The most precious relic of Pre-Columbian culture in Mexico is the Aztec Calendar Stone. This immense object of basaltic porphyry measures thirteen feet in diameter and weighs twenty-four tons. It is a living link with Mexico's fascinating past, a blend of Aztec science and mythology. The stone was carved shortly after the year 1502, and was unearthed about the middle part of the seventeenth century at the Zocalo or Central Plaza of Mexico City. Incidentally, the Zocalo marks the ancient capital of the loosely-knit Aztec "empire," a place the Aztecs called Tenochtitlan ("cactus on a stone"). According to legend, the Aztec people were to found their capital when they came across an eagle perched on a branch of cactus, devouring a snake. The Aztecs later changed the name of their capital from Tenochtitlan to Mexico, in honor of their war god, Mexitli.
To the amazement of archaeologists, the stone, when deciphered, revealed a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy. Aztec astronomy, based chiefly on astrology, divided the solar year into 18 months of 20 days each with 5 intercalaries (days inserted into the calendar to make it correspond to the solar year). The days were named by consecutive hieroglyphics, and they could by means of the stone, calculate annual periods of 4, 13, 52, and 104 cycles. The Aztec priests used the stone calendar to regulate important festivals and sacrificial seasons. With the aid of the calendar, they could settle the hours of the day, the periods of equinoxes and solstices, and the zenith transit of the sun with precision.
The face of the stone contains various mythological and astrological figures and signs in geometrical order. The outer border contains two serpents which represent time and the chief Aztec gods. Within this border are the rays emanating from the central figure which represents "Tonatiub," the Sun god. Again, according to legend, Tonatituh's heaven was the highest place attainable by those who had reached fulfillment here on earth. Surrounding the central sun figure are seven rings of varying dimensions. Above the face of the Sun god is an arrowhead symbolizing the wind. In the rectangles above and below the eagle's claws, at the right and left of the sun's face, are symbolic representations of the four elements, air, fire, water, and earth. An interesting legend surrounds these four symbols. It is called the legend "del Quinto Sol." The legend of the Fifth Sun.
According to this legend, we are now living in the era of the Fifth Sun, which is, incidentally, an era of decline. In this present era, creatures on the earth suffer continual hardship and testing by the gods. Any species which fails these tests is doomed to perish and to return to the sun from where it came. The first era was symbolized by an ocelot — a period of instinctive power, dwelling in animal form and in darkness. The end of the first era was marked when the ocelots devoured all the human inhabitants, and the sun was destroyed. Then followed the sun of Air, an era of pure spirit which might eventually be transformed into flesh and blood. However, the people of this era lacked the redeeming principle, which was a deified heart, and were transformed into monkeys.
After this follow the eras of the sun of the Rain of Fire, sun of Water, and the present Fifth Sun — Naollin (four movements). This sun too will die, unless mankind climbs the ladder of redemption, which is represented in the names of the twenty days of the Mayan calendar. The ultimate aim of creation is a regenerative process by which mankind redeems itself. If this aim or goal is not achieved, the world must be destroyed.
The symbols on both sides of the upper arrowhead represent the years. Five ornamental disks occupy the spaces between the symbols.
The names for the days of the Aztec month are represented by the symbols of the second ring. The third ring contains forty small squares, each filled with five balls. These represent days in the Aztec year — 200 in all. Crossing this ring and extending to the sixth ring are four arrowheads. The sixth ring is the largest and contains two large serpents whose tails terminate in arrowheads ornamented with feathers. At the bottom of the calendar the serpents are brought face to face with each other.
The two serpents represent on the left, the gods and Tonatiuh, and on the right, Quetzalcoatl, the God of the Air. Archaeologists place the birth of Quetzalcoatl as several centuries before Christ. And like Christ, Quetzalcoatl exemplified the deified man. He was a person of rare compassion and wisdom. Quetzalcoatl is represented in Aztec and Mayan mythology as the feathered serpent, a union between flesh and the spirit. Upon his death, Quetzalcoatl was transferred into Venus and later into a solar god identified as Huitzilopochtli ("Hummingbird-on-the-left"). The outer rim of the calendar is adorned with symbolic representations of the planets and stars.
The Aztec calendar thus emerges as a remarkable instrument of science and religion, an enduring tribute to Aztec culture and knowledge. During the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, I was fortunate enough to see both the Calendar at the National Museum of Anthropology, and the pyramids of Teotihuacan (City of the Gods). While visiting the pyramids, we attended the "Luz y Sonido" (Light and Sound) presentation. By means of lighting effects and a recorded program of music and narrative, the meaning of the pyramids was explained to the audience. I remember vividly . . . sitting there listening to the ancient, haunting sound of an Aztec flute. A moist, cool breeze was blowing from the volcanic mountains which surround the Valley of Mexico. The stars were brilliant points in a black sky, and off to the mountains flashes of lightning briefly illuminated the clouds. They appeared like Japanese lanterns, I thought to myself. It was as if the gods were celebrating a festival of their own. For a brief moment, time stood still and I felt as if I had been transported to a simpler world. I could imagine myself as an Aztec priest, standing on the highest pyramid gazing at the silent stars, and trying to decipher the steps to eternity.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1971; Reprinted with permission from the November 1971 issue of Griffith Observer, Los Angeles, California)