The 52-Year Cycle
FIGURE 7. Greenstone fire serpent (xiuhcoatl) statuette. viewed from the side and from below. The snout of this beast has been broken off; in the profile photo the fire serpent is facing to the left, and you can still see three of his curved triangular teeth. Dumbarton Oaks Museum (PC.B.069). Photo by Justin Kerr © Dumbarton Oaks, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.
FIGURE 11. The two fire serpents on the rim of the Calendar Stone.
In addition to being subdivided into smaller units, the years of the solar calendar were also combined into larger units. As was mentioned above, the cycle of named solar years (1 Rabbit, 2 Reed, and so on) repeated itself every 52 years. These fifty-two year cycles were themselves subdivided into four 13 year periods (13 × 4 = 52). Emily Umberger has shown how these four subdivisions (each of which began with a 1-date: 1 Rabbit, 1 Reed, 1 Flint, and 1 House) had important symbolic meanings. For example, the Year 1 Flint (located at the center of the 52-year period, at the 27th year in the cycle) was the date Aztec histories said the ancient Aztec ancestors left their homeland in Aztlan to begin a long migration that ended with the foundation of Tenochtitlan. (See ‘The Story of Aztlan’ section of Davíd Carrasco’s Lecture ) The Year 1 Flint was also the year in which the Aztec tlatoani Itzcoatl overthrew the rival kingdom of Azcapotzalco (1428 in the Gregorian calendar). The conquest of Azcapotzalco was considered to be the beginning of the wars of expansion that would eventually create the Aztec empire. In other words, the Year 1 Flint was associated with beginnings.14 This may be one of the reasons a 1 Flint sign appears on the Calendar stone (although it is not surrounded by a rectangular cartouche). Significantly, the year immediately before 1 Flint in the 52-day cycle, the year that ended the first 26 years of this period, was the year 13 Reed. As we saw above, the year 13 Reed also appears on the Calendar Stone, surrounded by a rectangular cartouche. Like the Year 1 Flint, the Year 13 Reed had important symbolic associations for the Aztecs, which we will consider in the next section.
Every fifty-two years, then, the cycle of solar years began again. Significantly, a new cycle of the 260 day calendar also began again every 52 years (360 days x 52 years = 18,720 days, which when divided by 260 days results in 72 complete tonalpohualli cycles). Because of this dual temporal alignment, Central Mexican people regarded the transition from one fifty-two year period to the next as a time of great danger. It was feared that the sun might not rise again at the start of a new period, and that the world would be destroyed (see the next section). In order to prevent this, to ensure that the sun would rise again at the start of a new 52-year cycle, Central Mexicans performed a ‘New Fire Ceremony.’ This involved a radical cleansing of people’s houses. Among other things, all of the ceramics people owned were to be thrown out, and evidence of this practice has been found archaeologically.15
In addition, all fires were to be extinguished throughout the land. Then, at a midnight ceremony, a new fire was drilled in the body of a sacrificial victim on the top of a sacred hill. That fire was then brought down from the sacrificial hill to light the hearths in the palace of the tlatoani, and the same flame then distributed to less exalted homes. The last New Fire Ceremony was held in 1507, during the reign of the emperor Moctezuma II. In the Central Mexican calendar, this took place in the year 2 Reed, which is the date that appears on the base of the fire serpent statue we looked at above (Figure 7).16 The square cartouche has a rope knotted across it; this probably refers to the “Binding of the Years” at the end of a 52-year cycle.17 In other words, this fire serpent statue was probably created to commemorate the successful completion of a New Fire ceremony. Significantly, the sun was thought to travel across the sky on the back of a fire serpent, and the outer rim of the Calendar Stone is carved with two of these supernatural beasts (Figure 11).18
The rituals of the New Fire Ceremony in 1507 were, to Aztec eyes, successful. The world did not come to an end. But it might have done. Central Mexicans believed that in the past, ancient worlds had been destroyed and replaced by new Ages of Creation. These cosmic destructions are represented by the images carved at the center of the Calendar Stone
Ages of Creation >
14 Umberger 1988, 352-354.
15 Elson and Smith 2001; Hamann 2008
16 Technically, the new 52-year cycle began in the Year 1 Rabbit; the Year 2 Reed was the second date in the cycle. However, the Mexica seem to have regarded both dates as years of ‘beginning,’ even showing a preference for holding the New Fire Ceremony on the Year 2 Reed; Umberger 1987, 442-444.
17 Vila Llonch 2009.
18 Taube 2000, 319-322.