Sources and Brief Research History

Various types of sources to the Aztec New Fire Ceremony of the 52-year calendar cycle are available to the scholar. These constitute Indigenous pre-European/pre-Christian pictorial documents, archaeological excavations of ritual sites, stone monuments and the accounts of the Spanish ethnographer missionaries. But no primary written Indigenous historical description, commentary or explanation of this essential ritual practice are known to exist. Only personal names, toponyms and calendar dates are recorded in the manuscripts and on the stone monuments, so the information these sources can offer is quite limited and indeed ambiguous. Con1

sequently, the writings of the Aztecs do not in the same way as the inscriptions of the classic Maya of the Long Count calendar convey data of their ritual practice of calendar time.[1] [2]

Codex Borbonicus is the foremost primary source to the Aztec calendars. Part three illustrates the 18-veintena calendar year of 365-days (lam. 23-36). The same section depicts a sequence of the New Fire Ceremony on lamina 34 (Anders, Jansen and Reyes 1991: 221-224). Another episode of the New Fire Ceremony is portrayed on lamina 46 of the pre-European/pre-Chris- tian manuscript Codex Borgia (Anders, Jansen and Reyes 1993: 241-242).

In Codex Telleriano-Remensis Folio 42R outline the New Fire Ceremony of 1507 AD (Ome Acatl, 2 Reed) (Quinones Keber 1995: 87). Fig.11. Codex Telleriano-Remensis also provides interesting information about the date the New Fire Ceremony was, historically, performed by the postclassic Aztecs (Quinones Keber 1995: folio 27V, 58; 208; 217; folio 32V, 68; 218; 271-272; folio 41V- 42R, 86-87; 228-230; 274). Codice Tudela (1980: Folio 83V-84V; pp. 293-294)15 and Costumbres, Fiestas, Enterramiento y Diversas Formas de Proceder de Los Indios de Nueva Espana (1945), a manuscript published by Federico Gomez de Orozco, contain short descriptions of the 52-year calendar ritual.16 The Indigenous documents Annals of Cuauhtitlan (Bierhorst


1992: 121) and Historia de los Mexicanos pos sus pinturas (Garibay 1965: 2930), written in the Latin alphabet script, only mention the New Fire Ceremony briefly in association with the annals of Aztec history and with the creation of the present world age.[3] [4]

Archaeological evidence for local Mesoamerican New Fire ceremonies were first documented by George C. Valliant, and recently by Michael E. Smith (Elson and Smith 2001). Miguel Perez Negrete (2006) has made an archaeological analysis, presented in a B.A. thesis, of the site (i.e. Huixach- titlan) of where the Aztec observed the New Fire Ceremony in 1507 AD. Furthermore, various stone monuments record the New Fire Ceremony sign in relation with the historiography of the ruler (Tlatoani).

It is, quite ironically, the Spanish ethnographer missionaries whom provide the paramount and complete accounts of the ritual proceedings of the New Fire Ceremony. Ethnographer missionaries delineate the Indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica, 1521 AD - c. 1700 AD. They described, interpreted, defined and classified the Mesoamerican religious systems through dictionaries and reports of Mesoamerican history, society and culture. The Spanish ethnographer missionaries, whom were particularly active in Central Mexico, collected extensive material outlining and interpreting the culture, geography, economy, faith, ritual practices, institutions and history of the Indigenous people of this region. Their works vary in extent, thoroughness and in sympathy with the natives. It is most unfortunate that nearly all the ethnographer missionaries books are written in Spanish. Consequently, scholars lack pre-European/pre-Christian Indigenous concepts. Quite a few Spanish works mention the Aztec 52-year calendar.18 But it is Fray Diego Duran, Domingo Francisco de San Anton Munon Chimal- pahin Quauhtlehuanitzin, Fray Toribio de Benavente Motolirna and Fray Bernardino de Sahagun whom, among the Spanish ethnographer missionaries, are the principal sources to the Aztec 52-year calendar.

