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Dr. Alfredo López Austin

Question for January 2013

How were the stars created? Asked by Donhead Prep School. Chosen and answered by Dr. Alfredo López Austin.

Stars represented as stylized eyes on a sky band, here associated with a death god. Codex Borgia pl. 51
Stars represented as stylized eyes on a sky band, here associated with a death god. Codex Borgia pl. 51 (Click on image to enlarge)

Different stories exist that tell of the origin of stars, as much among the indigenous people of Mexico today as in ancient times. Here are two ancient accounts:-

According to the Mexica (Aztecs) a long time ago one of the most powerful gods, Tezcatlipoca, had created four hundred men and placed them in the third heavenly level, to be his guardians. According to whereabouts they were located (along the four cardinal directions and in the centre) they were split into five colour groups - yellow, black, white, blue and red. This story appears in a document written in the 16th century, the ‘History of the Mexicans as Told by Their Paintings’. In this same document it says that, after a great flood which destroyed the world, the gods lifted up the sky once more, giving the job of holding the sky up so it would never again fall onto the earth to two gods in the form of trees and to four men at each cardinal point. It adds that when the gods lifted up the sky they added to it the stars, where they remain today.

Stars seen as ‘eyes of night’ observed by an astronomer, whose eye is stretched from its socket; (Maya) Codex Madrid, pl. 34
Stars seen as ‘eyes of night’ observed by an astronomer, whose eye is stretched from its socket; (Maya) Codex Madrid, pl. 34 (Click on image to enlarge)

In the Popol Vuh the Maya-Quiché told of the elder son of Vucub-Caquix [a bird demon], called Zipacná, bathing one day on the shore of a river when four hundred men passed by, dragging a giant tree with them, to be used to support the roof of their house. As the lads were unable to lift up the tree, they asked Zipacná to help. Using his enormous strength, Zipacná carried the tree single-handed on one of his shoulders to the house the lads were constructing. The young men took fright at Zipacná’s superhuman strength and plotted out of fear to kill him, so he could do them no harm. They set a trap: they made a very deep hole in the ground, into which they made Zipacná fall, and on top of him they threw a giant tree trunk. But Zipacná didn’t die. He pulled off hair from his body and bits of his fingernails and gave them to ants, to take them up to the surface. The lads saw the ants carrying these prizes, and took it as a sign that Zipacná was dead. Zipacná waited until the lads were drunk, celebrating his ‘death’. He then emerged from the hole and killed the young men, who turned into stars, forming the constellation Motz.

Stars form a ‘sky band’ on the rim of the Aztec Sunstone
Stars form a ‘sky band’ on the rim of the Aztec Sunstone (Click on image to enlarge)

Español: Hay diversos relatos que hablan del origen de las estrellas, tanto entre los antiguos indígenas como entre los actuales. Pongo dos ejemplos antiguos:
Los antiguos mexicas decían que uno de los dioses más poderosos, Tezcatlipoca, había creado cuatrocientos hombres y los había puesto en el tercer piso del cielo para que fueran sus guardianes. Estaban divididos, según el lugar en que estaban colocados (cuatro rumbos y el centro) en amarillos, negros, blancos, azules y rojos. Esto aparece en un antiguo documento escrito en el siglo XVI (Historia de los mexicanos por sus pinturas, 1965, p. 69). En ese mismo documento dice que, después de un gran diluvio que destrozó el mundo, los dioses volvieron a levantar el cielo y a dos dioses convertidos en árboles y a cuatro hombres en los extremos, para que lo sostuvieran y no volviera a caer sobre la tierra. Agrega el documento que cuando levantaron el cielo pusieron en él las estrellas, donde ahora están (Historia de los mexicanos por sus pinturas, p. 32).

Supporting the sky... Stone sculpture, Xalapa Museum of Anthropology
Supporting the sky... Stone sculpture, Xalapa Museum of Anthropology (Click on image to enlarge)

Los mayas-quichés dijeron que el hijo mayor de Vucub-Caquix, que se llamaba Zipacná, estaba bañándose a la orilla de un río cuando pasaron cuatrocientos muchachos que llevaban arrastrando un árbol muy grande para sostener el techo de su casa. Como los muchachos no podían levantar el árbol, le pidieron ayuda a Zipacná. Con su enorme fuerza, Zipacná cargó él solo el árbol sobre uno de sus hombros y lo llevó hasta la casa que construían los cuatrocientos muchachos. Éstos se espantaron por la enorme fuerza de Zipacná, y tanto fue su miedo que planearon matarlo para que no los dañara. Hicieron una trampa: un hoyo muy profundo, en el que hicieron caer a Zipacná, y en el que arrojaron después un enorme tronco. Sin embargo, Zipacná no murió. Se arrancó cabellos y pedazos de uñas, y se los dio a las hormigas para que salieran con ellos a la superficie. Los muchachos vieron salir cargadas a las hormigas, y creyeron que ya Zipacná estaba muerto, y que las hormigas sacaban sus pedazos. Zipacná esperó a que los muchachos se emborracharan de alegría por haberlo matado. Cuando ya estaban ebrios, salió del hoyo y los mató a todos. Los cuatrocientos muchachos se convirtieron en las estrellas de la constelación que se llama Motz (Popol vuh, Primera parte, capítulo VII).

Picture sources:-
• Image from the Codex Borgia: scanned from Diaz, Gisele, and Alan Rodgers The Codex Borgia: A Full-Color Restoration of the Ancient Mexican Manuscript, Dover Publications, New York, 1993
• Image from the Madrid Codex: downloaded from FAMSI -
• Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

Learn more of the ‘sky band’ on the Sunstone...

Dr. Alfredo López Austin has answered 6 questions altogether:

Why do the 20 day signs run ANTI-clockwise on the Sunstone?

Who was the first archaeologist to find out about the Aztecs?

Why was the statue of the earth goddess re-buried?

How were the stars created?

What toys did children play with?

What’s the most interesting fact you’ve come across about the Aztecs? (3)

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Yes they did, the most important to them of which were the Pleiades. See more on this in the answer of July 2009 -