Eschatological Interpretations by Spanish Ethnographer Missionaries and Folio 42R of Codex Telleriano-Remensis

Do other ethnographer missionaries, besides Sahagun, report a postclassic Aztec concept of a threat of a cosmic cataclysm at the completion of the 52-year calendar? George Baudot maintains that the Franciscan missionaries coming to Mexico had an escatological world-view driven by a millenar- ian dream in the so-called New World (Baudot 1995). This may have influenced their perception of the rituals of the 52-year calendar as escha- tologic. A letter from Friar Jacobo de Tastera to Charles V on May 6, 1533 reads as follows: “... the rites of the idolatries and adoration of false gods, and the ceremonies of different ranks of people in their sacrifies, which, although bad, are born of never ending anxiety that seeks help but neverfinds the true protector ...” (Baudot 1995: 109). Sahagun and other missionaries tried to transform the religion of the Indigenous people by using what they thought or desired to be their real philosophy by making it eschatological. But all the Fransciscan missionaries did not share this idea. In his short account, Motolirna does not assert that the 52-year calendar ritual held vital consequences for the Aztecs (Motolirna 1951: 112-113; 2001: 31). Nor does Duran’s Historia de Las Indias de Nueva Espana mention any anxiety or fear for the end of the world and an annihilation of humanity, before or during this ceremony. But, as noted, he accounts that there was a four day period of darkness before the New Fire Ceremony, but “..., not because the sun was eclipsed but because of lack of fire, ...” (Duran 1964: 239; 1967: I, 221; II, 453-454; 1972: 388-393). Torquemada asserts that it was an eclipse of the sun but this was only the possible end (“era possible acabarse el Mundo”) of the world and to light the new fire was to renew the pact with the Devil (“como renovando el Pacto, que con el Demonio tenian hecho, para ser- virle de Nuevo”) (Torquemada 1986: VII, 210; X, 292-294; 301-303). Neither the intimidation of the tzitzimime nor an eclipse of the sun is accentuated in these ethnographer missionary reports.

The Nahuatl-speaking Juan Bautista, describes the actions of an Indigenous man, Juan Teton of Michmaloyan, in the year 1558 ad this year is 52 years after the previous 52-year calendar ritual (Klor de Alva 1997: 187). Teton warns the Indigenous citizens of Coahuatepec from converting into Christianity through baptism:

“Listen, what are you saying? Do you know what our grandfathers are saying? When our tying of the years comes it will be completely dark, the tzitzime will descend, will eat us and there will be a transformation. Those who were baptized, those who believed in God, will be changed into something else. He who eats the meat of the cow, will be transformed into one; he who eats the meat of the pig, will be transformed into one; he who eats the meat of a sheep, will be transformed into one and will go about dressed in its fleece; he who eats the meat of a rooster, will be transformed into one. Everyone, into that which is their food, into that from which they live, into the [beasts] they eat, into all of that they will be transformed. They will perish, will no longer exists, because their life will have come to an end, their count of years” [their xiuhpohualli, ‘year’].

“Look at those of Xalatlauhco, those who were the first to believe [in Christianity], don Alonso: his sons and the [leaders] were turned [into] three [Spanish] capes and three hats. All were transformed into something else, all went about grazing. They no longer appear in the town where they were, but rather in the fields, they are standing in the woods, they are cows. Now I discharge my obligation to you; not much time remains before the marvel takes place. If you do not believe what I tell you, you will be transformed along with them .... I will mock you , because you were bapitzed. [However,] I will forgive you, so you will not die and with that all can come to an end. There will also be starvation, [therefore,] take care of your strings of hanging squash, and the tlalamate, the jaltomate, the corn smut [cuitlacochtli], the tassels, the leaves of jilote, the ears of corn ....”

“When they scream at you in Chapultepec, you will be crawling on your bellies on the sand, then the Old Woman with the hard teeth will see you and with this [which I tell you] she will fear you, with this she will not eat you, but will leave you be. Thus such as you hear it. And it will be that only there the Possessor of the earth will make our sustenance grow. In all other parts of the world everything that is edible will dry up ....” (Klor de Alva 1997: 187-188)™

This long description corresponds more or less with Sahagun’s account of what the consequences will be if the new fire is not drilled at the end of the 52-year calendar cycle. But it appears that Teton constructs the escha- tologiacal threat of annihilation and metamorphosis in order to convince fellow natives not to undergo conversion. It is only the proselytes who will suffer the punishment and not Nahua pertaining to traditional religion as is outlined by Sahagun. It also seems that the terrible transformation the Indigenous will experience if baptised, is in reality to abandon the old faith and culture in order to become Spanish. This happended to many people from Xalatlauhco warns Teton.

