FIGURE 9. Daykeeper from Chichicastenango, Guatemala, counting coral seeds. Photo by Jennifer Folster.

FIGURE 9. Daykeeper from Chichicastenango, Guatemala, counting coral seeds. Photo by Jennifer Folster.

FIGURE 10. Lady 1 Flower, ruler of Yanhuitlan, from page 19 of the Codex Bodley.

FIGURE 10. Lady 1 Flower, ruler of Yanhuitlan, from page 19 of the Codex Bodley.

FIGURE 11. Lord 7 Flower, from page 16 of the Codex Nuttall.

FIGURE 11. Lord 7 Flower, from page 16 of the Codex Nuttall.

A third way in which the ritual calendar was used—and is still used—throughout Mesoamerica is as a system of divination. The day sign upon which a day fell “ruled” that day’s events. The day sign could affect the success of undertakings begun on that date. It would also affect the disposition and life direction of a child born under its influence.3 In order to illustrate how the calendar was used to prophesy, and as a means of introducing the poorly understood Ñudzavui system, we will begin our discussion with the well-documented Nahua and Quiché traditions of calendric divination.

For the Nahuas in Central Mexico, days had good, neutral, or bad omens associated with them, and most number-and-sign combinations had their own particular prophetic meanings. Book 4 of Bernardino de Sahagún’s encyclopedia on sixteenth-century Nahua culture, the General History of the Things of New Spain, provides detailed descriptions of the omens associated with the majority of the day signs. The following quotation, for the day 9 Wind, is a particularly ominous calendrical omen:

And Nine Wind was said to be wholly and entirely evil. As to him who was then born, nothing could be made of his life; so nothing could be retained; he could hold nothing; nothing would be kept; nothing would appear; he could do nothing; he was incapable on earth. He was as one driven by the winds, wandering here and there. He might wish to be something, to be someone: he became only nothing. For truly so was his day sign.4

Not all day prophecies were so unfortunate. People born on the day 7 Flower would be great artisans; those born on 5 Monkey would be great jokers and storytellers; those born on 2 Rabbit would be drunkards.5

Despite the fact that people were generally named after the day on which they were born, being born under an evil calendric sign did not irrevocably blot the future of an Nahua child. Through parental consultation with a soothsayer, a more auspicious day name could be chosen, replacing the actual birth date day name. The child’s future would thereafter be governed by the newly chosen name-sign.6

The Quiché Maya maintain a strong tradition of calendric prognostication today. The auspicousness of dates can be determined by consulting a Daykeeper, a man or woman trained in interpreting the ritual calendar (Figure 9). Like the Ñudzavui and Nahua, the Quiché use a 260 day ritual calendar which combines thirteen numbers with twenty day signs. Both numbers and signs are used in divination. The numbers simply determine the strength of the day’s fortune (strong, moderate, or weak).7 The bulk of prophetic information falls on the 20 day signs. Many of the names of these day signs can be correlated with objects and animals. For example, Batz’ can translate to Monkey; Tziquin can translate to Bird; C’at to Net. However, in the context of divination the names of the days are used not for their iconic referent but as mnemonic devices to guide the Daykeeper to other concepts.8 The connection of day name to its interpretations is often achieved through the use of poetic associations with the sounds of the day name. For example, although Batz’ does mean “Monkey” in everyday speech, in the context of divination the Daykeeper might move from Batz’ to cabátz’inic (“to spin”), cabotz’ic (“to roll up”), botz’oj_ (“winding”) and _tz’onoj (“asking”). In divination, the day Batz’ (of any number) is a very positive sign, foretelling tasks completed well, tasks “all tied (spun/rolled/wound) up.” Barbara Tedlock summarizes its associations as follows:

In divination, if the question concerns whether to make a particular trip, business deal, or ask for a woman, Batz’ of any number is affirmative: one will spin (cabátz’inic) or roll up (cabotz’ic) luck, marriage, or a business arrangement…A child born on Batz’ will be lucky in business, marriage, and life. He or she will easily roll up (cabotz’ic) everything: money, animals, harvest, children. Such a person will automatically be rich and respected…9

Not all days are quite so auspicious. Tz’i’, for example, can be poetically related by the Daykeeper to such concepts as tz’ilonic (“to be dirty, stained, soiled, impure”), tz’iyalaj tzij (“jealous words” between husband and wife), and catzi’yaric (“it isn’t certain”). Children born on this day will be confused, weak, unlucky, and probably promiscuous. No business deal or journey would be undertaken on this day because it is “weak” and “indifferent.” If a groom consults a Daykeeper about his potential bride and the result is a Tz’i’ date, this indicates that the bride already has another lover. As a result the marriage may be broken off.10

As with the Nahuas and the Quiché, the Ñudzavui placed great importance on the symbolic meanings of the days of the ritual calendar. At least one source suggests that priests would be consulted to determine the auspiciousness of days on which fiestas were to be held.11 A recent statistical analysis of names from Ñudzavui documents indicated that some names appear more frequently than others. This suggests that the Ñudzavui, like the Nahuas, may have renamed children born on unlucky days.12 In general, however, we know little about Ñudzavui divination. Unlike the records pertaining to the Nahuas or Quiché, we have neither sixteenth-century documents that outline the specifics of Ñudzavui date omens, nor contemporary calendric practices to refer to. However, Mark King has argued that Ñudzavui date symbolism can be reconstructed through the use of a ritual, syllabic calendar vocabulary recorded in sixteenth-century Spanish and Ñudzavui-language alphabetic documents.

