The Politics of the Ritual Practice of Time

The concept of politics is intimately associated with power, rulership, and the organisation and administration of a city or a state. Cardinal ritual practice is regularily monopolised by the ruling lord and the aristocracy. These rituals, besides having other meanings and functions, may be exploited by the privileged to serve their own political ends. Consequently, a politics (power) of time can well have been manifested in the ritual practice of the postclassic Aztecs.

We have seen that the political power of Tenochtitlan, by executing a calendar reform of when the New Fire Ceremony was to be celebrated, influenced the calendar and its ritual practice of the 52-year calendar. Time was accordingly controlled by the tlatoani and the political and religious elite. The socio-political authority over time and the calendar is represented in Book X of The Florentine Codex (“The People”) where the history of the Mexica or Mexiti (i.e. the Aztecs) is told. Book X accounts that the invention of the calendar was made by “wise men” (sing. tlamatini[1] [2]) at the mythical place Tamoanchan during the migration of the Aztecs from Aztlan to Tenochtitlan (Umberger 1981a: 216):

But four remained of the old men, the wise men: one named Oxomoco, one named Cipcatonal, one named Tlaltetecui, one named Xochicauaca. And when the wise men hand gone, then these four old men assembled. They took counsel; they said: “The sun will shine, it will dawn. How will the common people live, how will they dwell? He is gone; they carried away the writings. And how will the common people dwell? How will the lands, the mountains be? How will all live? What will govern? What will rule? What will lead? What will show the way? What will be the model, the standard? What will be the example? From what will the start be made? What will become the torch, the light?” Then they devised the book of days, the book of years, the count of the years, the book of dreams. They arranged the reckoning just as it has been kept. And thus was time recorded during all time the Tolteca, the Tepaneca, the Mexica, and all the Chichimeca reign endured (Sahagun 1961, X: 191).

The starting dates and organisation of the 260-day calendar, 365-day calendar and 52-year calendar were constructed by religious specialists. Time, which presupposed human civilised existence, was systematised and organised. Umberger asserts that this passage is also “talking about the ruler- ship of the calendar over the people’s lives” (Umberger 1981a: 216-217). The religious and socio-political establishment had thus decided how time was computed and ritualised on the behalf of the non-priviliged general public. This invested them with a temporal authority and power, legitimating the regime.

The Aztecs had managed to institute a powerful empire at the beginning of the 16th century. The 52-year calendar ceremonies had undergone a historical development as the Aztec empire became dominant in Central Mexico. From at least 1506 AD - 1507 AD the 52-year calendar ceremony in Tenochtitlan, which was at this time the principal city of the Triple Alliance, became a political ritual. Other people began to be aware of this ritual practice. For instance Codex Xicoepec from the Sierra Norte de Puebla acknowledge the 52-year calendar ritual of 1507 AD but not of 1455 AD, even given the fact that this codex delineate other less important events which occurred at the last mentioned date (Stresser-Pean 1995[3] [4]; Elson and Smith 2001: 170). A dominance of the calendar and the 52-year calendar ritual was exercised by the aristocratic religious specialists and the tlatoani of Tenochtitlan, the economic, military and political centre of Central Mexico in 1507 AD. It is therefore conceivable that imperial ideology and strategy was manifested not only in stone monuments and pictorial manuscripts, in the economy, in the military and in politics^2 but also in the 52-year calendar ritual of 1507 AD (Ome Acatl). As now will be elaborated, this ceremony was publicly displayed with the intention of consolidating the dominant political and military hegemony of Tenochtitlan in Central Mexico.

  • [1] Cf. the description by Sahagun (1953, VII: 29-31; 1957, IV: 143-144).
  • [2] “Wise person”; “sage”; “scholar” (Karttunen 1992: 281)
  • [3] Stresser-Pean, Guy. El Codice de Xicetepec: estudio e interpretacion. Gobierno delEstado de Puebla, Centro Frances de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos, Fondo deCultura Economica, Mexico City. 1995.
  • [4] Cf. Berdan et al. 1996.
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