Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Posts tagged “birth

Colloquies Of The Twelve

I have quite the research treat for you tonight, dear reader!  After quite some time patiently hunting and following threads (and guessing the correct URL behind a broken link when one last barrier tried to put an end to my quest), I successfully tracked down the only English, full-text translation of an important Conquest-era work… the Colloquios y doctrina christiania (“Dialogues and Christian Doctrine”), often known to English speakers by its nickname “The Colloquies of the Twelve.”

The bilingual Nahuatl/Spanish text dates to about 1564 and was penned by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún.  The work concerns itself with recording a series of debates between Mexican religious and political authorities and a team of twelve friars sent by the Spanish crown to attempt to destroy the indigenous faith.  These verbal battles took place in the early 1520’s, shortly after the fall of the Aztec empire.  While Sahagún didn’t reach Mexico until 1529 and thus was a few years too late to have witnessed these discussions himself, he did consult ten out of twelve of the friars, as well as four Mexica informants and four eminent native scholars (Antonio Valeriano, Alonso Vegeriano, Martin Jacobita, and Andres Leonardo), in order to reconstruct the debates (albeit in a highly-poetic and dramatic form).

The lone surviving manuscript was lost for over three hundred years until it was rediscovered in the Vatican archives in the early twentieth century.  Sadly, of the thirty chapters, only fourteen have endured the ravages of time.  It received a German translation by Zelia Nuttall in the 1940’s, but remained untranslated into English until 1978, thanks to the effort of Jorge Klor de Alva (the first complete modern Spanish translation was executed by Miguel Leon-Portilla in 1977).  Its first and only publication was in the final issue of Alcheringa: Ethnopoetics, Volume Four, Number Two, published by Boston University in 1980.  This printing is the one I present you with today.

Click HERE to access the downloadable PDF containing the Colloquies of the Twelve at Alcheringa’s online archive.

I also recommend poking around in other volumes in Alcheringa’s archives, as they have quite a bit of interesting stuff back there, including more Mesoamerican research and several recordings of indigenous poetry recitations.  Thumbs up to Boston University for releasing these archives to the public, including the audio recordings that came with issues of this journal.

P.S. — As a bonus, this particular volume also includes several interesting Mayan legends I haven’t encountered anywhere else, and, related to my previous post, Thelma D. Sullivan’s full text translations of several birth/pregnancy huehuetlatolli speeches from Book 6 of the Florentine Codex.


Book of the Colloquies; The Aztec-Spanish Dialogues of 1524. English edition translated and edited by Jorge Klor de Alva. Alcheringa/Ethnopoetics vol 4, no. 2:52—193.  1980.


Nahui Ollin

Today I want to share something interesting I noted about a couple of important dates in the tonalpohualli, the 260 day sacred calendar of traditional Mesoamerica (as opposed to the 360 day + 5 “dead days” civil calendar, used by the authorities much like the modern 12 month European calendar).  According to the Aztec Calendar website, today is the day Nahui Ollin, or Four Movement.  It’s a particularly special day because its the name day of Tonatiuh, the Sun of the Fifth Era — i.e., the present cosmic age.

A quick aside if you’re not familiar with the classical Mesoamerican “name day” concept — Aztec parents didn’t name their children purely at their own pleasure, like is the common practice in the USA today.  Instead, they would name their baby after a tonalpohualli date within four days of the child’s birth, which would be a number/noun pair, like One Reed or Ten Death.  As different dates have different positive and negative qualities under the pre-Conquest system of prognostication, the parents would consult with a priestly calendar specialist to choose the most promising day within that four day window to name the child.  (Dibble & Anderson, Florentine Codex, Book VI, pp.197-199, 201-207)

Now, back to Tonatiuh and His date name, Four Movement.  According to myth, the Fifth Era began in the darkness at Teotihuacan when all the gods came together to re-create the world and birth a new sun.  The day the new age and the new sun came to be is Mahtlactli Omei Acatl, or Thirteen Reed.  Thirteen Reed is the last day of the first trecena of the new 260 day calendar round, which started with Ce Cipactli (One Crocodile).  (Side note — the name Cipactli should be familiar, as it’s also the name of the primordial earth goddess who was dismembered to form the universe by Tecatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl before the First Era/Sun.  Another link to the process of creation!)  Exactly four days after Thirteen Reed is… Four Movement.  So, this creation story captures the fascinating detail that even the gods followed the practice of naming new beings after a date within the four day window after birth.  (This makes perfect sense when you recall that the common belief in Mesoamerica, continuing to the present day, is that the calendar and date-keeping is a divine gift.)

Now, this little detail is interesting enough in its own right, but I’d like to call your attention to one last thread of the story that makes it even more fascinating.  The date Nahui Ollin isn’t only the birth name of Tonatiuh, the present Sun, but it is also the prophecied date that He and the earthly realm will collapse into chaos and darkness again.  Thus, this single date and phrase is both His birth and His death, packed into one incredibly concise little packet bursting with meaning.  Life and death, creation and uncreation, Mictlan and Topan, separated only by time.  The Aztec alpha and omega.

Ollin, Plate 10 of the Codex Borbonicus

Ollin, Plate 10 of the Codex Borbonicus


Sahagún, Bernardino , Arthur J. O. Anderson, and Charles E. Dibble. General History of the Things of New Spain: Florentine Codex. Santa Fe, N.M: School of American Research, 1950-1982, Book VI, pp.197-199, 201-207.