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Mexicolore contributor Dr. Catherine DiCesare

Time, ritual and sacred landscape in Aztec Mexico

We are most grateful to Dr. Catherine DiCesare, Associate Professor and Area Coordinator for Art History, Department of Art, Colorado State University (USA), for this illuminating article, written specially for us, on the all-important functions of Mexica (Aztec) calendar festivals, celebrating the sacred earth...

Pic 1: Veintena of Huey Tozoztli, detail: Tlaloc in mountain temple, Codex Borbonicus, e. 16th century
Pic 1: Veintena of Huey Tozoztli, detail: Tlaloc in mountain temple, Codex Borbonicus, e. 16th century (Click on image to enlarge)

In pre-Columbian Mexico, the Aztecs carried out myriad rituals to celebrate the sacred earth. Festivals took place throughout the year to petition the forces of rain and the earth to provide and protect the crops. These involved elaborately-costumed celebrants carrying out rituals both on the city stage and in processions to springs, lakes, mountaintop shrines, and other vital locations in the landscape. In Aztec thought, ceremonies for the earth were inextricable from the calculation of time: not only were rituals carried out in accordance with established Mesoamerican calendar cycles, but time itself was believed to have a major impact on the fate and conditions of the sacred landscape.

Pic 2: Veintena festivals, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Primeros Memoriales
Pic 2: Veintena festivals, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Primeros Memoriales (Click on image to enlarge)

Veintenas
A major recurring cycle of festivals was timed by the solar calendar of 365 days, known in Nahuatl as the xiuhpohualli. Because they recognized that indigenous religion, rituals, and calendars were closely linked, Christian friars who came to Mexico in the sixteenth century, in the aftermath of the Spanish conquest, wanted to understand how Mesoamerican calendars worked. To this end, they described them at length in early colonial manuscripts, many of which also contain extensive pictorial information. From these sources, we understand that the 365-day xiuhpohualli was divided into eighteen “months” of twenty days each, known by the Spanish term veintenas, along with five uncertain days known as the nemontemi. Among the most prolific chroniclers was the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, whose manuscripts contain extensive information in both Nahuatl and Spanish about indigenous Mesoamerican culture (Pic 2).

Pic 3: Veintena of Tlacaxipehualizatli, Codex Tudela, late 16th century
Pic 3: Veintena of Tlacaxipehualizatli, Codex Tudela, late 16th century (Click on image to enlarge)

Each of the twenty-day veintena periods had its own ritual, celebrated with great pomp in elaborate ceremonies. Some were dedicated to celebrating the warrior class. For example, the springtime ceremony known as Tlacaxipehualiztli included gladiatorial combats (Pic 3). Other veintena months were dedicated to kings and nobles, such as the summertime celebrations known as Tecuilhuitontli and Huey Tecuilhuitl, the Small and Great Feasts of the Lords.

Pic 4: Tlaloc image on vessel from Great Temple, Tenochtitlan
Pic 4: Tlaloc image on vessel from Great Temple, Tenochtitlan (Click on image to enlarge)

Among the most important functions of the calendar festivals were celebrations, offerings, and sacrifices dedicated to petitioning the powerful forces of the earth to provide water and sustenance. The entities known as Tlaloc and Chicomecoatl were especially important. Sixteenth-century Spanish friars, familiar with the pantheon of gods from ancient Greece and Rome, tended to interpret the various names and terms the Nahua used to describe aspects of the sacred landscape as individual, Classical-style “gods.” However, these “gods” might be better understood as poetic references to the powerful animating essence - teotl - that enlivened the landscape and cosmos: mountains, earth, bodies of water, maize, the sun.

Pic 5: Veintena of Atl Cuauhlo, Codex Borbonicus
Pic 5: Veintena of Atl Cuauhlo, Codex Borbonicus (Click on image to enlarge)

Tlaloc manifested the forces of earth and rain associated especially with mountains, and had been the focus of special celebrations since ancient times (pix 1 and 4). He is easily recognizable in pre-Columbian and colonial images by fangs and “goggled” eyes.
The veintena of Atl Cauahlo was dedicated to celebrations for Tlaloc in the mountains and at sites around Lake Texcoco (pic 5), and the veintena of Atemoztli marked the coming of the rains.