From contact-period sources we know that the Ñudzavui possessed a “ritual vocabulary” used in pronouncing the days of the 260 day calendar. Each number, and each animal or object used as a day sign, was referred to by a special term quite different from the word used to refer to that number or animal or object in daily life.

For example, a Ñudzavui man coming across a single squash blossom flowering in his field would speak of “one flower” by saying ee ita.

Term one flower
Non-ritual vocabulary ee ita


In contrast, someone born on the day 1 Flower, like the woman from the Codex Bodley shown in Figure 10, would pronounce their name entirely differently. The Lady 1 Flower depicted below was alive at the time the Europeans arrived, and from alphabetic sources we know that her name was pronounced Cauaco.13

Term one flower
Non-ritual vocabulary ee ita
Ritual vocabulary ca huaco


Through a study of sixteenth-century alphabetic documents referring to the names of native leaders whose name glyphs are shown in the screenfolds (like Lady 1 Flower), as well as of Ñudzavui pictorial documents glossed alphabetically, it has been possible to recompile the terms used in the ritual calendrical vocabulary.14

Number Normal vocabulary Ritual vocabulary
1 ee ca, co
2 uvi ca, co
3 uni co
4 qmi qui
5 oho q, qhu
6 iño nu
7 usa sa
8 una na
9 ee q, qhu
10 usi si
11 usi ee si, sii
12 usi uvui ca
13 usi uni si


Day Sign Normal vocabulary Ritual vocabulary
Crocodile coo yechi quevui
Wind tachi chi
House huahi cuau
Lizard tiyechi q, que
Snake coo yo
Death sihi mahu
Deer idzu cuaa
Rabbit idzo sayu
Water nduta tuta
Dog teina hua
Monkey codzo ñuu
Grass yucu cuañe
Reed yoo huiyo
Jaguar cuiñe huidzu
Eagle yaha sa
Vulture sii cuii
Motion cahi qhi
Flint yuchi cusi
Rain dzahui co
Flower ita huaco


The vocabulary used with the ritual calendar is unusual for two reasons. First, as was shown with the “one flower” example above, the words used to describe the twenty day glyphs are usually totally unlike the names used for those animals and objects in everyday speech. Second, the terms used for the numeric values have only one syllable. All Ñudzavui words are composed of at least two syllables (see the Introduction to the Alvarado Vocabulario tutorial), so the reason for these word fragments is unclear.

Mark King has argued that the unusual words and fragments of words found in the ritual vocabulary were used as a syllabic writing system. [15] Although the ritual terms for the numbers have only one syllable, numbers in dates are always paired with a day glyph. In the spoken language, each number-and-day glyph combination would bring at least two syllables together—and from these two syllables one could form a word, or a series of words. Dzaha Dzavui is a tone language, and the pitch in which one pronounces a word (such as high, middle, or low) can change its meaning (see the Introduction to the Alvarado Vocabulario tutorial). Thus for any given two or three syllable combination that resulted by pairing a number and a glyph, one could potentially produce a number of Ñudzavui words, depending on the pitches applied to each syllable and the order in which the syllables were combined.

Such a practice would be similar to that used today by Quiché daykeepers, who use poetic relations of sound and pronunciation as a mnemonic technique from which to extrapolate meaning from day signs. Just as the Quiché daykeeper might move from the day sign Tz’i’ to the words tz’ilonic (“to be dirty, stained, soiled, impure”), tz’iyalaj tzij (“jealous words” between husband and wife), and catzi’yaric (“it isn’t certain”)—moves based on sound rather than meaning—his or her Ñudzavui equivalent might have used comparable rules of poetics, mnemonics, and tone puns to derive symbolic meanings for particular dates.

As a much-simplified example of how meanings can be produced from the ritual syllabary, consider the Day 7 Flower.16 It is the twentieth day in the cycle of 260. It is also the name of the Ñudzavui solar deity associated with the East, artisanry, and precious objects (Figure 11).

The two primary syllables involved are sa (7) and co (from Flower: huaco). Combining these syllables in various ways, the Ñudzavui daykeeper might have produced the verb saco, meaning “to write,” “to compose in colors,” and “to compose a song”—all precious, artistic skills. The daykeeper might also have made a poetic association from saco to the dzaco, meaning “good,” “beautiful,” and “precious”—again, all appropriate words to describe a deity linked to gold, chocolate, and jade. In the context of actual calendric divination, we could expect that the day 7 Flower would have been highly auspicious. Events begun under its influence would have been very successful (“good,” beautiful”) and even profitable (“precious”).

This example of the “captions” encoded within Ñudzavui date glyphs is very simple, but it should convey the outlines of how the Ñudzavui divinatory system may have worked. For a full explanation of captioning theory, and of the various ways day syllables are combined, see King 1990 and 1994 (and critiques in Jansen 1998).

Chronology >

3 For a general discussion of day names and personality, see Monaghan 1998.

4 Sahagún 1950-1982, 7-8.

5 Sahagún 1950-1982, 7, 11.

6 Sahagún 1950-1982, 3.

7 Tedlock 1992, 107-108.

8 Tedlock 1992, 107.

9 Tedlock 1992, 117.

10 Tedlock 1992, 116.

11 Acuña 1984, 320. The source is the Relación Geográfica for Zacatepec; see the Introduction to the Codex Nuttall Ñudzavui tutorial.

12 Marcus 1992, 203-204.

13 Spores 1967, 135.

14 Smith 1973, 23-24; Rodríguez Cano 2008; Jansen and Pérez Jiménez 2011, 22-28.

15 King 1990, 1994.

16 King 1994, 122-123.