Eschatological Philosophy of the Postclassic Aztecs

Despite the explanation by Sahagun, there are sources, which contradict an apocalyptical or eschatological concept of the 52-year calendar ritual of the philosophical system of the postclassic Aztecs.

The longest time count of the postclassic Aztec was one hundred and four years (Huehuetiliztli), and not the 52 years of the Calendar Round, which the Aztecs designed as a “century” according to Sahagun (Sahagun 1957, IV: 143). The notion of a century or “an old age” (cen hueuetiliztli) was therefore not a 52-year calendar cycle but two 52-year calendar cycles amounting to 104 years (macuilpoalxiuitlipan nauhxiuitl):

Then (the two cycles) might proceed to reach one hundred and four years. It was called: '“One Old Age” when twice they had made the round, when twice the times of binding the years had come together (Sahagun 1953, VII: 25).

The data gathered by Sahagun strongly intimates that the world, after 104 years, was to be finally terminated provided that the Pleiades were not observed at its zenith at midnight from the mountain of Huixachtitlan.71 The completion of a certain 52-year calendar cycle may therefore not have been of an eschatological character since calendar time or rather historical time was not exhausted every 52 years. But this does of course not refute the idea that time and the existence of humanity were threatened by annihilation at the end of a 52-year cycle. It is of no importance whether the world and the human race would be exterminated after one 52-year interval or after two 52-year intervals.

Two catastrophes were prophesised bound to take place at the end of the 52-calendar cycle: the disappearance of the sun and the devouring of humanity by the preternatural beings called tzitzimime. What were the explicit consequences if the sun would not ascend into the sky? An absolute darkness would ensue and measured time of the calendars would disappear. The Aztecs would not be able to sacrifice and do worship to their deities without their ceremonial calendars. It is in this connection intriguing that the Aztec creation stories, a least what is left of it, is mainly preoccupied not with the creation of the earth but of the creation and movement of the sun and moon. Many rituals and (human) sacrifices, for instance on the day Nahui Ollin (4 movement) of the 260-day calendar (see section below), were dedicated to the sun. The magnitude of the sun in the lives of the Aztecs is indicated when an eclipse of the sun occurred (tona- tiuh qualo).72 Panic and disorder followed. People were weeping, there were war cries, shouting and chanting in the temples. Men (captives) of a white complexion (tlacaztalmicoa) were sacrificed. Everybody made self-sacrifices of blood from theirs ears (Sahagun 1953, VII: 36-38). It was thus said: “if the eclipse of the sun is complete, it will be dark forever! The demons of darkness will come down; they will eat men”’ (Sahagun 1953, VII: 2). The so-called “demons” were designated tzitzimime in Nahuatl. This shows the incredible importance the Aztecs attributed to the sun for their own existence and that the tzitzimime were associated with the disappearance of the sun. [1] [2]

Cecelia Klein (2002) has put forward compelling evidence that the tz- itzimime were demonised by the Spanish friars and ethnographer missionaries after the conquest. The meaning of tzitzimitl (sing.) or tzitzimime (pl.) is not known (Klein 2000: 2, note 2), but Molina translates this lexem with, “devil”, “nombre de demonio” (Molina 1977 [1571]: 153). In her article, Klein establish that paintings and sculptures of the pre-European/pre-Christian and early colonial period illustrate that the tzitzimime were not only associated with the “devil” but were moreover construed to be masculine by the Spanish friars. Klein asserts that the tzitzimime were principally constructive deities. The most significant tzitzimime were ambivalent female creator deities in the pre-European/pre-Christian period. They could prevent and cure illness but also cause harm. Even the patron deity Huitzilo- pochtli was likened in the official state ideology to be, in his manifestation as Omitecuhtli or “bone lord”, a tzitzimime. Klein claims that the Aztecs petitioned the tztitzimime not only to avert illness but additionally to avoid ‘cosmic destruction’. The tzitzimime were considered to be the stars during solar eclipses. Klein maintains that the ultimate function of the tzitzimime was to keep the sun in motion. But if the sun threatened to stop moving, the tzitzimime would devour human beings (Klein 2000).

