Centre Versus Periphery: The 52-year Calendar Ritual of the Imperial Aztec State and the Provinces

Tenochtitlan was by 1507 AD a religious-symbolic, economic, military and political centre dominating the other city-states (sing. tlatocayotl) and cities of Central Mexico. Carrasco conceives the ancient postclassic Mexican states, after the model of Stanley Tambiah in his investigation of Southeast Asian kingdoms, as ‘pulsating galactic polities’. This category reflects a constant tension and antagonism, by rebellion and disputes causing disintegration between the political centre of Tenochtitlan and the provinces. As a result, a spatial, social and religious-social difference existed between centre and periphery from which Tenochtitlan received tribute payments (Carrasco 1987: 146-149).

Notwithstanding the fact that the Aztecs dominated the 52-year calendar ritual at the final decades of the 15th and at the introduction of the 16th century, manifesting the calendar power of the political and military centre over the periphery, it is a issue whether this ritual practice was absolutely monopolised by the Aztec empire by 1507 AD. The archaeologists Christina M. Elson and Michael E. Smith have made a distinction, in their article ‘Archaeological Deposits from the Aztec New Fire Ceremony’ (Elson and Smith 2001), between the ritual on a state and a local level. Was there an interaction or relation between the imperial state and domestic or household religion? And did the imperial government in Tenochtitlan control the local ritual practice of time or had local cultural groups an autonomous corresponding ritual? (Elson and Smith 2001: 157).

It has been previously elaborated; that Sahagun narrates that the celebrations of the 52-year calendar ritual were observed by local communities. The general public held an all-night vigil at the last night of the five-day period, there was a renewal of clothing and household goods, adults and children performed auto sacrifices, incense was offered at the four directions at the homes, they cast themselves into the temple fires etc. (Sahagun 1953, VII: 25-32). Carrasco, however, argues that the new fire, which was under the control of the tlatoani and thereby distributed from the centre to the periphery of the empire, symbols the subordination of the provinces of the empire. The new fire did not only ignite the new time period but in addition the imperial landscape (Carrasco 1999: 96-114; 125).[1] Moreover, Hassig maintains that politics and not ideological (e.g. religious) concerns determine calendars. The 52-year calendar ritual was only performed in political centres, which controlled the calendar. Only independent cities, because the 52-year calendar ritual symbolised political and temporal control, could celebrate autonomous rituals to complete the 52-year calendar cycle. As a result, Tenochtitlan was the only city in the Basin of Mexico to perform the 52-year calendar ritual by 1507 AD. Certainly, Tlaxcala conducted New Fire ceremonies but that was outside the Basin of Mexico (Hassig 2001: 97; 118). Motolima writes, however, that new fire rituals took place in “Texcoco and its provinces” (Motolima 1951: 112). But this could be an observance of an Aztec ritual as well as an ancient Acolhua ritual in Texcoco (Elson and Smith 2001: 158). Motolima comments also that in the provinces, distant from the Valley of Mexico, the natives performed the same ceremony and it was done everywhere with much feasting and rejoicing: “When commencing the day, in all the land and principally in Mexico, they held a great feast ...” (Motolima 1951: 112-113; 1971: 49; 2001: 31). Were these ceremonies celebrated outside the military, political and religious control of Tenochtitlan? Or did the people of the provinces only comply with the ritual proceedings of the 52-year calendar ritual of Tenochtitlan?

The 16th century colonial sources only delineate the 52-year calendar ritual in the context of the state religion of Tenochtitlan. In contrast, the religion of the periphery and the commoners are not well documented or studied by scholars. Archaeological data may therefore contribute to enhance the understanding of the 52-year calendar rituals outside the religious, socio-political and military centre of Tenochtitlan. Excavations conducted by George C. Valliant in the 1930s and later by Michael E. Smith reveal household goods at Aztec sites—Chiconautla and Nonoalco in the Basin of Mexico and Cuexcomate in Morelos—demonstrating local celebrations at ‘household level’ of the 52-year calendar ritual in different regions of the Aztec empire. Elson and Smith, who supports a hypothesis first proposed by Valliant, write that these data suggest that “the New Fire Ceremony was an ancient and widespread ritual in postclassic Central Mexico that was appropriated by the Aztec empire as part of its program of ideological legitimization and control” (Elson and Smith 2001: 157).

