Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

Glossary 4 Ajau 8 Kumk’u

The creation date of the Maya Long Count calendar, corresponding to 11 August 3114 BCE in the Gregorian calendar. 4 Ajaw 3 Kank’in

The end date of the Maya Long Count calendar, corresponding to 21 December, 2012 in the Gregorian calendar.

4th Maya Era/4th Creation

Within the Maya world view, or cosmology, we are now living in the 4th era of creation.


One of the twenty days in the Maya sacred calendar. For many Maya, Ajaw is also the fundamental principle of time and space.


Ajq’ijab (plural of Ajq’ij) are specially trained people in the highlands of Guatemala who are calendar keepers and who use the Maya sacred calendar to guide their communities.


Aluxo’ob (plural of Alux) is the name given to mythical “goblins” or spirits in the Maya tradition of the Yucatán Peninsula. They are small forest dwellers who guard the corn fields.


A traditional beverage of corn meal cooked in water and typically sweetened with honey.

August 11, 3114 BCE

Date in the Gregorian calendar corresponding to the beginning date of the Maya Long Count calendar.

Axis Mundi

The “World Axis,” is a concept and symbol found in many cultures. The idea expresses a vertical connection between the Earth and the sky.

Backstrap Loom

A simple loom comprising two sticks or bars between which the warp threads are stretched. One bar is attached to a fixed pole, and the other to the weaver, by means of a strap around the back.


One of the cycles of the Maya Long Count calendar containing 144,000 days.


Architectural feature running down the side of a staircase.


A ritualized act of self-sacrifice performed by the ancient Maya, done by the cutting or piercing of the body.


A volcanic feature formed by the collapse of land following a volcanic eruption.

Calendar Round

A component of the Maya calendar system made from the interweaving of the Tzolk’in and Haab calendars, with a cycle of 52 years.


The most common form of public transportation in Guatemala.


The name given to the observatory-like structure in the ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá. It is named after the building’s interior spiral staircase resembling the inside of a snail’s shell.


Similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs, Maya hieroglyphs representing the twenty days of the Maya sacred calendar are enclosed in a cartouche. The cartouche is oval with three rounded “feet” underneath.


A large tree found in tropical areas including Mesoamerica. In Maya tradition, the ceiba tree connects the planes of the Underworld, the terrestrial realm, and the skies.


The Maya god of rain and thunder.

Chac Mool

A type of stone statue depicting a human figure in a reclining position with the head turned to one side. It is an example of the confluence of Maya traditional styles with those from the city of Tula in central México.


A shrub native to the Yucatán Peninsula, México, that is similar to spinach.

Cha’a Chac

A traditional Maya ceremony to petition for rain.


Chile is the fruit from Capsicum plants, also known as chili pepper. Since 8000 BCE, chili peppers have been a part of the human diet in the Americas.

Chol Q'ij

The name of the Maya sacred calendar in the K’iche’ Mayan language.


The Spanish word for “ribbon,” and a component of traditional Mayan clothing.


A waterproof receptacle for holding water. Cisterns are often built to catch and store rainwater.


Plural of Cocoyol, a type of tree nut with a hard outer shell.


A Codex is a book written by the ancient Maya. These codices (plural) are folding, bark-paper books written using hieroglyphs. Thousands were burned and destroyed during the Spanish conquest.


Confraternities or honorary councils of Maya religious leaders common in Chiapas and Guatemala. Cofradías interpret Catholic ritual and symbolism using Maya beliefs and worldview.


Traditional Maya cooking hearth.


Defined patterns formed by groupings of prominent stars in the night sky.


A type of tree resin used by the Maya as incense.

Corbel Arch

Corbel, or corbeled, arches are the classic Maya method of spanning an interior space. The corbel vault has unequaled stability and harmonious proportions.


Skirt of the traditional Maya dress worn by women in Guatemala and southern México.


Theory, model, or idea that seeks to understand the origin, structure, and evolution of the cosmos or universe.

Day Keeper

Specially trained people in the highlands of Guatemala who have a calling to become calendar keepers and who use the sacred 260-days calendar as a symbolic system of values to guide their communities.

Death Lords

Maya gods of the Underworld.

December 21, 2012 CE

End date of the 5,125 year cycle of the Maya Long Count calendar.


The analysis and interpretation of script and codes in ancient languages where knowledge of the written language has been lost.

