Five Concepts of Aztec Thought

This post comes from the Aztec Creation Story series, and explores the key concepts that help understand the way Aztecs thought about themselves.

1. The cyclical nature of time

In our modern-day culture, and in the environment that surrounds us, time is linear. We number our days, months, and years precisely, and we believe events have clear causes and effects. Even seismic phenomena such as Global Warning, according to many, happen because of our own actions or behavior—“cause and effect”. We believe we’re at the center of Creation.

Now take the Aztec language (Nahuatl), which reflected on their own vision of time. Their 52-year centuries were called “bundles of years” because they didn’t view the years following each other in a chronological manner.

The Aztecs perceived them as loose bundles, or sheaves, connected by enigmatic yet clearly defined trends.

They linked those trends and turned them into patterns, mostly regulated by a set of two complex, rotating calendars:

–           The month had 20 days;

–           The year had 18 months followed by 5 “empty days”

–           And so on. . .

They never used the so called “Long Count” of the Mayans to string the different year bundles together.

Each year seemed more connected to a year with a similar name in another “bundle” rather than with the years immediately before or after it. For example, the end of their world was expected to come during the 5 empty days at the end of each bundle of years.

They were prepared to get exterminated by higher powers every 52 years, and they naturally rejoiced when that fate did not materialize.

At the Universal level, the Aztec accounts of creation talk of five cycles of life, or “five suns”. They lived in the last, the Fifth sun.


2. The five directions of the world

The number of life cycles—five—is linked to the five directions of the world.

In addition to the four directions that are familiar to one and all (north, south, east and west), Aztecs also had the direction of center—the fifth dimension.

And while the four well-known directions enveloped Aztecs and rendered them complete, in the fifth dimension they got connected to both the heavens and the underworld.

As an example, the “Templo Mayor” (or Serpent Hill—Coatepetl,—as they used to call it) was one visualization of this fifth direction. They spoke of it as “the foundation of heaven”.

Of course another symbol of these five directions consists of a simple intersection. They used to be fascinated with intersections. Not only could they choose to go left or right, but they could of course also get entangled with mysterious games frequently played by mischievous spirits. At intersections, they could get either be pulled up to heaven or dragged down to hell.

Beware of intersections. I’ll include a story of one into the future installments of “Five Dances with Death”, just to show how things can go terribly wrong.


3. The world’s duality.

In modern-day mainstream thinking, good and bad have a fake universality about them, It is as though there is frequently nothing in between.  Aztecs didn’t think of the world in terms of such a rigid division.

At their end, things were more intricate—nowhere near as straight-forward. They never conceived of gods as being either in the benevolent camp or in the camp of the evil-mongers. Their gods were much more complex than that. They were conflicted characters with deeply fascinating traits.

Take Tezcatlipoca for example, or “Smoking Mirror” / “Smoke of the Mirror” as he was also known. He was one of the four Creator Brothers who had built their world. But he also entertained himself by playing with their destinies, nudging them to a high rise, or letting them drop to a nasty low. He looked out for the people whose luck had run out, such as slaves and war captives, and others. He was either fearsome or benevolent—unpredictably, which made him fearsome most of the time.

Tezcatlipoca’s impulsive nature represented, in a round-about kind of way, the free, yet unstable nature of the Aztec world.


4. Creation is finite.

Unlike the modern concepts of everlasting time, the Aztec creation had a beginning (the first sun), and an end (the fifth sun).

They knew that all the civilizations before them had met their end. It was disconcerting, for they consequently also knew that one day their own end would be on hand.

They weren’t at all sure of what would happen after that end. Thus far, the gods had always had to discuss and decide to resurrect them. Would they do the same for the sixths time?

That was the biggest question of all, and it remained to be seen.


5. The Debt of Mankind.

This story explains why Aztec gods need them, the people. While the Mexica didn’t come up with this story themselves, they refined it and made it a cornerstone of their imperial expansion ideology. It suited their designs nicely.

There have been two main schools of thought on the existence of the Aztec Man.

The first one sought to explain it in terms of the need of the gods to create infinite experiences of life. It accepted that the gods needed something from the people, and it defined that “something” in terms of choices, memories, the energy of prayers, and other experiences. This line of thinking belonged to poets and mystics, and it didn’t receive much public enthusiasm.

It was the second school of thought that was actively promoted by the Mexica elite. Drawing on the violent stories of creation through sacrifice and the need of the Sun and the Earth for sustenance, it stated that Aztecs exist to provide energy to the forces of nature, via their blood.

In support of this idea, the Mexica created the tradition of permanent war, which they described as a marketplace where gods could select the meals they most desired, and in the quantities they needed. Given their warring nature, this decree suited them perfectly.

The Mexica asserted that a permanent flow of blood was needed to sustain the Sun just a bit longer and avert the end of their era. They described periods of peace as spells of drought and hunger.

The Mexica didn’t mince their words. They put it bluntly: Aztec people were indebted to their gods, and the debt simply had to be paid -daily

With all that said, let’s look at some typical creation myths in the next post in this series.