Pic 6: Stone sculpture of Chicomecoatl, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 6: Stone sculpture of Chicomecoatl, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Tlaloc was often celebrated alongside Chicomecoatl, who embodied the maize, queen of Mexican crops. The chronicles of Sahagún (Florentine Codex books 2 and 4) describe Chicomecoatl as “our sustenance” and “our flesh, our strength.” It was Chicomecoatl who brought forth “all our food... white maize, yellow maize, green maize shoots,” as well as chía, beans, and amaranth. There are numerous images of Chicomecoatl from Mexico, including stone sculptures (pic 6), ceramics (pic 12), and manuscript images (pic 7).

Pic 7: Veintena of Huey Tozoztli, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Book 2
Pic 7: Veintena of Huey Tozoztli, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

The springtime veintena Huey Tozoztli, “the Great Vigil,” was a celebration of the tender maize plants that had just emerged from the earth. At this time young women dressed up as Chicomecoatl and brought her bundles of maize ears. The celebrants created images of Chicomecoatl fashioned out of tzoalli, an amaranth dough, and brought gifts of the very same food offerings that Chicomecoatl, “our sustenance,” bodied forth (pic 7).

Pic 8: Year dates, from left: One Rabbit, Two Reed, Three Flint, Four House, from Codex Mendoza, fol. 2
Pic 8: Year dates, from left: One Rabbit, Two Reed, Three Flint, Four House, from Codex Mendoza, fol. 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

The 52-Year Cycle
The 365-day solar year was part of a greater cycle of 52 years, known as the xiuhmolpilli. Among the Aztecs, this cycle was formed by combining the numbers 1-13 with four signs, Rabbit (tochtli), Reed (acatl), Flint (tecpatl), and House (calli), to create 52 unique year-names. The first year in the cycle was One Rabbit, the second Two Reed, the third Three Flint, and so on (pic 8). This was an important cycle all its own, and the ending of one period of 52 years and the beginning of the next was celebrated in a major mountaintop ritual known as the New Fire Ceremony. These year-dates were also used in Mexican chronicles to indicate the passage of “linear” time, marking important historical and political events.

Pic 9: Historical chronicles: Years Ten Rabbit-One Rabbit, 1447-1454, Codex Telleriano-Remensis
Pic 9: Historical chronicles: Years Ten Rabbit-One Rabbit, 1447-1454, Codex Telleriano-Remensis (Click on image to enlarge)

Certain years in the 52-year cycle had deeper associations with agriculture and the earth’s fertility. In particular, the two years that initiated the sequence, One Rabbit and Two Reed, had special meaning for the sacred landscape. Early colonial chronicles recording myths and histories of ancient Mexico frequently link the year One Rabbit with abysmal events resulting from imbalance in the earth, while Two Reed was often a time for new beginnings and a return to fertility and abundance. These kinds of stories probably reflect an Aztec way of thinking about time, in which stories about primordial eras resonated with cultural memories of actual events.
Archaeological data confirm that the year One Rabbit, our year 1454, saw the worst famine on record for pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Mexican histories describe widespread starvation resulting from the droughts and famine. The chronicler Fray Diego Durán states that the drought was so bad “that the springs dried up, the streams and rivers ceased to run, the earth burned like fire... As soon as the maize sprouted it turned yellow and withered like all the rest of the crops.” The annotator of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis writes that “there was such a great famine that men died of hunger,” and the accompanying imagery depicts clouds of dust and dead bodies (pic 9). To make things worse, it appeared that the famines were cyclical, since a series of disasters led to another One Rabbit-year famine one 52-year cycle later in 1506.