Día de la Santa Cruz

Day of the Holy Cross, an important holiday with both Catholic and ancient Mesoamerican indigenous significance that is celebrated on May 3rd.

Día de los Muertos

Day of the Dead, an important holiday with both Catholic and ancient Mesoamerican indigenous significance that is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd.


Title given to a man as a sign of respect.


Title given to a woman as a sign of respect.

Earth Lord

Spirit of the Earth, the Mesoamerican belief that all things have spirit, including the Earth.


The path of the Sun throughout a year with respect to the apparently fixed background of stars.

Emblem Glyph

A combination of glyphs with the consistent words “holy lord” and a main sign that changes depending on the Maya city.


Equinox is the time of year when day and night are approximately 12 hours each, everywhere on Earth. It happens twice a year, on March 20th or 21st and September 22nd or 23rd.

Fourth Creation

In Maya mythology, we are living in the Fourth Creation of the Universe, which began on August 11, 3114 BCE.

Gregorian Calendar

The Gregorian calendar is an international standard. It is a solar calendar with an average year length is 365.2425 days per year, a close approximation to the tropical year.


The Maya solar calendar of 18 months of 20 days, plus five additional days, that make a total of 365 days.

Heliacal Rise

The heliacal rise of a star or other celestial body other than the Sun occurs when it first becomes visible above the eastern horizon, for a brief moment just before sunrise.

Hero Twins

Principal characters in the creation story of the Maya, called Hunahpú and Xbalanqué.


The basic unit of the writing system of the ancient Maya.

Hieroglyphic Inscriptions

The script or writing system of the ancient Maya of Mesoamerica, found inscribed in stone, pottery, bone, jade, accordion folded books, stucco, and other surfaces.


A geographical area in western Guatemala and south-western México that has been populated by the Maya for thousands of years.


The traditional dress of Maya women. In the Yucatán the huipil is a dress, while in Chiapas and Guatemala, the huipil is worn as a blouse.


Supreme deity in the story of creation of the Maya.


Interpretation of the content of images.


Reptile native of tropical areas of México and Central America.

Inferior Conjunction

Alignment of Mercury or Venus with the Sun as seen from Earth. During the superior conjunction, the planet is behind the Sun, and during the inferior conjunction, the planet is in front of the Sun.

Itzá Mayan

The language of the Itza Maya people, similar to Yucatec Mayan.


The Itza or Itzaes are an ethnic group of Maya that historically descended from a Yucatec Maya lineage. They inhabit the Petén department (state) of Guatemala.


A hard and tough stone that was used by the Maya to make jewelry, weapons, and tools. The color varies from black to lilac, but is most commonly green.

Kan Kab’

Red clay found in the Maya region of the Yucatán.


Maya ethnic group and the name of one of the Mayan languages of Guatemala.


A katun is a unit of time in the Maya Long Count calendar equal to 7,200 days, or approximately 20 years.

Katun-ending Period

The end of the katun was marked by numerous ceremonies and at some of the ancient Maya cities, particularly Tikal in Guatemala.

Komon Tohil

Community-based organization of Day Keepers in Zunil, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.


The feathered serpent of Maya mythology.


An important deity of the ancient Maya.


The largest Maya ethnic group and also the name of one of the Mayan languages of Guatemala.

K’iche’ Mayan

The language of the K’iche’ people in Guatemala.


Maya word for Sun, day, and time.


Limestone, or lime, is a general term for calcium-containing inorganic materials. The Maya use lime to cook corn and to make stucco, a type of plaster used to cover the stone structures and interiors of ancient buildings.


A lintel is a horizontal structural element between two vertical supports. The Maya typically carved stone lintels in their buildings.

Long Count

One of the calendars of the ancient Maya, spanning cycles of 5,215 years.


Geographical area spanning the Yucatan peninsula and eastern Guatemala that has been occupied by the Maya for thousands of years.


A machete is a large cutting tool similar to a short sword. About 2 feet in length, it has a single sharp edge and it is used to cut grass and other plants.

Madrid Codex

One of four accordion shaped Maya books that remain from the many thousands that were destroyed by the Spanish invaders and Catholic priests.


Maya ethnic group and one of the Mayan languages of Guatemala.


Ground corn dough.


A style of architecture that reflects a mix of elements from the Toltec and Maya ethnic groups. The Toltec come from Northern Mexico near the town of Tula.


