Interpreting the Aztec Concept of Time and History.


The influence of the Spanish and Others.

The Aztecs had a circular and mythological concept of time and history. A concept that "blends myth with history, expressed in terms of cyclical time, a notion that simply treats the present as a reflection of the past. Accordingly, not every event reported in the sources is datable in terms of our calendar; equally not every place-name can be pinpointed on a modern map, nor did every personage necessarily exist as an ordinary mortal" (Davies, N., The Aztec Empire, University of Oklahoma Press, U.S.A., 1987:3).

As such, it is vital to the proper study of Aztec, if not all Mesoamerican concepts of time and history not to read too literal an interpretation of the sources such as the Mexica records, manuscripts and codices, as well as those from other peoples. However, "this mystical or legendary content of the Aztec records amounts to more than idle gossip; it also contains messages or lessons that can, to a certain extent be interpreted...[for example, the myth that] Moctezuma II, among other grim portents of disaster as the Spanish approached, saw a bird with a mirror fixed in its head; in that mirror he perceived an advancing cohort of beings who were half man and half four-legged beast." (Davies, 1987:5).

This quote, which describes the advance of half man and half four-legged beasts, is an obvious reference to the Spanish arriving on horses, and the consequent implied disaster this entailed for the Aztec civilisation. Further, it is an example of how the myths were not only based on facts, but reinterpreted so as to make sense of a situation. It also illustrates the fact that Aztec history was not only based on oral tradition, it was repeated, reinforced and reinvented through it. However,this oral tradition was only recorded after the Spanish Conquest, in Nahuatl and Spanish, and while it is therefore authentic, it is not always reliable. The Spanish, for example, wrote somewhat too factually, with much bias, and a certain amount of disrespect. For example, "no character sketch survives even in the case of Ahuitzotl, Moctezuma II's predecessor, whose reign ended less than two decades before the Conquest and who must have been well known to many people still alive in 1519."

(Davies, 1987:6) Further, in their interpretation and writing of Aztec history, the Spanish also alluded to the Old Testament and European history. For example, Tezozomoc, ruler of Azcapotzalco, in his old age is described by Ixtlilxochitl as swatehd in skins and feather garments because his body had lost all its natural warmth, but that story exactly recalls the Old Testament account of King David,"stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he got no heat!"

Another example may be cited: Torquemada attributes the death of Ahuitzotl in 1501 to a blow on the head from a lintel when he was escaping from the disastrous flood that he had caused by unleashing the waters of Coyoacan. It is hard to believe that this account was not inspired by the manner of the death of Charles VIII of France, who died, also in 1501, after hitting his head on the lintel of a low door in the Chateau of Blois. (Davies, 1987:7)

This 'corruption' of Aztec history is further complicated by the fact that, "the [Aztecs] own version of events was periodically revised, and served to edify rather than to inform." (Davies, 1987:6) In an attempt to 'rewrite history', the Aztecs not only destroyed and remade texts, but also buildings and monuments in this manner.

It is therefore important not to remake other's mistakes when interpretating the Aztec concept of history and time. For example, some have taken a twentieth century materialist approach, while others have taken a Marxist approach. Both, however, skew an interpretation and are therefore risk becoming meaningless. For example, The grip of scientific materialism on the modern mind is so absolute that contemporary man - almost regardless of political bias - is loathe to accept spiritual motivations alien to is own material cravings. Nonetheless, to apply these contemporary values and to treat Mesoamerican religion as a mere subsystem within the overall sociopolitical structure is the very reverse of the real situation, in which religion was often the dominant feature." (Davies 1987:7)

The Concept of Time and History:
Aztec and other Civilisations
Title Page.