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The Legend of the Five Suns
by Alan J. Seeger

They say the sun that exists today was born in 13 Reed [751], and it was then that light came, and it dawned. Movement Sun, which exists today, has the day sign 4 Movement, and this sun is the fifth sun that there is. In its time there will be earthquakes, famine.(1)

This vision of doom belongs to the Aztec legend of the Five Suns. In the Aztec tradition, the universe was not permanent or everlasting. Like all living things it would someday have to come to an end. But the Aztec cosmos doesn't have a single destruction. They pictured time as a cycle of births, destruction, and rebirths. But this cycle couldn't continue for ever; there would only be five ages or "Suns." Each of these ages had its own name, sign, and ruling divinity. Much of the mythology and ritual revolving around this legend took root in Aztec society and thought.

The Legend of the Five Suns

The Aztec Legend of the Five Suns survives in pictographs carved and painted on stone, scattered oral traditions kept by the distant descendants of the Aztecs, and texts of ancient Mexico. The author of the literary versions of the story may have even relied on the stone inscriptions to inscribe the myth. The primary source for Aztec mythology is the Codex Chimalpopoca. John Bierhorst, one of the text's translators, notes "the reliance on pictures is ... obvious. Here the author speaks to us as though we were looking over his shoulder, while he points to the painted figures."(2)

Accounts of the Five Suns vary slightly, but the cycle is always the same. The cosmos goes through a series of deaths and rebirths. There are different variations of the creation myth, the importance of which will be discussed later. In each age the world is destroyed through a different agent. Life cannot be renewed until a new god or goddess sacrifices him or herself to become the new sun and light for the world.

The first sun was known as Four Water. In this age, the gods created humans from ashes and gave them acorns for food. This age was ruled by Chalchiuhtlicue, the water goddess and came to an end when the world was engulfed by floods. Some people where saved by being transformed into fish. The second sun was known as Four Jaguar. The people of this age were said to be monstrous:

And giants were alive in the time of this one, and the old people say their greeting was "Don't fall!" because whoever fell would fall for good.(3)

It was ruled by Tezcatlipoca and came to an end when the sun fell from the sky and set the world ablaze. With no light, the remaining people were eaten by jaguars. The third age was known as Four Rain and was ruled by Tlaloc. This age came to an end when fire and gravel rained down from the sky and set the land ablaze. Some people were saved by being changed into birds. The forth sun was known as Four Wind and was ruled by Quetzalcoatl. This age came to an end when a great hurricane raged across the land and blew the people off the face of the world. Some people survived by being changed into monkeys and scattering themselves in the forests and mountains.

The fifth and final sun is known as Four Movement and is ruled by Nanahuatzin. This era came into being when the god of the age threw himself into a fire to become the sun. However "at first he was motionless, and so the other gods sacrificed their blood to provide him with the energy for his celestial movement."(4) People were created when Quetzalcoatl journeyed to the underworld to recover the remains of humans from the previous suns. On his way back, he was forced into a battle with the Death Lord, and the bones broke. Upon returning the realm of gods, he had the earth goddess Cihuacoatl grind the bones into meal. Finally, he sprinkled the remains with blood from his penis to create a new race of humans. The fifth sun will come to an end when the sun no longer receives enough blood to continue his course, and the world will be destroyed by earthquakes.

However, there are some problems concerning the Five Suns. First, there seems to be no promise of renewal or hope of restoration in the Aztec's eschatology. Also, not all sources agree on which sun came first. Occasional variations pop up here and there. The previously given order is from the Codex Chimalpopoca, and seems to have been the commonly accepted order.

Mythic Interpretation

The Five Suns and its implications were so deeply ingrained in Aztec society and ritual it is difficult to separate them. To understand the Five Suns, one must understand several aspects of Aztec society, including views of time, space, war, rulership, and even recreation.

Some people may wonder why the Aztecs chose to limit the cosmos to five eras. Quite simply, five was a sacred number based on the five directions. These directions were the four cardinal points plus the center. The center was understood to be the star cluster known as the Pleiades. Like many ancient cultures, the Aztecs were sky watchers and developed a calendar based on the observations they made. The world survived in fifty- two year cycles, and the "world was known to be safe from destruction at any point within the calendar round; it was only at the expiration on one set, before the succeeding one began, that the world was vulnerable."(5)

So at the end of this fifty two year period, the Aztecs performed a sacred ceremony. This ritual involved watching the movement of the stars until midnight. At this time, if the Pleiades had reached the zenith, or highest point in the sky, the world was safe and would continue for another fifty two years. Otherwise, demons would come down from the heavens and devour the people.

When the Pleiades crossed the meridian and the life of the world was secure, the priests would perform a human sacrifice. Preferably, the victim would need to be a captured general or other important prisoner of war. The victim had his chest cut open and heart removed. The organ was then burned and a new fire was kindled in the chest cavity. Swift runners would then light torches from this fire and take the new fire across the land, using it to start fires for the people of the community. The body of the victim would be burned along with a bundle of fifty-two sticks.

A great deal of Aztec mythology revolves around the role and worship of the sun. Such worship is not surprising given the climate the Aztecs lived in. To an extent, all ancient cultures had some reverence towards the sun, especially in colder climates where the sun's life giving powers could be in short supply for months at a time. These cultures tended to view the sun more mercifully. However, in warmer climates the sun took on a different role. These areas rarely experienced a lack of the sun's heat, but rather an abundance of it. Life became more dangerous during the warmest parts of the year, and precautions would need to be taken in order to avoid more mundane dangers like heat exhaustion and stroke. But humans were not the only life forms to suffer during period of intense heat. There was also damage done to vegetation. A dry season could spell disaster for a community if the sun became too angry and refused to let the life giving rains fall to earth. A particularly long and hard summer may have been viewed as divine retribution for human sin. For this reason, it was important for the Aztecs to keep the sun satisfied, or else he might bring on the final judgment. The best way to satisfy this fickle deity was with the most precious substance in the universe: human blood.

Sacrifice was an important theme in the Aztec's mythology; it was something humans should do to mirror the divine. Humanity would need to give back to the gods because "the gods freely accepted death, sacrificing themselves so that the