Aztec Calendar Stone

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Aztec Calendar Stone

The Aztec Calendar Stone is the most widely recognized emblem of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilization. Although it was sculp-ted by anonymous Aztec artisans during the reign of King Axayácalt (1469–1481), only forty years prior to the Spanish Conquest, it embodies a rich cultural tradition that extends back another two thousand years through the Toltec, Maya, and Olmec civilizations. It is less a representation of a practical calendar than of the Aztec cosmic worldview and a monument to their principal deity, the sun god Tonatiuh. Consequently, it is more correctly called Piedra del Sol, the Sun Stone. The earliest description of the Sun Stone was by Antonio B. León y Gama, writing in 1792.

The stone is a massive, 24.5-ton, round basaltic monolith, three feet thick and nearly twelve feet in diameter, intricately carved on one face and originally replete with bright colors. It was apparently meant to be mounted horizontally to serve as a sacred repository for the ritualistic feeding of the hearts and blood of captured warriors to the sun god. The stone was buried during the Spanish defeat of Tenochtitlán (present-day Mexico City) in 1521, but it was recovered in 1790 during the repaving of the Plaza Mayor. The stone is exhibited at the Museo Nacional de Antropología de Mexico in Mexico City.

Despite extensive studies of the iconography of the stone and its connections to Aztec religion and cosmology, a definitive interpretation is impossible, largely because verbal traditions were only imperfectly conveyed to and recorded by post-Conquest Spanish scholars. The Aztecs viewed existence as a series of cycles of creation and destruction, not only for humans but for the gods as well. Close familiarity with astronomical sky cycles, most notably by the famously accomplished Maya astronomers, undoubtedly intensified their cyclic mythology. The theme of the stone can be said to be cosmic time cycles, and its circular shape is a metaphor for repeating time.

The outer half of the stone's face consists of concentric circular bands, each with a distinct series of carvings. On the outermost border are two Xiuhcoatl fire serpents, and thrust out of their opened mouths and confronting one another are the heads of two gods, probably Tonatiuh and Xiuhtecutli (the fire god). In the stone's original orientation, with the top oriented toward the East, the serpents are following the diurnal motion of the sun toward the West. The innermost two circular bands represent the so-called Calendar Round, a fifty-two-year cycle of four concurrently running series of day counts: two numerical and two symbolic, with names linked to a sequence of rituals. The end of a Round marked a dangerous time that demanded a solemn cleansing and renewal ceremony (the "Binding of the Years") and the symbolic rekindling of the Sun to ensure its continued motion through the heavens.

The heart of the stone contains the glaring face of the sun god Tonatiuh embedded in the six-lobed day-sign for ollin, or movement. Movement here is associated with the motion of the sun through the sky and possibly movement through cosmic time; it is also the symbol for earthquakes. The four square panels of the ollin sign arranged in a large X-shape depict the four cosmic eras (or "suns") thought to have preceded the current era (the Fifth Sun). Although the gods struggled to make Earth fruitful and secure, humankind was destroyed in four successive catastrophes—devoured by jaguars, swept away by raging hurricanes, incinerated by a rain of fire, and drowned in a great flood. The fifth era began with the self-immolation of the god Nanhuatzin on behalf of humanity. To prevent a cataclysm of violent earthquakes predicted by a date on the ollin symbol, the Aztecs assiduously offered the sun god the regular nourishment of blood sacrifices to help him maintain the diurnal cycle of day and night and thereby ensure their survival. This grim obligation is symbolized by a tongue-shaped sacrificial flint knife that protrudes from the god's mouth and, at either side of his face, a claw gripping a human heart. Many similar features can be found in other Aztec sacrificial carvings, but the Sun Stone is the most magnificent example and stunningly captures the vibrant and exotic cosmos of the Aztecs.

See alsoAztecs; Calendars, Pre-Columbian; Precontact History: Mesoamerica.


Aveni, Anthony F. Skywatchers. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Bernal, Ignacio. 100 Great Masterpieces of the Mexican National Museum of Anthropology. New York: Harry N. Abrams, l969.

Boone, Elizabeth Hill. The Aztec World. Montreal: St. Remy Press, and Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 1994.

Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo, and Felipe Solís. El Calendario azteca y otros monumentos solares. Mexico: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Grupo Azabache, 2004.

Montes, Augusto Molina. "The Building of Tenochtitlán." With paintings by Felipe Dávalos. National Geographic 158 (1980): 753-775.

Nicholson, H. B. "The Problem of the Identification of the Central Image of the 'Aztec Calendar Stone.'" In Current Topics in Aztec Studies: Essays in Honor of Dr. H. B. Nicholson, ed. Alana Cordy-Collins and Douglas Sharon. San Diego Museum Papers 30 (1993): 3-15.

                              Robert W. O'Connell

                              Virginia L. Tegtmeyer