Mesoamerica is a geographical area defined by its ancient culture, spanning central México, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, parts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.


An analogy that describes a subject in comparison with another, otherwise unrelated object.


A stone mortar with two elements, a rectangular base and a stone cylinder known as "mano," which is pressed against the base to grind food, especially grains and seeds.


An ancient system of sustainable agriculture used throughout Mesoamerica that produces maize, beans, and squash, sometimes complemented with chiles.


A monument or sculpture made out of a single block of stone.


In astronomy, the nadir is the point directly underneath an observer on the surface of the Earth.

Nadir Passage of the Sun

In tropical latitudes, the Sun, in its apparent motion caused by the rotation of the Earth, passes through a point directly underneath the observer twice a year.


The native language of the ancient Aztecs and modern Nahuas of México.


Each day in the Maya Tzolk’in calendar is called a nawal. In the context of the Maya sacred calendar, a nawal is a guardian spirit that is a link with the sacred.


The name given to the process of cooking corn with lime (calcium hydroxide). This method of cooking corn releases the amino acid niacin, which is essential to prevent the disease “pellagra.”

Observation-based astronomy

Geocentric astronomy, based on the observation of celestial bodies from the perspective of an observer on the surface of the Earth.


A type of volcanic igneous rock, very strong and very sharp. The Maya used obsidian to make tools and weapons, and was used for ornamentation.


Pre-Hispanic culture that developed in the current Mexican states of Tabasco and Veracruz between 1400 and 400 BCE. Best known for its colossal head sculptures made of stone.

Owner of the Milpa

Spirit of the Earth, the Mesoamerican belief that all things have spirit, including the Earth.

Paris Codex

One of four accordion shaped Maya books that survived destruction by the Spanish invaders and Catholic priests.


A type of wild pig native of the Americas.

Penis Perforator

Razor-sharp pointed tool of obsidian, or the spine of a sting-ray, used to perforate the foreskin of a ruler’s penis in an act of self-sacrifice and bloodletting during Maya rituals.


The largest, and most northern, department (state) of Guatemala. A geographic region that harbors many Maya archaeological sites, including Tikal.


The fruit of a cactus vine native to Mesoamerica that is red on the outside. Its white interior is sprinkled with black seeds.


A geological formation; an area of high land of relatively flat terrain.


Square-shaped central space in a town or part of an architectural complex, and the gathering place of the community.

Popol Wuj/Popol Vuh

The “community book” of the K’iche’ Maya that recounts the creation story of the Maya people.

Pottery Shards

In archaeology, a shard is a historic or prehistoric fragment of pottery.


A wobble in the Earth’s rotation axis caused by gravitational interactions with the Moon and Sun. The Earth goes through one complete cycle of precession every 25,772 years.


Meaning “mountain” in Yucatec Mayan, Puuc is a region in the northwest of the Yucatán Peninsula. It is also a style of architecture characterized by skilled ornamentation.


One of 31 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala.


The feather serpent of Maya mythology.

Sac Be’

Meaning “white road” in Yucatec Mayan, a straight raised pre-Hispanic causeway or road.

Sac Ha’

An offering of corn that is used during Maya ceremonies to petition for rain in the Yucatán peninsula.

Sacred Cenote

The largest natural sinkhole at the Maya city of Chichén Itzá where the ancient Maya made offerings and sacrifices.


A grassland ecosystem with an open canopy of trees and a layer of grasses.

Scarlet Macaw

A large and colorful parrot, native to the humid, evergreen forests in the tropics of the Americas.


Natural underground water hole.


Native plant of the Yucatán, México, with fibers that are used to make rope, cord, and tapestries.

Solar Maximum

The period of greatest solar activity in the eleven year cycle of the Sun. During solar maximum, the Sun’s surface has the largest number of dark sunspots.

Solar Year

A solar, or tropical year, is the length of time that the Sun takes to return to the same position in the cycle of seasons, as seen from Earth. The mean solar year is 365.242 days.


The winter solstice is when we experience the longest night and the shortest day of the year. The summer solstice is when we have the longest day and shortest night of the year.


The name of the city of Zinancantán, Chiapas, México, in the Tzotzil Mayan language.

Spider Monkey

An endangered monkey native to the Americas that inhabits tropical forests from southern México to Brazil.

