Ages of Creation
FIGURE 13. The four year bearers on the Calendar Stone.
FIGURE 14. The Motion sign and the face of the Sun God at the center of the Calendar Stone.
FIGURE 6. The Year 13 Reed on the Calendar Stone.
FIGURE 15. Cell 29 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
FIGURE 10. Cell 14 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
FIGURE 9. The sign for the month of Etzalcualiztli in Cell 15 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
The Aztecs—like other indigenous groups in Postclassic Mesoamerica, including the Quiché Maya and the Ñudzavui—believed that the world had been created and destroyed a number of times before the “present.” Several Ages of Creation existed before the current Age. Physical evidence of those destroyed ages of creation was provided by mastodon bones (believed to be the bones of a vanished race of giants) and by archaeological ruins, such as the massive pyramids at the Classic site of Teotihuacan, just to the north of Tenochtitlan (Figure 12). In colonial sources, the giant pyramids at Teotihuacan were said to have been built by giants.19
According to Aztec beliefs, four Ages of Creation had existed before the present.20 One sixteenth-century source reports that these ages had lasted for different periods of time: 676 years, 676 years again, 364 years, and 312 years.21 Each of these previous Ages of Creation had been lit by a different sun. Each of these suns was given a name using the signs of the tonalpohualli. Each solar name corresponded to the day on which the age of creation lit by that sun was destroyed. The four suns which lit the sky before the present sun were named 4 Jaguar, 4 Wind, 4 Rain, and 4 Water. The names of these four suns are carved onto the Calendar stone, and surround its central, circular face. Each glyphic sign (a spotted jaguar head, the red-beaked visage of the Wind god) is surrounded by four circles, indicating the 4- value (Figure 13). Each of these previous ages ended in an apocalypse, during which the beings who lived in them were destroyed. The 4 Jaguar age ended when supernatural jaguars descended onto the earth and killed everything living on it. The 4 Wind age ended with deadly hurricanes. The 4 Rain age was destroyed by a rain of fire, and the 4 Water age was destroyed by a flood.
The age in which the Aztecs lived was lit by a sun called 4 Motion. This is the symbol at the very center of the Calendar stone. The circular face looking out from the middle of the stone is one of the forms of the Sun God, Tonatiuh. This face is embedded at the center of an X-shaped Motion glyph, which is in turn surrounded by 4 circles, indicating the date of 4 Motion (Figure 14). According to Aztec beliefs, this sun was created through sacrifices performed by the gods in the ruins of Teotihuacan. There, in the year 13 Reed (the year sign shown in a cartouche on the outer rim of the Calendar stone, Figure 6), the gods gathered in the pre-dawn darkness. Two gods sacrificed themselves by throwing themselves on a sacrificial fire. They then rose into the sky as the Sun and the Moon. However, once these bodies rose into the sky, they did not move any more. They were frozen. In order to set these celestial bodies into motion, all of the other gods sacrificed themselves in acts of divine suicide. Because of this sacrifice at the beginning of time, humans were in turn obliged to repay the gods with sacrifices in return. Many Aztec sacrifices involved dressing humans up in the costumes of different deities. By wearing these costumes, sacrificial victims were thought to be transformed into the gods themselves (see the Nahua “Clothing” tutorial). When these victim-gods were sacrificed, they were helping to recreate the primordial sacrifices at Teotihuacan.22 Indeed, the Calendar Stone itself is thought to be a sacrificial stone. It was probably set horizontally into the ground, serving as a platform on which offerings were made. These sacrifices were very important, especially the sacrifice performed every 52 years as part of the New Fire ceremony. Such sacrifices ensured that the universe would continue, and not come to an end. Nevertheless, according to Central Mexican belief the Age of Creation of the 4 Motion sun would eventually come to an end, destroyed by an earthquake.
Intriguingly, the idea of a New Sunrise bringing about a new Age of Creation seems to appear at the very center of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Figure 15). As discussed in more detail in the introductory tutorial to the Lienzo, Cell 29 shows a meeting between conquistador Hernán Cortés and a Tlaxcalan ruler. They are talking, and above them floats a feathered battle standard shaped like the sun. We saw in the previous paragraphs that sacrificial victims wearing the costumes of supernatural beings were thought to become those supernatural beings. Items of clothing, in other words, could bring supernatural forces into being. The sun-shaped battle standard in Cell 29, therefore, is probably meant to indicate an actual manifestation of the sun itself. According to alphabetic records kept by the Tlaxcalans, Cortés was grateful to his Tlaxcalan allies when they remained loyal to him and his troops after they were driven from Tenochtitlan in June of 1520. (The massacre of Toxcatl that we looked at above, and the killing of Moctezuma II in the month of Etzalcualiztli, were both events that led the Aztecs to expel the conquistadors from their island city; Figure 10, 9). As a sign of his indebtedness to the Tlaxcalans, Cortés promised them a privileged position in the new colonial order he was attempting to create.23 Cell 29 of the Lienzo takes place in early July of 1520, about a week after the Castilians and the Tlaxcalans fled Tenochtitlan and returned to safety in Tlaxcala. Cell 29 probably represents Cortés making his promise of future privileges to the Tlaxcalan people. By placing a sun in the sky above this scene, Tlaxcalan artists suggested that a new Age of Creation was brought into being with the colonial order. Like ages of creation before it, the dawning of this new Age left buildings in ruins—the temples of Tenochtitlan were reduced to rubble. And like ages of creation before it, this new Age involved very different social and political institutions.24 In other words, at the center of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala we can see how prehispanic beliefs about time were adapted in order to make sense of the radical changes brought about by European colonization.
Secret Names? >
19 Carrasco 1987, 143-147; Tedlock 1996, 32, 43-45; Hamann 2002. See also the, “Sacred Time”, “The Fifth Age,” and “Creating the Sun,” sections of David Carrasco’s Lecture.
20 Michel Graulich (1997) argues that earlier Mesoamerican models of four cosmic ages were expanded by the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan to include five cosmic ages.
21 Garibay 1965, 29-31.
22 Smith 2003, 216-217.
23 Gibson 1952, 158-162.
24 Umberger 1987, 424-427; Christenson 2007: 228