General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 Nov 2017/8 Flint
Text Size:

Link to page about the Maya Calendar
Today's Maya date is: 13.0.4.17.18 - 1799 days into the new cycle!
Link to page of interest to teachers
Click to find out how we can help you!
Search the Site (type in white box):

The Aztec New Fire Ceremony, Codex Borbonicus

The New Fire Ceremony

By far the most important festival of all in the Mexica (Aztec) calendar was that held once every 52 years (a pre-Hispanic ‘century’) to welcome in the new calendar round, when both Sun and Moon calendars re-started together. To have lived to see - and remember - a New Fire Ceremony was something every Aztec grandparent longed to tell their grandchildren...
This story version comes from Stories Told by the Aztecs by Carleton Beals.

Pic 1: Putting out home fires all through the Aztec world
Pic 1: Putting out home fires all through the Aztec world (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs believed that, after the Fifth Sun, the world was likely to come to an end again at the close of any 52-year cycle - by fire, or wind, earthquake or flood: or it might be that Glass Butterfly, the Lightning Goddess, would perpetrate the destruction. Or it might come through the anger of Smoky Mirror [Tezcatlipoca]. Hence the passing of each ‘century’-cycle was celebrated by an elaborate New Fire festival.
Holy fires, kept lit during the entire 52 years, were extinguished. All other fires were extinguished (pic 1).

Pic 2: Aztecs throwing objects into the lake on the eve of the New Fire Ceremony
Pic 2: Aztecs throwing objects into the lake on the eve of the New Fire Ceremony (Click on image to enlarge)

On the last night new fire was reproduced in the ancient manner, with the use of pieces of wood. If success attended this effort, the world would last another 52 years. If not, nothing would prevent the Sun and Earth from perishing. The people also destroyed their most treasured possessions. They tore their clothes and broke their furniture and utensils. Even gods and idols were hurled into the rivers and the lakes (pic 2). Everything must be replaced by new objects.
Extreme anxiety ruled on the critical night. No one thought of sleeping. The sun might never rise again!

Pic 3: Pregnant Mexica women and babies donned maguey fibre masks to protect themselves
Pic 3: Pregnant Mexica women and babies donned maguey fibre masks to protect themselves (Click on image to enlarge)

And if the sun did not rise, terrible hideous figures, called Tzitzimime, the Sky Spirits, would descend upon earth and devour the people. Pregnant women and children put on masks of maguey fibre (mezayacatl) (pic 3), so that in the event of catastrophe, they would not turn into wild animals and devour their neighbours.
Save for the stars in heaven, the most complete obscurity reigned over the earth. A night of terror, in which all trembled, from child to grandparent - for they had no assurance that the dawn would come, that the sun would reappear.

Pic 4: Aztec priests in a procession to the Hill of the Star
Pic 4: Aztec priests in a procession to the Hill of the Star (Click on image to enlarge)

The priests, dressed in the insignia of all the gods, marched in silent procession (pic 4) towards the outskirts of the city to Ixtapalapan, Place-of-Salt-Works, five miles distant from Tenochtitlan, a hill with a twisted summit, the Hill of the Star.
All the inhabitants also walked out to the sacred hill. In distant villages the people went to the nearest elevations and mountains to get a view of the Sacred Hill of the Star, to watch for the reappearance of the divine flame, the New Fire.

Pic 5: A tiny fire is lit in the chest cavity of an Aztec sacrificial victim
Pic 5: A tiny fire is lit in the chest cavity of an Aztec sacrificial victim (Click on image to enlarge)

On the summit of the Sacred Hill, the priests waited until the Pleiades reached the exact zenith. On the open breast of a sacrificed victim, the priests then placed the mamalhuaztli, the sticks with which New Fire was made (pic 5). The appointed priest twirled the hard stick with great energy. The multitude below waited in fearful expectation. The most restless were those on the far-off hills. The priest, sweating and panting, worked until the softer wood powdered, smoked, took fire.

Pic 6: The Aztec New Fire is lit!
Pic 6: The Aztec New Fire is lit! (Click on image to enlarge)

‘The flame!’ A cry of jubilation and relief burst from the assembled masses. The cry was caught up and carried in all directions from end to end of the vast valley of Anahuac.
From the soft burning wood of the mamalhuaztli was lit an immense bonfire there on the summit (pic 6). As the flame leapt up in the dark night the people on the mountains in far towns danced and hugged each other, crying and laughing. People drew blood from their ears with thorns and threw it in the direction of the blessed New Fire.

Pic 7: Speedy Mexica relay runners carry the flame of the New Fire to all points of the country
Pic 7: Speedy Mexica relay runners carry the flame of the New Fire to all points of the country (Click on image to enlarge)

Messengers quickly carried it by lit ocotli pine torches to the four cardinal points (pic 7). On all sides, in all the villages, in the remotest provinces, in the most hidden hamlets, these carriers, chosen from the best runners and specially prepared by fasting and religious ceremonies, were waiting in relays, ready to receive the holy flame and distribute it over the empire. Racing down the hillsides, careful not to let the flames go out, these runners passed the precious fire from hand to hand until, in an incredibly short time, it was distributed to all the hamlets of the land. One by one the hearth fires and the altars were relit. Once more comforting shadows danced along the walls.

Pic 8: A New Fire was lit in every Mexica house! Florentine Codex Book 7
Pic 8: A New Fire was lit in every Mexica house! Florentine Codex Book 7 (Click on image to enlarge)

Life was renewed! Life was assured for another 52 years! In every house there was a festival, music and dancing and drinking, and the people ate tzoalli, the Bread of Joy. New hopes flowered. Everything, clothes, furniture, idols, utensils were new. Life had begun again!

Text from: Stories Told by the Aztecs by Carleton Beals, Abelard-Schuman, London, 1970.

Picture sources:-
• Top picture: scanned from our own copy of the Codex Borbonicus (ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974)
• All illustrations of the New Fire Ceremony sequence drawn specially for Mexicolore by Felipe Dávalos © Mexicolore 2012
• Image from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994.

Learn more about the ‘Terrible Tzitzimime’ spirits

Feedback button