A highly important component of ancient Maya religious thought is divination. In this the Maya are basically no different from other civilizations. Here is a review of divination in various world cultures as a preface to Maya Divination proper.

The Greeks

We know of the Classic Greek who relied on a number of oracles for to make important political decisions, the most famous Greek oracle being that of Apollon at Delphi, the ancient Pytho.
Several thousand prognostications from this oracle have come down to us. The best known perhaps is from 480 B.C. and concerns the strategy of how the Athenians should face the threat posed by the Persian king Xerxes who had set out, with a formidable fleet and army, to invade the Greek mainland and take their city.

The image to the right is the design on a cup from around 430 B.C. that shows the Greek Goddess of Justice, Themis, in the sanctuary of Apollon at Delphi.
Seated on the famous tripod of the oracle – priestess Pythia, she reveals her prognostication to King Aigeus who is in want of a son and heir to his throne. Museum of Antiquity, Berlin.

Divination - Greek Oracle - Maya Divination - Maya Calendar

The Romans

Notwithstanding their shrewdness in politics and wars, consulted no less than three distinct classes of priests for a prognostication before taking any political or military action of importance: the augures, the haruspices, and the quindecimviri. The latter kept and interpreted the sacred books of Sibylla of Cumae.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 B.C.), talented lawyer, professional politician, and one of the most gifted writers of classical antiquity, was himself also an augur. One of his works is entitled De Divinatione, “about divination”.
The lituus to the left, was the staff which the augur, the Roman oracle priest used to mark the templum, the sacred space for divination.
It was crowned with a spiral design like the one shown which is forged in bronce, dating from around 580 B.C. National Museum, Rome.

Roman Lituus

The Chinese

Since times immemorial, the Chinese, and with them other peoples of Eastern Asia, until this very day consult the Yiging, the “Book of the Proper Changes”, for a suggestion, which course is best to follow in a critical or ambiguous situation. The logic of the Yiging has influenced the philosophy of great sages such as Kungfutse and Laotse (both 7th century B.C.). The great Mongol ruler Genghis Khan (1162 – 1227 A.D.) consulted the Yiging when he set out to conquer what was almost the rest of the world known in those days. Indications are that the Yiging acted as a sort of filter through which Maotsetung passed marxist doctrine in order to adapt it to the Chinese way of perceiving our world. Businessmen and politicians of the “Tiger States” consult the Yiging until this very day with obvious success.


In the modern comic-style edition of the Yiging shown here,
the six lines of the Hexagram Da Chu suggest that despite
tempting opportunities, one should remain calm and contain
one’s potential until the proper moment has come to let loose
energies and achieve all aims.
Singapore 1993. Drawing: Tan Xiaochun.


The Hindu
The world’s oldest oracle texts appear to be preserved in the palm-leaf libraries of India, written in an ancient form of Tamil, a Dravidian language of Madras state and of northern and eastern Ceylon.
The prophecies concern the lifelines and life expectancies for each man and woman and are designed to help manage their present incarnations successfully.
The legendary author of the prophetic texts is Brighu a mythological hero from the Mahabharata epic, who is said to have lived around 5000 B.C.
The palm leaves of India shown here are inscribed with the alleged lifelines of 80.000 individuals, about 10 % of them westerners.

There still exist about 12 palm-leaf-libraries in present day India which may be consulted in a Nadi-reading for what Fate has up her sleeves for present day man and woman in their present incarnations.


In all of these cases it is the specially trained and experienced priest or diviner who interprets the signs in the heavens and on earth. It is he who reads the messages, which are encoded in the direction the birds fly through the templum, the sacred heavenly rectangle, or the prognostic information, which the liver and other entrails of sacrificed animals reveal. It is he who properly consults and interprets the sacred books, scrolls and palm leaves. In the vase to the right, before setting out for combat a Greek warrior and his companion, both in full armor and followed by their squire, read the outcome of the battle to include their own fate from the liver of a sacrificed animal, probably a sheep. A young lad wholly in the nude presents the liver to them. Around 500 B.C. Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels, Belgium.
With the ancient Maya of Yucatán this specially trained and experienced priest or diviner who interprets the signs was called Ah k’in “he of the days”. The special knowledge of his profession was called Chuenil k’in , “the art of the days”. These days are the twenty days of the maya calendar from imix (day 1) to ahaw (day 20) which, when successively repeated 13 times, produce the count of the 260 days, Tsolk’in in Maya.


