honored sacred places such as rocks, mountaintops, and springs of living water. Ajmaq (Cib) days and Ajpu (Ahau) days were for remembering our ancestors, those who have walked before us upon the path, and who have now walked on into the next world. Aq’ab’al (Akbal) days were for lovers, and Kawoq (Cauac) days for the women in our lives and our environment (especially for the midwives and the healers). Q’anil (Lamat) days were for honoring plants and flowers, for giving thanks to the earth that supplies us with crops. There were indeed days when it was appropriate to focus on issues having to do with the self – E’ (Eb) was the day of our personal destiny, Tz’ikin (Men) was the day upon which we prayed for material prosperity, and No’j (Caban) was the day to clarify our thinking. But even the days that are about “us” may serve, in many ways, to place “us” in context with everything around us. The emphasis was always on relatedness, connectedness. There is no room in a Mayan community for the kind of introspective self-absorption that we commonly associate with the spiritual quest. If your inner child is demanding all your attention, maybe it’s just plain cranky and in need of a “time out.”

    To step into the rhythm of the Mayan Calendar is to become intimately connected with the entire world that surrounds us, in all its beauty and its glory. The Tzutujil Maya of Lake Atitlan speak of our earth as “the Blossoming World.” It is our duty and our privilege to participate fully in the magic and wonder of this Blossoming World – to be “cooked in the oven of human existence” until we emerge warm and tasty and delicious. This cannot be done by turning away from the world, sitting alone on a mountaintop, enjoying neither food nor love. Among the Maya, that would be considered anti-social behavior rather than holiness. If your uncle gets drunk and falls off the back of the pick-up truck, you don’t write him a convoluted letter explaining why you are much too sensitive to deal with dysfunctional relationships in your life. You just pick him up, load him back on the truck, and keep going. After all, he too is part of the Blossoming World. He too will someday become one of the ancestors who look back upon us with joy from every sunset and every stream.

    After living the Calendar in a traditional Mayan town, I doubt that I will ever again have the feeling of aloneness or “terminal uniqueness” which so often characterizes spiritual pilgrims in the Western world. I now know that whenever I walk the path of life, I always walk hand in hand, arm in arm, with countless others through the magic of the Blossoming World.

    Kenneth Johnson holds a B.A. in Comparative Religions from California State University Fullerton. He obtained his Master of Arts in Eastern Studies (with an emphasis in Classical Sanskrit) from St. John’s College, Santa Fe. He is the author of numerous books and magazine articles...

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