The Aztecs - the worshippers of time

History of the Aztec calendar

The Aztec priests used a complex dating system common all over Mexico since at least the first century AD. They were expert astronomers and mathematicians, who kept precise track of the progress of the Sun, Moon and planets. They used two calendars that ran concurrently. The first calendar of 260 days, the tonalamati, kept track of the religious events. It consisted of 20 name days combined with numbers from 1 to 13.

Alongside this calendar ran a solar year of 365 days, used to keep track of the agricultural year. This year was divided into 18 months of 20 days each. Days were counted only after they had passed, so the first day of each month was numbered 0. To make up the annual shortfall of five days, a period known as the hollow days was added on to the end of the year. This was a very inauspicious time, for evil forces were abroad. The population avoided conflict, fasted and did penance.

Every 52 solar years and 73 religious years, the two calendars conincided and began again on the same day. This marked the beginning of a new "century," or "bundle of years." The end of each year was marked by one of the priests setting aside a peeled reed, and it was these - made up into a bundle - which were buried at the ceremony marking the "end of time." Aztecs believed that the day of birth was very important in determining a person's future. Because o the two calendars, every day in a 52 year century had a unique combination of names. Each day was lucky or unlucky by depending on which o the pantheon of gods was associated with it.

The longest year of all

Aztec priests also followed the movements of Venus - the "morning star" - which gave them a way to express long period of time. They timed Venus' orbit of the Sun, which took 584 days. A cycle of 2920 days - a figure equal to eight solar years of five Venus cycles - linked the 365-day year and the Venusian year. The sacred calendar of 260 days, the Venusian year and the solar year coincided once every 104 solar years - creating a fourth cycle of 37 960 days. 

The astronomical apparatus used to monitor the heavens and keep track of time was remarkably simple. The priests gazed at the stars from inside their temples which, being built at the tops of pyramids, had unobstructed views of the horizon. A pair of crossed sticks was used to measure height above the horion and from other stars. The spot where a heavenly body rose or set was measured in relation to a prominent landmark, such as a mountain or another pyramid.

On the first day of the new Aztec century the sacred flame, burning where the heart of a man had beaten only a few houre before, was used to ignite the torches which teams of runners carried all over the empire, spreading the good news that the new century was born. The priests bilt a beacon on top of the Hill of the Stars that coud be seen far and wide. Once temple fires were re-lit they were not allowed to die out for another 52 years, when again the nation would hold its breath during the "end of time."