Aztec New Fire Ceremony

Aztec New Fire Ceremony

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: Every fifty-two years for twelve days
Where Celebrated: Mexico City, Mexico
Symbols and Customs: Blood Sacrifice, Calendar Stone, Fire, Hill of the Star, Ritual Bundle


From the early fifteenth until the early sixteenth century, the Aztec Empire extended over much of what is known today as Mexico. Their capital, Tenochtitlán, stood where Mexico City now stands, and in its heyday it was the largest city in the world, with a huge temple-known as the Templo Mayor-at its center where important religious ceremonies were held.

The Aztecs used two different calendars. The first was the 365-day solar year, which they divided into eighteen months of twenty days each. The five days left over, known as nemontemi, were considered to be bad luck days. The second was a 260-day ritual calendar, consisting of thirteen months of twenty days each, which priests used to determine the most favorable days for planting seeds, building houses, launching attacks on enemies, and other important events. Once every fifty-two years, the last day of the solar year and the last day of the ritual year coincided. Because the Aztecs believed that the earth went through cycles of destruction and recreation, an offering had to be made to the gods at this time to ensure that they would allow another fifty-two-year cycle to begin. This was the reason for the twelve-day New Fire Ceremony.

During the last five days before the cycle's end, the fires in all temples and private homes were extinguished and business came to a halt. The people threw out or destroyed their dishes and cooking utensils along with their clothing, furniture, and religious statues. Everything was swept clean and people went into mourning. On the last of the five bad luck days that marked the end of the solar year, the priests went to the HILL OF THE STAR and waited for the Pleiades, a cluster of stars in the constellation Taurus, to appear in the night sky. If it did, this meant that the world would continue for another fifty-two years. A human BLOOD SACRI FICE was made, and the priests lit a fire on the victim's chest. Household and temple fires throughout the Valley of Mexico would then be lit by torches that had been dipped in this sacrificial fire, and people would spend the next twelve days celebrating, feasting, and putting their houses back in order. The New Fire Ceremony was an event that came along only once in the average Aztec's lifetime.

The Aztec Empire was destroyed after the Spanish conquest, but its highly evolved civilization continued to exert its influence on Mexican culture. Although the New Fire Ceremony is no longer held, many Mexicans living today are descended from the Aztecs, and more than a million of them speak the native Aztec language, known as Nahuatl.


Blood Sacrifice

The Aztecs believed that their sun god, Tonatiuh, needed to be "fed" periodically with human blood. The highlight of the New Fire Ceremony, therefore, occurred when a sacrificial victim was taken from the Templo Mayor in a procession to the HILL OF THE STAR . At the very moment that the Pleiades reached its highest point in its journey across the night sky, the Aztec priests would take a sharp knife and cut out the victim's heart. They would lay kindling in its place and start a FIRE within the chest cavity, while frenzied spectators often cut themselves and let their blood mingle with the victim's.

Calendar Stone

The Aztec Calendar Stone, also known as the Sun Stone, was discovered by workmen who were digging up Mexico City's main plaza, El Zócalo, in 1790. It is huge-twelve feet wide and three feet thick, made from almost twenty-five tons of carved basalt-and in its center is the face of Tonatiuh, the sun god, with his tongue sticking out and a human heart clutched in either hand. There are also carvings that represent the days of the Aztec month and various religious symbols related to the sun god. Many archaeologists believe that Aztec priests placed the hearts of human sacrifices on this stone.

The Calendar Stone portrays the five ages or cycles of creation according to Aztec belief. At the time of the empire's demise, they were in the fifth and final age, the four previous ages having been destroyed by hurricanes, jaguars, fires, and floods. The Aztecs hoped to avoid a similar fate by feeding their god human blood, and they regarded a successful New Fire Ceremony as crucial to the survival of their civilization.

After it was discovered, the Calendar Stone was placed at the foot of the west tower of the city's cathedral. It remained there for a hundred years before being moved to the Museo Nacional de Antrolopogia (National Museum of Anthropology), where it can be seen today.


The fire that was kindled in the sacrificial victim's chest at the New Fire Ceremony symbolized the power of the sun god. If the fire didn't light, the Aztecs believed that the sun would perish and that darkness would overtake the empire.

After the new fire was kindled, couriers would line up to dip their torches into the flames and carry the fire to every house and temple in the empire, beginning with the Templo Mayor.

Hill of the Star

Located several miles from Mexico City, the Hill of the Star, or Cerro de la Estrella, was the site of a temple from which the entire dome of the heavens could be viewed. It was here that the Aztecs waited for a sign-the Pleiades crossing the zenith-indicating that the world had been saved and that life as they knew it would go on. The temple on the Hill of the Star was regarded as a physical representation of the body of the gods.

Ritual Bundle

The fifty-two-year cycle of the Aztec calendar was regarded as a "bundling" or "binding together" of the years. A bundle of fifty-two rods, usually made out of reed or wood, symbolized a completed cycle, and such bundles were commonly part of the designs found on Aztec pottery and murals. Because the New Fire Ceremony marked the start of a new cycle, the lighting of these ritual bundles symbolized not only the passage of time but the fire that would soon be kindled in the chest of a sacrificial victim and carried throughout the empire.


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