The Aztecs regarded their gods as ferocious, vengeful and malignant. This was why their version of how the world was created was so full of violence and devastation.
According to the Aztecs, life on Earth had been created and destroyed four times before the Age of the Fifth Sun, the time in which they themselves lived. This was really a story of fierce rivalry between various gods, each of whom made himself into a Sun, only to be killed by his successor.
Living Dangerously in the Valley of Mexico
What it also reflected were the dangerous circumstances in which the Aztecs lived in the Valley of Mexico. The Valley and its surrounding mountains were susceptible to violent earthquakes, savage rainstorms and the bone-freezing cold of high altitudes.
Wherever the Aztecs looked from their capital city of Tenochtitlan, they saw the threatening mountains. Around their peaks, some of them covered in perpetual snow, there was always a bitter wind whining and moaning among the rocks. Little wonder that they believed so fervently in malevolent spirits and the risk of imminent destruction by infuriated deities.
The Aztecs also imagined that their gods acted towards each other in the same menacing manner. This was reflected in their ideas about the creation of the world which comprised a series of fearful holocausts as the gods struggled for mastery in Mexico.
Devastation and Catastrophe
Tezcatlipoca was the First Sun, but his deadly enemy, Quetzalcoatl, threw him out of the sky and destroyed the Earth. Tezcatlipoca, however, avenged himself on the day 4 Ehecatl (wind) when he overthrew the new Sun, Quetzalcoatl, and devastated the Earth once again with a terrible destructive hurricane.
The next Sun was Tlaloc, the rain god. Again,though, Quetzalcoatl, destroyed this Sun and sent down a raging fire to burn up the Earth. Every living creature was killed, except for some who became birds.
When the water goddess Chalchihuitlicue, became the Fourth Sun in her turn, the Earth was once more destroyed, this time by an enormous flood. Once again, there was no one left on Earth.
Mass Suicide before the Age of the Fifth Sun
The Aztecs believed that their own age, the Age of the Fifth Sun, began in a different way. To create a new Sun, one of the gods threw himself into a fire and was afterwards reborn as the Sun. However, before the Sun could start to move in its orbit through the Heavens, all the gods were required to sacrifice themselves.
Since so much catastrophe and mass death had been needed to bring it about, the Aztecs lacked any real confidence that the Age of the Fifth Sun would endure for ever. On the contrary, they thought that the world must end at some time, just as it had done four times before.
Preparing for the Last Terrible Day
This was most likely to occur once every fifty-two years, when the New Year began on the same day, according to both the 365-day solar calendar and the 260-day sacred calendar. The juxtaposition of dates was, needless to say, a time of terror and trepidation among the Aztecs. As the dreaded day approached, they broke up all their pottery and destroyed their clothes.
They fasted and prayed. They performed penances and offered the gods blood drawn from their ears and tongues. Over and over again, they begged the gods not to destroy the world or turn the stars and planets into horrible monsters which would devour all living things.
In their desolate mood, the Aztecs expected that the Earth would erupt in violent earthquakes and destroy the Sun, and that this calamity would occur on the last day of the xiuhmolpilli (bundle of years) which marked the end of the fifty-two year cycle.
The Ceremony of New Fire
In the last five days leading up to xiuhmolpilli, all fires were extinguished and as night fell on the last day, the solemn ceremony of New Fire took place on the Hill of the Star, an extinct volcano some seven miles from the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.
Here, the priests watched the sky and when the star Alcyone reached the middle of the heavens, they stretched a sacrificial victim on the altar. One of the priests made a fire by rotating a stick on a fire-board and after the victim’s heart had been cut out, it was thrown into the flames.
The priests fanned the flames until they grew into a huge blaze. People came to light pinewood torches in the blaze and used them to light sacred fires in all the temples. These were not allowed to go out until the end of the next fifty-two year cycle.
When the Sun rose the next day, more prayers and sacrifices were offered in thanksgiving that the world was safe for another xiuhmolpilli. As part of the thanksgiving, temples were enlarged by building new ones on top of already existing buildings
- Read, Kay Almere, Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos,Religion in North America, Bloomington, Indiana, Indiana University Press, 1998 ISBN-10: 0253334004/ISBN-13: 978-0253334008
- Hunt, N.B. Gods and Myths of the Aztecs, Rochester, Kent, UK, Grange Books Ltd., 1999ISBN-10: 1840133538.ISBN-13: 978-1840133530