Apparently, Sahagun is the only credible source, which considers the postclassic Aztec 52-year calendar ritual to be eschatological. It is therefore interesting that Sahagun writes, nearly at the end of his account in book [1]

VII of The Florentine Codex of the proceedings of the 52-year calendar ritual, after the new fire had been ignited:

Thus it was said that truly the year newly started. There was much happiness and rejoicing. And they said: “For thus it is ended; thus sickness and famine has left us” (Sahagun 1953, VII: 31).

This quote reflects a quite different attitude to the ritual than an eschatological pre-expectation. An idea more similar to the Yucatec postclassic celebration of the end and beginning of their 365-day calendar is present here. A fear of disease and hunger, quite common plagues in the pre-industrial urban societies of postclassic Central Mexico, and not an anxiety of an extermination of the fifth world age or sun were alleviated after the New Fire was lit. There was accordingly not a cosmic crisis but a relief from an anxiety of sickness and shortage of livelihood when the new 52-year calendar was inaugurated. Sahagun’s explanation of the ritual is accordingly theologically inconsistent.

Despite the array of information, the postclassic Aztec 52-year calendar ritual carries quite many obscure aspects due to the incoherent and incomplete character of the extant data. Consequently, the scholar must question the value of the secondary sources of the Spanish ethnographer missionaries. An outline and interpretation of postclassic Aztec ritual practice pervades in particular Duran and Sahagun’s work. David Carrasco has painted out the irony that we know more of the rituals of the veintana of the 365- day year (xiuhtl) than the crucial ritual of the 52-year calendar ritual. Together with Alfredo Lopez Austin (1974), he is also critical of the essential source, i.e. Sahagun, for this ritual (Carrasco 1999: 94). It is, in this context, remarkable that Book 7 of The Florentine Codex is singled out as particular poor. Sahagun is himself critical of this book and his Nahua informants who he designates as “vulgar” in the introduction to Book 7 (Lopez Austin 1974: 134-137). It is therefore good reason to distrust not only the interpretation but in addition the description Sahagun provides about the Aztec 52-year calendar ritual of 1506 AD-1507 ad.

The ethnographer missionaries, with their European-Christian perception and evangelic ambition, condemned the Indigenous religious stories, ritual practices, deities, specialists and institutions. It is compelling that the ethnographer missionaries were more interested in documenting religious ritual practices than stories in order to expose the “idolatrous” practices of the Indigenous people. This was because their ultimate strategy and objective was to replace the Indigenous “diabolical” faith with Chris?tianity. The friars not only outlined but explicated what they observed and the information they gathered. The Spanish ethnographer missionaries also destroyed many Indigenous records due to the “heathen” contents, at the same time undermining their own trustworthiness as “scholars”.[2] Their impact on the research material must therefore not be underestimated since it contains limited and biased information and commentaries. Moreover, when we consider the postclassic Aztec 52-year calendar ritual, the great time span that has passed since the last ritual was celebrated in 1507 AD, must be taken into account (Carrasco 1999: 93-95). Sahagun collected his data more than fifty years after the last ceremony was conducted. Neither Sahagun nor his proselyte assistants, and perhaps not even his Indigenous informants, had ever witnessed the last 52-year calendar ritual, which took place in Tenochtitlan in the year 1507 AD (Ome Acatl). Many of the informants and the assistants of Sahagun were in fact indoctrinated collaborators of the Spanish mission. Sahagun relates, in his “Author’s Account Worthy of Being Noted” in Book X (Sahagun 1982: 74-85) how he would destroy a “heathen” monument with his trained Indigenous assistants (Anderson 1982: 40). Moreover, based on his reconstruction of Sa- hagun’s questionnaires, Lopez Austin deduce that the informants were “cultural and educated men” but most likely not religious specialists (Lopez Austin 1974: 124). This means that they were not initiated into the religious and philosophical significance of the 52-year calendar ritual.

