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Were all Mexica great astronomers or just the priests?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Gabrielle Racine: Their accurate precision in astronomy is astounding. Were all Mexica great astronomers, or was it just the priests? (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

‘The good (Aztec) farmer’ - one who is ‘careful of things, dedicated, able; a knower of books, a reader of day signs, of the months, of the years.’ Florentine Codex Book X
‘The good (Aztec) farmer’ - one who is ‘careful of things, dedicated, able; a knower of books, a reader of day signs, of the months, of the years.’ Florentine Codex Book X (Click on image to enlarge)

Good question. Clearly religion, astronomy and astrology were all closely related to each other, and were in turn ‘controlled’ by specialists. Quite how profound a knowledge of astronomical patterns and phenomena was enjoyed by Mexica citizenry in general isn’t really known, since so little on this subject is found in the historical sources - limited basically to a chapter in Sahagún and then to a few sporadic other references.
The economy revolved around rotating solar and lunar calendrical cycles, bound up with the seasons and other natural cycles, so in that sense everyone had an interest in knowing ‘the basics’. As Yólotl González Torres has written, the stars and planets served the Aztecs as ‘compass, map and calendar’ and were central to the farming year. The cycles of the three brightest bodies in the sky - sun, moon and Venus - impacted (and still impact) life of all kinds, human, animal and plant. Thanks to its recurring cycle of birth, growth, fullness, waning and ‘death’, the moon engendered more superstitions and fears than the sun, and was seen to directly influence the coming of rain (the moon was ‘her’self a vessel full of water), plant life, female menstruation, medicine, divination, fertility and reproduction. At the most mundane level, every Mexica knew that the ‘right’ time to cut someone’s hair - and to take sap from a tree - was tied to the phases of the moon...

A priest uses a pair of crossed sticks to make astronomical observations from on top of a temple platform
A priest uses a pair of crossed sticks to make astronomical observations from on top of a temple platform (Click on image to enlarge)

‘The Aztec,’ writes Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, ‘like all peoples of Mesoamerica, were avid astronomers who carefully tracked the stars and planets at night. The two most important ritual hours to observe the sky were sunset and at midnight.’ Sky watching was very much the domain of rulers, priests and the nobility - it was, after all, a subject of study in the élite calmecac school. Priest-astronomers assembled data on solstices, equinoxes, eclipses and other celestial phenomena methodically, using a simple method of observation, by taking regular visual bearings on a high mountain or distant temple tower. In this sense, mountains and temple-pyramids that ‘mirrored’ them, were particularly sacred due to their special alignment with stars appearing on the horizon.

Useful sources:-
Everyday Life of the Aztecs - Warwick Bray, B. T. Batsford Ltd., New York, 1968
El Culto a los Astros entre los Mexicanos - Yólotl González Torres, SEP/SetentasDiana, Mexico DF, 1979
Handbook to Life in the Aztec World - Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Facts on File, New York, 2006
The Rabbit on the Face of the Moon - Alfredo López Austin, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 1996.

Picture sources:-
• 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
• Priest astronomer: image scanned from Everyday Life of the Aztecs (cf) - original from The Ancient Maya by S. G. Morley, Stanford University Press, 1956.

Uploaded 1/1/20

‘The good farmer’ - learn more about the importance of the moon to the Mexica...

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