The Aztec Stone of the Sun and Its Origin in Mexican Mythology

The Prehispanic icon that has most represented ancient Mexico in the world is the so-called Stone of the Sun, also known as the Aztec Calendar; however, this unfinished piece is not a calendar.

The Aztec Stone of the Sun and Its Origin in Mexican Mythology
Piedra del Sol (solar calendar). A representation of the time of ancient Mexico. Image: INPI

Since its discovery, the Stone of the Sun, a sculptural monument of ritual character, has been considered by all Mexicans as the most important work of art bequeathed to us by our indigenous ancestors. Because of its symbolic content, which recognizes the Sun as the creator of the succession of day and night, it has also been called "The Aztec Calendar".

Among the reliefs present in the monument are the twenty signs that represent the days, which led us to think that it was the sacred stone that allowed us to calculate periods similarly as we do with our modern almanacs. Today we know, in reality, that this impressive monolith was entirely dedicated to exalting the Sun as the supreme deity of the indigenous cosmos.

Its existence was equivalent to the existence of life itself, hence the reliefs of the stone tell us the succession of the five cosmogonic suns that, according to the mythology of those peoples, represented the various deities that had participated in the creation of the universe.

In the center of the monument, there is a face emerging from a circle. In it, we recognize the Sun that rises from the center of the Earth. The star integrates into itself the celestial and terrestrial unity, constituting the cosmos in its totality. He is the sacred fire, who was called Xiutecuhlti -the lord of turquoise- and is recognized by a band or diadem made of blue rock discs.

In the center was the figure of Xiuhtótotl, his sacred bird, which unfortunately was mutilated and therefore mistakenly confused with a heart. This deity sponsored the heat of the fire of the hearth and also the heat that the Earth receives from the effect of the sun's rays, especially at midday. Through her, in the central area of the universe, the Sun and fire are incorporated in the same element.

The deity shows the claws of a predatory animal, jaguar or eagle, with which he holds hearts; he also shows his tongue, which is transformed into a sacrificial knife. Both symbols serve to remind the Aztec people of the pact that men made with the gods, especially with the Sun, to feed them daily with the blood and hearts of the young warriors captured in the flowery wars.

Detail of the central motif of the Sun Stone. The figure is known as Nahui Ollin.
Detail of the central motif of the Sun Stone. The figure is known as Nahui Ollin.

His name as the Fifth Sun is Ollin Tonatiuh, the Sun of the movement, whose symbol is integrated by a kind of X. On the monument, it is formed by four squares that are located on the sides of the central face. In addition to these, four numerals give a second name to the Fifth Sun: Nahui-Océlotl, Four Jaguar, the first Sun that symbolizes the Earth. Next is Nahui-Ehécatl, Four Wind, which represents that element; it is followed by NahuiQuiahutl, Four Rain, which curiously symbolizes the element fire, and completes the sequence with the image of Nahui-Atl, Four Water, which represents the precious liquid.

The sequence of the four suns indicates, according to indigenous thought, the presence of the four basic elements of nature: earth, wind, fire, and water, which necessarily had to be created before, to be complemented finally with the movement, which allows the continuity of existence. This sense of movement was given by the Sun itself, whose path began in the east, illuminated during the day, and continued its route to the west; there it penetrated a hole in the Earth where it spent the night period, to be born again the next day.

Detail of the lower motif of the Sun Stone. Fire serpents or "Xiuhcoatl".
Detail of the lower motif of the Sun Stone. Fire serpents or "Xiuhcoatl".

The central element is surrounded by the band that includes the twenty-day signs, which gave rise to the monument being interpreted as calendrical. In effect, the indigenous calendar was integrated by the combination of thirteen numerals with the mentioned signs of the days, which can be read, in an inverse sense to the hands of the clock, starting from the first one: Cipactli or lizard. It is followed by Ehécatl-Wind, Calli-House, Cuezpallin-Lizard, Cóatl-Serpent, Miquiztli-Death, Mazatl-Dead, Tochtli-Rabbit, Atl-A gua, Itzcuintli-Dog, Ozomatli-Monkey, Malinalli-Hierba, Ácatl-Caña, Océlotl-Jaguar, Cuauhtli-A guila, Cozcacuauhtli-Buitre, Ollin-Movement, Técpatl-Flint Knife, Quiáhuitl-Rain and Xóchitl-Flower.

After the circle of days, the Sun shines its four rays in the form of angles with rounded tips; it only requires four because they evoke the universe, which is integrated by the four courses or directions, which are also the four cardinal points. Next is a band of squares with a peculiar five-point design, called Quincunx, which is another way of evoking the action of the Sun to illuminate the entire universe, including the center. The next circle is composed of eagle feathers and streams of blood. The first ones recall the eagle, the most important solar animal, which was considered its nahual. The blood, in addition to giving the red hue to the sun, also represents the sacred food of the supreme numen.

