The Ritual Practices of the 365-day Calendar (Xihuitl) of the Postclassic Aztecs: The New Year Ritual and the Four Year Ritual of Izcalli

Spanish ethnographer missionary sources intimate that the Aztec celebrated rituals not only at the conclusion of a 52-year calendar cycle but also of the 365-day calendar[1] [2], and after four years (i.e. four c. 365-day years). Motolirna writes in Historia de los Indios de la Nueva Espana:

These natives had five books which, as I said, were written in pictures and symbols. The first book dealt with years and calculations of time; the second with the days and and with the feasts which the Indians observed during the year; ... (Motolinia 1951: 74).

Sahagun do not provide much information on the five remaining days of the 365-day calendar called Nemontemi (corresponding to Wayeb/Wayaab of the lowland Maya)d9 But he writes that the Nemontemi was the five unlucky days of evil fortune. Nothing was done in these unfortunate days, which were simultaneously feared and held in awe. The days of Nemontemi were not counted and not dedicated to a deity (Sahagun II 1951: 35; 150; 157-158). Sahagun does not refer to a ritual connected with the ill-fated or ill-fortuned Nemontemi period. In concordance with Sahagun, Duran writes that the five days of Nemontemi are the only days, which were not illustrated since they were taboo (Duran 1971: 388, note 1). The days of the Nemontemi were “... unlucky, nameless and profitless, thus they remained as blanks; they were no symbols for them, or number(s). And so they were called nemontemi, which means “days left over and profitless” (Duran 1971: 395). The Nahua did not have names or signs for the days of this time period (Duran 1971: 469). But Duran comments that the Nemontemi days fall at the end of February, “... on the twenty-fourth”, a day observed by the Aztecs. The old year was ended and the New Year began (Duran 1971: 395):

On these five days the people fasted and did great penance, including abstinence from bread and water. They dined no more than once a day, and even that meal consisted of dry tortillas. They endured flagellation, bloodletting and sexual abstinence (Duran 1971: 469).

This quote by Duran offers an indication that rites were indeed observed during the Nemontemi. There may in fact have been conducted important rites, which Duran did not choose to outline, nevertheless he writes at the end of this book:

Thus we terminate our brief and condensed version of the calendar. I understand, I realize, that I could have enlarged the book and described more things in a detailed way, but my sole intention has been to give Advice to my fellow men and to our priests regarding the necessity of destroying the heathen customs which they will encounter constantly, ... (Duran 1971: 470).

Motolirna claim in chapter IV of his Historia de los Indios de la Nueva Espana that there was a general festival at the end of each veintena of the 365-day calendar. Important festivals took place when:

... they planted and harvested the corn and also at the end of the twenty days that made up their months. On the last of these twenty days a general feast was held in the entire land. These feasts were dedicated to one of the chief demons, to whom they did honor with several human sacrifices and with many other ceremonies (Motolinia 1951: 106; 2001: 25).

In his description of the 365-day calendar, Motolirna writes that: “The last day of the month was a very solemn one among them” (Motolinia 1951: 111; 2001: 29). He outlines that celebrations conducted as a “period-ending” ritual of the 365-day year:

They had eighteen months, as will be explained presently, and each month had twenty days. When these expired, there remained five additional days which they said, were of no use and were not part of any particular year. These five days were, until the new year began, likewise a time of great ceremonies and feasts (Motolinia 1951: 106; 2001: 25).

We can therefore assume that the postclassic Aztecs observed a ritual practice at the termination and the beginning of the 365-day calendar. But what was the intention (function) of observing this New Year ritual? The ceremonies observed in the last, ultimately preceding the Nemontemi period, and the first veintena of the 365-day year may convey an answer to this question.

