Aztec Perspectives On Time - A Deeper Understanding Of How Nothing Is Really New Under The Sun

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Over three thousand years ago, the Aztec, or by their original name, Mexica, people were building a city bigger than any of the European cities at the time, using aqueducts throughout the city to get fresh water, creating complex calendars, and keeping intensely detailed records of every day. The Aztecs are now regarded as one of the greatest ancient civilizations of all time, but there are still many things that we do not know about them. One extremely interesting aspect and topic centered around Aztec society is the way that they measured time. Although there is not extensive knowledge around this subject, in past years, the Aztec calendar has been of much interest to many people.

It’s important to know that the Aztec people, along with many other cultures around the world, viewed time as being cyclical. Modern day Western society views time as linear, meaning that it runs in a straight line with a beginning and an end. Cyclical time, on the other hand, views time as running in a circle, meaning that there is no beginning or end and time often repeats itself.  The Aztec people are known to have kept a detailed record of each day, which could have been used to “predict the future.” This means that Shaman could use the records to determine what days were good for harvest and planning for other such events due to what had occurred in the past. Time and record keeping was a very important aspect of Aztec life that impacted the culture in a multitude of ways. Many dates and times were very important and, for example, it was common to believe that being born at a certain time could have an effect on your whole personality. 

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Similarly to our modern day calendar, the Aztec civilization had one that was made up of days and months. However, the Aztecs had two calendars and they were a bit more complex than our average everyday calendar because one didn’t rely on solar or lunar observance and the other observed solar in a very different way than our normal calendar does. These beautifully interconnected calendars were constructed to follow the movements of celestial bodies. For the smallest calendar, called the Tonalpohualli, there were 20 days in each of the 13 months – this calendar was used for ritual and sacred purpose and didn’t rely on either the sun or the moon for timekeeping. However, the second calendar, the Xiuhpohualli, was made up of 365 days and was broken down with 20 days in each of the 18 months and an extra five-day period called the “nameless” days – this calendar was used for agricultural purposes and relied on solar observance for timekeeping. Each day and month in both calendars were named after animals, events, gods, and other ideas and symbols that were important to the Aztec people. For the Tonalpohualli calendar, each of the 20 days was represented by Aztec god's which were recognized similarly to astrological signs. The day on which you’re born determined your astrological sign and predicted personality traits and specific qualities similar to the contemporary zodiac system. Both the Tonalpohualli and Xiuhpohualli would align starting dates every 52 years, which often marked important events. At the beginning of each 52-year cycle, the dates would completely start anew. This is thought to reflect the idea that the Aztecs had about the world having to constantly be renewed in cycles.

The Aztec calendar was famously recorded on what is called an Aztec Sun Stone. The Sun Stone is a giant round calendar carved into stone. In the middle of the calendar is what is thought to be a depiction of the Aztec sun god. Today we see this incredible stone as a calendar. However, it was most likely a gift dedicated to the sun god and used in religious ceremonies. Since the calendar essentially is based on the rising and setting of the sun, it would make sense that this be a tool used in praise of the sun god. Although, some people believe that the image in the center of the Sun Stone is not the sun god, but a dedication to an alien who guided the Aztec people. However, it is uncertain whether this view is valid due to the fact that there is no clear or solid evidence of the Aztecs being contacted by aliens. Either way, it is clear that the Aztecs did not use this giant calendar the same way we used calendars today. For the Aztec people, each day was a sacred gift given by the sun god and worthy of thanks and praise. Today, we use a calendar to control our lives and plan for the future, but the Aztecs saw each day to be special and used their calendar to rejoice in the day instead of wasting it by planning out every minute.

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Another important aspect of how time worked for the Aztecs is that there were no hours, minutes, or seconds in Aztec society. Instead of life being ruled by every hour, minute, and second, of the day, Aztec life was task-oriented. In this sense, a task that was difficult and included a lot of hard-labor would make the day feel exponentially longer than if you had a day of relaxation and joy-filled activities.  This could also relate to the modern phrase, “time flies when you’re having fun.”  Time, to the Aztecs, was not always something concrete and they felt no need to categorize every second of every day. When Aztec people needed to meet for an event or gathering, they would often look to the sky. Aztec cities were often built astronomically, so one could tell the time by looking at where the sun was in relation to the temples. Today, our lives revolve around the clock and we often say that we are “slaves” to the clock, but the Aztecs were able to appreciate the time and incorporate it into their lives without letting it control their every action.

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In 2012, there was a lot of controversy and talk around the Aztec and Mayan calendars. The Mayans were an ancient civilization even older than the Aztec and date back to 2,000 BCE. In fact, the Aztec calendar was most likely an interpretation of the Mayan calendar system, which is much more complex and is comprised of three, not two, calendars. According to the Mayan long-count calendar, which is similar to the Aztec Xiuhpohualli calendar, 20 cycles of 20 years would mark a b’ak’tun. The end of a b’ak’tun is claimed to mark the end of the world as we know it and start a new cycle. Some believed that this end of the 13th b’ak’tun wouldn’t mark the end of the world, but would be the beginning of a spiritual awakening. Although both the Aztec and Mayans had similar calendars, they both mark 2012 as the end of a cycle. However, according to experts, there is no evidence that either one of these civilizations left any evidence stating that they believed this would mark the end of the world or any other kind of event. Obviously, we know now that 2012 was not the end of the world, but it would be nice to think that it began a new era of human history that produced more conscious human beings.