Harriet J. Bauman
It was dark, a dark night of
(the five useless days) at the end of the fiftysecond year. There were no stars in the sky. No fires were visible anywhere, not even on the temple altar where a fire had been burning continuously for fiftytwo years. There was silence everywhere. The whole earth was waiting.
Through the darkness, priests dressed as the different gods and goddesses climbed up
(the Hill of the Star), an extinct volcanic crater visible throughout the Valley of Mexico. On the summit of
rested a temple.
Once the priests reached the temple, they anxiously studied the sky as the stars appeared. Finally, Aldebaran or the Pleiades appeared in the center of the sky. This was the sign they had been waiting for: the sign that the world, as they knew it, would continue for another fifty two years.
At this exact moment, the priests turned to the sacrificial stone on the altar where a prisoner of war was stretched out with his chest arched in the air. With an obsidian knife, they slit open his chest, and pulled out his heart (which might be used later in another religious rite). They lit a torch, and placed it in his chest as a signal to all that life was reborn. Runners came from everywhere to light their torches from the sacrificial torch. They then ran throughout the country lighting fires in the hearths of houses, and on the temple altars of every town.
The next morning, the people began repairing their houses and temples which they had destroyed in anticipation of the end of the world. They had to make new furniture and utensils, as well. They celebrated by eating special foods, burning captives for sacrifices to the gods, and making themselves bleed from the fleshy parts of their bodies. The celebration thanked the gods for not ending their world and their way of life.
This story illustrates a major point about Mexican Indian culture: its focus on the Aztec Calendar. Put even more strongly, it shows the development of a society around the beliefs and world views incorporated in this twelve foot, twenty ton calendar stone that occupied the altar of the Temple of the Sun.
The Aztec Calendar Stone represents the Aztecs’ concept of the universe. On its most basic level, it served as an agricultural map which indicated when to plant and reap crops, and when to hold festivals for the gods who regulated the elements. On a deeper level, this agricultural worship, imbedded in the symbols of the Aztec Calendar, belied concerns and beliefs about the natural world in which they lived, the gods who controlled that world, and their attempts through ritual and worship to communicate with those gods, and thus gain control over their environment.
Aztecs tried to explain celestial phenomena through myths that recount the struggle of the heavenly bodies. This led them to make exact observations, which they recorded on their monuments and in their codices, that are evidence of the advanced stage they had reached in the science of astronomy. It also led them to adopt a calendar which was. . . the product of older cultures that had preceded them. (Cave, pp. 312)
As with any primitive peoples, the Aztecs needed to explain the natural phenomena which surrounded them. The natural phenomena were often attributed to the gods’ behavior and activities. Thus in prehistoric times the people made idols and monuments to appeal to and appease the gods, and thus control the natural world. The PreColumbian peoples took idol worship one step further by trying to regulate their lives in obeisance to their gods (the natural phenomena). Their attempts led to the fabrication of a calendar, based on simple astronomy and the seasonal changes.
The Aztec Calendar was invented possibly in the Eleventh Century A.D. Historians are not quite certain where it originated. Thompson’s book
Mexico Before Cortez
states that there existed many calendars in Mesoamerica of which only the Aztec and the Mayan survived. There are many similarities among the fragments of these other calendars, such as the names for the days, certain holidays, and certain gods.
Two important points from Thompson’s book highlight the problem of where the Calendar Stone originated. One possible explanation is that Quetzalcoatl brought the calendar from the Yucatan to the Aztecs. And, the calendar probably did not come from the plateau region, as there are day signs using animals which were not indigenous to the region. Such animals include the howling monkey, the sign for the day Ozomatli; ocelot, sign of the day Ocelotl; and the blue iguana, sign of the day Quetzpalin. (Thompson, p. 204)
(Aztec Calendar) probably originated at a very early time in the lowlands among a preMaya people, and with maize, cotton, potterymaking and fundamental religious concepts was among the cultural traits inherited by the later civilizations, both Maya and Mexican (Aztec). In other words the Mexicans did not borrow their calendar either directly or indirectly from the Mayas, nor the Mayas from the Mexicans, but both civilizations were coheirs of an earlier culture. (Thompson, pp. 2056)
As the Calendar Stone formed an integral part of the Aztecs’ way of life, I have chosen it to be the focus of a unit designed to help students understand the Mexicans of today. Using an object as the key to an entire civilization is a unique approach to the study of a people’s culture. A more typical approach is to study a particular group by learning about the geography, history, daily life and customs first, then make conclusions about the artifacts which represent that people.
