Maya Daykeeping: Three Calendars from Highland Guatemala


In Maya Daykeeping, three divinatory calendars from highland Guatemala - examples of a Mayan literary tradition that includes the Popul Vuh, Annals of the Cakchiquels, and the Titles of the Lords of Totonicapan - dating to 1685, 1722, and 1855, are transcribed in K'iche or Kaqchikel side-by-side with English translations. Calendars such as these continue to be the basis for prognostication, determining everything from the time for planting and harvest to foreshadowing illness and death. Good, bad, and mixed ...
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In Maya Daykeeping, three divinatory calendars from highland Guatemala - examples of a Mayan literary tradition that includes the Popul Vuh, Annals of the Cakchiquels, and the Titles of the Lords of Totonicapan - dating to 1685, 1722, and 1855, are transcribed in K'iche or Kaqchikel side-by-side with English translations. Calendars such as these continue to be the basis for prognostication, determining everything from the time for planting and harvest to foreshadowing illness and death. Good, bad, and mixed fates can all be found in these examples of the solar calendar and the 260-day divinatory calendar.

The use of such calendars is mentioned in historical and ethnographic works, but very few examples are known to exist. Each of the three calendars transcribed and translated by John M. Weeks, Frauke Sachse, and Christian M. Prager - and housed at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology - is unique in structure and content. Moreover, except for an unpublished study of the 1722 calendar by Rudolf Schuller and Oliver La Farge (1934), these little-known works appear to have escaped the attention of most scholars. Introductory essays contextualize each document in time and space, and a series of appendixes present previously unpublished calendrical notes assembled in the early twentieth century.

Providing considerable information on the divinatory use of calendars in colonial highland Maya society previously unavailable without a visit to the University of Pennsylvania's archives, Maya Daykeeping is an invaluable primary resource for Maya scholars. Mesoamerican Worlds Series

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"[T]he authors' work is truly groundbreaking. Once more, this kind of detailed investigation of hitherto largely ignored materials . . . should serve as a fine example to all historians of science."
—Benjamin B. Olshin, Isis

"This volume makes available priceless documents about the Maya of highland Guatemala. Their transcription and translation conserves vital legacies of Maya thought, conservation even more critical in light of the especially brutal repression and violence against Maya peoples in recent decades. . . . The three calendars are—individually and collectively—invaluable resources for scholars."
—Wendy Ashmore, University of California Riverside

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781607322467
  • Publisher: University Press of Colorado
  • Publication date: 5/15/2013
  • Series: Mesoamerican Worlds Series
  • Pages: 236
  • Sales rank: 1,213,807
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Dr. phil. Christian M. Prager earned his doctoral degree at the University of Bonn where he is assistant lecturer and holds a research position.
Frauke Sachse received her docotorate in Linguisitcs from Leiden University and is assistant professor at the University of Bonn.
John M. Weeks is the museum librarian and a consulting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.


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Three Calendars from Highland Guatemala
By John M. Weeks Frauke Sachse Christian M. Prager


Copyright © 2009 University Press of Colorado
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60732-246-7

Chapter One

Three K'iche'an Divinatory Calendars

The three divinatory calendars presented in this volume are examples of a K'iche'an literary tradition that includes the Popol Vuh, Annals of the Cakchiquels (Memorial de Solola), and the Titles of the Lords of Totonicapan. Two of the calendars were written in indigenous Kaqchikel or K'iche' languages, but in European script, sometime before or during the eighteenth century. The third example was written in K'iche' and Spanish in 1854. They demonstrate that although linguistic and literary traditions were still being adhered to, there was at the same time an obvious element of adaptation and acculturation, the use of European script.

Calendars such as these continue to be the basis for prognostication or determining the favorable or unfavorable nature of specific periods of time. According to the favor of the days, land may be purchased, sales made in the market, profit accrued, and other economic enterprises pursued. The calendar designates the time for planting and harvest and other agricultural pursuits. The disposition of the days can maintain health and foretell illness or death, influence the naming of children, guide betrothal and marriage. Obligations to the dead are fulfilled on days affiliated with the souls of the ancestors.

These little-known works appear to have escaped the notice of most scholars. Except for occasional mention of their existence, and an unpublished study of the 1722 calendar by Rudolf Schuller and Oliver La Farge (1934), no further work has been done. Although they languished in the library of the University of Pennsylvania Museum for over a century, these are important documents, shedding light on seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century divinatory practices, and can serve as a basis of comparison with other sources on which our knowledge of K'iche'an divination is based.


The indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica in ancient times and in many places into the present, maintained intricate calendars consisting of civil or solar and of sacred or divinatory cycles. The calendar was a foundational achievement of Mesoamerican civilization, reaching its highest elaboration among the Maya of the Classic period. From the earliest times the Maya observed and measured various natural cycles, particularly those related to the astronomical movements of the sun, moon, Venus, and other celestial bodies. The study of the movement of various celestial bodies produced several time cycles.