Tzolk'in days names ans glyphs

The twenty days of the Tsolk’in, shown above by name and with 2 versions of their corresponding glyphs, are the basis of the entire complicated calendrical system designed by the ancient Maya. They are, however, by no means to be considered as abstract computational units. Rather they reflect the physical properties and the origin of man as well as the influence which powerful celestial beings, in particular the moon and the sun, have on his existence. Twenty is the total number of human extremities, fingers and toes, and is contained 13 times in 260, the duration of the divinatory calendar, the Tsolk’in. This time-period (plus one day) actually represents nine lunations of twenty-nine full day-and-night cycles. As is well known, the time between menstruations is one lunation, and it takes nine of these anthropo-lunar cycles for a new human being to form after impregnation.

Among the Quiché-Maya of highland Guatemala these same nine months are replicated, until this very day, in the training of the aj k’ij, the keeper of the 260-day-calendar, the ah k’in of ancient Yucatán.

It is nine months after the beginning of training in divination that the young novice is actually “born” and solemnly initiated into his office. Thus, in the perception of the Maya, man and calendar have the same roots; they are both of the same lunar origin. This is how Quiché-Maya calendar-priests explained it to the German physician and ethnologist Dr. Leonhard Schultze Jena back in 1930. Here is Dr. Leonhard Schultze Jena at work in his library at Marburg, Germany, towards the end of WW II, presumably some time during 1944. Foto: Kohlhammer Press, Stuttgart/Berlin

It is, therefore, not surprising to find that the Maya considered the days of their calendar to be living beings, albeit of a different, a more powerful and influential nature. People were named just after “the lord of the day” who ruled on the day they were born. The two kings who ruled the Quiché-Maya when the Spaniards under Alvarado conquered Guatemala in 1524, had calendar-names. They were named Oxib Quieh ( “3 Deer” = Oxil Manik’ in Yucatec Maya ) and Beleheb Tzi ( “9 Dog” = Bolon Ok in Yucatec Maya ).

The American anthropologist Suzanna W. Miles who did field work among the Quiché-Maya in the forties, describes the virtue of the day lords in the following way:

“Through individual consultation of the shamans (i.e. the aj k’ij ), the auspices and authority of the lords of the days and numbers direct economic enterprise, designate the days of agricultural labor, and control life-crises. According to the favor of the days, land is purchased, sales made in the market and profit accrued. The day lords designate the times for planting and harvest. The lords of the days can maintain health and foretell illness or death; betrothal and marriage are guided by the disposition of the days; and obligations to the dead are fulfilled on days affiliated with the souls of the ancestors. Each town has one or more day lords with special powers, and it is known that such a lord, with his number, will determine the character or occupation of the child born within his day”.

Suzanna Miles also observed that in areas of highland Guatemala where the thirteen numbers of the tsolk’in had been lost, the twenty named days survived as a cycle and assumed the divinatory functions of the tsolk’in as a whole. Thus, this element, the twenty days of the tsolk’in, is the lowest surviving form of the Maya calendar count, and represents the core, 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 18th century we find four lists of days, each day with its specific properties and prognostications annotated. These prognostication tables are written in Mayat’an, the Maya idiom of Yucatán, by means of a specially adapted Latin alphabet, but as a comparison with passages of similar content in the Codex Dresdensis shows, they no doubt have their origin in the hieroglyphic books from pre-Columbian times.

