General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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Article suitable for older students

Dr. Frances Karttunen

Question for December 2013

Why always THREE hearth stones? Asked by Hurstpierpoint College Prep School. Chosen and answered by Dr. Frances Karttunen.

The traditional three hearthstones can be seen here on the right of a young woman practising the art of grinding maize. Codex Mendoza fol 60r (detail)
The traditional three hearthstones can be seen here on the right of a young woman practising the art of grinding maize. Codex Mendoza fol 60r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Why THREE hearth stones? For the same reason that we have three-legged stools. With three points of contact, there is no instability. Set a comal [griddle] down on three stones, and there it is, just as when you sit down on a three-legged stool, you don’t rock or tip as you would if you were sitting on a four-legged chair on an uneven surface.
The Aztec world-view was dominated by pairs and sets of four, so the three hearth stones don’t fit in conceptually. They are there because of the universal stability of anything with three points of support.

Professor Elizabeth Graham adds:-
”This was true of the Maya as well. We think it has something to do with a popular creation myth in which the gods set three stones that kind of kicked off the order of time...”

The Nahua today call the three hearthstones Mixcoatl, Tozpan and Ihuitl
The Nahua today call the three hearthstones Mixcoatl, Tozpan and Ihuitl (Click on image to enlarge)

Our In-House Team adds: Fleshing out a little Professor Graham’s note, it appears that in their creation myth the Maya included the placing of three stones by various gods at the start of the last great ‘Long Count’ (the one that ended in December 2012), and scholars have linked this to the traditional setting of three hearthstones at the centre of Maya houses, even today. In Matthew Looper’s words ‘Just as the placement of these three stones in a triangular arrangement “centers” the house, so the setting of the three stones of creation prepared the world for humanity’. What’s more, at a ‘higher’ level, the Maya noted the presence of three bright stars, in a triangular shape - which they called the ‘three stones of the heart’ in the southern part of the Orion constellation. Clearly, there’s more to ‘Three Stone Place’ than meets the eye...

Reference: The Three Stones of Maya Creation Mythology at Quiriguá by Matthew G. Looper, Wired Humanities Projects, University of Oregon Virtual Mesoamerican Archive.

The Maya headless god Aprime atop ‘Three Stone Place’, depicted on a Maya ceramic vase (detail from K7220 in Justin Kerr’s Mayavase Database)
The Maya headless god Aprime atop ‘Three Stone Place’, depicted on a Maya ceramic vase (detail from K7220 in Justin Kerr’s Mayavase Database) (Click on image to enlarge)

Image sources:-
• Image from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the 1938 James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London
• Drawing prepared for Mexicolore by Felipe Dávalos
• Photo courtesy of and thanks to Justin Kerr (mayavase.com)

Study the... HEARTH

Dr. Frances Karttunen has answered 2 questions altogether:

Why always THREE hearth stones?

Which was the Aztecs’ favourite game?

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