The Maya Elders Got it Wrong about the Source of the Number 13

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.

The Mayan Elders are all wrong about the source of the numbers 13 and 20 in the Tzolkin, or Sacred Calendar.

Mayan ceremony at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

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.

The numbers 1-13 of the Tzolkin, the Mayan sacred calendar, appear in the inner ring of this plate.

“Head variant” glyphs for the numbers 1-13 are seen in the inner circle of this plate, created by a local artist at Lake Atitlan.

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.

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The Origin of the Number 20 in Mayan Cosmology and Astrology

New paradigm Mayan astrology challenges some of the longstanding stories of contemporary Maya about the source of the key numbers used in the 260-day calendar. Common sense, rather than a strict reliance on hand-me-down stories will lead to the truth. I’ll begin with some fiction and facts about the number 20, which is the number of nahuales in the Mesoamerican spiritual system commonly called the Tzolkin, a contemporary name for the ancient calendar system used throughout Mesoamerica and not only by the Maya.

Which Came First, the Number 20 or the Nahuales?

One common story among the Maya of Guatemala concerns the source of the number 20. Some Elders and their disciples, Mayan and non-Maya, repeat the oral legacy that the number 20 is based on the number of fingers and toes of the human body, apparently without considering the implications. And they say that this is the source of the number of nahuales in the Tzolkin.

The number 20 in Mayan astrology is based on the number of nahuales, not on the human body.

This drawing has been used to “prove” that the number 20, even the 20 nahuales themselves, were based on the human body – a conclusion that does not add up when one considers that humans appeared after the nahuales, which invalidates this assumption.

With all due respect to the Elders, it is clear that this story defies not only common sense but also the written records of the Popul Vuh, which tells how several of the nahuales created people. It is obvious that if the nahuales were around before people, the number 20 could not have been based on any part(s) of the human anatomy.

And not only did the nahuales predate human beings, so did the concept and reality of day keepers, who count the days of the Sacred Calendar and interpret their significance. According to the Popul Vuh, Xpiyaco and Xmucane – “midmost seers” and “day keepers,” were consulted during the process of creating human beings.

We Come From the Stars

The notion that the number of nahuales is derived from a human source could even be called arrogant: it assumes that the Sacred Calendar was based on human beings. That would violate the maxim, “As above, so below.” If the key numbers of the 260-day calendar were based on the human body, the maxim would have to be, “As below, so above.” And that ain’t right (a rarely used scholarly term that will be used rarely on this blog).

Human Beings, Nahuales and the Tzolkin

At the same time, some contemporary Maya that the correlation between the number of toes and fingers and the number of nahuales establishes a link between people on Earth and the spirits in the heavens, or Otherworld. That this correlation is the significance of the number 20, not its reputed source of the number itself. I invite my colleagues here in Guatemala and in the rest of this world, as well as those who are new to Mayan cosmovision and astrology, to comment on this post and help bring illumination to planet Earth as we phase into the new paradigm.

And Where Did the Number 13 Come From?

20 is not the only number that links human beings with the nahuales and this universe. In my next post, I’ll look at legends and scientific research about another vital number in the Tzolkin system – 13 – and its origin.

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