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Professor Gordon Brotherston

Question for May 2007

On the Sunstone, if the two big snakes are male and female, morning and afternoon, do they represent the first man and woman [to be created]? Asked by Stroud School. Chosen and answered by Professor Gordon Brotherston.

Pic 1: A copy of the Aztec Sunstone
Pic 1: A copy of the Aztec Sunstone (Click on image to enlarge)

You are right to take a keen interest in the two big snakes on the Sunstone, and to wonder what they may tell us about life-forms and about time. To begin with, in Mexica or Aztec natural history, they belong to the special category of creature called Xiuh-coa-naual in the Nahuatl language. This term condenses much meaning in its three parts.

Pic 2: 13-Reed year date at the top of the Sunstone
Pic 2: 13-Reed year date at the top of the Sunstone (Click on image to enlarge)

Xiuh means year, as well as turquoise, grass and comet, and extends into fire and time itself. Between their tails, the snakes hold a box containing the calendar name ‘13 Reed’ (Pic 2), stated to have specified the first year of our time or Era (Quinto Sol in Spanish), thousands of years ago. The middle element Coa-tl is snake, though (as here) it may be twin, too, and refer as well to community, through the idea of being connected or segmented as by vertebrae. Naual* is like changeling or metamorphic [shape-shifter]. Indeed if we look closely at these ophidian [snake] specimens we see that the tips of their tails resemble those of insects or crustaceans while at the other end they have grown arms and have gaping articulated jaws that belong to caiman or crocodiles more than snakes. Moreover, the heads that emerge from the jaws have a decidely human look about them. In all, it’s hard to summarize such density of meaning, let alone translate Xiuhcoanaual into English.

Pic 3: The 2 large snakes round the rim of the Sunstone
Pic 3: The 2 large snakes round the rim of the Sunstone (Click on image to enlarge)

Holding their tails up on either rim, like the columns in Mexica temples, the snakes plunge down to face each other. In this position their bodies effectively separate the main surface of the Sunstone disk, on which the history of the world ages or cosmic Suns is intricately inscribed, from the outer projections, which are left as raw rock in which some scholars have detected possible hints of stars. In this way, the metamorphic [transformatory] snakes may be thought to mark a boundary in time, between the knowable and the as yet unknown.

Pic 4: Xiuhtecuhtli, Lord of Fire and Time, in the Codex Borbonicus. Notice the xiuhcoanaual as his backshield
Pic 4: Xiuhtecuhtli, Lord of Fire and Time, in the Codex Borbonicus. Notice the xiuhcoanaual as his backshield (Click on image to enlarge)

Thanks to comparison with Mexica books (the Borbonicus Codex, for example), we can be sure of whose heads and faces emerge from the jaws. They belong to Xiuhtecutli, lord of Fire and Time (left) (Pic 4) and Tonatiuh, Sun (right), who figure in the set of the 13 lords of creation as number 1 and number 4, respectively. Integrated into the complex numerical statements made on the disk as a whole, these values correspond to the vast time periods over which Mexica creation is said to have taken place - but that’s a subject in itself!

Pic 5: Stone Fire Serpent (Xiuhcóatl), British Museum
Pic 5: Stone Fire Serpent (Xiuhcóatl), British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

PICTURE SOURCES:-
Pix 1,2,5 by Ian Mursell
Pic 3 scanned from ‘The Aztec Calendar and Other Solar Monuments’ by Eduardo Matos & Felipe Solís, Mexico City, Conaculta-INAH, 2004
Pic 4 scanned from ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Borbonicus, Graz, Austria, p.23

*Learn more about the idea of a ‘na(h)ual’...

Professor Gordon Brotherston has answered 2 questions altogether:

How long did it take the Aztecs to realise that Cortés was not a god?

On the Sunstone, if the two big snakes are male and female, morning and afternoon, do they represent the first man and woman [to be created]?

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