The Dominican friar Diego Duran (1537-1588) is a major source on the history, rituals and calendar of the Aztecs. Duran was commissioned by the Dominican order to write about the beliefs and rituals in order to forward the evangelisation of the Nahua. He made interviews with Nahua in rural areas but did not, as Sahagun, use a formal questionnaire. Duran also collected pictographic manuscripts of which none are preserved. His Historia de Las Indias de Nueva Espana contains three parts: The Book of the Gods and Rites (1574 - 1576), The Ancient Calendar (1579) and The History of the Indies of New Spain (1581). The last book appears to mainly build on a now lost manuscript written in Nahuatl. This hypothetical source has been called CronicaX. Duran wrote in Spanish but included some Nahuatl concepts despite the fact that he, having grown up in Tetzcoco presumably, mastered the language like a native. Notwithstanding Duran’s extensive writings about Aztec ceremonies, he only gives a rather brief account of the 52-year calendar ritual in Spanish (Duran 1967: I, 221; II, 453-454; 1964: 239; 1972: 388-393).[5]

Fray Toribio de Benavente Motolirna (1490?-1569) was a Franciscan missionary born in Spain. “Motolirna”, which means “the poor one, the unfortunate one”, is a Nahuatl nickname he received from the Nahua due to his humble clothing. He was among the first twelve Franciscans whom went to Mexico in 1523 AD. Motolirna investigated the customs, beliefs and institutions of the Nahua. His Memoriales o libro de las cosas de la Nueva Es- panay de los naturales de ella (Motolirna 1971: 49) and Historia de los Indios de la Nueva Espana (Motolinia 1951: 112-113: 2001: 31) incorporates a short account, written in Spanish, of the 52-year calendar.

Domingo Francisco de San Anton Munon Chimalpahin Quauhtlehua- nitzin (1579 - 16?) contributes scant and incoherent but still vital informa?tion of the 52-year calendar ritual in his book Diferentes Historias Originates. Chimalpahin was a learned Indigenous annalist and a descendent of the ruler lineage of Tzaqualtitlan Tenanco, a subdivision of Amecameca (Am- aquemecan), Chalco. He was probably educated by Dominican friars from the local monastery. Chimalpahin moved to Mexico City when he was fourteen years old. Chimalpahin, writing in Nahuatl, had access to ancient pictorial manuscripts. He transcribed pictorial manuscripts to alphabetical script and travelled to other cities to search for material and interview notable elders to corroborate his information. As an historian Chimalpahin wrote accounts of various polities or attepett—Tenochtitlan, Tlatelolco, Tetzcoco etc.—in his xiuhttapohuatti (year annals). Chimalpahin provides the only Indigenous perspective, but he was a devout Catholic writing many years after the last 52-year calendar ritual was conducted (Schroeder 2001: 196-198). Chimalpahin had accordingly not participated in the ceremony nor was he a believer in the Nahua religion but rather in a competing theology.

All the above mentioned sources are no more than fragmentary reports of the Aztec 52-year calendar ritual. It is the Franciscan Fray Bernardino de Sahagun (c. 1499 - 1589) whom has provided the only detailed account of the ritual proceedings. Other ethnographer missionary narratives have been influenced by him and do not conflict with Sahagun in any significant manner. Sahagun is accordingly, by far, the pre-eminent source to the 52- year calendar ritual of 1507. He never witnessed the ceremony, however, since the last 52-year calendar ritual occurred, as noted, in 1507 AD. Sahagun arrived in Mexico in 1529 AD just eight years after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire and twenty-two years after the last 52-year calendar ritual.

The unsurpassed work written by an ethnographer missionary in America is Sahagun’s encyclopaedia known as The Florentine Codex[6]. The book, which is entitled Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva Espana (”The General Story About the Things in New Spain”) was copied in Mexico City c. 1578 - 1580. The Franciscan friar Sahagun evangelised the Catholic gospel, while collecting information about the history, language, culture and religion of the Nahua. He translated sacred scriptures, homilies, sermons and books of songs and prayers into Nahuatl as aids for preaching for conversion. Sahagun wrote his great work delineating ancient Mexico to assist the missionaries in their endeavour of redeeming the “heathen” people of Mexico (d’Olwer and Cline 1973: 188). In 1559 AD, a provincial of the Fran?ciscans in Mexico, Francisco de Toral, had ordered Sahagun “to write in the Mexican language all that which seem useful for the indoctrination, culture, and religious conversion to Christianity among the natives of New Spain, to aid the workers and missionaries toward their indoctrination” (d’Olwer and Cline 1973: 187-188). Sahagun was convinced that the Christian indoctrination of the Nahua had to be carried out in Nahuatl. The Nahua were to be called upon in Church service, catechisms and in confessions in their own language. Sahagun also recognised that his own work had to explain the ancient traditions in Nahuatl in order to expose possible dangerous, e.g. “diabolical” or “demonical”, Indigenous rituals and religious traditions. Sahagun writes this explicitly in his prologue to Book I “About the Gods” in The Florentine Codex (Sahagun 1982: 45-46).

