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Iconic Maya image of the haab’ calendar depicting the burden of time

The Maya calendar and the ‘burden of time’

In response to a questioner asking ‘what is the man called shown in the center of the haab calendar; he is kneeling with what looks like a bag of glyphs on his head?’, and as we display this picture prominently in our Maya workshops in schools, we reckon it’s time for a detailed explanation! With thanks to Professor Elizabeth Graham of UCL for her expert advice. (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The cycle of 18 ‘months’, followed by the 5-day unlucky period at the end of the Maya ‘haab’’ calendar
Pic 1: The cycle of 18 ‘months’, followed by the 5-day unlucky period at the end of the Maya ‘haab’’ calendar (Click on image to enlarge)

This image has become iconic of the ancient Maya. It’s been attributed to, or in the style of, Jean Charlot, a French/American painter, illustrator and muralist who spent many years working and studying in Mexico - and depicted many human load carriers in different contexts. It clearly shows calendar elements, but what exactly, who is in the middle and what is he carrying?
The circle of glyphs form the 19 ‘months’ of the haab’ or solar calendar of the Maya. The 18 primary months all consist of 20 days, with a short final period of just 5 (unlucky) days - making 365 in total. The last five days in the solar year - called uayeb or wayeb by the Maya and nemontemi by the Aztecs - were considered dangerous days (safer to stay at home!) as they didn’t fit in to the normal ‘count’ of days. Unusually the illustrator here has drawn the 18 month glyphs in a clockwise sequence, starting with Pop, the first month. We’ve indicated first and last ‘months’ in pic 1.

Pic 2: The Maya glyph ‘ajaw’; and the glyph placed on its side
Pic 2: The Maya glyph ‘ajaw’; and the glyph placed on its side (Click on image to enlarge)

In the centre, the ‘load’ being carried is another calendar glyph, this time one of the 20 day signs - in fact, the last one, ajaw, meaning ‘lord’ or ‘ruler’. It’s hard to recognise but when viewed on its side (pic 2) it becomes clearer in the main illustration. Since many Maya monuments recorded the stories and achievements of rulers and their dynasties, ajaw is a common glyph in Classic Maya art generally. In this context the ‘day’ being carried implies the start of the whole calendar year so the load carrier is actually the ‘year bearer’.

Pic 3: Group of ‘Initial Series’ or ‘Long Count’ calendar glyphs from Stela D at Copan (L), with the one at bottom right (no. 9) enlarged (R)
Pic 3: Group of ‘Initial Series’ or ‘Long Count’ calendar glyphs from Stela D at Copan (L), with the one at bottom right (no. 9) enlarged (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

This is best explained in the words of the pioneering English Mayanist J. Eric S. Thompson, who wrote, back in 1960, ‘The Maya conceived of the divisions of time as burdens which were carried through all eternity by relays of bearers... [not] the journey of one bearer and his load, but of many bearers, each with his own division of time on his back.’ We can see these shown clearly in the series of calendar glyphs from Stela D at the Maya site of Copán in Honduras (see pic 3, left). These glyphs are unusual as they use ‘full-figure’ pictures: the Maya showed both numbers and units of time in two ways, either as (abstract) number signs (such as bars and dots) or, as here, as ‘portraits’. They’re not people at all but deities, actually PAIRS of deities, and each carries on his back a calendar god sign - not of a day, month or year, but of a large group of years, part of a ‘Long Count’ (a period of thousands of years). So each of the figures at Copán is in fact a PAIRING of a number god with a time-period patron god. Complicated!

Pic 4: Time-bearing gods; the central figure is a sculpture in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City, of a load carrier bearing a deity on his back
Pic 4: Time-bearing gods; the central figure is a sculpture in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City, of a load carrier bearing a deity on his back (Click on image to enlarge)

The illustrator of the ‘burden of time’ picture (top) appears to have based his/her image on glyph 9 from Stela D at Copán - a figure depicting, according to John S. Henderson, the sun god, carrying a jaguar-skin bundle - perhaps a representation of the lord of the night (jaguars were/are associated with night-time). In a nice coincidence, one of Jean Charlot’s classic paintings is ‘The Leopard Hunter’ (with the creature being carried by a tumpline on the hunter’s back - follow link below to view).
In what Thompson calls the ‘never-ceasing journey of time’, each bearer of time plays his part in a cosmic relay, preparing to rest on completion of his individual stage, and to pass on the burden to the next carrier. In the sequence of glyphs at Copán we see how ‘the resting gods hold the periods or support them in their laps. The god of number 9 [ours!], the bearer of the baktun [largest unit in the Long Count calendar], still has his load on his back, held there by the tumpline.... His hand is raised as though to slip off the load’.

Picture sources:-
• Main picture & pic 1: hand drawn illustration on fig tree bark paper, private collection; photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: glyph from Wikipedia (Ajaw)
• Pic 3: illustration (L) scanned from The World of the Ancient Maya by John S. Henderson, Orbis Publishing, London, 1981, p. 82; illustration (R) scanned from Maya Designs by Wilson G. Turner, Dover Publications, New York, 1980, p.13
• Pic 4 (centre): photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

Info sources/notes:-
• Henderson (above) notes that for the Maya ‘time is not so much a force in its own right as a series of burdens moved through the universe by the gods’
An Introduction to the Study of the Maya Hieroglyphs by Sylvanus G. Morley, Dover Publications, New York, 1975 (original 1915) (Morley shows a tenth Long Count number/period glyph where we’ve left a space - pic 3)
• The quotes from Thompson come from Maya Political Science: Time, Astronomy and the Cosmos by Prudence M. Rice, University of Texas Press, 2004.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 30th 2017

emoticon Q. How many times could each god rest on his time-bearing journey?
A. Far too PHEW...!

Charlot’s ‘Leopard Hunter’ is the first image on this page...
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