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Cultures > Aztec

:: 1100 AD - 1521 AD

Cultural Background | Surviving | Living in Community | Finding Meaning in the Cosmos


Keeping Time:
The Aztecs developed an intricate stone calendar to let them know when to plant and harvest crops, as well as pray to the gods for the success of the crops. The Aztec calendar had two different systems of keeping track of time in their current world. They were called tonalpohualli and xiuhpohualli.

The tonalpohualli was known as the "counting of the days." It was 260 days long ­ the time it took for the sun to cross a certain point in the sky. Priests used this calendar to determine the best days for activities such as sowing crops, building houses, conducting specific ceremonies, inaugurating the new king and going to war.

The xiuhpohualli was a civil, agricultural and ceremonial calendar known as the "counting of the years." This calendar was 365 days long.

While most cultures relied on the movement of the sun to recalibrate their calendars, the Aztecs looked to the Pleiades instead because that constellation passed directly over their community. The movement of the Pleiades was their method of recalibrating their 365-day calendar. This was necessary because each year is actually one quarter of a day longer than 365

The Aztecs closely watched the movement of the Pleiades constellation across the night sky. When the Pleiades disappeared, it marked the sun's highest point in the sky and alerted the Aztecs to the coming of the rainy season, which occurred near the end of April.

When the Pleiades again began to appear in the sky each night, it marked the sun's lowest point and told the Aztecs that the dry season (around November and December) was beginning.

A period called Xopan spanned the wettest period from June through September (months 7 to 11). This period was symbolically associated with the night, moon, Venus and the Pleiades.

The Aztec stone calendar recorded the history of all of these world's as well as their own.

The Aztecs believed that four worlds had existed before theirs and that each of these world's had been destroyed in some way. In the first period, the world was destroyed by a great flood and men were turned into fish. In the second, the world was destroyed by violent winds and men were turned into monkeys. In the third, the world was almost destroyed by fire. And in the fourth, the world was almost eliminated by famine, or lack of food.

The Aztecs believed they were living in the fifth and last period, which they called the Era of Movement. They believed that their current world would someday be destroyed by a giant earthquake.

In addition, the calendar was used to let the Aztecs know when to plant and when to harvest. Because the growth of food was so important to the survival and success of the Aztec empire, the Aztec gods were closely related to agriculture. The calendar also let the Aztecs know when to celebrate and make sacrifices to the gods to ensure the successful growth of crops.

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Learn more about the sun, the moon and the constellations.

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