The ancient Mexican region not only stands out as a mythological haven, but also as a culturally vibrant and technologically advanced civilization. Among the Mesoamerican civilizations, the Aztecs standout for their significant contributions in the fields of astronomy, medicine, and also for their bizarre ritualistic practices.
The Aztecs represent an important group of the Mesoamerican civilizations. They arrived from the north to the ‘valley of Mexiaco’ or what is currently the city of Mexico, during 1200 AD. Known as the ‘Tenochca’ or the ‘Toltec’ tribe, the Aztecs dominated the Mexican valley between the 14th and 15th centuries. Initially, confronted by the Culhuacans the Tenochcas had to flee the mainland and move towards the island. Under the command of Itzacoatl, the Tenochcas gained freedom and undertook the construction of the grand city of Tenochtitlan. As new regions in the valley of Mexico came under the Aztecs they also absorbed the local gods into their religion. The Aztecs were ruled by a succession of kings from Mocteuzma I (1440-1469) to Mocteuzma II (1502- 1518) before the Spanish conquest in 1519 (led by Hernan Cortes) ended their domination. [Richard Hooker ]. With well-developed trading networks, religious mythologies, sacrificial rituals, advanced astronomical and mathematical knowledge; the Aztecs present a distinct and highly stratified society in the history of America. Let us have a brief overview of the Aztecs, their customs and practices, with special focus on their achievements in the field of astronomy.
The Aztecs reached the peak of their domination in the 15th century and established an empire that can be rivaled in size only by the Incas. The economy of the Aztecs was primarily based on agriculture and trading. It is estimated that during the peak of their reign almost half of the Aztec population was occupied in farming. The pilli and the macehualles represented the social class divisions among the Aztecs. The pilli were the noble class while the macehualles were the ‘commoners’. These divisions were not made on the basis of birth but on the basis of skills of the people. Bravery on the battlefield and other special skills granted the status of a pilli on any common citizen. The Aztec kinship system was organized into different calpulli groups with each calpulli practicing a different trade. They had an education system where children, upon reaching the age of 15, were enrolled in a school known as the ‘telpuchcalli’ (school of youth). In the ‘telpuchcalli’ the youths were trained in the art of war and in the specialized trade that applied to their calpulli. They were also taught about their history and cultural traditions. In the Aztec society, women were not treated on par with men and hence they were barred from any important official posts. This subordinate status for women relegated them to household chores.[Richard Hooker]
Religion and Crime Policies
The religion of Aztecs is pretty complex involving many gods and demi gods. The Huitzilopochtli or ‘the Humming bird’, the Tezcatlipoca or the ‘Smoking mirror’ and the Quetzalcoatl (‘Sovereign Plumed Serpent’) represented the three main deities. Below these main gods were the sub-gods namely Chalchihuitlicue (god of growth), Tlaloc or the rain god, Xipe or the god of spring. One of the shocking religious practices of the Aztecs was the custom of human sacrifice as an act of appeasing the gods. During the reign of the king Ahuitzotl (1468-1502) it is believed that more than 20,000 human sacrifices were offered to mark a successful campaign of Oaxaca. The usual custom was to make a hole into the ribcage and pull out the live heart and offer it to the sacrificial fire. In cases of offerings to god ‘Huehueteotl’ the victims were drugged and thrown direct into the sacrificial fire. Crimes were also severely dealt with in the Aztec community. Stealing, adultery and other forms of serious crimes received corporal punishment while minor offenses were also treated severely. Organ mutilation was a common punishment for minor offenses. [Richard Hooker]
Aztec’s Knowledge of Astronomy
The study of the Aztec civilization offers enough proof of their deep knowledge of astronomy. Their stone calendar, is an example of their through understanding of the solar cycle. The giant stone calendar is 12 feet in diameter and weighs around 24 tons. The Aztecs carved out this massive stone calendar during the 15th century and the work is understood to have taken more than 52 years for completion. This stone calendar contains pictographs, which depict 18 months each with 20 days, and five dots marked to represent five sacrificial days all making up the 365 days a year cycle. The fact that the Aztecs designed this calendar 103 years before the Georgian calendar came into use is evidence enough for their mathematical and astronomical expertise. The Aztecs also used the stone calendar as a sundial to mark time. On the stone calendar there are eight holes along the sides. They placed sticks on these holes that cast shadows on the figures on the calendar. [Wesley Thurmond]
The Aztecs were avid sky watchers, a fact that is reflected in their myths that are entwined with astronomical patterns and celestial occurrences. They attached much significance to planetary conjunctions and other rare phenomenon. In fact, it is said that the surrender of the mighty Aztec empire to the numerically insignificant (less than 400) Spanish troops was a psychological defeat, caused by the sighting of a comet by the king Montezuma II, indicating the end of the rule. [Denise Kaisler ]. Further, for the Aztecs, religion and astronomy were inseparable. (Sun was their main god). They made meticulous observations of the heavenly bodies and recorded them in books known as codices.