Pic 10: Mount Tlaloc Temple
Pic 10: Mount Tlaloc Temple

Important Mexican myths describe Two Reed as a time for new beginnings of all kinds. According to the colonial Legend of the Suns, Two Reed was the time when Quetzalcoatl created humans from a pile of broken bones; to feed these hungry new humans, Quetzalcoatl stole food from Tlaloc’s “Mountain of Sustenance,” where stores of maize and beans were hidden away. Scholar link this mythical “Mountain of Sustenance” to actual Tlaloc shrines in central Mexico, such as the shrine at the Great Temple in Tenochtitlan, which sat alongside the temple of the paramount Huitzilopochtli, as well as the ancient mountaintop shrine to Tlaloc atop Mt. Tlaloc, located near Texcoco (pic 10).

Pic 11: Bath at Tetzcotzingo
Pic 11: Bath at Tetzcotzingo (Click on image to enlarge)

In historical One Rabbit-Two Reed years, Mexican kings constructed important mountaintop shrines to Tlaloc and Chicomecoatl, probably in response to the terrible climatic conditions described above. For example, in the One Rabbit-Two Reed years 1454-1455, the famed poet-king Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco began building a massive shrine to these gods at the nearby Hill of Tetzcotzingo. The site was filled with gardens, baths, ritual paths, and temples to the earth gods, and an aqueduct brought precious water to the site from the sacred Mt. Tlaloc (pic 11).

Pic 12: Ceramic image of Chicomecoatl, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 12: Ceramic image of Chicomecoatl, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

One cycle of 52 years later, in One Rabbit 1506, the Aztec king Motecuhzoma II also decided to construct a new temple, this one dedicated to the maize goddess. The dedication of the new temple was accompanied by celebrations as well as the sacrifice of enemy warriors. The historian Fray Juan de Torquemada explicitly connected the new Chicomecoatl temple to the One Rabbit famines, explaining that the dramatic ceremonies were carried out because the pain and heartache of the recent droughts were still fresh in the minds of the people and they feared the recurrence of another terrible famine.

Pic 13: Veintena of Ochpaniztli, Codex Borbonicus
Pic 13: Veintena of Ochpaniztli, Codex Borbonicus (Click on image to enlarge)

It is not surprising that so much effort and expense went into glorious mountaintop shrines, dedications, and offerings to Tlaloc and Chicomecoatl in times of deprivation and despair. Sahagún’s Florentine Codex (book 6) records an extensive prayer to Tlaloc and Chicomecoatl that was uttered during times of drought, hunger, and affliction. The speaker describes the people as “drymouthed... bony... twisted... scraped... suffering torment and affliction... All the little creatures suffer.” The speaker then begs for assistance: “Perhaps Chicome coatl, Cinteotl... will help them... will put a little atole, a morsel into their mouths... I call out, I cry out... Water the earth, for the earth, the living creatures, the herbs, the stalks remain watching, remain crying, for all remain trusting.” Although this poetic invocation of Tlaloc and Chicomecoatl can be understood as a general call for aid from the sacred forces responsible for providing or denying sustenance, it also describes eloquently the suffering wrought in the wake of the One Rabbit famines.

Pic 14: Detail of Two Reed date glyph in Codex Borbonicus veintena chapter
Pic 14: Detail of Two Reed date glyph in Codex Borbonicus veintena chapter (Click on image to enlarge)

Veintenas and the 52-Year Cycle
Veintenas designed to petition the sacred forces of rain and maize to provide food probably took on profound importance in these particular years. The famous screenfold manuscript known as the Codex Borbonicus contains numerous veintena celebrations that emphasize Chicomecoatl and Tlaloc. Significantly, the inclusion of prominent Mexican year-glyphs in the veintena section of this manuscript dates these Codex Borbonicus veintenas specifically to the year Two Reed, probably 1507 (pic 14).

