Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

The Maya and the Sun

K’in/k’inich: The Sun God, day, Sun, time

The cycles of celestial bodies, particularly the Sun, form the basis of the Maya calendar. It is no coincidence then that the word for Sun, day, and time are the same, or are very similar to each other in all Mayan languages. To keep track of time, the Maya observed and recorded the yearly cycles of the Sun; including the times of equinoxes, solstices, and the zenith and nadir passages. Sunlight and shadows, as well as the position of the Sun during sunrise and sunset, are recorded in the architecture of the magnificent pyramids, palaces, and other structures of ancient Maya cities to this day. These special times of the year were celebrated with pomp and ceremony in ancient times; and, today, thousands of people, both Maya and non-Maya, visit archaeological sites and witness the relationship between the Sun and the structures of these monumental cities.

In the old days we had no clocks, and no TV or anything like that. My grandmother knew how to tell time by observing the Sun. She showed me how to track my own shadow during the day, and when it was shortest, I knew to run home and help her start dinner. She would say that when the Sun was straight overhead we could completely step on our own shadow.” María Ávila Vera, Yucatec Maya, Elder