Glancing through the codices reveals their knowledge of the repeating patterns of the sun moon, planets and the stars. The planet Venus in particular occupied considerable significance for the Aztecs. Planet Venus was revered in twin forms namely Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl in context of the planets different transit periods. The ‘morning star’ known as Quetzalcoatl was perceived by the Aztecs to be friendly as it bought up the sun and sustained life while the other form ‘evening star’ was dreaded as a bearer of calamity, as it tread over the sun creating darkness. The Quetzalcoatl (morning star), referred by them as ‘Feathered Serpent’, was thought to bring about good fortune and healing while the helical rising of the planet was thought to be a bad omen and hence they made elaborate preparations before the next helical rise of the planet. [Ken Gillman]. Observations from the codices reveals that the Aztecs had recorded the synodic periods of Venus. The Aztecs conducted elaborate sacrificial rituals (of human life) to ward off the evil. Thus we see that the myths of the Aztecs are associated with their astronomical observations.
The Aztec calendars reveal a lot about the sun and its path. Intercardinal lines, which represent the NE, SE, NW, SW observed in the calendars, are indicative of the summer and winter solstice, where the sun reaches the extreme northerly and southerly positions on the sky. Another testament to the Aztecs knowledge of astronomy is their documentation of the eclipse cycles. The Codex Telleriano-Remensis, for example, has a neat account of the solar eclipse that occurred on August 8, 1496. The pictographs Cleary show a solar disc submerging behind the mountains of the Tenochtitlan city. [Anthony F. Aveni] Like the solstices the Aztecs also had knowledge of equinoxes. The Templo Mayor, the main religious structure of the Aztecs is aligned with the equinoctial sunrise. The Aztecs worshipped the god Xipe Totec on the day of the spring equinox. [Robin DuMolin]
New Fire Ceremony (Pleiades constellation)
The Aztecs studied the positions of stars and their constellations. They even assessed the onset of the seasonal changes (rainy season and dry spells) based on the observations of the Pleiades constellation. The disappearance of the Pleiades constellation implied the coming of the rainy season while the reappearance of the same indicated the forthcoming of a dry spell. [eCUIP]. The two Aztec calendars one with 260 days and the other with 365 days converge every 52 years. This is celebrated as the “New fire ceremony.” According to Aztec tradition the “Pleiades crossed the fifth cardinal point or the zenith of heaven at midnight” [ARTCAMP] marking the beginning of a new cycle. The Aztecs believed that every 52nd year the world reached its end and the further continuation of life (a new cycle) was dependent on whether or not the Pleiades constellation appeared on the sky on the day of the ‘New fire ceremony’. Many rituals mark the beginning of the new cycle, the most important of which is the human sacrifice offered as a gratitude for the furtherance of life. Once again we see that ritual customs are related with astronomical events showing how much astronomy was a part of the life of Aztecs.
The Aztec civilization is undoubtedly one of the great civilizations among the Mesoamerican tribes and in terms of scientific and intellectual skills they are no less than the ancient Greeks. They remain one of the most documented civilizations in the American continent. The sunstone calendar provides an indication of their deep understanding and interests in astronomy. It is considered to be perfect even to present day standards and exists as a standing proof for their scientific contributions. The codex borgia, Telleriano-Remensis and the other codices that survived the Spanish onslaught provide us with an excellent insight into the life and customs of this great civilization. Among the Mesoamerican civilizations, the Aztecs standout for their significant contributions in the fields of astronomy, medicine, and also for their bizarre ritualistic practices. This ancient, vibrant Mexican tribe has no doubt left a rich legacy behind and would continue to baffle future historians.
1) Glenn Welker, ” The Indigenous People,” Accessed Oct 17th 2005,
Available at, http://www.indians.org/welker/aztec.htm
2) Richard Hooker, “The Mexica / Aztecs,” Accessed on 17th Oct 2005,
Available at, http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/CIVAMRCA/AZTECS.htm
3) Ken Gillman, “Montezuma and the Venus Transit,” Accessed Oct 19th 2005,
Available at, http://cura.free.fr/xxv/21ken2.html
4) Anthony F. Aveni, ” Other Stars Than Ours,” Natural History, April 2001 v110 i3 p66, Available Online at http://www.mexicauprising.net/mexicaastronomy.html
5) Wesley Thurmond, Meghan Kucher, Will Esposito, “Aztec Civilization,” Accessed on Oct 19th 2005, Available at, http://www2.truman.edu/~marc/webpages/nativesp99/aztecs/aztec_template.html
6) eCUIP, “Cultural Astronomy: Aztec,” Accessed Oct 19th 2005,
Available at, http://ecuip.lib.uchicago.edu/diglib/science/cultural_astronomy/cultures_aztec-2.html
7) Denise Kaisler, ‘Comet Misconceptions’, Accessed on Oct 20th 2005,
Available at, http://www.astro.ucla.edu/~kaisler/articles/event_horizon/cometmisc.html
8) ARTCAMP, “Aztec Astronomy and Observation of Nature,”
Accessed Oct 20th 2005, Available at, http://www.artcamp.com.mx/AZ/1.html
9) Robin DuMolin, “Behind the Vernal Equinox,” Accessed Oct 20th 2005,
Available at, http://220.127.116.11/search?q=cache:4au01JAYlVQJ:www.americanspiritnews.com/MA98/BehindVernal.html+Aztecs+equinox+& hl=en& start=29
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