General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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Professor Anthony Aveni

Question for June 2008

Did the Aztecs think the earth was round or flat? Asked by St Johns CE Junior School. Chosen and answered by Professor Anthony Aveni.

Stone altar disk to Tlaltecuhtli, Lord of the Earth, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City; photo by Ana Laura Landa
Stone altar disk to Tlaltecuhtli, Lord of the Earth, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City; photo by Ana Laura Landa (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs were not interested in the shape of the earth because they didn’t descend from the Greeks. Different cultures have different issues & that wasn’t one of them.

Both the Aztecs and the Maya say that it took a great drama, a great performance, to bring about the emergence of "all the sky-earth":-

by the Maker, Modeler,

mother-father of life, of humankind,

giver of breath, giver of heart,

bearer, upbringer in the light that lasts,

of those born in the light, begotten of the light;

worrier, knower of everything, whatever there is:

sky-earth, lake-sea.

Taken from Professor Aveni’s book ‘People and the Sky’, 2008, p. 19.

The Aztecs believed in three vertical levels in the cosmos:-

13 heavenly planes (Topan),

the surface of the earth (Tlalticpac),

and the 9 planes of the underworld (Mictlan).

The earth’s plane was divided into 4 equal sections and represented as a surface on which there were 5 points, often shown as 5 trees, the centre one being the axis mundi, rooted in the world of the dead but as tall as the highest skies.

Adapted from ‘Cosmovision, Religion and the Calendar of the Aztecs’ by Alfredo López Luján, in ‘Aztecs’ (Royal Academy of Arts exhibition catalogue, 2002), p.32.

One of a series of recent children’s questions on astronomy, all kindly answered in brief by Professor Aveni. The others are:-

Q. Is it true the Aztecs learned the cycle of Venus from the Maya? A. We now know that the references to Venus in calendars from Central Mexico look the same as those of the Maya. It’s likely that’s where they came from, but we have no proof.

Q. How many planets did the Aztecs believed existed? A. We can be sure that the Aztecs recognized the motion of Venus. I think they surely were aware of Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn because all are bright & move noticeably among the stars, but we have no documents that prove the case.

Q. How did Aztec people tell the time? A. The basic “unit of currency” was the day. They didn’t break the day into hours, minutes, etc. There was a “town crier” in Tenochtitlan who drummed out the time when an important civic event was scheduled to occur.

Q. Do we know when the cycles of the sun, the moon and Venus will next come together? A. Venus and the sun realign every 8 years. Throw in the moon and it’s 99 years.

Q. Did they have a highest number (in their calendars/counting systems)? A. There are no really big numbers in Aztec documents. Chroniclers after the conquest say the Aztec creation periods were measured in millions of years but we can’t be sure.

Q. Did the Aztecs know of different star constellations to the ones we see today? A. The Aztecs recognized the Pleiades. They called it the Fire Drill, which was used to create new fire every 52 years. They had a Scorpion, which may have been comprised of the same stars as our own, a Ballcourt, equivalent to our Gemini and a few others are pictured that we are still trying to identify - and no doubt many more.

Q. Why were they so into Astronomy? A. If you want to anchor human and natural events together no part of the environment is more reliable than the sky. First rains may come late, flowers may blossom early, and the time a hibernating animal emerges from sleep may vary, but sky events happen with extraordinarily precise regularity. Try looking up and you’ll find out.

Q. Were the Aztec day signs related to our star signs? A. There were 20 day names — after plants, animals, forces of nature; e.g. flower, jaguar, earthquake. Ours are named after Nordic versions of the old Greek Gods.

See each answer in a little more detail in the following months...

Professor Anthony Aveni has answered 7 questions altogether:

Is it true the Aztecs learned the cycle of Venus from the Maya?

Did the Aztecs think the earth was round or flat?

How many planets did the Aztecs believe existed?

How did Aztec people tell the time?

Did the Aztecs know of different star constellations to the ones we see today?

What sort of gadgets did the Aztecs have?

Why did houses have no windows?

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