The overall rationale for the ethnographer missionary was evangelisation of the Indigenous people. Burkhart has shown that an effort to find an analogy between the Christian and Indigenous religious system was the strategy of the Spanish mission at the time when Sahagun gathered his data (Burkhart 1989). A triumphant Christian theology had disintegrated the Indigenous state religion. (Christian) eschatological interpretations of a calendar that supposedly terminated historic time may accordingly well have been introduced by the informants, assistants or even by Sahagun himself.[3]

The importance of the sun for the Aztecs is displayed when a solar eclipse occurred (tonatiuh qualo) (Sahagun 1953, VII: 2; 36-38). Folio 42R of Codex Telleriano-Remensis may explain why Sahagun recorded an apprehension for a conceivable termination of the world, after the disappearance of the sun, on Ome Acatl (2 Reed), 1507 AD. Astronomical events and natural disasters of Central Mexico are delineated in Codex Telleriano-Remensis (Boone 2000: 224). Folio 42R portrays the New Fire Ceremony of 1507 AD (Ome Acatl) taking place on the hill Huixachtitlan. The place sign of Tecuhtepec (“Hill of the Lord”) of the crowned head of a lord atop a hill is connected by a line to the symbol of a solar eclipse above and a representation of an earthquake (ollin) symbol below. A line is attached to the sign for the hill Huixachtitlan, where the New Fire was drilled on Ome Acatl (2 Reed), and the image of 2000 soldiers drowning in the Tozac River (“Atoyac River”, “Place of the Yellow Parrot” or “At the Yellow Water”), which is located between Puebla and Oaxaca in Mexico (Quinones Keber 1995: 228-230). The soldiers may have been searching for sacrificial victims of the New Fire rite of the 52-year calendar ritual, which can explain the line from the sign for the hill Huixachtitlan, where the New Fire was drilled and the illustration of the drowning soldiers. The commentator to folio 42R writes that in the:

Year of two reeds (2 Reed) and 1507 there were an eclipse of the sun and

an earthquake (Quinones Keber 1995: Folio 42R; 274).

There is, however, a problem with the illustration of folio 42R of Codex Telleriano-Remensis because a solar eclipse was not visible from the Valley of Mexico in the year 1507 AD (Fred Espenak[4], personal communication, 2005).[5] [6] It is a mystery why the artists of Codex Telleriano-Remensis recorded this occurrence to have come into being in that year. As previously mentioned, Codex Aubin (39v-4or) illustrates on Matlactli Omeyi Calli (13 House) (1505 ad) a descent of the tzitzimime (Boone 2000: 201-202, fig. 129). The year 1505 AD may therefore have had a solar eclipse over Central Mexico, since the appearance of tzitzimime was intimately related with this phenomenon (Sahagun 1953, VII: 2). The presumed solar eclipse of Matlactli Omeyi Calli (13 House) or 1505 AD could then have initiated an apprehension among the Aztecs. The natural catastrophes of an earthquake or a solar eclipse may explain the anxiety during the 52-year calendar ritual of the night of Ome Acatl (2 Reed) in the year 1507 AD. These incidents might have been interpreted, by the Aztec religious specialists, as signs for the coming conclusion of the world and of humanity. The angst may in this way have been enhanced since the solar eclipse and the earthquake appeared only two years before the conclusion of the 52-year calendar. Hence the solar eclipse and earthquake forebode a potential cosmic cataclysm. But there were no major solar eclipses in the Valley of Mexico in the year 1505 ad.80 We must therefore not only distrust the dating of the codices, but likewise the actual historical incidents, which the annalists contended to relate. An explanation can, however, be—as Boone writes regarding the issue of the dating in the annals—that since three annals sets an earthquake and an eclipse in different years[7] the annalists dated these phenomena in association to other events and not according to the year count (Boone 2000: 227-228). We know that a major solar eclipse occurred in the region of Veracruz at the Gulf coast in 1517 AD[8] This particular solar eclipse did of course not affect the postclassic Aztec doctrine of the 52-year calendar ritual on Ome Acatl (2 Reed) of 1507 AD. But it is a possibility that an apprehension towards solar eclipses, as we saw above were recorded by Sahagun, among the Aztecs was afterwards projected back by the Indigenous informants (who might had experienced it in 1517 ad) and assistants of Sahagun into a non-European/non-Christian Aztec eschatological philosophy encompassing the ritual of the termination and renewal of the 52-year calendar count. A psychological misinterpretation of a ritual of the past is indeed possible. Furthermore, Sahagun and his assistants could have misunderstood and got the information about the sun eclipse and earthquake of a specific year confused with the reason why the Aztecs celebrated the ceremony and thereby explained this ritual as eschatological.

