The Cosmogonic World Age Model of the Postclassic Aztecs

The central Mexican sources for the accounts of the Aztec or Nahua story of the creation and destruction of various world periods or world ages are recorded in different versions. Like most information of stories, rituals, traditions and institutions of central Mexico, they derive from the works of the Spanish ethnographer missionaries of the colonial period. But there are also representations of the world ages on ancient Aztec monuments (Elzey 1976: 114-115, note 1).[1]

Different numbers of world ages, each known as a “Sun”, are related in the sources. Various stories operate with three, four, five and even six world eras. Every world age had a determined duration. But no agreement exists in the sources concerning the definite time length of the world era. A single age is only 23 years in Histoyre du Mechique, 676 years in Leyenda de los soles and 5042 years in Codex Vaticanus A. The narrative of Codex Vaticanus A increases the length of the world ages from the first to the fourth Sun. In other accounts the length of Suns increases or decreases at random or the length of the Sun does not change (Elzey 1976: 117). In the two accounts of the Tenochca tradition an identical duration occurs; 2028 years of the total length of world ages. But the duration of each world era is not consistent, for instance 676-364-312-676 in Leyenda de los soles and 676-676-364-312 according to Historia de los Mexicanos por sus Pinturas. It is, however, intriguing that these durations are multiplies of the 52-year cycle (Nicholson 1971: 399). The world ages each has a distinctive set of characteristics. They were terminated by a different kind of cataclysmic destruction and its inhabitants were either destroyed or transformed into another form. The causes of the destruction of the previous ages are, however, not the same. The annihilation of a world age could be provoked by the vices of its beings or a shortage of food. The protagonists of the various cosmogonic narratives also vary greatly. The colonial records do not agree either on the order of the various world ages (Suns). A confusion of the sequence of the Suns appears even in the sources from Tenochtitlan. Most scholars choose to follow the order of two of the earliest and best sources, which are Historia de los mexicanos por sus pinturas and Leyenda de los soles. The same sequence is found on Aztec sculptures (Arcos 1967: 209; Elzey 1974; 76; Nicholson 1971; Taube 1995: 34). The canonical version of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan is preserved in Historia de los Mexicanos pos sus Pinturas,

Leyenda de los soles and on the three stone monuments, “The Sun Stone”, “Stone of the Suns” (a rectangular stone now in the Yale Peabody Museum) and on a shell ornament (Nicholson 1971: 397-400). A general agreement among scholars is that the Aztecs had a notion of five world ages (Nicholson 1971: 399; Elzey 1976: 117-118). The majority of the sources give each age the names Nahui Ocelotl (“4 Jaguar”), Nahui Ehecatl (“4 Wind”), Nahui Quiahuitl (“4 Rain”) and Nahui Atl (“4 Water”) respectively. These were the dates on which the Suns or worlds were terminated. The world that we are now living in will end on the date Nahui Ollin (“4 Movement’”). The following five world ages, or world eras in a chronological or linear temporal order can be identified:

  • 1. Nahui Ocelotl (“4 Jaguar”)
  • 2. Nahui Ehecatl (“4 Wind”)
  • 3. Nahui Quiahuitl (“4 Rain”)
  • 4. Nahui Atl (“4 Water”)
  • 5. Nahui Ollin (“4 Movement”)[2] [3]

Each world age was named after a date in the 260-day calendar and associated with and presided over by a particular deity and a particular group of beings that were either exterminated or transformed into different kinds of beings in the first four creations. The names of the Five Suns outline the character of the age and the way its inhabitants will be demolished. The Suns were probably also assigned colours and directions, but according to Nicholson are these not clearly outlined in the extant sources (Nicholson

1971: 399).

  • [1] For survey of sources cf. Moreno de los Arcos (1967), Elzey (1974; 1976) and Pharo(2006).
  • [2] An important variant tradition documented in Anales de Cuauhtitlan, Histoyre duMexchique, Alva Ixtlilxochtl, Munoz Camargo and Codex Vaticanus A, places 4 Atl at thebeginning of the sequence whereas 4 Ehecatl or 4 Quiahuitl was assigned to the terminalposition (Nicholson 1971: 399).
  • [3] For survey of sources cf. Pharo (2006).
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