The Sociology of the Ritual Practice of Time

As noted, the structure of the postclassic Aztec society was characterised by a high degree of political, social and economic differentiation and privilege. The political, social and economic order was upheld by the ruler (tlatoani) and an aristocracy within a hierarchical and socially differentiated structure. But Aztec society was basically divided into two strata: the commoners (macehualtin; sing. macehuallli) and the nobles (pipiltin; sing. pilli) (Cf. Lockhart 1992; Lopez Austin 2001).

The Ritual Witnesses, Participants and Performers of the 52-year Calendar Ritual

Let us look into the status and role of the social groups conducting and participating in the 52-year calendar ritual of 1507 AD (Ome Acatl).

It was the principal elders, i.e. the religious specialists of the ritual practice of time and the calendars, who advised tlatoani Motecuzoma [II] that it was the last year of the 52-year calendar cycle (Duran 1967: II, 453). A penance by a fasting three days before the New Fire ritual was conducted by religious specialist before the New Fire Ceremony according to Codice Tudela (1980: 293-294). A range of religious specialists observed the ritual proceedings of the 52-year calendar ritual. They commanded that the fires should be extinguished in Mexico, in all its lands, in Tetzcoco and in the provinces (e.g. the Aztec empire). Only religious specialists, the fire religious specialists (tlenamacaque), could perform the New Fire ritual. It was the experienced fire religious specialist of Copulco who drilled the new fire of 1507 AD (Ome Acatl). The religious specialists, teonenemi, “they walk like gods”, were, before they proceeded to Huixachtitlan, arranged in order each impersonating a particular deity (Anders, Jansen and Reyes 1991: 221-224; Duran 1964: 239; 1967: II, 453-454; Motolima 1951: 112-113; 2001: 31; Sahagun 1953, VII: 26-27; Torquemada 1986: X, 293).

Thus, a rather extensive assembly of various religious specialists supervised and conducted the different rites of the 52-year calendar ritual. The laymen (nobles and commoners) were just passive observers during the main event, the drilling of the new fire by the fire religious specialists undertaken on the hill Huixachtitlan, watching the New Fire Ceremony from a far. Carrasco has therefore classified the New Fire Ceremony as a ritual theatre for the community (Carrasco 1987). But this ritual did not only concern the religious specialists. The general public (laymen) were involved, playing an active although minor role, in the ritual proceedings. The 52-year calendar ritual was crucial for the people of the cities of the Triple Alliance. All the provinces of the empire took part in the ritual. The general public were engaged in various rites of renewal and renovation. Within the phase of separation, fires in all the Aztec houses and temples were extinguished everywhere in the empire. There was a destruction of the household utensils and the statues of deities kept in the houses. The streets were swept and all the rubbish was thrown out from the houses. People, impregnated women, children and men were anxiously waiting for lighting of the New Fire on Huixachtitlan. Sahagun narrates that on the night of Ome Acatl (2 Reed) everybody was frightened. It was told that all the people went upon the terraces and the housetops. No one remained in the houses. Everyone directed the attention towards the summit of Huixachtitlan waiting for the new fire to appear (Sahagun 1957, IV: 143-144). In the ritual sequence of incorporation, i.e. after the lightning of the new fire on the hill Huixachtitlan, the people renewed their goods of the household. There were sweeping, renovation of the statues of the deities and the utensils of the houses. The women and the men dressed in new clothes and a new fire was started everywhere. Then all the people performed blood self-sacrifice from their ears into the fire as a penance after the new fire was lighted and became visible from the hill. The common people hurled themselves at the flame of the new fire. Incense was cast into the hearth of the fire and a quail was decapitated. A feast was celebrated after the fast and a representation of the burned victim was made of pure amaranth seed dough. Cooked grains of maize were set upon on it so that the people could eat it. There was much happiness and rejoicing since old and used time, associated with sickness and disease, were abandoned and a new time cycle was inaugurated (Sahagun 1953, VII: 25-32; 1957, IV: 137-138; 143144; 1997: 160; Duran 1964: 239; 1967: II, 453-454; Motolima 1951: 112-113; 2001: 31; Anders, Jansen and Garda 1991: 221-224). Duran give a quite vivid description of festivities that followed the lightning of the new fire:

At the end of the ceremony, all took new fire. This feast was celebrated with great solemnity and all the priests were present, led by the high priest dressed in his sacerdotal vestments. These were offerings and incense, together with the sacrifice of many human beings who died as victims of the god of fire. So it is that this god was given the two thousand captives who had been brought from the destruction and conquest of T eutepec. This sacrifice began at midnight and lasted most of the next day. Triumphant and joyful, the priests were bathed in blood, and the vessels filled with human blood were sent to smear the lintels of the doors, posts and altar of the temples, and to sprinkle the statues of the gods (Duran 1964: 239; 1967: II, 453-454).

This quote is quite telling. There was a high religious official who governed the other religious specialists during the ceremonies.[1] It appears that the essential religious functions, knowledge and practice of the calendars, state rituals and stories were reserved for the religious specialists and, as we shall see, for the ruler. But a consensus of the value of the 52-year calendar existed in the minds of the people. They may only have witnessed the high drama of the lighting of a new fire but still performed their own rites during the 52-year calendar ritual. A psychological relief befell the people when they realised that the new fire was lit on the top of the hill Huixach- titlan (Sahagun 1957, IV: 143-144). In this way the 52-year calendar ritual played a cardinal part in the everyday lives of the people.

Maya and Mixtec women are represented to be religious specialists in the primary sources of the pre-European/pre-Christian period (Brown 1983: 119-120; Pharo, forthcoming). Not many women held high political offices in the postclassic Aztec society. Women were primarily occupied with private and domestic rituals corresponding to their social and economic function as wives and mothers. Some girls of the nobility were educated in the Calmecac (schools for temple service) but they were presumable forbidden to view statues of deities and to perform auto-sacrifices. Women cannot be ascertained to act as religious specialist in the sparse extant written and pictorial pre-European/pre-Christian Aztec sources. The offices of the body of religious specialists were dominated by men, according to colonial data. But this concept could have been a bias by male informants and Catholic ethnographer missionaries sources of the 16th century (Klein 2001). Betty Anne Brown (1983) has observed that Sahagun depicted and outlined female religious specialists joining the temples, holding prominent positions in the religious hierarchy, and participating—but providing no clear inti?mation of their rank or role—in major religious rituals of the 365-day calendar (and the festival called Atamalcualiztli) in the Primeros Memoriales and The Florentine Codex. This is in particular made clear by the Indigenous illustrators portraying the religious specialists. No women religious specialists is, however, outlined in the 52-year calendar ritual but it is striking that the ritual victim, who was not without a certain symbolic prestige, could be a girl named Xiuhnenetl, Xiuhcue, Xihuecocotl etc. (Sahagun 1953, VII: 31-32). This suggests that women had a more distinguished status and function in this ritual than previously thought. New discovered data can reveal in what manner this social group participated in the 52-year calendar ritual.

  • [1] Motolima outlines a “principal minister” who governed the ritual proceedings ofthe New Fire Ceremony (Motolima 1951: 112-113; 20°1: 31).
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