Aztec Calendar Stone

Date: 1510
Owner: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale
Source Type: Artifacts


This Aztec calendar stone, famous for its well-preserved condition and what it tells us about Mesoamerican time keeping, was made in the early sixteenth century and was probably placed flat in the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan and used as a platform for human sacrifice. The face in the center, considered to be that of Tlalteuctli, is framed by the calendrical glyphs of the four previous "suns," divisions of cosmological epochs. The band of glyphs directly outside of the face and sun symbols is a band containing the twenty day glyphs of the Aztec calendar, itself placed within another ring with images of flowing blood, jade, and sun rays. The outermost ring of this calendar stone depicts the bodies of two serpents, with their tails meeting at the top and heads at the bottom. Between the tails (at the top of the stone) is the glyph 13 Atlatl, which may represent the first year of the reign of King Itzcoatl (1427), founder of the Aztec empire. The heads of Xiuhteuctli, god of fire and time (left), and Tonatiuh, the sun (right), are shown coming out of the serpents' mouthes at the bottom of the stone (Hassig 2001).

The fact that the Aztec calendar, much like the calendar of the Maya, was based on repeating fifty-two year periods and usually took the shape of a circle or wheel has led many scholars to emphasize how the Aztecs perceived time as cyclical. Yet, anthropologist Ross Hassig has pointed out that scholars support this idea of cyclical time because of myths promulgated by the Aztecs themselves who, like all other advanced civilizations, actually experienced and noted time as both linear and cyclical. Cycles are manifest in yearly life (agriculture, festivals, and seasons), while historical events, like wars and politics, are usually represented as unique and thus non-cyclical. 

The genius of the Aztecs is that they manipulated time, using the calendar as a means of imposing control over their empire. Time became an instrument of control over their numerous tributaries. For example, they demanded tribute on calendrical days established as important to them and thereby undermined local time keepers and forced provinces into a rythm where yearly events became subject to Aztec time. By downplaying the linearity of political time and increasing the perception that time was heavenly and cyclical, the Aztecs were able to better legitimize their right to rule, not unlike their European and Asian counterparts at the time.

Reference: Hassig, Ross. Time, History, and Belief in Aztec and Colonial Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

CITATION: Aztec Calendar Stone, Mexico City, no. 51150. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call number: WA Photos 121.