Meaning in the Cosmos
Aztec beliefs were based in their perception of nature, its time,
space and cycles. The way they saw the world is revealed through their
myths, which were recorded in books known as codices. The various surviving
codices reveal that these people were avid watchers of the night sky.
Based on years of meticulous observations, they discovered a repeating
pattern in the movements of the stars, planets, sun and moon. These predictable
patterns suggested that nature was ordered. It became the ultimate preoccupation
of these people to understand this order and to incorporate it into the
structure of their civilizations.
Some of their myths include the creation of Man, an explanation
of the moon and its "markings" and the creation of stars
Their sun gods were named Tonatiuh and Huitzipochtli. The Aztecs
offered human sacrifices to these gods. The victims were usually
prisoners captured in their frequent wars. The sacrifices were
intended to provide rain, good harvests and success in war.
Their name for the planet Venus was Quetzalcoatl, which means
feathered serpent. For the Aztecs, the helical rise of Venus was a sign
of bad things to come and caused dread and hysteria in the community.
The Aztecs forecast the next dates of Venus' rising so that they
could adequately prepare for the dooms ahead. Eventually, Venus
became a symbol of death as well as rebirth.
Sun: The Aztecs believed they were closely connected to the
sun. For that reason, they made the Pyramid of the Sun the center of their
city and the largest pyramid.
The Pyramid of the Sun was given its name by the Aztecs because
between the appearance of the Pleiades on the eastern horizon
the sun passes along the central staircase. No one knows which
god was worshiped here. On the day that the sun passes directly
overhead in the spring, about May 18, the revered Pleiades star
cluster makes its first annual predawn appearance. It was at this
point on the western horizon that the Pleiades set.
A second theory notes that the sun also sets here on August 12.
This date marks the anniversary of the beginning of the last great
Mesoamerican calendar cycle. Whatever the astronomical motive
for the axis, it was considered so important that the channel
of the San Juan River, which crossed the center of the site, was
rerouted to align with it.
Pleiades: To the Aztecs, the Pleiades were known as Tianquiztli,
which means "marketplace." The Aztecs followed the Pleiades
for a cycle of 52 years. At this point, the tonalpohualli and the xiuhpohualli
calendars would align. This marked what they called a "century."
Every one of these centuries was marked by the New Fire Ceremony, a religious
ceremony to ensure the movement of the cosmos and the rebirth of the Sun.
This occurred in late October or early November.
During the New Fire Ceremony the Aztecs performed a sacred ritual
that involved watching the movement of the stars until midnight.
At this time, if the Pleiades had reached the zenith, or highest
point in the sky, the world was safe and would continue for another
52 years. Otherwise, demons would come down from the heavens and
devour the people.
When the Pleiades crossed the meridian and the life of the world
was secure, the priests would perform a human sacrifice. The victim
was usually a captured general or other important prisoner of
war. The victim had his chest cut open and heart removed. The
organ was then burned and a new fire was kindled in the chest
cavity. If the fire was successfully lit, they knew that a new
sun would appear.
Swift runners would then light torches from this fire and take
the new fire across the land, using it to start fires for the
people of the community. The body of the victim would be burned
along with a bundle of 52 sticks. But if they failed to light
the fire there would be no new sun.
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