The Florentine Codex is a peerless work due to the compiled and systematised material collected just a few decades after the Spanish invasion written in the native vernacular. Sahagun comments and explains his own meticulous methods and thoroughness in Prologue to Book II of The Florentine Codex (Sahagun 1982: 53-56). Sahagun worked with native assistants and informants. He used standard questions in a now lost questionnaire and consulted pictorial documents, which were commented upon and explained by his Indigenous assistants and informants (Cf. Lopez Austin 1974). Sahagun has for that reason, perhaps not undeservedly, been called, ‘the father of modern ethnography’ (Nicholson 2002: 25).

Sahagun’s Indigenous assistants consisted of a small group of trilingual—Nahuatl, Spanish and Latin—sons of the old aristocracy educated at Colegio de Santa Cruz, established 1536 AD in Tlatelolco, a city not far from the capital, Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), of the ancient Aztec empire. Sahagun and his assistants interviewed anonymous survivors of the Aztec empire from Tepepolco (Hidalgo), Tlatelolco and Tenochtitlan about their history, religion and culture. Sahagun names some of his informants, Don Diego de Mendoza of Tepepulco, and in addition his four principal assistants Antonio Valeriano of Aztcapotzaloc, Alonso Vegerano of Cuahuah- titlan, Pedro de San Buenaventura of Cuahuahtitlan and Martin Jacobita of Tlatelolco (Sahagun 1982: 53-55). This suggests that the Nahua had a quite substantial influence on what was written in the The Florentine Codex.

The Florentine Codex comprises twelve books, each introduced by a prologue. Every book treats a special theme: The deities; the ceremonies; the origin of the deities; the soothsayers; the omens, rhetoric and moral philosophy; the sun, moon and stars and the binding of the years; the kings and the lords; the merchants; the people; the earthly things; and the con?quest of Mexico. Sahagun comments, characterises and explains the beliefs, institutions and ritual system of the Nahua. Religious topics are integrated into his report, where the deities, calendars, and the ritual practices are particularly well treated.

In the appendix to book IV called “The Soothsayers”—only written in the Spanish vernacular (Sahagun 1957, IV: 138; 143-144)[7] [8]—and book VII named “The Sun, Moon and Stars, and the Binding of the Years” (Sahagun 1953, VII: 25-32) the last 52-year calendar ritual of the Aztec empire is outlined. This ritual was celebrated in 1507 AD, Ome Acatl (2 Reed), under the reign of Motecuzoma Xocoytl (or Xocoyotzin) [II] (1502 AD-1520 ad). The 52-year calendar ritual is also mentioned en passant by Sahagun in an earlier work called Primeros Memoriales by Francisco Paso y Troncoso (meaning “the first or original notebook”) (Sahagun 1997: 3-4)^. This book was written by Sahagun and his four above mentioned Nahua trilingual assistants. In Tepepolco (“Place of the Large Hill”), c. fifty miles northeast of Mexico City, Sahagun interviewed the native ruler and community elders of the nobility for about two years (1558 AD - 1560 ad). It is remarkable, notes Nicholson, that most of the data of Primeros Memoriales derives from “a populous but relatively obscure community” and not from a political and religious centre (Nicholson 1973: 208). The thematic contents are: ‘rituals and the gods’, ‘the heaven and the underworld’, ‘rulership’ and ‘things relative to man’. Paragraph 3 of Primeros Memoriales includes a count of the 52 year calendar round, counted year by year by the four Year Bearers in text and pictures (folio 283v-folio 286r). This is followed by a brief delineation of the 52-year calendar ritual (Sahagun 1997: 158-160)^3

The postclassic Aztec 52-year calendar ritual has been investigated by many scholars (cf. Broda de Casas 1982; Brundage 1983; 1985; Carrasco 1981; 1987; 1989; 1999; Caso 1967; Elson and Smith 2001; Elzey 1974; 1976; Furst 1992; Hassig 2001; Lopez Austin1963; Moedano Koer 1951; Noguera 1968; Perez Negrete 2006; Read 1998; Saenz 1967; Soustelle 1940; 1988; Tena 1987;

Winning 1979). Previous research has made significant contributions to the understanding of the ritual practice. I have built my analysis on many of the excellent insights these studies have achieved. In my opinion, however, it has not been executed a comprehensive systematic exploration, within the theoretical framework of history of religions as outlined in the introduction chapter, of the postclassic Aztec 52-year calendar ritual.