General view of the Piedra del Sol or Aztec Calendar.
General view of the Piedra del Sol or Aztec Calendar. Photo: INAH

The grandiose solar relief appears before our eyes as a complex design, in which we perceive, in addition to the rays, four other angular points alternating with eight figures that resemble the handle of a highly ornamented knife, divine sacrificial spikes, with two ends. The sculptor separated the elements in such a way that he created a sequence between the points and the rays, alternating them with the ends of the sacrificial spikes. All this composes a metaphor that symbolizes the self-sacrifice made by the god Nanahuatzin to transform himself into the Sun.

Surrounding the glowing disk are two Xiuhcoatl or Fire Serpents, whose tails are located in the upper part framing the date Thirteen Reed. Their bodies are curved, showing evidence of their heat through flames: the heads of these sacred reptiles face each other at the bottom, where we appreciate their mythological character since, in addition to having limbs ending in claws similar to those of crocodiles, they have imposing horns that emerge from the nose, which are surrounded by stellar eyes equivalent to stars which are considered to represent the constellations. Sacred faces emerge from the jaws of these animals, and they are thought to evoke the two crucial moments in the daily cycle of the sun: sunrise and sunset.

Side view of the Piedra del Sol, showing the fracture that prevented its completion.
Side view of the Piedra del Sol, showing the fracture that prevented its completion. Arqueologia mexicana

It is striking that this monument, which resembles a circular relief, has never been completely detached from the source rock; even, on the left side of the disk, the original large flat stone cloth shows some dots joined with stripes, which have also been said to symbolize constellations. The reality is that the Sun Stone is a gigantic unfinished sculpture. This has been noticed because there are still traces of the technical process followed.  To detach the sections of bedrock, as the sculptural work progressed, the artists made perforations near the band of knives and the representation of the planet Venus, into which they fitted wooden wedges over which boiling water was poured and, by the physical process of expansion of the wood, fractures were caused in the rock.

When these segments became detached from the bedrock, a fissure must have been produced, imperceptible at the beginning of the sculptural work, but which finally caused a large detachment on the right side of the disk, which included a good part of the core of the monolith and prevented the piece from being finished. This event must have been terrible for the Aztec sculptors since the work was well advanced and the entire band surrounding the monument, in which the curved knives alternate with the indigenous symbol of the planet Venus, had already been carved.

Cuauhxicalli of Moctezuma llhuicamina.
Cuauhxicalli of Moctezuma llhuicamina. Photo: Kim F via Flickr

The Sun Stone, which weighs more than 22 tons, is carved in olivine basalt, and its sculpted disk measures more than 3.22 meters. It must have been originally conceived as a great altar of cylindrical form, in whose superior face the power of the Sun that illuminates until the external limits of the Earth were shown.

If it had been concluded surely following the celestial belt would come the sequence of conquests of the Mexica armies commanded by the Huey Tlatoani, who has been called King in turn representing Huitzilopochtli-Xiutecuhtli-Tezcatlipoca, the highest warrior essences of the world of the Aztec gods. They stand on the surface of the Earth where man must, in addition to carrying out his daily life, wage war and perform all the ceremonial to glorify the creator deities.

This has been reconstructed because the Tizoc Stone has the same formal conception and in it can be seen, besides the solar disk and the celestial band, the terrestrial plane and the fifteen scenes of conquest that begin with the first ones: Culhuacan and Tenayuca, and end with those carried out by the seventh Mexica Tlatoani in the middle of the XV century.

These ceremonial altars of monumental dimensions began to be made in the times of Huehue Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina, the first Moctezuma, whose great potential attracted him the nickname "The Arrowman of the Sky". According to the story of Father Durán, the first monument was built on the advice of Tlacaélel, and fortunately for us, it was discovered in recent years in the foundations of the old Archbishop's Palace in the historic center of Mexico City, and it was called the Cuauhxicalli of Moctezuma Illhuicamina.

Detail of the Cuauhxicalli or Stone of Tizoc. Photo: INAH
Detail of the Cuauhxicalli or Stone of Tizoc.

Because of their function of serving as a platform for the gladiatorial sacrifice and containing the hollow where the blood and hearts of the victims were deposited, they have been generically called Cuauhxicalli or Vessel of the Eagles, evoking the sacred function of containing the food of the supreme deity, the Sun.

When we contemplate the impressive Piedra del Sol we feel an emotion similar to that which must have been felt in December 1790 by those who were excavating in the Plaza Mayor of Mexico City when, while trying to level and pave this section of the city, they discovered the impressive monument, which to the good fortune of all Mexicans was saved from the terrible destruction of the indigenous city at the time of the Spanish conquest.

This admiration led the Cathedral's senior masters to ask the Viceroy Count of Revillagigedo to grant them the monolith to embed in one of the Cathedral's towers. There it was on public view from 1790 to 1885, when by orders of President Porfirio Díaz it was moved to the old National Museum of the streets of La Moneda, presiding over the great hall of the monoliths.

When Architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez planned the great National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Forest, he dedicated the Stone of the Sun to the most important place in the whole building; it was placed at the back of the generous space of the central nave of the Mexica hall, in a magnificent marble and bronze altar that exalts the Mexican indigenous nationality. To this place, in a kind of devotional and ritual pilgrimage, come all the rulers, high hierarchs, and personalities who visit our country. In this place, all Mexicans can feel proud of the grandeur of our past.

By Felipe Solís, Source: Correro del Maestro