  • [1] Cf. the Spanish text in Leon-Portilla (1974: 30-31).
  • [2] There are, however, examples where anonymous natives and friars worked togetherto make or copy descriptions of deities, faith, rituals, cosmology and stories based on themanuscripts (codices) of the Mesoamericans shortly after the conquest. These are more orless copies of lost manuscripts confiscated by the ethnographer missionaries. Cf. for instanceHistoria de los mexicanos por sus pinturas (Garibay 1965), Leyenda de los soles (Bierhorst1992; 1998) and Histoyre du mechique (de Jonghe 1905). Indigenous people also producedmanuscripts under surveillance of the Spanish friars. These pictographic manuscriptsembodied religious iconography, which described native traditions and ceremonies so thatthe Spanish friars could identify “heathen practice”. Many of these codices were compiledand copied from about 1550 ad and onwards.
  • [3] Sahagun wrote an introduction with prologues and interpolations in Spanish to TheFlorentine Codex. It is interesting that Sahagun insists in his ‘To the Reader (Al Lector)’ ofBook VII of The Florentine Codex, which as we remember presents his account of the 52-yearcalendar ritual and the cosmogony, that Nahuatl is a rich metaphorical language. “... thereare many synonymous terms for (any) one thing, and a mode of expression or a sentenceis said in many ways” (Sahagun 1982: 68). This casts doubt over the precise understandingby Sahagun of Aztec (eschatological) religion and philosophy. It becomes more compellingwhen he writes further, in ‘To the Reader (Al Lector)’, that the language is very “crude”(“muy baxo”) in particular book VII. “... and the subject-matter this seventh Book deals withis treated very crudely. This is because the natives themselves gave the account of the thingstreated in this Book very crudely, according as they understood them, and in crude style.And so it was translated into the Spanish language in crude style, with little excellence ofunderstanding, with the sole object of knowing and recording what they understood of thissubject of astrology and natural philosophy, which is very little and very crude” (Sahagun1982: 68). This statement, though indirectly, calls into question the validity of Sahagun’seschatological explication of the 52-year calendar ritual. But it does not disprove it.
  • [4] Fred Espenak works for NASA (Goddard Space Flight Center, Code 693 Greenbelt,Maryland 20754 USA). For more information on solar and lunar eclipses, see Fred Espenak’sEclipse Home Page: sunearth.gsfc.
  • [5] Since it is impossible to determine by scientific methods, we do not know whetheran earthquake took place in Tenochtitlan in the year 1507 ad (Associate Professor 0yvindPettersen, Department of Geosciences, University of Oslo, personal communication, 2005).But Martinez (1890) writes that a great earthquake occurred in Oaxaca, Mexico in the sameyear: “En este ano hubo un fuerte terremoto que causo gran espanto a los habitants deAnahuac. Se sintio con estrepito en la Mixteca, Zapoteca, Mazateca, Chinanteca y Chon-talpa”. Quoted in Virigina Garda and Gerardo Suarez. Los sismos en la historia de Mexico.Tomo 1. Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. Centro de Investigaciones y EstudiosSuperiores en Antropologia Social. Fondo de Cultura Economica. Mexico D.F. 1996. (Gardaand Suarez 1996: 73).
  • [6] Cf. the solar eclipse catalogues by NASA for 1401 ad - 1500 ad: and for 1501 ad - 1600 ad: http://sunearth.gsfc. The Central valley of Mexico is located at18N-20N degrees (latitude) and 98E-100E degrees (longitude). I extend my gratitude to Cand.Real. in Astronomy and Head of Administration/Principal Executive Officer Nils Brynhild-sen at the Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Oslo.
  • [7] There is also a possibility that the recorded earthquakes and eclipses were not thesame (Boone 2000: 227).
  • [8] At 19.5N-96.1E to be exact. Cf. http://sunearth.gsfc.
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