Go to the Digital Library top page!


Click here for main menu

Cultures > Aztec

:: 1100 AD - 1521 AD

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

Finding 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 and marriage.

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.

Venus: 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.

The 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.

The 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.

« previous 4 of 4

Learn more about the sun, Venus, and the constellations and how the skies influenced mythology.

Explore Aztec mythology at Encyclopedia Mythica.


Need help searching?
Search help

Search eCUIP:

Examples: or
Contact eCUIP!

Need help?

Return to the eCUIP top page!