Aztec Zodiac Man

Date: 1530
Owner: Wellcome Library, London
Source Type: Images


This sixteenth century painting, created by Spaniards, portrays Aztec zodiac signs and the body parts that they affected. Each of the twenty symbols represented one of twenty cyclical name-days of the Aztec calendar. Yet this image, like many other sources from the early post-conquest era, is problematic because it conflates European ideas of astrology with those of the Aztecs. European astrology, built off a tradition at least as old as Egypt, did associate different cosmic bodies with specific human diseases. Mars, for example, was tied to the gallbladder. The spiritual aspect of Aztec medicine, however, had illness result from one's relationship with the equilibrium of the entire universe, and though these signs did belong in the Aztec zodiac, they probably did not have the meanings attributed to them here.

Although the Aztecs did consider supernatural causation to be a valid source of illness, they thought of health holistically, a confluence of natural and supernatural forces. Spirits and deities could make one sick as a form of punishment that was not entirely distinguishable from a physical cause, such as overexertion. Highly contagious and fatal diseases were almost always seen as divine in origin, the Spanish-brought smallpox epidemic being the most well known example of this belief. The apparent immunity of Europeans to these scourges added credence to Christianity on the part of the natives, a circumstance that helps to account for the surprisingly fast conversion of much of Mesoamerica.

Reference: Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard R. Aztec Medicine, Health, and Nutrition. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

CITATION: Kingsborough, Edward King. Antiques of Mexico (London, 1831). Credit: Wellcome Library, London. L0020862.