  • [1] The Spanish linguist and epigrapher Alfonso Garda-Galle Lacadena has argued thatpre-European Nahuatl writing was logosyllabic (Lacadena 2008). But cf. the critique byGordon Whittaker (2009). A great part of the corpus is, however, yet to be completelydeciphered. It is at this stage obscure whether many of these manuscripts contain information of the Aztec ritual practice of the New Fire Ceremony or other ritual practice of time.
  • [2] 15 Codice Tudela 1980 belongs to the Magliabechano group of manuscripts. It was discovered in a private home in La Coruna, Spain in 1945. Codice Tudela resides in Museo deAmerica in Madrid. The manuscript is painted and written on European paper c. 1550 ad.It was copied from an original conceivably between 1553 and 1554. This may have been thework of the Franciscan friar Andres de Olmos. The Codice Tudela contains an outline of theeighteen festivals of the 365-day calendar. The ritual cycle of the 260-day calendar, tonal-pohualli is organised in four groups of sixty-five days, each group is associated with a cosmictree and two patron deities. This is a unique Nahua presentation of the 260-day calendar(Boone 2001: 268-269). The count of the 52-year calendar is represented on folio 77v- 83v.But only the text in Spanish with no illustrations is given on these pages. Folio 83v-84v ofCodice Tudela substantiates information of the New Fire Ceremony provided by the Spanish chroniclers (Codice Tudela 1980: 293-294).
  • [3] Cf. the study of Thouvenot and Villejuif (2003).
  • [4] The New Fire Ceremony of the postclassic Aztec are recognised and pointed out inChapters 27 and 28 (fol. 46 verso through 48 recto) of Francisco Cervantes de Salazar bookCroncia de laNueva Espana, written between 1558 AD-1566 ad (Boone 1983: 94); Acosta, Josede. Obras. Madrid: Ediciones Atlas. 1954. (Acosta 1954: 394); Casas, Bartolome de las. Apolo-getica historia sumaria. 2 vols. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.1967. (Casas 1967, II: 185-186); Don Francisco de San Anton Munon Chimalpahin Cuauhtle-huanitzin. Relaciones originales de Chalco Amaquemecan. Mexico City: Fondo de CulturaEconomica. 1965. (Chimalpahin Cuauhtlehuanitzin 1965: 100; 201; 229) and Die RelationenChimalpahin’s zur Geschichte Mexico’s: Die Zeit bis zur Conquista, Edicion de Gunter Zimmerman, Cram De Gruyter, Hamburgo 1963. (Chimalpahin Cuauhtlehuanitzin 1963: 12).Memorial, 24v; 17: Memorial, 32r; 27 Memorial, 52v; 54: Memorial, 63r; 136: VII, 186r; 77v; V,133v; VII, 151rv; 74: III, 82v; VII, 156r; 103 III, 97v; VII, 168v; 136: III, 144rv) (Tena 1987: 98, Cuadro1; 119-120); Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin (2001a: 159; 235; 2001b: 133; 233-234); Hernando
  • [5] Alvarado Tezozomoc in Cronica Mexiacayotl (Alvarado Tezozomoc 1998: 39); Clavijero,Francisco Javier. The History of Mexico. 2 vols. New York: Garland. 1979 (1787) (Clavijero1979 I: 290; 294); Fray Juan de Torquemada (Torquemada 1986: I, 80; II, 106; VII, 210; X, 292295; 301-303; XIII: 455); Antonio Leon y Gama (1792) Descripcion de la ciudad de Mexico,antesy despues de la llegada de los conquistadores espanoles, Edicion de Federico Gomezde Orozco, en Revista Mexicana de Estudios Historicos, Apendice del Tomo I, p 5-58 (1978I: 21-23) (Tena 1987: 98, Cuadro 1; 120). Cf. also Hassig (2001) and Elson and Smith (2001) forbibliographical references. 19 The original manuscript of Historia de Las Indias de Nueva Espana (Vit.24-II) is inBiblioteca Nacional in Madrid, Spain.
  • [6] The Florentine Codex is named after the manuscript’s (ms. 218-220, Col. Palatina)present place of residence, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana of Florence, Italy.
  • [7] The appendix to Book IV contains Sahagun’s explanation of three calendars, the260-day calendar, the 365-day calendar and the 52-years calendar (Sahagun 1957, IV: 137146).
  • [8] It was the same Paso y Troncoso whom selected 88 folios of the Tepepolco materialfrom Sahagun’s CodiceMatritenese. 54 folios originate from CodiceMatritenese de la Biblio-teca del Real Palacio and 34 folio from Codice Matritenese de la Biblioteca de la Real Academiade la Historia. Paso y Troncoso reconstructed in a manuscript of four chapters incorporating 49 paragraphs (Nicholson 1973: 208). 23 The information of the life and works of Sahagun is based on H.B. Nicholson’sarticle (2002b).
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