The Cyclic 52-Year Calendar and the Aztec 52-Year Calendar Ritual of 1507 AD (Ome Acatl, 2 Reed)

Many of the Mesoamerican calendars consist of a series of interlinking cycles. Scholars categorise the largest cyclical calendar in Mesoamerica as the Calendar Round of 52 vague years. The Calendar Round incorporates a combination or an intersection of the two distinct but interlocking the Mesoamerican 260-day calendar and 365-day calendar.

We know from the colonial sources that the Aztecs called their 260-day calendar tonalpohualli (“the count of the signs”) or cemilhuitlapohualli (“the count of the collection of the days”) in Nahuatl (Tena 1987: 21). The 260-day calendar (Tonalpohualli) is as follows:[1]

  • 1. Cipactli (caiman/crocodile)
  • 2. Ehecatl (wind)
  • 3. Calli (house)
  • 4. Cuetzpalin (lizard)
  • 5. Coatl (snake)
  • 6. Miquiztli (death)
  • 7. Mazatl (deer)
  • 8. Tochtli (rabbit)
  • 9. Atl (water)
  • 10. Itzcuintli (dog)
  • 11. Ozomahtli (monkey)
  • 12. Malinalli (plait)
  • 13. Acatl (reed)
  • 14. Ocelotl (Oselot)
  • 15. Cuauhtli (eagle)
  • 16. Cozcacuauhtli (vulture)
  • 17. Ollin (movement)
  • 18. Tecpatl (flint knife)
  • 19. Quiahuitl (rain)
  • 20. Xochitl (flower)
  • (Caso 1967: 84).

The 365-day calendar was called xiuhpohualli (“the count of the year”) in Nahuatl. The 365-day calendar (Xiuhpohualli) is as follows:

  • 1. Izcalli
  • 2. Atlcahualo
  • 3. Tlacaxipehualiztli
  • 4. Tozoxtontli
  • 5. Hueytozoztli
  • 6. Toxcatl
  • 7. Etzalcualiztli
  • 8. Tecuilhuitontli
  • 9. Hueytecuilhuitl
  • 10. Tlaxochimaco
  • 11. Xocotlhuetzi
  • 12. Ochpaniztli
  • 13. Teotleco
  • 14. Tepeilhuitl
  • 15. Quecholli
  • 16. Panquetzaliztli
  • 17. Atemoztli
  • 18. Tititl
  • 19. Nemontemi (Caso 1971: 341).

A permutation of the 260-day cycle and the 365-day cycle form a period of 52 vague years since it will take 18,980 days for a juxtaposed date of the 260-day and the 365-day calendar to be repeated in the Calendar Round. A Calendar Round therefore consists of a 52 x 365 days or a 73 x 260-days cycle (94,900 days or 52 vague years), which may be compared to a European century for some Indigenous cultures in Mesoamerica.[2]

A Calendar Round was completed when the four Year Bearers of the 365-day calendar each had ruled 13 vague years. The Aztecs perceived the 52-year cycle as comprising four 13-year cycles in one great 52-year cycle (4 x 13 = 52). The Spanish ethnographer missionaries Fray Toribio de Bena- venta Motolinia, Fray Diego Duran and Fray Bernardino de Sahagun writes that the 13 number cycle was repeated four times, generating 52 uniquely named years in a 52-year cycle (4 x 13 = 52), which can be divided into four 13-year quarters. A round circle or calendar wheel of 52 years was divided into four parts. Every part, which represented a cardinal direction, contained thirteen years (Duran 1971: 389-391). The 52-year cycle were subdivided into four periods of thirteen years represented respecetively by four the Year Bearers:

  • 1. Tochtli (Rabbit)
  • 2. Acatl (Reed)
  • 3. Tecpatl (Flint)
  • 4. Calli (House)