Three prognostications from page 18b of the Maya Dresden Codex. The short hieroglyphic texts written in two pairs of four hieroglyphs each, specify the Death God (K’imil), the God of Learning and Science (Itzamna’), and a deity named “13 Owl” (Oxlahun Kuy), as the carriers of the divinatory messages ( u mut / u mutil ) whom “white woman” (sak ixik), also called “moon woman” (u’ ixik), carries on her back or head. The prognostications proper are (from left to right): “bad winds”, “flowers”, and “burials”, written as the last hieroglyph in each block of four. The Dresden Codex. Island of Cozumel, now Quintana Roo, México, around 1230 A.D. Facsimile Edition: Akademie Press, Berlin

The most precise, and also the most extensive divinatory list in the Books of Chilam Balam is List # I from the Book of the Chilam Balam of K’awa, a small village not far from Chichén Itzá, the famous ancient Maya capital of Northern Yucatán. It consists of the names of the twenty days of the tsolk’in and the specific properties, which these days have, in shaping the destinies, the qualities, and the basic behavior, and the future occupations of men and women who were born under their powers.

In his Relación de las cosas de Yucatán (Report on the things of Yucatán) of 1566, Fray Diego de Landa briefly refers to this ritual of calendrical prognostication on the fate of the newly born among the Maya of 16th century Yucatán:

Once the babies are born they bathe them immediately, and once they were through with the painful process of flattening their foreheads and heads, they went with them to the priest so that he might foresee their destiny and foretell the profession they were going to have. (Landa, Tozzer-edition, page 129)

This information of Landa’s in conjunction with the pattern of Maya calendrical prognostication described by Leonhard Schultze Jena and Suzanna Miles for the present day Quiché-Maya complement each other, giving us some basic idea of what the 260-day-calendar was about. Recently two scholars have gone farther, in order to conceive a clearer idea of how calendrical divination actually works in the minds of the present day Maya and what effects it has on their society.

he American anthropologist Barbara Tedlock working among the Quiché-Maya of Momostenango, undertook formal training and was initiated as calendar diviner in 1976. Her report, entitled Time and the Highland Maya, published in 1982, is focused on the concepts and the procedures involved in the training of a Quiché-Maya calendar diviner. It not only presents new and exciting insights into the significance of ceremonial time, location, and meaning, it also provides us with a glimpse at the mental processes involved in the minds of both diviner and client during the process of a calendrical divination.

A Quiché-Maya calendar diviner’s hand arranges the red seeds from the ts’ite – tree ( Erythrina corallodendron ) on a blanket woven in a traditional Quiché-design. The seeds are taken from two different piles. Each arrangement is repeatedly being counted and named following the sequence of the days of the 260-day calendar and their numbers. In this way the Lords of the Days reveal their divinatory messages to the calendar diviner. Momostenango, Guatemala, 1975-79. Foto: Barbara Tedlock.

The German anthropologist Eike Hinz has penetrated even deeper into this unique complex of Maya mentality and thus not only discovered their peculiar concept of sickness but also analyzed what are the psychical, psychotherapeutical and sociotherapeutical effects of healing in calendrical divination. During fieldwork among the Kanjobal-Maya of San Juan Ixcoy, Guatemala, between 1980 and 1983, Hinz was formerly trained and initiated by one of their calendar-diviner-healers. In his report, published in 1991, Hinz presents 12 complete cases (of a total of 50 recorded) of calendrical divination and healing. All divinations and ensuing therapeutical dialogues between healer and patient were recorded by him in Kanjobal and then transcribed in both Kanjobal and German. His book, entitled Mißtrauen führt zum Tod ( Diffidence leads to Death ), makes fascinating reading for the scholarly accuracy which Hinz put to work as an anthropologist, as well as for the clarity in which he presents his results as a writer.

His report is also quite moving for the close look it allows us to take at the states of mind of Maya-man, so utterly alien at times to our western ways of feeling and thinking, yet so convincingly practical if one considers the view which he had of himself, his community, the world, and the universe.

Suffice it to say that Tedlock as well as Hinz, as the basic condition for the type of research work they did, had to have a rather full command of the respective Maya idioms, Quiché and Kanjobal. Naturally, the same holds true for reading, interpreting and translating the life prognostications from the Books of Chilam Balam which are written in Mayat’an, the Yucatec Maya idiom, of the 18th century.