Aztec culture employs a highly complex and sophisticated system for marking time. The Aztecs have not one but two calendars as well as a sacrificial altar (the Stone of Axayacatl) that depicts 20 day-signs and four eras that preceded the current one. All of these systems are imbued with rich cosmological meaning and symbolism. Their use of colour also contains hidden meanings.
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The tonalpouhualli, or day-count, is a sacred calendar used more for divinatory purposes than marking the passage of time. This calendar divides the days and rituals among the gods into 20 weeks, each ruled by a deity. There are 13 days in each week also controlled by a specific god, making for a total of 260 days in the calendar year of the tonalpohualli. That every day is ruled by two different gods expresses the Aztec worldview that everything ultimately consists of two opposing forces. The gods are always on the brink of fighting a war for supreme power. By following the rituals and sacrifices prescribed by the divine calendar, the Aztecs maintain the delicate equilibrium of the universe.
The Aztecs had a 365-day calendar (the xiuhpohualli), similar to the modern calendar, for marking time. This calendar consists of 18 months of 20 days each as well as five extra “unlucky” days. Each of these years can bear one of four year-signs: “Calli” (house) is associated with the direction of the West; “Tochtli” (rabbit) with the South; “Acatl” (reed) with the East; and “Tecpatl” (flint knife) with the North.
The Stone of Axayacatl
Mistakenly referred to as an Aztec calendar, the Stone of Axayacaytl is a sacrificial altar with calendrical signs. Along with depicting the 20 day-signs with each of their respective gods, the altar depicts the four past eras that preceded the modern one. In the first era, a race of giants ruled the earth until jaguars devoured them. In the second, strong winds destroyed civilisation and men turned into monkeys. Tlaloc, the god of celestial fire and rain, symbolises the third era, which ended in a storm of lava and fire. The fourth era, Atonatiuh (“Sun of Water”), ended when a flood devastated civilisation and men turned into fish.
Colour Symbolism and Meaning in the Aztec Calendar
While colours are not associated with specific days, months or years in the Aztec calendar, the colours used in the symbols associated with these days may possess significant meaning. For instance, Aztecs associated colours with direction. So the “Southern” year of Tochtli would be represented by the colour blue. Colours also could be associated with gods and their respective day-signs. For instance, Tezcatlipoca, the god of lust, was always represented in black.
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