Izcalli is the eighteenth and last veintena before the five liminal days of Nemontemi in the 365-day calendar.[3] [4] This was a feast dedicated to the Fire God, Xiuhtecutli or Ixcocauhqui. On the tenth day of Izcalli the Aztecs made a new fire at midnight before the image of Xiuhtecutli and sacrificed animals (Sahagun 1951, II: 33-34; 147-158). Agricultural or rain rituals were performed at the first veintena of the New Year.21 The first veintena of the 365-day calendar was called Atl Caualo or Quauitleua. A ritual was celebrated in honour of Tlaloc (or according to other accounts his sister, Chal- chiuhtli icue who was the goddess of water), or according to others again to the lord of the wind (Quetzalcoatl), these were deities on the first day of this veintena. Children were sacrificed upon mountains and prisoners in the temple called Yopico, dedicated to Xipe Totec, with the intention of making the deities of water provide rain (Sahagun 1951, II: 1-2; 42-45). The rituals of the veintena Itzcalli and Atl Caualo/Quauitleua could accordingly well have been associated with ceremonies of the Nemontemi period. It is intriguing that the deity called Xiuhtecutli, who can be regarded as the god of the 365-day year, held a prominent role in the ceremonies of Itzcalli. In the first veintena of the 365-day calendar, Atl Caualo/Quauitleua, fertility rituals were conducted in order to provide rain. Duran also suggest that there were agricultural rituals of the first and last veintena of the year. On the first veintena of the 365-day calendar various rites were celebrated. The day of the New Year had four names reflecting the four ‘solemn feasts’ conducted at that day. The first was Xiutzitzquiol, “Taking the year or bouquet in ones hand”. The second was Cuahuitlehua, “When the trees begin to walk or when the trees begin to rise”, the third was Atlmotzalcuaya, “Shutting off the Water”, and the fourth was Xilomaniztli, “The Corn is green and tender”. These ceremonials introduce the beginning of “spring” (Duran 1971: 412-414). The last veintena of the 365-day calendar was called Izcalli, “Growth” and Xilomaniztli, “When the Ears of Corn Are Tender” or “When the Ear of Maize is Born”. The ceremonies were dedicated to the mountains, Tlaloc and Matlalcueye, where the rainstorms were born. Self-sacrifices of blood and offerings of children were conducted. The same ritual practice was performed in the veintena called Cuahuitlehua (identical with the name of the first veintena, Atl Caualo/Quauitleua), for sowing. The feast was dedicated to sowing on hills, where the moisture came first (Duran 1971: 465-467). As noted the 365-day calendars of Mesoamerica had a solar and agricultural character. We have previously learned from the analysis of the postclassic Yucatec that the New Year rituals of the 365-day calendar were mainly agricultural. Also the New Year ritual of the postclassic Azecs was presumably an observance of agricultural time.

Another ceremony can apparently be considered to be a ritual of time observing the cycle of the four Year Bearers. This was conducted in the eighteenth veintena of Izcalli, but only every four years. The ceremony is delineated by Sahagun in Book II of The Florentine Codex (Sahagun 1951, II: 33-34; 150-153; 177).[5] Izcalli is, as noted above, the eighteenth and last vein- tena before the five liminal days of Nemontemi of the 365-day calendar.

This was a feast dedicated to the Fire God, Xiuhtecutli or Ixcocauhqui. The people made an image of Xiuhtecutli. Every four years they sacrificed slaves and captives in honour of the Fire god. On the tenth day of Izcalli the Aztecs made a new fire at midnight before the image of Xiuhtecutli and sacrificed animals. In ordinary years of this feast of Izcalli no sacrifices were made, only every four years. After the sacrifices of the captives, slaves and the impersonator of Xiuhtecutli, the aristocracy and the tlatoani danced the Netecuitotiliztli, “Dance of the Lords”. This dance was also only performed every four years during the Izcalli-ceremony (Sahagun 1951, II: 33-34),[6] it was executed in the temple called Tzonmolco. The dance of the lords was also called ‘the serpent dance’ (Sahagun 1951, II: 150-153; 177). Garibay translates izcalli with, “The Growing” (Sahagun 1951, II: 153), while Torquemada maintain that izcalli refers to rebirth, “quire decir: Resucitado, o el de la resurreccion ...” (Sahagun 1951, II: 147, note 1). In the chapter listing all the ‘Mexican temples’, we learn that four captives impersonating the Fire God, Xiuhtecutli were dressed in one of the four colours; blue, yellow, white and red. The blue Xiuhtecutli, the yellow Xiuhtecutli, the white Xiuhtecutli and the red Xiuhtecutli were sacrificed in the temple Tzonmolco in the vein- tena of Izcalli (Sahagun 1951, II: 177). These deities symbolically represented the four cardinal directions. We recall that one of the Year Bearers of just one the cardinal directions could be celebrated in the New Year ritual of the 365-day calendar. Hence, a ritual practice of time conducted every four years, observing the quadripartite spatial-temporal organisation of the cosmos (as in the 52-year calendar ritual), was in all likelyhood celebrated in the veintena of Izcalli.

  • [1] Cf. the study by Brotherson (2003).
  • [2] Rituals of the Nemontemi have been noted by Tena (1987: 64-69).
  • [3] The eighteen fixed feasts were always observed within the veintena or a day or twodays before (Sahagun 1951, vol. I: 35).
  • [4] Each complete cycle of the four Year Bearers were ritually completed every fouryears in the veintena of Izcalli. They also demark four periods of 13 years in the 52 yearcalendar cycle (Elzey 1976: 127).
  • [5] Sahagun relates in vol. II and in vol. IV of The Florentine Codex of a feast called Ata-malqualiztli, the eating of water tamales, that was held every eight years. But it was notobserved in a regular veintena thus not making a ritual practice of time. It was eitherobserved in the veintena of Quecholli or in Tepeilhuitl (Sahagun 1951, II: 163-164: 1957, IV:144).
  • [6] A more detailed account, with the names of the impersonated actors of this ceremony,is presented by Sahagun in Nahuatl (Sahagun 1951, II: 33-34; 150-153; 177).
 
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