General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Sep 2017/9 Jaguar
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What was the symbolism of the four directions?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Katia Hougaard: What was the symbolism of the four directions (East, West, North and South) in Mexica culture? The 4 directions are important in many North American native cultures so it would be interesting to compare what it meant in Mexica culture. (Answered by Julia Flood/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The four directions leading to the four corners of the Mexica world; Codex Fejérváry-Mayer
Pic 1: The four directions leading to the four corners of the Mexica world; Codex Fejérváry-Mayer

The four cardinal directions form the foundation of Mesoamerican religion and cosmology. From the time of the Olmecs around 3500 years ago, they have been shown in sculpture, stone reliefs and paintings. The comparatively recent (1345-1521) Aztecs associated the 20 signs attributed to the days of their calendar with east, north, west and south (in this order). Each cardinal direction had 5 day signs attributed to it. Some Aztec divinatory books show the following groupings alongside a specific deity.

Pic 2: Page 1, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer. EAST is at the top
Pic 2: Page 1, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer. EAST is at the top (Click on image to enlarge)

• Direction: East (Tlapallan)
Deity: Tonatiuh; Colour: Red
Signs: Alligator-Snake-Water-Reed-Movement
• Direction: North (Mictlampa)
Deity: Tezcatlipoca; Colour: Black
Signs: Wind-Death-Dog-Jaguar-Flint Knife
• Direction: West (Cihuatlampa)
Deity: Quetzalcoatl; Colour: White
Signs: House-Deer-Monkey-Eagle-Rain
• Direction: South (Huitzlampa)
Deity: Huitzilopochtli; Colour: Blue
Signs: Rabbit-Lizard-Vulture-Grass-Flower

Pic 3: One of the earliest depictions of “Sustenance Mountain”: the “Paradise of Tlaloc”, a painting inside a cave under the Temple of the Sun in Teotihuacan, c. 100BCE-200CE
Pic 3: One of the earliest depictions of “Sustenance Mountain”: the “Paradise of Tlaloc”, a painting inside a cave under the Temple of the Sun in Teotihuacan, c. 100BCE-200CE (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs had complex myths based on these directions. It was their belief, for example, that the earth was surrounded by ocean on all sides east, north, west and south. At night, the waters would tower above each direction and meet in the middle of the night sky. The water would then fill the earth’s caves, bringing growth and fertility to humankind. This is why the Aztecs believed that the first maize was found in a cave called Tonacatepetl (Mountain of Our Sustenance). The maize was coloured in four different variations and was scattered by storm gods to the four corners of the earth.

Pic 4: The centre of the Aztec Sunstone forms an elegant quincunx. Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias
Pic 4: The centre of the Aztec Sunstone forms an elegant quincunx. Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

In another legend the earth was covered in a vast ocean. The gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca destroyed the terrible water monster, Tlalteotl, in order to lower the waters and create the sky and earth. After they had done this, five massive cosmic trees grew in the east, north, west and south, and most importantly, in the centre of the world. This ensured that the sky would not collapse.
The idea of a fifth direction, the centre, was key to Aztec religious philosophy. It was considered to be the heart of the world, and the place where earth, sky and underworld met. As the fifth direction, the centre was the symbol of our current age (which the Aztecs call the ‘Fifth Sun’). The five directions are manifested in art in the shape of the quincunx.

Pic 5: Ollin, or ‘Movement’ sign
Pic 5: Ollin, or ‘Movement’ sign

The quincunx is traditionally described as a cross with five points, one being the centre. It appears repeatedly in Mesoamerican imagery. Here are some examples:-
Ollin, or Movement (pic 5). An Aztec day sign and symbol of the era of the Fifth Sun. Each of its corners represent east, north, west and south, and the centre is marked with a circle. Perhaps the most famous representation of Ollin is in the Aztec Sun Stone. Our current era of the Fifth Sun is placed at the centre (see pic 4). See the four corners jutting outwards and a face in the centre.

Pic 6: A traditional Mexican Huichol ‘Eye of God’ good luck charm forms another perfect quincunx
Pic 6: A traditional Mexican Huichol ‘Eye of God’ good luck charm forms another perfect quincunx (Click on image to enlarge)

Similar to the story mentioned here, there is a Northern American myth from the Coast Miwok that recounts the story of how their creator, Coyote, made the waters of the earth recede and land appear by performing a ritual to the south, east, north and west. There must be many other myths from around the world about the four (or five!) directions. We would love to hear more, so do write back and share them with us!
Thanks, Katia, for your interesting question!

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: illustration by Abel Mendoza, based on the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer
• Pic 2: Image scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, Graz, Austria, 1971
• Pic 3: Photo courtesy John E. Staller
• Pic 4: Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias scanned from ‘The Aztecs, People of the Sun’ by Alfonso Caso, University of Oklahoma Press, 1958
• Pic 5: Image supplied by Julia Flood
• Pic 6: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

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