So how did the Maya calendar work?
Actually, the Maya used two different calendars. Because the weather where the Maya lived didn’t go from cold to hot like the weather in large parts of North America where the United States is, they had to find a better way to keep track of the best time of year to plant their crops so there would be enough rain to help them grow. If they planted them too long before the time of the year when there would be enough rain, the crops would die, and they wouldn’t have enough to eat. If they planted them too late in the year once the rain started, they wouldn’t have enough time for the plants to grow before the rainy season ended. Their lives depended on knowing what day of the year it was and they took their calendar very seriously.
So, in order to make sure that there would be enough time and water for their crops to grow the Maya watched the sky. They figured out that the stars and the Sun moved through the sky in patterns that repeated over a 365 day period. They carefully observed where the stars were each night in the sky, and where the sun rose on the horizon each morning. They realized too, that the Moon and other planets, like Mars and Venus followed regular patterns of movement in the sky or of changes that repeated over and over again. So the Maya also watched the Moon as it grew larger and larger, became a completely round disk, and then began to shrink again. They watched Venus, saw it rise sometimes in the morning, and sometimes at night. By keeping track of these things the Maya could predict when the rain would come, making it a good time to plant their crops.
If they got it wrong, people would starve. But because they usually got it right, Maya farmers planted maize, their word for corn, and lots of other plants that gave them plenty to eat throughout the rest of the year.
By using these natural clocks, ones based on the stars, the Sun, and the Moon and other planets, the Maya combined two calendars that are nearly as accurate as the calendar we use today.
But the Maya calendars were more than just a way of keeping track of time. The Maya believed that the rain and the Sun and the Moon were all controlled by their gods. And keeping their gods happy was one of the most important reasons the Maya needed to know what day it was, and that’s what I’ll turn to next.