General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 29 Nov 2020/5 Flower
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Aztec rug design from the Codex Magliabechiano based on the number 4

Sacred geometry was at the FOURfront of Aztec life and world

Over the years we have randomly come across - and noted down - nearly a hundred examples of contexts in which the number 4 played a pivotal role in Aztec/Mexica mythology and daily life - and indeed continues to do so in Mesoamerican households today. A two-day scholarly symposium early in 2020 (The Mesoamerica Meetings at the University of Texas, Austin) took as its theme ‘Centre and the Four Corners’, focussing on the ubiquitous quincunx design (four points and a centre) underpinning so much that was sacred in the Mesoamerican landscape and world. As one of the speakers emphasised, it is a testament to the power of the quincunx symbol that it has survived the last 500 years... (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

‘The Wounded Deer’ by Frida Kahlo (1946)
‘The Wounded Deer’ by Frida Kahlo (1946) (Click on image to enlarge)

Starting August 2020 we’ll note these examples, adding them week by week. We won’t necessarily add sources, to avoid cluttering the pages. Feel free to send us your own!

We start with a note from the 16th century chronicler Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón:-
• ‘Hunters, when they set out snares to catch deer, shout towards the four quarters of the world and place four crossed cords on a rock. The archers call four times to the deer... shouting four times like a puma. They place a lighted candle on the grave for the dead for four successive days...’

Aztec male birth symbols, Codex Mendoza fol. 57r (detail)
Aztec male birth symbols, Codex Mendoza fol. 57r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

• At birth, Aztec children were given miniature symbolic gifts, indicative of the future gender-bound career in store for the newborn. Boys were usually given a mini set of weapons: four arrows and a shield, representing his future as a warrior. Each arrow represented a quarter or cardinal direction of the world.
Four days after birth, a Mexica midwife would present the babe four times to the sky and to the cleansing, even nutritious water with which it would be bathed; after this, the all-important naming ceremony would take place, attended by friends, family and local dignitaries.

‘The Field of the Ball-game’, from the Codex Borgia - drawing by Abel Mendoza, from ‘Firefly in the Night’ by Irene Nicholson
‘The Field of the Ball-game’, from the Codex Borgia - drawing by Abel Mendoza, from ‘Firefly in the Night’ by Irene Nicholson (Click on image to enlarge)

• In the ritual ballgame, players were generally prohibited from using their four limbs - they had to use the CENTRE of the body, the belt representing the entrance to the underworld. The four corners (with four distinct colours and four deities) represented the four quarters of the world. The ball was thrown symbolically around the ball court four times to consecrate the space prior to a match. Curiously, the formula for vulcanising the rubber ball was traditionally mixing four parts rubber with one part juice from the morning glory plant, which grows near rubber trees.

Professional Aztec mourners; Codex Tudela fol. 52 (detail)
Professional Aztec mourners; Codex Tudela fol. 52 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Four days after the announcement of a death, small effigies or images of the dead person were carefully made and their praises sung with great devotion.
Every year, for four years, the family of the deceased would mourn for exactly four days, weeping and making offerings of food, song and dance to a (new) effigy of the dead person. Finally, after four long years, not forgotten, but left to rest in eternity, the deceased would never (need to be) mourned again. Job done!

Aztec musicians, Florentine Codex Book VIII
Aztec musicians, Florentine Codex Book VIII (Click on image to enlarge)

• In public ceremonies, each chant phrase, with its accompanying rhythm, was intoned and repeated four times. In merchants’ banquets, the lead priest would raise his incense ladle four times in front of the ‘ground drum’ (the large vertical tlalpanhuehuetl), addressing each of the four directions.
Flutes generally had four finger holes.
Drumbeat patterns consisted of four basic ‘syllables’: to-co-ti-qui, two relating to high pitch, two to low.
The conch trumpet was blown every day at regular intervals four times a day from dawn to dusk.

The four previous world eras in Aztec mythology, on the Sunstone; illustration by Miguel Covarrubias
The four previous world eras in Aztec mythology, on the Sunstone; illustration by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

• In Aztec mythology there had been four previous world eras or ‘Suns’ - and we’re now living in the fifth and last. These are clearly depicted in the centre of the famous Mexica Sunstone - centrepiece of the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City. Each world era was named with a number and a day sign. Most sources (not all) suggest the order of the Suns was:
Four-Jaguar
Four-Wind
Four-Rain
Four-Water.
The current fifth world era was named Four-Movement.
And only four of the 20 day signs were ‘year-bearer’ signs - House, Rabbit, Reed and Flint.

The Aztecs’ ‘Council of Four’ in Montezuma’s palace; Codex Mendoza, fol. 69r (detail)
The Aztecs’ ‘Council of Four’ in Montezuma’s palace; Codex Mendoza, fol. 69r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

• The emperor had four supreme noble advisers at the top of government, who chose the next ruler. They were usually close relatives of the incumbent tlahtoani. The Nahuatl term for the empire itself was Nacxit Xochitl or Four-fold Flower. There were four tribute streams flowing to Tenochtitlan, and tribute was paid four times a year. Tenochtitlan itself was at the centre of the four corners of the world, and consisted of four great administrative quarters, the centre - aligned with the all-important fifth direction - being the sacred precinct. When the Templo Mayor was inaugurated in 1487, the dedication ceremony went on for four days.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 12th 2020

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