The civil calendar was a 365-day solar calendar containing eighteen months of twenty days with five days remaining. Each year was given the name of the day which started it, there being only four of the twenty that could appear as the first day of the new year (Table 1.1). These four days—No'j, Iq', Kej, and E—were repeated until after thirteen years the number 13 was reached, at which time the next year began with number 1 again.

The sacred divinatory calendar was not marked off into months but was a combination of day designations created by the coincidence of a number from 1 to 13 with one of the twenty possible names (Table 1.2). This process created different combinations of numbers and names, which were repeated indefinitely to form a cycle of 260 (13 x 20) different days. This period is referred to by scholars as a tzolk'in, although in K'iche'an languages it is known as chol q'ij, a term meaning the "order of the days," since it serves to designate a series of 260 days not repeated until the beginning of another series of similar duration and having the same numbers and names as the first.

The two cycles, one of 365 days and the other of 260 days, meshed to produce a calendar round to form a period of 18,980 days.

Important dates or period endings in all these calendars were used by the Classic period Maya to commemorate significant events in the lives of important people, such as births, deaths, successions to office, and sacrifices or other rituals. Some activities appear to have been timed to correlate with specific cycles; for example, some war events are associated with the cycle of the planet Venus.

An exclusively Classic period Maya calendrical achievement was the long count, which permitted an infinite computation of time from an established mythical starting point, backward or forward. The long count is a linear count of days that began in 3114 BC.

Given the ancient importance of the calendar, one might wonder why the indigenous calendar did not persist more strongly after the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century than it did. Much of calendrical knowledge was probably held by a small group of individuals who guarded that knowledge but were easily singled out for control, suppression, or elimination. Calendrical knowledge was a prime source of socioreligious power and was, along with the practice of human sacrifice, a major target of early Spanish missionaries, who quickly substituted saints' days and other Catholic ritual occasions for indigenous ceremonies. The religious brotherhood dedicated to the cult of a specific saint (cofradia) and the Gregorian calendar were the chief instruments for effecting these changes. Some small-scale rituals for crops and households survived. In parts of the K'iche'an area, the ritual calendar has persisted and is still used in these smaller-scale rituals.

La Farge (1947:180–181) has noted similarities in divinations between the Codex Dresden and the Ajilab'al q'ij from the 1722 K'iche' calendar. Codex Dresden, one of the four surviving prehispanic Maya codices, consists of thirty-nine leaves painted, in color, on both sides with glyphs and portraits of deities. The contents are divided into several major parts, including seventy-six 260-day almanacs and 364-day counts of divination that indicate good, bad, and indifferent days and the benevolent or adverse influence of the presiding deities in matters of agriculture, weather, disease, and medicine. The codex is a condensed book of divination of good and bad days for human enterprise with directions to propitiate the gods (Thompson 1972). Similarly, the Books of Chilam Balam, written in the Yucatec Maya language anywhere from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, are a genre unique to post-conquest Yucatán. They have been named for the pre-hispanic Chilam Balam, the Jaguar Prophet, who made prophesies based on historical knowledge and a cyclical view of time. The manuscripts are compilations of history, myth, prognostication, farmers' almanacs, medical diagnoses, and herbal recipes. Each manuscript appears to be a compilation of passages copied from other texts. A great deal of calendrical material, including weather predictions, prognostics of "good" and "bad" days, warnings of sickness and death, and various other portents, occur in various of these Books of Chilam Balam (Scholes et al. 1946). For example, the Chilam Balam of Ixil, which dates from the late eighteenth century, includes a Catholic calendar, which is not translated, giving the days of each month together with the pacts and dominical letters. Except for a few church festivals, the saint for each day is named, which was useful in naming children. Accompanying this calendar is a Maya treatise on the European zodiac. Beneath a picture of each sign is the usual information found in European almanacs, such as the day when the sun enters the sign, the number of stars in that sign, the hours of daylight and darkness, and other information for the guidance of a person born under this sign. To this are added a chart with some tables and other material on zodiacal anatomy, so that a healer might avoid bleeding any part of the body while the sun is passing through the sign of the zodiac ascribed to that part. There are two calendar wheels, one of which represents an alleged katun, or period of thirteen years. Similarly, the so-called Codex Perez consists of extracts that Juan Pío Pérez copied from various Maya manuscripts during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. A large part of it was taken from the Book of Chilam Balam of Mani. The first third of the manuscript is composed of Maya translations of European astrological and calendrical material. Much attention is given to augural or divinatory aspects of the Maya calendar.

