To the Mesoamerican people (the people who lived in what is today Mexico) the study of time and space was of extreme importance to their culture. The Mayans and Aztecs built their cities and temples along astronomical alignments. To these people, the events of time and space were connected — just as physicists know today that time and space are connected. And they had extremely accurate calendars and astronomical observations that they made with the naked eye. The calculations of Maya priests were so precise that their calendar correction is 10,000th of a day more exact than the standard calendar the world uses today! (Source)
This article will include information about both the Mayans and the Aztecs, because the two civilizations had similar cultures. Obviously not exactly the same, but just as the Greeks influenced the Romans, so too did the Mayans influence the Aztecs. If you are to study one, it is important to study the other.
DISCLAIMER: This is according to what we know currently. Much knowledge about the Aztecs and the Mayans was lost over time, and a lot of it was destroyed or skewed by the Spaniards who came and conquered the Aztecs. Many written codices of Aztec knowledge were destroyed for containing “pagan information.” (Which is a shame because it is believed these codices included information on astronomy, medicine, culture and ritual). And some of the practices of the Aztec people were exaggerated by the Spanish.
THE MESOAMERICAN CALENDARS
The Mayan Calendar (and later Aztec Calendar) is probably one of the more accurate and complex calendars to exist throughout the history of civilization. The Mayan Calendar involves two inter-locking calendars.
The first calendar is called Haab. It is 365 days and approximates the solar year. The word “Haab” means year in the Yucatec Mayan language. But it wasn’t entirely like our calendar today. Instead of having 12 different 30 day months, they had 18 months made up of 20 days each. These 18 months together equal 360 days. And then they add a last month called Wayeb that is made up of 5 days. Some believe these were considered dark days of bad luck. Others believe that this was supposed to be a time of transition and reflection as the new year approached.
The Haab solar calendar was important for marking and observing weather and the seasons, so farmers could figure out when to grow their crops.
The second calendar is called Tzolk’in. The calendar combines 20 named days with 13 numbers, which results in 260 days. The length of Tzolk’in, the 260 days, matches the nine cycles of the moon and the gestational period of humans. The Tzolk’in is also related to the movements of the sun and the growing cycle for corn.
The interlocking calendars: As I said above, the two calendars are interlocked like gears. In the calendar round, a given combination of Tzolk’in and Haab will not repeat itself until 52 periods of 365 days have passed. (Or in other words, 52 years).
The Importance of the 52 Year Cycle: Astronomically, this 52 year cycle was begun when the “Pleiades crossed the fifth cardinal point or the zenith of heaven at midnight.”
The Aztecs used the same interlocking calendar as the Mayans did. And for them, this 52 year cycle was called the “New Fire Ceremony”, which was probably a once in a lifetime event for most Aztec people. On this evening, priests and a warrior chosen by the king began their 20 kilometer procession to the Hill of the Star. At the proper moment of alignment in the heavens, wood bundles representing the past 52 year cycle were lit, the heart sacrifice of the warrior was enacted, and the “new fire” built on his chest. Watching from afar, the citizens also cut and bled themselves and celebrated as the fire was brought back to the Great Temple at Tenochtitlan. Priests and emissaries from outlying towns came to Tenochtitlan to fetch the fire to bring back to their people, so that all could share in the marking of the time as well as symbolically renewing ties with the capital.
THE FIVE SUNS
(Image Source for Aztec God Calendar)
The five suns are part of the creation myth of the Aztecs and other Nahua peoples. The central tenet of the creation myth was that there were four worlds or “suns” before the current universe, and that currently we’re living in the 5th era.
The present world is the fifth sun, and it is believed that the Aztec saw themselves as “the People of the Sun,” whose divine duty was to wage cosmic war in order to provide the sun with his tlaxcaltiliztli (“nourishment”).
I’m not going to include all the information about the Aztec creation myths here, because there is a lot to go over that is firmly documented elsewhere. But the basic things to know are the following:
Ometeotl: In the beginning, from the void that is the universe, the first god, Ometeotl, created his/her self. Ometeotl was both male and female, good and evil, light and darkness, fire and water, judgment and forgiveness, the god of duality. Ometeotl gave birth to four children, the four Tezcatlipocas, who each preside over one of the four cardinal directions.
Quetzalcoatl: Over the West presides the white Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, the god of light, mercy and wind.
Huitzilopochtli: Over the South presides the Blue Tezcatlipoca, Huitzilopochtli, the god of war.
Xipe Totec: Over the East presides the Red Tezcatlipoca, Xipe Totec, the god of gold, farming and Spring time.
Tezcatlipoca: And over the North presides the Black Tezcatlipoca, also called simply Tezcatlipoca, the god of judgment, night, deceit, sorcery and the Earth.
What is interesting to me is that they believed the sun has five phases, and scientists today believe that the life-cycle of a star has five phases (life-cycle of a star).
Also, scientists today believe the Earth has gone through five major cycles of extinction, and we are currently approaching a sixth one caused by human beings. While this doesn’t entirely line up with the Aztec mythos (which believes we are in the 5th cycle), it is interesting to me that they were close.
Maya Civilization: The Mayan Calendar (Web.Archive.Org)
Mayan Civilization (Wikipedia)
The Maya Calendar System (Living Maya Time)
The Maya Were Tracking the Planets Long Before Copernicus (Live Science)
Aztec Astronomy and Observation of Nature (Dellerae)
Aztec Astronomy (Inca Mayan Aztec.com)
Pictures of the Aztec Gods (Pinterest)
The Five Suns (Wikipedia)
Black Sun Mythology (Wikipedia)