Posted by: Johan Normark | August 31, 2011

2012: Maya numerology

Two years ago I mentioned the way 2012ers ”translate” various dates or numbers associated with the ”Long Count end date” into a Christian numerological system based on gematria (the art of number magic). Numerology is a pointless endeavor (check out Stuart’s take on the numerology of Comet Elenin and you get another idea of how silly this can be). Apart from its pointlessness the 2012 numerologists have no knowledge of how numerology worked for the ancient Maya. I will discuss this numerology in two posts. The first one will discuss Anthony Aveni’s recently published article “Maya numerology” and the other post will deal with what Gerardo Aldana calls astronumerology described in his book The Apotheosis of Janaab’ Pakal. Aveni mainly deals with numerology in codices and Aldana deals with older inscriptions at Palenque. These numerologies differ somewhat and probably relates to Lounsbury’s distinction between the arithmetician/astronomer, who dealt with large numbers tied to the lives of the rulers and their ancestors, and the royal numerology that involved brief intervals. In the latter numerology numbers were chosen because of what they were (p 213)

I begin by quoting parts of Aveni’s abstract (p 187):

In stark contrast to the Western calendar, in the Maya realm of timekeeping the duration between ritual events seems to have mattered as much as the times when the events themselves occurred. Moreover, the manner in which the daykeepers of the Maya codices sequenced the intervals followed well-defined patterns, which reveal an array of motives for the Maya way of structuring time. Among these motives were the need to: a) arrive at or avoid particular lucky or unlucky days; b) accommodate changing seasonal or other astronomical events; and c) set up numerological mirror symmetries, a characteristic that resonates with the Pythagorean philosophy of number.

The Maya had a backward focus since they wished to link primordial mythical events with historical time. This linkage with the past is a road where number gods carry time periods and on occasion rest at various stopping points. Time is sometimes depicted as a series of footsteps. I would say that this is partially cyclical (tzolkin and haab) and partially linear (Long Count) and these relate to Lounsbury’s distinctions. In Aveni’s text he deals with periods of shorter cyclical duration and intervals.

Based on 301 almanacs found in the Dresden and Madrid codices Aveni notes several intervallic patterns. Three basic ones are arranged so that they sum to 26, 52 and 65 days (being multiples of 13). Equal intervals contain the same interval throughout the sequence (13-13-13-13=52). Nearly equal intervals mean that there is at least one deviant number (10-10-10-10-3-9=52). There are also alternating intervals that sum to 20 or 13 (12-8-12-8-12=52 [12+8=20] or 6-7-6-7-6-7-6-7=52 [6+7=13]).

The equal intervals are fairly easy to explain. Four times 13 relates to quadripartition. The nearly equal ones can be explained from the fact that the Maya could not divide time into units shorter than a day. An interval of 65 days could only be divided into 33-32 or 16-16-16-17, etc. However, the Maya still divided a 52 days interval into 27-25 rather than 26-26 or 13-13-13-13. There may have been political or social reasons for why this pattern emerged. In our own calendar the months follow a 31,30,31,30… sequence. The exception is July and August which both are 31 days long. There is a historical reason for this. Augustus borrowed a day from February so that “his” month August would be as long as the month named after his adoptive father Julius Caesar (July). Similar reasons may have affected the Maya scribes’ decisions to change the intervals of a sequence.

Another reason why scribes deviated from equal intervals is that they wished to avoid or arrive at a particular day such as a lucky or unlucky day for planting, fishing, etc. Another motive may have been a desire to update an earlier version of a calendar so that they fit real-time events. Aveni also suggests that intervallic alteration may have emerged from a need to save space in the manuscript. The most esoteric possibility relates to the rules of number where we find other number of stations than the normal ones (2 x 130, 4 x 65, 5 x 52, or 10 x 26). It will be difficult to exactly know what the scribes meant by certain numbers. Here I will refer the reader to the work of Barbara Tedlock which has influenced one of my earlier studies. Note however, that her study was done during the 1970s and 1980s in the Maya highlands (Momostenango). The codices are from the northern lowlands and are much older.

Aveni, Anthony F. 2011. Maya numerology. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 21:2, 187-216.


  1. I’m curious — what are you going to blog about in 2013? 🙂

  2. Only a quarter of my posts deal with this circus. I have plenty of other things to write about. However, in the past couple of weeks I have seen people googling “Johan Normark 2027”. I mentioned somewhere that the 2012ers should abandon 2012 for 2027 instead. This is the next time the Aztec calendar round ends (and the world?????). In case this “2027 meme” catches on you know who to blame… Anyway, it will keep us busy for another decade and a half.

  3. Good to know. I wouldn’t want you to be out of business after next December! I’m actually trying to figure out what the next “distant” astronomical doomsday will be. With Apophis not due until 2029 and 2036, that’s too far away for most people. And there’ll always be things a few months away (take Elenin, for example). So yeah … they’ll need something in the 2015-2020 timeframe, I think, and I’m not sure what they’re going to choose, or make up.

  4. I have found there is actually very little evidence for which days might have been thought in ancient times as “good” or “bad” and there is precious little evidence that any specific dates were being avoided. So, while this pattern may be attested for the time of the Spanish Conquest (and even here the evidence is much stronger for the Aztecs than the Maya), there is little evidence to extend it back to the Classic period. The pattern I find most robust is in scheduling the dedication dates of stelae to dates just before or after the Period Ending for which the monument was commissioned, which reflect the tzolkin and haab positions of the “Creation Date” of, 4 Ahau 8 Cumku. This pattern is especially strong at Copan and Machaquila, where monuments actually have dedication dates different than the Period Endings they commemorate. I suspect this reflects the time lapse between setting up/erecting a(n uncarved) monument and the time needed to carve it. At Quirigua the stelae only have PE dates but these are connected to much earlier mythological period PEs that involved the same tzolkin and number combination.

    I think this pattern also explains the 2012 date of Tortuguero Monument 6, as the last PE on that panel was a 4 Ahau date, and this is the tzolkin/number combination seen both in the 3114 B.C. date as well as 2012. So I agree completely with your statement about the “backwards focus” of these Maya scribes. Maya calendar studies and astronomy were predicated more on chronomancy than anything else, I believe.

  5. I believe you are right. I have just finished Stuart’s book on 2012 and I will summarize what he says about what I believe you refer to as chronomancy (although I am not completely in agreement with his hint that Copan and maybe Palenque was abandobned because it was time to finish the dynasties because of numerological issues, etc.). It seems to be fairly similar to Prudence Rice’s argument (although she focuses on her 13 k’atun cycle).

    • I’m assuming this is a different “Stuart.” 😉

  6. Indeed. I am referring to David Stuart:

    A Site That Connects Numerology To The Creator Aspects.
    Johan,Thank You For Enabeling Our Fantasies.


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