The ritual practice of time of the 52-year calendar is only certificated to have been observed in postclassic central Mesoamerica. The termination of a Calendar Round was ritually observed by many cultural groups but at dissimilar dates and in various ways, because of the various starting and ending dates of the 52-year calendar cycle.[2] Even after the establishment of the Triple Alliance in 1428 AD there were different dates of celebrating the New Fire Ceremony in northern and Central Mesoamerica. The Chi- chimecs conducted the New Fire Ceremony on Chiucnahui Tecpatl (9 Flint Knife), the Acolhua used Ce Tecpatl (1 Flint Knife), the Totomihuaque applied Chicome Acatl (7 Reed), and the Tepaneca Culhuaque and Mexica celebrated this ritual on Ome Acatl (2 Reed) (Lopez Austin 1998: 99; Marcus 1992: 117-118; Elson and Smith 2001: 170). Lopez Austin comments that the possessive 3rd person (plural) pronoun to—“our” is indicative referring to the 52-year calendar ritual as in toxiuhmolpilia, “the binding of our years” onst person plural possessive in- “their” when talking about another community as for example inxiuh molpilli in mexicah, “the binding of their years of the Mexicans” (Lopez Austin 1998: 99). The diverse dates of celebrating the 52-year calendar ritual exhibit not only religious identities in the region but also that there was no eschatological philosophy since then the ritual had to be observed on the same date.

Elson and Smith hypothesise that the 52-year calendar ritual, based on a combination of archaeological and colonial data, express widespread

Mesoamerican beliefs independent of an imperial ideology and maintain that local elites can have influenced the diversity in the timing and expression of religious behaviours and beliefs as a means of upholding political and cultural identities (Elson and Smith 2001: 171-172). Archaeological data can, however, not single-handedly determine the exact date and meaning of a ritual practice. Even given that archaeological remains establish that fire rituals were celebrated by cities other than Tenochtitlan and by commoners within the Aztec empire, how can we know that these fire rituals were observed at the end of the 52-year calendar? Elson and Smith neglects that fire ceremonies were not exclusively performed as a New Fire Ceremony of the 52-year calendar ritual. Symbolic new fires were drilled in many different types of rituals like the beginning of new enterprises, before travel, before war, after conquests of cities, dedication of new buildings, at the eclipse of the sun etc. (Elzey 1974: 131, note 2; 1976: 131-132, note 55).[3] The ritual drilling of a new fire was an ordinary ceremonial technique, which served many different rationales in Mesoamerica. New fire ceremonies must therefore not be confused with the New Fire Ceremony of the 52-year calendar cycle. Archaeology can moreover not provide the exact date when the fire ritual was conducted. Consequently, it cannot substantiate that a new fire rite was associated with the major ritual observed at the end of the 52-year calendar cycle, and not performed instead within a different ceremonial context.

The 52-year calendar ritual of 1507 AD encompasses numerous aspects, displaying symbolic power and domination adapted to the Aztec’s new imperial ideology. But this does not necessarily exclude the possibility of other 52-year calendar rituals being conducted within or without the Aztec imperial domain. The written sources of the 16th century, however, strongly suggest, as noted, that the subjugated cities did not observe their traditional 52-year calendar ceremonies at the beginning of the 16th century, but instead complied with official Aztec state ideology and ritual practices.

  • [1] Codice Tudela claims that the new fire was brought to the house or the palace of thetlatoani to all over the land (Codice Tudela 1980: 294; Folio 84r; Gomez de Orozco 1945: 62;Elson and Smith 2001: 158).
  • [2] A range of year counts existed among the Nahua, Mixtecs and Matlazinca and inthe Guerrero region but not within the Nahua cities of the Valley of Mexico (Boone 1992:50).
  • [3] There are many examples of a burning of a new fire in Mixtec lienzos and codices(Boone 2000: 94-160; Elson and Smith 2001: 170). The Mixtec codices and lienzos illustratea new fire to be drilled by religious specialists or by the nobility as one of the ceremoniesbefore founding a new city (Furst 1990; Boone 2000: 94-160; Elson and Smith 2001: 170). Thiswas also a ritual practice among the eastern Nahua of southern Puebla according to theHistoria Tolteca Chichimeca (Boone 2000: 180-181; Kirchhoff et al. 1976: folios 32v-33r; Elsonand Smith 2001: 170).
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