Spondylus Shells

Also known as thorny oysters or spiny oysters, these colorful shells were used by the ancient Maya for ornamentation.


A sudden, sharp increase in wind speed which is usually associated with active weather.


Natural formation in caves that result from the continuous deposit of minerals transported by water seeping into the cave, especially calcium bicarbonate.


A monument shaped like a column, usually monolithic, inscribed with a commemorative, funerary, or ceremonial function.

Stingray Spine

A type of fish related to sharks. The ancient Maya used the spine of stingrays to perforate parts of their bodies in acts of bloodletting and self-sacrifice.

Story of Creation

A symbolic narrative of how the world came to be and how humans first appeared on Earth.


A substance made of an aggregate, a binder, and water. This material is applied wet and hardens to a very dense solid. The smooth surface serves as a protective cover that is often painted or sculpted.


Dark spots that appear on the surface of the Sun within an eleven year cycle. They are caused by intense magnetic activity.


The integration of different, and at times contradictory, belief systems.


Ancestral dish of Mesoamerica, of indigenous origin, generally prepared with cornmeal cooked by steam, wrapped in corn husks or banana leaf, and filled with meat, vegetables, or fruits.

Tectonic Activity

Natural forces that cause the deformation of the Earth’s crust.


One of the Maya deities in the Popol Vuh, meaning “sovereign” or “power.”


A flat bread in the shape of a circle made of corn meal that has been cooked with quicklime.


Edible internal organs of farm animals, including the stomach and the intestines.


Storage bin for agricultural products.

Tropical Savannah

Areas with scattered trees that are dominated by woody and grassy shrubs.


A cycle of 360 days in the Long Count Maya calendar.

Turtle Maya Constellation

The constellation of Orion in Greek mythology.


Meaning “rattle of the snake” in Yucatec Mayan, this is what the contemporary Maya of Yucatán call the Pleiades in the Greek constellation of Taurus.


The Maya 260 day sacred calendar, called Chol Q’ij by the K’iché people of Guatemala.


A temple with many skulls carved in stone at the ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá.


One of the many Mayan languages spoken in southern México in the state of Chiapas.


Ethnic group and Mayan language in the area surrounding Lake Atitlán in Guatemala.


A month of twenty days in the Haab Maya calendar.


The cord that joins an unborn child to the mother.


Also known as Xibalbá, it is the subterranean world of nine levels where the Maya ancestors and “death lord” deities dwell.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

Ancestral site that has been designated by UNESCO as a special legacy for humanity because of its cultural significance and its beauty.


The realm of the sky with thirteen levels where the Maya deities dwell.


Native, in reference to language, home, and other traditions.


Base twenty, in contrast with “decimal” which has the number ten as its base.

Virgen de Guadalupe

Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the representations of the Virgin Mary of the Catholic Church, whose principal place of worship is at the Basilica of Guadalupe in northern Mexico City.

Volcanic tuff

A type of rock consisting of consolidated volcanic ash ejected from vents during a volcanic eruption.


Meaning “bread of the milpa” in Yucatec Mayan, it is a ceremony held in connection with the harvest.

Wajxaqib' B'atz'

A ceremony held every 260 days by the K’iche’ people of Guatemala to celebrate a New Year in the Chol Q’ij Maya sacred calendar.


In weaving, the warp is the set of lengthwise yarns that are held in tension on a frame or loom.


Five days of purification at the end of the 18 months of twenty days of the Maya Haab calendar.


In weaving, the weft is the yarn which is drawn through the warp yarns to create cloth.

World Tree or Tree of Life

Also called “axis mundi,” is a symbol present in many cultures, which expresses the connection between the Earth and the sky.


“First Grandfather,” one of the deities of the Popol Vuh, the Maya creation story.


“First Grandmother,” one of the deities of the Popol Vuh, the Maya creation story.


A person from the Yucatán.

Yucatec Mayan

One of several Mayan languages, spoken in the Yucatán peninsula and parts of Chiapas and Guatemala.


In astronomy, the point in the sky directly overhead from the perspective of an observer on the surface of the Earth.

Zenith Passage of the Sun

In tropical latitudes, the moment when the Sun, in its apparent motion caused by the rotation of the Earth, passes through a point directly above the observer twice a year.

Zenith Tube

Vertical tunnel with an underground observation chamber that allows an observer to measure the exact moment of the zenith passage of the Sun, when the Sun is directly overhead at midday.