An object analysis approach focuses on the object first, learns as much about it as possible, makes some hypotheses, then proves or disproves these theories with research. An excellent article explaining this approach is “Mind In Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method” by Jules D. Prown (see Bibliography). In this article, Prown delineates clearly the method of analyzing an object, and its three major phases. The first phase is
. Description is limited to what can be observed in the object itself, its measurements and weight, the materials used in the object, and the ways in which these materials are put together. Also, any and all decorations, designs, words and letters are noted. The final step of description is called “formal analysis” in which the object is described two and threedimensionally, and in terms of colors, lights and darks, and textures.
A pi–ata shaped like a burro will serve as a good example of this approach. The analyst, not knowing the function of a pi–ata, nor what this burro is, begins the investigation. He determines that this object is approximately two feet in length and two and a half feet in height, at its highest point. Its height approximates one and a half feet on the rest of the structure. Its width is consistent at one foot except at four places where it equals four inches, and at another point where it reaches six inches. It weighs about five pounds. The materials consist of paper, paste or glue, some metal, and some shiny metallic paper. These materials are put together in the following way: long solid pieces of paper seem to be glued together forming all parts of the object. It appears to be several inches thick everywhere. Thinner paper, almost translucent, covers the object. This paper seems to have been cut and it curls. This light paper seems to be pasted onto the thicker paper forming the shape of the object. The shiny metallic paper seems to be used in patterns, and only on certain areas of the object. There is a thin metal formed into a loop on the top of the object. There are words on the bottom of the object which read “Hecho en México” (Made in Mexico). The top and the bottom have been determined by the fact that there are four rectangular shapes which, when placed on a flat surface, allow the object to stand without falling over. The metallic paper forms eyes, a nose, a mouth, the insides of ears, a collar, and hooves.
The object contains shapes such as rectangles, triangles, and circles. All of these shapes form solids. The paper forming the shape of the object is white. The thinner paper adds colors such as gray, black, pink, red, and yellow. The metallic paper colors certain parts of the object with black, red, pink, and yellow as the major hues. There appear to be no shadings of any of the colors. All appear bright and pure. The curled paper gives the impression of depth. This paper covers the object uniformly, with no areas lacking their curls.
The second phase of an object analysis approach involves
; the person studying the object uses the information gathered in the first phase to interact with the object and to draw some conclusions about its use in the society from which it comes. These activities reflect the person’s sensory approach to the object, and his/her intellectual and emotional responses to it.
The analyst uses all five senses while making some deductions about the object. It makes noises when shook and when the curly paper is brushed by fingers or another object. It smells like paste and candy. Nothing is rough on the surface of the object. It tickles when it is brushed by parts of the analyst’s body. It is exciting to look at, but it doesn’t have a good taste.
The object appears to be a burro or donkey. The bright, cheerful colors give it a festive air. It seems strong and delicate at the same time. The metal piece is not just for decoration; it appears to be strong enough to hold the burro in the air. It feels too heavy to be hollow, and something seems to be inside it. A person looking at this object feels happy and in a party mood.
The third and final phase of
requires the observer to use his/her imagination creatively to arrive at some hypotheses about the object, and to test these theories through research into questions formed by the close observation of the object.
Some questions which were raised during the deductive phase relate to the use of the burro: when? why? how? where? by or for whom or what? Through the use of speculation, the observer concludes that the burro could be hung from a tree or ceiling by the metal. This burro might appeal to children rather than adults because of the colors, textures, and possibly because it resembles a toy. Burros are very common as beasts of burden, especially in Mexico. The object might have different shapes and designs. It certainly must be used for a festive occasion, like birthdays and holidays. Only one question remained to be answered: what moved around inside the burro? A simple slit on the bottom revealed that the burro was stuffed with candy and small toys. The research proved that the speculations were correct.
This unit proposes to study the Aztec Calendar using the object analysis method developed by Prown. Through this approach students will experience the Aztec culture, its customs, attitudes and behavior, and its extensions practiced today in modern Mexico. The students’ active involvement in learning about the Aztec civilization will be much more meaningful than being passive receptacles for the teacher’s knowledge.
Such an approach adds an important perspective to the Spanish Curriculum of the New Haven Public Schools for it seeks to examine how a culture has come to be and has developed meaning for its peoples from within. Since the Aztec Calendar Stone is the key to all that happened in Aztec society, it can be used to approach any part of the society and still maintain its natural focus. Furthermore, the physical calendar itself, is fascinating. It is like a puzzle. Properly introduced, the Calendar can excite the students and motivate them to learn.
As the students’ interest develops, the ten week design of the unit could be expanded to twenty weeks or more. Then there would be opportunities to delve into certain aspects of the Mexican culture in more depth. The unit could be taught in conjunction with a World Civilization, American History, Mythology, Comparative literature, Art, or Music class.