The 52-year calendar was introducted by Ce Tochtli (1 Rabbit) and ended by Matlactli omome Calli (13 House). It had both a historical and a prophetical function since it was calculating the past and the future. The 52year count was applied writing history in a chronologically sequence among various Mesoamerican cultures like for instance the Mixtec and the Aztec (Nahua). They did appearently not use a Short Count calendar or Long Count calendar, which we know from Maya cultures.[3]

There is no zero starting date in the 52-year reckoning. The dates of the different 52-year cycles were therefore not distinguished in their endless repeating cycles. A historic account of 52-year cycles was recorded in books where the scribes numbered the 52-year cycle. Duran write about “histo- rias” (Sp.) where the Aztecs kept their count and also where the Aztec cosmogony and cosmology of the five world ages (Suns) were illustrated (Duran 1967: II, 453). Duran gives several examples of the application of the historical use of the 52-year calendar. For instance: “It happened that in the year Two Rabbits, during the eight cycle, there was a great plague in the land which destroyed half the population” (Duran 1971: 391). The Aztec kept records all principal incidents like ruler biographies, genealogies, wars, plagues, astrological signs, famines, etc. , registered in veintenas, days and years, in this way (Duran 1971: 391). Year count annals of the 52-year calendar system were thus applied in the historiography of the painted screenfold books (codices). In this “Annales tradition” the year indicated the important events. The 52-year count implied also a historical-prophetical cyclical principle of a repetition, although not an exact reproduction, of like-in-kind events in the years of the same name. As noted in the analysis of the temporal practices of the Long Count calendar, H.B. Nicholson has described this principle as “pattern history” (Nicholson 1971a). Historical prophecies could accordingly be integrated in the 52-year count (Lopez Austin 1973: 96-106).

The Aztecs celebrated an important fire-ritual called xiuhmolpilli (“Binding of the new year”) at the end of the 52-year cycle according to the Spanish ethnographer missionaries. An old fire was replaced by a new one on a sacred mountain at the end of the Calendar Round. Duran writes:

At the end of the cycle a solemn feast was held. This was called Nexiuhil- piliztli, which means Completion, or Binding, of a Perfect Circle of Years. At this time this round circle reached the end of its cycle and returned to its starting point again, terminating the complete number of fifty-two years (Duran 1971: 389).

New Fire ceremonies at the termination of the 52-year calendar cycle were celebrated in many cultures of Mesoamerica. I will concentrate this investigation to the analysis of the New Fire Ceremony of the 52-year calendar of the postclassic Aztecs, since as noted it is from this culture unsurpassed sources derives.

As we shall see, several sources date the night of the New Fire Ceremony of 1507 AD to Ome Acatl (2 Reed) the Year Bearer date from the 260-day calendar. The last known 52-year calendar ritual of the Aztec empire was held in the year 1507 AD (Ome Acatl or 2 Reed) since the Aztecs were forbidden by the Spaniards to celebrate the ceremony in 1559 AD (Sahagun 1957, IV: 144). The New Fire Ceremony of the 52-year calendar cycle was a state ritual connected to Aztec cosmology and politics. After the collapse of the Aztec empire the 52-year calendar fell into disuse but the agricultural 365- day calendar and 260-day divinatory calendar survived in the towns and villages of the periphery (Hassig 2001: 141). It is mainly the New Fire Ceremony of 1507 AD, which is outlined in the extant sources. I emphasise therefore that it is the particular ritual of the year 1507 AD (Ome Acatl or 2 Reed) of the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan—a ritual only celebrated every 52 years and hence exposed to undergo considerable reform in ceremonial display, function and significance—which are principally analysed.

  • [1] Cf. Broda de Casas for a summary of various theories of the origin of the Mexican260-day calendar (1969: 15-16).
  • [2] According to the Spanish ethnographer missioary Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, thelongest time count of the Aztec was one hundred and four years (Huehuetiliztli), which theNahua called a “century” (Sahagun 1957, V: 143).
  • [3] The Mesoamerican 52-year calendar cycle, founded on the inter-calculating cycle ofthe 260-day calendar and the 365-day calendar, preceded and later survived the Long Countcalendar and the Short Count calendar.
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