C.1440-70, it comes from the Templo Mayor de Tenochtitlan, ceramic, exhibited at the Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City. © « Tlaloc vessel », Youtube Smarthistory channel, published February 21, 2017.
A lot of different cultures but for almost everyone, the coming days herald a new year! You may have in mind the hangover of your 20s, Chinese dragons parading through the streets, or other images relating to the different ways of moving from one year to the next… But can you figure the Mexica’s way? Follow the paragraphs, it’s here!
Before starting, I want to clarify that the main source of this article comes from the very good text of MatadorNetwork (in Spanish only).
Wait… Aztecs or Mexicas? Both ! In the Nahuatl language, « Mexica » is the plural used to designate the inhabitants of the cities of Tlatelco and Tenochtitlan, of which the current Mexican territory is the direct descendant. This use was later replaced by Azteca (« Aztecs ») in French and English historiographies which tend to link the populations of these two cities to the branch from which they come: « those of Aztlan ». However, current experts, especially Spanish speakers, consider this name a little far-fetched because it relates to too heterogeneous groups, and prefer “Mexicas”. In very (very) short, the Mexicas are a separatist group from the Aztecs. When the non-expert European (like me before writing this) mentions the Aztecs, they are in fact talking, without knowing about the Mexicas.
They are the descendants of the Olmecs (2500 BC -200 AD) and the society of Teotihuacan (400-800 AD), as well as the Toltecs ( 900-1168 AD). And yes, that makes people who are being stolen the spotlight by the Mayas or the Incas! The Mexicas settled between 1325 and 1512 AD and during the Spanish conquest, they were the society that dominated most of Mesoamerican territory.
A prolific and complex society like its cosmogony, the “Mexica-Aztecs” were remarkable metallurgists. Unfortunately known more for carrying out human sacrifices in order to safeguard the order of the universe, they are less known for their rich and varied art. The latter feeds, not on humans this time, but on a strongly zoomorphic cosmogony (cheetah, snake, eagle…).
Perhaps the image of this two-headed serpent is not unknown to you: However, it is the Mexicas who are at the origin of it.
They are also the creators of the very impressive Piedra del Sol which, among other things, represents the annual cycle according to Aztec thought. We also owe them the monumental sculpture of Coatlicue (pictured below), mother goddess of the Mexica pantheon. The two remains are exhibited at the National Museum of Anthropology of the Ciudad de Mexico and in themselves provide a good insight into the societal and religious functioning of the Aztecs and Mexicas.
So what about the New Year? For starters, and according to historian Bernardino de Sahagún, the Mexica New Year is the 2nd of February. As in many traditions, the transition to the New Year comes with rituals to ensure a better year ahead. For Mexicas however, these rights do not consist of a small list of good resolutions drawn up around 2:16 am, with a glass of wine in hand, no!
The Mexicas are very serious about it and are definitely not joking and for 5 days they carry out a deep spiritual introspection which ends with a festival in honour of the rain and harvests to come.
The Mexica calendar consists of 18 months of 20 days. If you were to count it, you would come to 360. However, there are actually 365 days in a Mexica year. These five additional days are precisely intended for the annual transition. Known as « Días Baldíos » which commonly translates to « fallow period » or « white days », they originally constitute the « Nemontemi « .
The Tovar Codice describes these days of the “ Nemontemi ” as emptiness and misfortune. If they have such a bad reputation because they are not protected by any god, while each month Mexica is placed in the care of a deity. So as not to run any risk, it was better not to leave your home and to keep the rest, therefore! A Misfortune baby who would have chosen just one of these five days to discover the great world, since all his life he will have to only rely on himself and will not be able to benefit from any divine guard or patronage.
Historian Bernardino de Sahagún thinks the story ends there. However, many other academics opt for a much more hectic pass.
Nemontemi, rather than emptiness, could be translated as “who clogs” or “who completes” life. They would therefore be dedicated to meditation and withdrawal (always being careful not to slip on the tiles, break a pot, or give birth): the quality of this introspection determining the augury of the year to come.
These five days ended with a big party dedicated to the rain and harvest divinity named Tlàloc, who was asked to be kind enough to get down to work in the months to come.
This was done by filling thin hollow pieces of wood with paper filled with drops of liquid rubber.
Why is this interesting?
Because as for 2021, it would be in our best interest to also put ourselves in introspection, to be careful not to bring the misfortune a little closer, and to pray Tlaloc to help us fight the god of global warming.
Indeed, the Mexicas do better to put their new year in the hands of the god of rain and agriculture in order to ensure the richness of the soil and therefore of the homes, and the survival of society, while we, we entrust it to Father Christmas, consuming divinity.
- De Alva Ixtlilxóchitl, Fernando. Historia de la Nación Mexicana. Ed. Dastin. España 2002.
- Durán, Fray Diego. Historia de las indias de Nueva España e islas de tierra firme. 2 tomos. Conaculta 2002.
- Gillespie, Susan. Los reyes aztecas. Ed. Siglo XXI. 1994.
- De Alvarado Tezozómoc, Hernando. Crónica mexicana. Col. Crónicas de América. Ed. Dastin. 2002.
- Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo, Los aztecas, La Aventura Humana, 1989.
- Rojas, José Luis, Los aztecas. Entre el dios de la lluvia y el de la guerra, Anaya, Madrid, 1988.