Manuscripts and Calendars

Manuscripts and Calendars

Aztecs were greatly concerned with the passage of time and devised sophisticated calendars and elaborate counting systems that regulated their religious, economic, political, and social lives. Two interrelated calendars were used to measure time. The 365-day solar or yearly calendar was closely linked to the seasons and to agricultural activities such as harvesting. It was made up of 18 “months” of 20 days (360). The remaining five days were tacked onto the end of each year and considered very unlucky. Each ”month” was dedicated to a particular deity and was distinguished by a different feast. Although it also regulated human activities, the 260-day ritual calendar was more religious in nature, particularly concerned with fate and destiny. This calendar consisted of two wheels, or rounds. One round had 13 numbered positions. The other had 20 positions, each with a named sign, such as rabbit, house, or crocodile. The interlocking of these two rounds produced a number-name for each day, such as “1 Rabbi,” “2 Water,” or “3 Jaguar,” each of which was associated with a different fate. Aztec people were named after the day of the ritual calendar on which they were born. It was thought that the fate of this day would affect their personal destiny.

When the various numbers and signs of these two different calendars were integrated, they produced a combination that would occur once every 52 years and might be considered equivalent to our century. This was a time of terrifying uncertainty for the Aztecs. It was marked with a New Fire Ceremony. All fires were extinguished and household pots smashed, ready for renewal. Priests waited on the outskirts of Tenochtitlan. At midnight they lit a new fire in the chest cavity of a captive warrior, and its flame was distributed to temples and eventually to households. This ceremony epitomized the concept that out of human sacrifice came life, a sacred aspect of the duality of death and rebirth.


The xiuhmolpilli, meaning “year bundle,” is a stone monument created to commemorate a New Fire Ceremony. As its name suggests, it represents a bundle of 52 reeds, tied with rope and covered with a symbol of the final year. During the ceremony, 52 of these bundles were burned.

The Aztecs believed that the world had already been created and destroyed four times before, and that their Fifth World was also doomed. It was thought that this ritual of renewal would prevent the destruction of the world a fifth time. The last New Fire Ceremony before the arrival of the Spanish took place in 1507.

View + Discuss

Xiuhmolpilli (1 Death)
Aztec, ca. 1500
Stone, l. 61 cm, diam. 26 cm,
Museo Nacional de Antropología, INAH,
Mexico City 10-220917
Photo: Michel Zabé, assistant Enrique Macías

1. When the millennium year 2000 was approaching, there were speculations about possible catastrophes, as well as major celebrations. Research both aspects of the commemoration of the recent millennium. How did contemporary observances parallel or differ from Aztec traditions?

2. In many ways the description of Aztec beliefs about the fate of people being determined by the calendar seems similar to astrology. Do you believe that the month, day, and time when a person is born affects their fate? Do you think there are lucky and unlucky days? Explain your answer.

3. This stone monument commemorated a special ceremonial event in the lives of the Aztecs. What special events have occurred during your lifetime? How have they been commemorated?

Further Explorations

The end of each 52-year Aztec “century” was considered a period of terrible danger when the world could come to an end. No one was sure if the sun would rise again. Although today we may view such beliefs as irrational, superstition continues to pervade, even in contemporary culture. With your class, brainstorm a list of superstitions. Some examples include, “Friday the thirteenth,” and “the curse of the Bambino.” Research and report on the history behind these ideas and why they continue.

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