Tuesday, September 06, 2011


Associated with: Aztec mythology
Also known as: Huehueteotl, Chantico
Earliest recorded mention: uncertain, but before 1545
Major texts: the Florentine Codex

Xiuhtecuhtli, the Lord of Turquoise, was the Aztec god of both fire and time, and one of four Aztec "creator gods." As Xiuhtecuhtli he is young and virile, but in his incarnation as Huehueteotl, he is "the Old God," and as Chantico, he is female, the goddess of the hearth. The Florentine Codex, a record transcribed by the Franciscan monk Bernardino de Sahagun, calls him the mother and father of the other gods, and says that he lives in a turquoise enclosure in the center of the earth. He is also, appropriately, the god of volcanoes.

Xiuhtecuhtli was lord of the calendar, so crucially important to every element of Aztec life. The Aztec calendars were far more sophisticated than its European counterparts, and the people of Mesoamerica figured out leap years (among other things) earlier and more accurately than other civilizations. In addition to a 365-day calendar that reflected the solar year, the Aztecs followed a sacred 260-day calendar called the tonalpohualli, or day-count. Each of 20 days corresponded to a different god, and these days were paired with numerical designations from 1 to 13. Xiuhtecuhtli's day was Atl (water); the Aztecs believed that the world survived in a fragile balance of opposing forces. Atl was a day of conflict and purification, as the combination of fire and water must always be.

The combination of the 20 daysigns and 13 calendar numbers took 52 years to complete a full cycle. At the end of those 52 years the Aztecs celebrated the New Fire ceremony, the Binding of the Years, in Xiuhtecuhtli's honor in order to prevent the destruction of the world. After five days of preparation by fasting, ritual bloodletting, ritual cleansing and silence, the ceremony was performed on an extinct volcano, and included - yes - human sacrifice, an important element of several Aztec rituals. The last of these New Fire ceremonies was held in 1507, before the Spanish conquest of 1519-21. Bernardino de Sahagun, who recorded the ceremony, never saw it himself.

The calendar says that today is Tuesday, September 6, but for most of us in the US, no matter how many years out of school we are, it still feels like the first day of the year. Fires are raging in Texas and Louisiana, and the Great Dismal Swamp is still burning even after 12 inches of rain from Hurricane Irene. It's probably fortunate that we no longer practice human sacrifice.

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