After the imposition of Spanish rule in the sixteenth century, the calendrical system persisted throughout the Colonial period. In some areas calendrical knowledge was maintained on an oral basis, whereas in others it was retained with the aid of written schematic drawings or calendar wheels. A calendar wheel is a Colonial period image that displays cycles of time in a circular format. Its use is mentioned in the Annals of the Cakchiquels (1953:98–159) and other early narratives. The seventeenth-and eighteenth-century historians describe its use (Ximénez 1929–1931, 1:102–103). Pedro Cortés y Larraz (1958:2:57), bishop of Guatemala between 1768 and 1781, undertook an administrative visit to 113 curatos in his dioceses and stated that the traditional calendar was in use "in all the parishes of the K'iche' and Kaqchikel." He made specific reference to the ancient calendar in his descriptions of the parishes of Nuestra Señora de la Concepción de Zamayac, Quezaltenango, San Pedro La Laguna, and Santa Cruz del Quiche.

We find evidence for the retention of the ancient Maya calendar in many contemporary communities (Miles 1952), and these data have great potential for inferences about the function and meaning of the ancient Maya calendar. Scholars have traditionally assumed that in ancient times the common Maya knew little of calendrical ritual. This ignorance was thought to extend to all parts of the calendar, explaining its apparent total disappearance since the conquest. However, evidence collected at least in the highlands of Guatemala by Robert Burkitt (1930–1931), Samuel K. Lothrop (1929, 1930), and Oliver La Farge (1947:75) indicates that the basic components of the calendar were common knowledge. Lothrop reports that the calendar was so vigorously in use that a storekeeper wrote the indigenous dates on his calendar for reference in dealing with the K'iche' Maya of Momostenango (La Farge 1947:75–76). Burkitt (n.d.:387) gives the following assessment of the retention of the indigenous calendar in the Ixil-speaking community of Chajul: "Éh, Noh, Iq, and Txéh, are the lucky days. The other 16 indifferent. Everybody knows these days. Servant girls are hired by periods of 20 days. Certain people make it a business to keep the right count of the days. Today (1913 August 30, Saturday) is Txéh."

Although the calendar is no longer in use in Zinacantán in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, evidence indicates that the solar-year calendar was in use there as late as 1688; there are no data on the divinatory calendar (Vogt 1969:603–604). Sacristans in the church at Zinacantán are usually literate, and their long experience makes them important advisors (mayordomos) to the ranked members of the religious fraternities devoted to the worship of specific saints. Because they are able to read the church calendar, which is printed in Spanish, they are still responsible for telling the mayordomos the dates on which they must perform rituals (Cancian 1965:45). Alfonso Villa Rojas obtained information in 1936–1937 on the nineteen-month calendar and its use in connection with the agricultural round in Oxchuc, a Tzeltal community in Chiapas (Andrade et al. 1938).

Manuel García Elgueta (1962) describes the use of the traditional calendar among the K'iche' during the late nineteenth century. By the middle of the twentieth century the original calendrical system, or parts of it, existed in many communities in the Mexican states of Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Chiapas, as well as the highland region of Guatemala.

Ethnohistorian Suzanna W. Miles (1952:273–275) identified almost ninety communities known to have retained calendars into the middle of the twentieth century. Of these, eighty-two have been described in some detail. In the western highlands of Guatemala a total of thirty-four Chuj, Ixil, Jakaltec (Popti), Mam, and Poqomchi' communities have calendars defined by year bearers, the 365-day year with eighteen cycles of twenty named days, and the thirteen numbers. More to the east in the central highlands of Guatemala are twenty-three Mam, Awakateko, K'iche' and Kaqchikel, and Poqomchi' and Q'eqchi' communities with calendars defined by the 260-day count, the permutation of the twenty named days and the thirteen numbers.

Many other anthropologists have noted the importance of the calendar for contemporary indigenous communities (Bunzel 1952; Burkitt 1930–1931; Falla 1975; Gates 1932a, 1932b; Goubaud Carrera 1935; La Farge 1930, 1947:123, 164; La Farge and Byers 1931:116, 659, 660; Lehmann 1910; Lincoln 1942:103; 1945:121; Lothrop 1930; Miles 1952, 1957, 1965; Rodríguez and Crespo 1957; Rosales 1949a:48, 55; 1949b:683; Sapper 1925; Schultze Jena 1933, 1946; Tax 1947a:34; 1947b:416; Tedlock 1982, 1992; Termer 1930; Thompson 1932; Wagley 1941).

Miles also observed that in areas of highland Guatemala where the thirteen numbers of the 260-day count had been lost, the twenty named days survived as a cycle and assumed the divinatory functions of the 260-day count as a whole. This element, the twenty day names of the 260-day count, is the lowest surviving form of the Maya calendar count and represents the ultimate reduction of the calendrical structure.

