Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Posts tagged “calendar

Xultún And The Baktun

In honor of the approaching end of the 13th baktun on December 21, per the famous Mayan calendar, I’d like to write about a piece of ironclad historical evidence contradicting the “Mayan doomsday” nonsense.  That particular piece of evidence lies in the ruins of Xultun.

Xultun was once a flourishing Mayan metropolis, and its importance continues to the present day as the site of a series of murals of great significance to clearing up an archaic misunderstanding of the great calendar.  More specifically, painted on the walls in a house that appears to have been a workshop for scribes and astronomers, is a series of complex astronomical tables  extending well past the end of 2012.  In other words, the Mayan astronomers of the ninth century C.E. most certainly didn’t think the world would end when the thirteenth baktun did, but instead carried on with their work charting planetary and stellar activities well beyond the supposed end of the world.  “So much for the supposed end of the world,” quips William Saturno, one of the present-day (re) discoverers of these scientific calculations.

Another of Saturno’s comments sums up the contrast between Western pop culture’s misconceptions and Mayan thought nicely, in my opinion —  “We keep looking for endings… the Maya were looking for a guarantee that nothing would change. It’s an entirely different mindset.” (National Geographic, 5/10/2012)

After the above excerpts, you might be interested in getting a look at Xultun and these murals for yourself.  If so, you’re in luck!

If you click HERE, you can view National Geographic’s “Giga Pan” high resolution photographs of some of the murals.

If you’d like to explore the beautiful stone stelae (carvings) that dot the city, you can click HERE to visit the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard’s website cataloguing a bit of the site’s history, its carvings, and their locations around the town.  (The diagrams of the carvings are in the list on the lefthand side of the page.)

Finally, National Geographic has also prepared a short video on the discoveries at Xultun for your viewing pleasure, which you can view HERE if you have trouble viewing the embedded version below.

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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

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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.


Astronomical Alignments at the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, Mexico

In honor of the spring equinox, I’d like to share an interesting article by Ivan Šprajc that explores some theories regarding possible astronomical associations of the architecture of the Grand Temple. Mr. Šprajc is a Slovenian archaeoastronomy specialist with an interest in the ancient astronomical practices of the Aztec, Maya, and Teotihuacan peoples. This paper, “Astronomical Alignments at the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, Mexico” is the result of the studies he conducted at the excavation site of the Huey Teocalli in Mexico City.

In this paper, Šprajc agrees with his predecessors Aveni, Calnek, Tichy, and Ponce de Leon that the Templo Mayor was indeed constructed to align with certain astrological phenomena and dates.  This initial concept is partially based on some clues recorded by Mendieta that the feast of Tlacaxipehualiztli “fell when the sun was in the middle of Uchilobos [archaic Spanish spelling of Huitzilopochtli].”

The more traditional position, held by Aveni et al and supported by Leonardo López Luján in “The Offerings of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan” (2006) holds that the festival’s beginning was marked by the perfect alignment of the sunrise between the two sanctuaries atop the Temple on the first day of the veintena according to  Sahagun.  To wit, Sahagun recorded that the festival month began on March 4/5 (depending on how you correct from the Julian to Gregorian calendar) and ended shortly after the vernal equinox.

Unlike his peers, Šprajc concludes that the festival of Xipe Totec was marked by the sun setting along the axis of the Teocalli.  At that time, the sun would seem to vanish as it dropped into the V-shaped notch between the two shrines of Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli.  His conclusion partially stems from a slightly different measurement of the orientation of the temple than the other archaeologists, and his preference for Mendieta’s dating of the start and end of Tlacaxipehualiztli, which would start right around the vernal equinox and then end on about April 4th.

Who do I think is correct?  I think the jury is still out.  Both the sunrises and sunsets were marked by the priests with copal offerings and music, and both were involved in the flow of various festivals, so we know for sure that the scholars and clergy of Tenochtitlan assigned significance to both.  Given the issue of varying estimates of how much the Templo Mayor has settled into the soft soil of the remains of Lake Texcoco, and differing theories on how much the structure has warped due to intentional destruction and pressure from the layering of Mexico City on top, and it becomes hard to present a bulletproof argument for either side.

Šprajc presents some additional interesting possibilities for alignments with Mount Tlamacas and Mount Tlaloc nearby, and a potential method of tracking the movement of the sun that possesses regular intervals of 20 days (matching an Aztec month) and 26 days (two Aztec weeks) that are intriguing.  However, I generally consider Sahagun more reliable than Mendieta, as his research methods were among the best at the time, and modern study has tended to vindicate his records over those of historians working at a greater remove in time after the Conquest.  There’s also the issue that Šprajc seems to be quite outnumbered when it comes to support for his alignment, and some of those who disagree with him, like Leonardo López Luján, have devoted decades of their lives to studying the Templo Mayor specifically.  I’d also like to close with the possibility that everyone could be wrong — the tendency to see astronomical alignments under every rock and bush that were never intended by the people they’re studying has plagued archaeology for a very long time, and in the end, it could be the case here as well.  Regardless, the debate is interesting and well worth reading, and the journal article contains a number of useful photographs and diagrams of deep within the layers of the Templo Mayor that are rewarding in and of themselves.

To download a full-text PDF copy of the journal article for free from the Inštitut za antropološke in prostorske študije (Institute of Anthropological and Spatial Studies), please click HERE.  Alternatively, you can read it on-line at Issuu in simulated book format straight from your web browser by clicking HERE.