Pic 15: Veintena of Ochpaniztli: detail of Chicomecoatl and Tlaloc priests, Codex Borbonicus
Pic 15: Veintena of Ochpaniztli: detail of Chicomecoatl and Tlaloc priests, Codex Borbonicus (Click on image to enlarge)

The page depicting the autumn festival known as Ochpaniztli gives special prominence to the figure of Chicomecoatl (pix 13 and 15). She stands on top of a low platform, adorned in dramatic paraphernalia that includes a colorful headdress, maize cobs in her hands and headdress, and the flayed flesh of a sacrificial victim. She is surrounded by Tlaloc priests, his goggle eyes and fangs visible in their headdresses.

Pic 16: Graphic representation of how the Tzolk’in and Haab (Maya) calendar cycles intermeshed to create the 52-year Calendar Round cycle. The much larger Haab wheel would have 365 positions
Pic 16: Graphic representation of how the Tzolk’in and Haab (Maya) calendar cycles intermeshed to create the 52-year Calendar Round cycle. The much larger Haab wheel would have 365 positions (Click on image to enlarge)

Time was interwoven with the health of the sacred earth and the populace it supported. The different calendar cycles in Mesoamerica were inextricable and cycled together, and probably affected each other. Rituals were intended to maintain or restore balance in the earth. The point in time when the ceremonies rituals took place was important; not only were various months of the solar calendar dedicated to celebrating the sacred forces of the landscape, but celebrations of sacred entities would have been affected in turn by their position within linear, historical time. The 52-year cycle would probably have had a major impact on how each year’s ceremonies were celebrated. Indeed, it appears that the Aztecs paid special homage to the gods or rain and maize in the years One Rabbit and Two Reed.

Sources and Further Reading:
• Bierhorst, John. History and Mythology of the Aztecs: the Codex Chimalpopoca. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992
• Broda, Johanna. “The Sacred Landscape of Aztec Calendar Festivals: Myth, Nature, and Society.” In To Change Place: Aztec Ceremonial Landscapes, edited by Davíd Carrasco, 74-120. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1991
• DiCesare, Catherine. Sweeping the Way: Divine Transformation in the Aztec Festival of Ochpaniztli. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2009
• Durán, Fray Diego. The Book of the Gods and Rites and the Ancient Calendar. Translated and edited by Fernando Horcasitas and Doris Heyden. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971
• Durán, Fray Diego. History of the Indies of New Spain. Translated by Doris Heyden. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994
• Hassig, Ross. “The Famine of One Rabbit: Ecological Causes and Social Consequences of a Pre-Columbian Calamity.” Journal of Anthropological Research 37 (1981): 172-182
• Hvidtfeldt, Arild. Teotl and Ixiptlatli: Some Central Conceptions in Ancient Mexican Religion. Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1958
• Sahagún, Fray Bernardino de. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. Translated by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. 13 vols, Monographs of the School of American Research. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950-1982
• Torquemada, Fray Juan de. Monarquía Indiana. 3 vols. Mexico: Editorial Porrúa, 1975
• Townsend, Richard. “Pyramid and Sacred Mountain.” In Ethnoastronomy and Archaeoastronomy in the American Tropics, edited by Anthony F. Aveni and Gary Urton, 37-62. New York: The New York Academy of Sciences, 1982.

Picture sources:-
• Images from the Codex Borbonicus (original in the Bibliotheque de l’Assembée Nationale, Paris) scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Image from Primeros Memoriales (original in the Palacio Real de Madrid) - public domain
• Image from Codex Tudela (original in the Museo de América, Madrid), scanned from our copy of the Testimonio Compañía Editorial facsimile edition, Madrid, 2002
• Pic 4: photo courtesy of and © Chloë Sayer
• Pic 6: photo by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Image from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Image from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis scanned from our own copy of the facsimile edition by Eloise Quiñones Keber, University of Texas Press, 1995
• Pic 10: picture scanned from our own copy of The Aztecs by Richard Townsend
• Pic 11: picture scanned from our own copy of Aztec Art by Esther Pasztory
• Pic 12: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 16: Illustration courtesy and © Paul Johnson / Crab Nebula image - NASA, ESA.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Apr 16th 2014

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