Such is also the case with the prognostication tables, which have come down to us in the literary tradition of the Maya of Yucatan. In the Books of Chilam Balam of the eighteenth century we find lists of days, each day with its specific properties and prognostications annotated. These prognostication tables are written in Yukatek by means of an adapted Latin alphabet, but as a comparison with passages of similar content in the Codex Dresden shows, they no doubt have their origin in the hieroglyphic books from prehispanic times (Gubler and Bolles 2000:8–9; La Farge 1947:180–181). The most precise, and also the most extensive, divinatory list in the Books of Chilam Balam is List no. 1 from the Book of the Chilam Balam of K'awa, a small village near Chichén Itzá. It consists of the names of the twenty days and the specific properties that these days have in shaping the destinies, qualities, basic behaviors, and future occupations of men and women who were born under their influence.


For the past thirty years most of the K'iche'an communities in the central and western highlands have been brutally repressed by the national government of Guatemala, resulting in a reduction of the influence of traditional religion (Figure 1.1). However, daykeepers still remain among the surviving Maya. These calendar priests continue to calculate the days and interpret their qualities in order to reveal answers about mental and physical dispositions, the causes of evil or success and failure of events, and consequently the best day for undertaking such essential activities as planting and harvesting or marriage. Several investigators have fortunately published the results of their field investigations of calendrical divination and its effect on local indigenous society.

North American anthropologist Barbara Tedlock, working with the K'iche' of Momostenango, undertook formal training and, together with her husband, was initiated as a calendar diviner in 1976. Her Time and the Highland Maya (1982, 1992) focuses on the concepts and the procedures involved in the training of a K'iche' calendar diviner. It not only presents insights into the significance of ceremonial time, location, and meaning, but it also provides a glimpse at the mental processes involved in the minds of both diviner and client during the process of a calendrical divination.

German anthropologist Eike Hinz spent fifteen months of fieldwork between 1980 and 1983 in the Q'anjob'al community of San Juan Ixcoy in the northwestern highlands of Guatemala, during which time he collaborated with a diviner who used the prehispanic 260-day calendar in his consultations. Hinz examined the Q'anjob'al concept of "illness" and analyzed the psychical, psychotherapeutical, and socio-therapeutical effects of healing in calendrical divination. The diviner's consultation constitutes a type of psycho-sociotherapy in which he not only interprets the existential problems and preoccupations of clients but also attempts to resolve them. During fieldwork, Hinz was also trained and initiated by a calendar diviner–healer. In his monograph, Misstrauen führt zum Tod (1991), Hinz presents twelve complete cases (of a total of fifty recorded) of calendrical divination and healing. He recorded all divinations and ensuing therapeutical dialogues between healer and patient in Q'anjob'al and then transcribed them in both Q'anjob'al and German.

North American anthropologists Benjamin N. Colby and Lore M. Colby, working during the late 1960s and early 1970s with an Ixil daykeeper, published The Daykeeper: The Life and Discourse of an Ixil Diviner (1981), a magnificent study that documents the cultural principles organizing the daykeeper's methods of divination and guiding his interpretation of dreams and his cures for the sick. They identify and define cultural patterns underlying the stories he relates and the morals he draws from them. These patterns are used to inform our perception of the daykeeper's experience of life, and the reader gains an understanding of the relation between culture and thought.

Participatory investigations by Tedlock and Hinz and detailed observations made by Colby and Colby and others (Bunzel 1952; La Farge 1947; La Farge and Byers 1931; Lincoln 1945; Sapper 1925; Schultze Jena 1933, 1946, 1947; Termer 1930) on the beliefs and practices associated with the calendar, particularly the role of the daykeeper, explain much about highland Mayan behavior and ethics.

Divination and the management of time have a fundamental role in Maya culture and have been practiced from ancient times through the present. Historical and ethnographic accounts provide information about diviners and other types of non-Catholic religious specialists (Table 1.3). The shaman priest determines the days on which both communal religious ceremonies and cofradia ceremonies are to be held. The prayer sayer requests good providence or assists in effecting cures of sick clients and functions in dawn ceremonies of various kinds. The daykeeper, or calendar priest, uses a divining bundle of tz'ite' seeds to count the days and make diagnoses. A subcategory of diviner includes those who use crystals instead of tz'ite' seeds.


Excerpted from MAYA DAYKEEPING by John M. Weeks Frauke Sachse Christian M. Prager Copyright © 2009 by University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY PRESS OF COLORADO. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Figures....................vii
List of Tables....................ix
1. Three K'iche'an Divinatory Calendars....................1
2. Calendario de los indios de Guatemala, 1685....................18
3. Calendario de los indios de Guatemala, 1722....................64
4. Calendario de Vicente Hernández Spina, 1854....................136
1. Notes on Highland Maya Calendars, Robert Burkitt....................162
2. Notes on the Correlation of Maya and Gregorian Calendars....................176
3. Agricultural Cycle and the K'iche'an Calendar....................185
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