It’s a colorful tale spun Mayan Elders and other teachers about the source of the number 13 in the context of the 260-day calendar. The myth, which you will hear handed down by practically every Maya shaman and their disciples , tells us that this magickal number is based on the 13 major joints of the human body is often punctuated by slapping the hands on the ankles, knees and other joints.
Yet upon closer examination, the story falls apart. With all due respect for the Elders, here’s a more plausible basis for the true inspiration of the number 13 in Mayan astrology and cosmovision, which highlights the frailties of oral legacy.
What really happened was that long, long ago the Maya forgot the source of the two numbers that are multiplied to result in the number of days in the calendar, which are 13 and 20. (I covered the true source of the number 20 in a previous post: see True Source of Number 20 in Mayan Astrology and the Tzolkin Sacred Calendar. In the same way they forgot a lot of things. (Remember that most Maya did not even have a written language by the time the conquistadors arrived, relying instead on oral legacy, which is fraught with potential for error.)
The Shaman Says, “Moldy Bones Don’t Make It.”
For the number 13 were based on the number of major joints in the human body, that means a situation like this occurred long ago when at a meeting of a group of shamans somewhere in Mesoamerica. “On the way to the meeting, said Leroy Eagle Claw, I saw a skeleton in the grass, and it had 13 major joints.”
“Great!” shouted Harvey Sloth Nose. “Now we can finally invent that calendar we always talk about when we eat those funny mushrooms.”
That scenario is not likely to have unfolded. What makes common sense is that somewhere down the line, the story of how 13 was based on human anatomy was concocted by one or more Elders simply to have an answer for a question commonly asked by other Maya. After all, their credibility was on the line.
The True Source of 13 in the Tzolkin
According to linguistic anthropologist Marci Macri, ancient Mesoamericans venerated the thirteen celestial numbers – even before the system of 20 nahuales came along. The Maya depicted these and other numbers with head figure glyphs like the one seen here.
These 13 powerful spirits, then, are a more reasonable, if less entertaining, source for the number 13 in the calendar.
Other Potential Sources of the Number 13
There are thirteen levels of Heaven in Mayan cosmovision. Marci also posits that the 13-day sub-cycle within the lunar cycle might be the source of the number 13 in the Tzolkin. Finally, the ancient Maya considered Pleiades a constellation, so they recognized 13 constellations. Perhaps more than one of these played a role in the emergence of this number and its vital part in the 260-day calendar, which is divided into 20 weeks of 13 days each.
All these potential sources for the number 13, inspired by celestial observation (often referred to as “astronomy”), make a lot more sense than someone stumbling across a bunch of moldy bones in the jungle.
The traditional myth would also have us believe that the source of the calendar was here on Earth. This violates the maxim, “As above, so below.” For if 13 really came from the number of major joints in the human body, the maxim would have to be, “As below, so above.” Good sense says otherwise, regardless of the quaint but misguided oral legacy of the Elders and their disciples.
This analysis does not suggest that the Elders are completely wrong when they relate that ancient myth, for the link between the number of major joints and the number 13 demonstrates a correlation between people on Earth and the spirits above. The Tzolkin, therefore, functions like an interface between heaven and earth, between the nahuales and Ajaw and human beings.