The sources, which characterise the tzitzimime as terminators of humanity, cannot be trusted. Burkhart (1989) argues that the ethnographer missionaries, in their endeavour to convert the Nahua, systematically likened the tzitzimime to the devil. Some Spanish ethnographer missionaries, nonetheless, describe the tzitzimime as “angels” and “deities” who support the sky and provide rain Hernando Alvarado Tezozomoc. Duran and Alvarado Tezozomoc report that the Aztecs erected statues of the tzitzimime in the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan near the statue of Huitzilopochtli, who also was associated with the tzitzimime. The tzitzimime were portrayed as negative, hostile and destructive forces by Codex Magliabechiano and Codex Tudela. But, despite that they had first hand knowledge of the Aztec religious system, the artists of these manuscripts were not only Christian converts but also Indigenous acculturated subjects of a European tradition (Klein 2000: 1-4; 17; 19). This casts doubt not only on the nature of the tz- itzimime but in addition on the (Spanish) account of their role as world destroyers. It does not, nevertheless, disprove the character of the tzitzimime as potentially annihilators of humanity, since many Aztec deities (like Tezcatlipoca for instance) evidently had an ambivalent character. Another matter regarding the tzitzimime is whether their descent from the sky was believed to have cataclysmic effects on the world and humanity. Codex Aubin (39v-40r), manufactured after 1560 AD[3] [4], encompasses the imperial annals for the years Nahui Tecpatl (4 Flint) (1496 ad) through Matlactli Omeyi Calli (13 House) (1505 ad). For the year Chiucnahui Calli (9 House), folio 40r outlines a quarrying of stone at Malinalco and the death of the tlatoani Ahuitzotl. The year Matlactli Tochtli (10 Rabbit) announces the accession of his successor Moctezuma Xocoyotzin, Matlactli Once Acatl (11 Reed) describes again a quarrying of stone at Malinalco while a cacao trade is said to occur on Matlactli Omome Tecpatl (12 Flint). After these last rather prosaic episodes the date Matlactli Omeyi Calli (13 House) indicates a descent of the tzitzimime (Boone 2000: 201-202, fig. 129). The appearance of the tzitzimime in the year Matlactli Omeyi Calli (13 House) (1505 ad), a year, which did not have anything to do with the completion of the 52-year calendar cycle or the 52-year calendar ritual, evidently did not have a destructive effect on humanity implying an end of the world. Hence Sahagun could have overrated the eschatological role of the tzitzimime since their descent did not necessarily entail a cosmic catastrophe. The ethnographer missionary and converted his Christian Indigenous assistant may therefore have interpreted the data with a rigid Catholic apocalyptical or eschatological perspective. It is plausible that the tzitzimime were thought by the Aztecs to cause damage and harm when the deities were for some reason not satisfied. But the effects were not inevitably eschatological.

Heavy depopulation was caused by epidemics after the Spanish conquest in sixteenth century ‘New Spain’. Moreover, Indigenous annals report plagues by locusts, worms and mice. Heavy frosts and hail, floods, fires and earthquakes. Many natural disasters led to famine, in addition to the exploitation executed by the Spanish colonists (Medrano 2007: 97)J4There is a possibility that this may have created a novel eschatological notion projected into the foregoing ritual practice of the 52-year calendar ritual of 1507 AD, but which did not represent a pre-European/pre-Christian Aztec philosophy.

  • [1] 71 Sahagun writes in paragraph 3 of Primeros Memoriales: ‘Everywhere the fires wereextinguished. (The new fire) was drawn at a place called Huixachtitlan, a hill in Colhuacanknown as Huixactecatl. Everyone took the fire from there. This was done only on one night.In this year count an old age was one hundred and four years, when they made the roundtwice’ (Sahagun 1997: 160).
  • [2] 2 Tonatiuh qualo is translated as “sun eclipse” but literally means “sun eating”. Tona-tiuh is rendered as “sun” (Karttunen 1992: 246) whereas the noun qualo (cualo) derives fromthe verb qua (cua), “to eat something, someone” (Karttunen 1992: 56; 59).
  • [3] The narrative of Codex Aubin, written in a pre-European and European style, isintroduced with the migration of the Aztecs of the twelfth century and is ended in colonialtime with the arrival of the new Archbishop and Viceroy in Mexico City in 1607 AD-1608ad (Glass 1975; Leibsohn 2001).
  • [4] Medrano quotes the study by Paredes Martinez (1991: 157-160, table 1): ParedesMartinez, Carlos S. La region de Atlixco, Huaquechulay Tochmilco:La sociedady la agricul-tura en elsiglo XVI, Mexico City/Puebla: CIESAS/FCE/GEP. 1991.
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