As a bonus, I’ve embedded a beautiful video recorded by Psydarketo below.  It’s footage of the sun rising and aligning in the central doorway of the sanctuary atop the Mayan temple at Dzibilchaltun on March 20th, 2011 — last year’s spring equinox.  It’s a similar technique to what I discussed above at the Templo Mayor, except that the sun is framed in the doorway rather than in the V-shaped space between twin sanctuaries.  Close enough to help give a picture of how things would have looked in Tenochtitlan, and wonderful to watch in its own right.

Courtesy link to the original video at Psydarketo’s YouTube page.

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WorldCat Citation

Šprajc, I. (January 01, 2000). Astronomical alignments at the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, Mexico.Archaeoastronomy, 31, 25, 11-40.


The Rise Of The Eagle

One of the core cycles of myth belonging to the Aztecs is the multipart epic of how they went from their humble beginning as an obscure band of nomads to the lords of Tenochtitlan and the founders of a great empire, all under Huitzilopochtli’s watchful eye. In honor of the festival months of Quecholli (beginning today) and Panquetzaliztli, the veintanas celebrating the Chichimec past and the god who led them to glory, I will be kicking off a special storytelling event. Over the course of November and first week of December, I will be retelling the highlights of the series of legends that comprise this important saga of the Mexica-Tenochca people.

The basic timeline of the Foundation Cycle starts with the big entrance of Huitzilopochtli onto the scene with the Battle of Coatepec. I’ve already posted that one, and I recommend checking it out if you haven’t read it yet, as it sets the stage for things to come.

Once Huitzilopochtli’s arrived, He picks out the Mexica as His own favorite tribe and calls them to leave their ancestral homelands in the north and begin their migration south, deep into the Anahuac Valley. He promises to guard them and guide them to a new home, a place where they will found a mighty empire. They trust in Him and head out, overcoming both human and divine opponents until they eventually reach the place where the eagle perches on the nopal cactus, eating a heart — the sign that they have finally found their new home… Tenochtitlan.

Stay tuned!

The Founding of Tenochtitlan, Plate 1 of the Codex Mendoza

The Founding of Tenochtitlan, Plate 1 of the Codex Mendoza


Aztec Prayers & Poems Collected By Alarcon

I came across a lovely little hoard of traditional Aztec poems, prayers, and songs the other night. These were originally recored in Ruiz de Alarcon’s 1629 work, Tratado de las supersticiones y costumbres gentílicas que oy viven entre los indios naturales desta Nueva Espana, commonly referred to as “Treatise on Heathen Superstitions” for short in English. For example, he’s posted prayers for safe travel, for love, and even a myth in song about Xochiquetzal and the Scorpion. Professor Joseph J. Fries of Pacific Lutheran University is the person who has generously posted these precious literary treasures, and he includes a bit of commentary as well. Thank you, Dr. Fries!

Click HERE to read some Aztec poems!

The Goddess Xochiquetzal

Xochiquetzal, Goddess of the Arts


A Brief Survey Of Historical Aztec Autosacrifice

Today I’m going to give a quick overview of the types of autosacrifice performed by the Aztecs during the days of the Empire in order shed some additional light on this very important religious practice.

Traditionally, the Aztecs would collect blood from their ears, lower legs (calf, shin, or just above the ankle), lip, tongue, or penis. The tools and methods used would vary depending on the worshipper’s preferences, the ritual context, and in at least some cases, the instruction of a priest.  The Florentine Codex records the rite of confession to Tlazolteotl, and according to Sahagun, the confessor priest would prescribe required penances to atone for the disclosed sins — these penances often included various forms of bloodletting.

The most common methods of getting the blood were by pricking the flesh with a sharp instrument. Maguey (agave) spines are the tool most frequently mentioned in the historical texts, though slivers of obsidian and special perforators made from a spike-shaped piece of sharpened bone were also used. (Incidentally, Quetzalcoatl, the First Priest, is often shown in the codices holding a bone perforator or two.) From what I’ve read, it seems that maguey spines were particularly associated with piercing the ears and the legs, probably because their large size would be sufficient to draw blood from the legs. The individual would pierce himself or herself in the chosen location, and once the thorns were sufficiently bloodied, would carefully arrange them on a bed of cut fir boughs, or stick them into a ball of dried grass.

Alternatively, the Aztecs would nick their earlobes with an obsidian knife, and the blood would be allowed to drip on the ground, be sprinkled into a fire, or flicked towards the sun, symbolically giving the life-energy to Tonatiuh.

Finally, there was a final type of personal blood offering, that of passing straws or cords through the body. This rather severe form of autosacrifice was a multi-step process. The person would first select a place to pierce. In the texts I’ve read, the tongue seems to be the most common choice for this kind, though the ears, legs, and possibly penis were used as well. (I haven’t the slightest idea of how that last one worked, it’s definitely not something the Spanish friars would’ve recorded the details of!) Then they would poke a hole with a sharp sliver of obsidian, and pull a number of straws or thin cords through the hole. This sacrifice was typically done in a temple or at the side of the road. Wherever it was done, the bloodied straws were left behind as offerings. Interestingly, this practice was apparently only done on days that had a proper sign according to the ritual calendar (tonalpohualli), but I’ve never come across what daysigns those were. Finally, this practice of drawing straws is usually listed as a priestly activity, not something done by ordinary people, though occasionally the nobility appear to have done it as well. Priests who did this often were obvious, as their tongues would be extremely scarred, damaged to the point where they were said to have had difficulty in speaking.

Quetzalcoatl Holding Bone Perforators, Codex Borgia