The Aztec Gateway

The Night Sun

"The wheel of time turns; foretells the future, foretells the past
Turns in the Sun and in the shadow. Turns through the long night.
Counts off the days and the years and all the epochs
gives us the signs, the ones to live by and those to die by.
Carries us up the ninefold path, shows us the precious gifts
brings us face to face with the gods
Guides us in our perilous journeys
teaches us of demons who preside over the darkness."
-The Book of Chilam Balam

The Tonalpohualli is the sacred and divinatory calendar of the Aztecs. It is a 260 day calendar which runs independently of the solar year, being based on the movements of the heavens, and the changes of influence in the world of the gods. Aztec dates are measured by the Tonalpohualli, and receive their names from it. This is what dates such as "One Death" and "Four Rabbit" mean.

The easiest way to understand how the Tonalpohualli functions is to imagine it as two wheels that turn next to each other like gears, one wheel for the day signs and one for the numbers. There are twenty day signs and thirteen numbers. The first day sign on the wheel is Cipactli (caiman), and the first number is one. This makes the first date of the calendar One Caiman. As the wheels turn, different day signs and numbers align themselves as the days pass, so that the second date would be Two Wind, the third Three House, etc. This will continue until the thirteenth day sign, Reed, meets the last number of thirteen. After Thirteen Reed, the number wheel has gone back to it’s original alignment at the number one, although the wheel of twenty day signs has not reached it’s end yet. As a result, the day following Thirteen Reed will be One Jaguar, Jaguar being the fourteenth day sign. This will continue until all the possible combinations of numbers and day signs have been exhausted, a process that takes 260 days. At that point, the cycle will begin again at One Caiman.

The twenty day names are:

Cipactli (Caiman), Ehecatl (Wind), Calli (House), Cuetzpalin (Lizard), Coatl (Snake), Miquiztli (Death), Mazatl (Deer), Tochtli (Rabbit), Atl (Water), Itzcuintli (Dog), Ozomahtli (Monkey), Malinalli (Grass), Acatl (Reed), Ocelotl (Jaguar), Cuauhtli (Eagle), Cozcacuauhtli (Vulture), Ollin (Movement), Tecpatl (Knife), Quiahuitl (Rain), and Xochitl (Flower).

Each of the day names is ruled by a particular god or goddess. Their influence is particularly strong on these days. Each of the numbers has a ruling god as well. The ruler of a number is known as the Lord of the Day. In turn, there are also nine Lords of the Night, who rule the dark hours on given days. There are also thirteen birds who's symbolism cycles with each of the numbers. Thus, these influences combine to create different outlooks for each day. A particular day may be auspicious or inauspicious for a particular activity, or certain things may be more likely to happen on particular days. These are things which the Tonalpohualli measures.

For Example, on the day Four Reed:

Tezcatlipoca rules the day Reed. Tonatiuh is the god assigned to the number four, and thus He is the Lord of the Day. The fourth bird of the day is the quail, and Centeotl is the Lord of the Night. A priest reading the Tonalpohualli measures these four different influences, the qualities of each and their possible meanings, in order to deduce the nature of a given day.

Although the Tonalpohualli and the solar year run separately, the solar years are given the name of the Tonalpohualli date on which the first day of the year falls. There are only four day signs that the beginning of a year will fall on, those four being House, Rabbit, Reed, and Knife. Each one is associated with a direction, House years being Western years, Rabbit years being Southern, Reed years Eastern, and Knife years Northern.

Once every 52 years, the Tonalpohualli and the solar year coincide to begin on the same date. This symbolizes the end of one 'Bundle of Years' and the beginning of another. This was a particularly apprehensive time as the world was particularly likely to end at these times.


All materials ©2002-2007 J. Quipoloa. Do not reproduce without permission.