The ancient Aztecs, whose population centered around modern-day Mexico City, developed a keen sense of the Earth's interstellar place, properly devising a calendar with 365 days, grouped into cycles of 52 years -- the same number of weeks within each year. At the culmination of each 52-year cycle, a grisly but symbolic New Fire ceremony was conducted to join the old cycle to the new.
Aztecs reportedly began fasting and abstaining from sexual relations the fifth day before the end of each 52-year cycle on their calendar. On the final night of the year and cycle, all fires were extinguished by the populous, who waited for priests to gauge by the stars the exact point at which the new year began. When alerted, other priests in the temple would sacrifice a human being, cut out the heart and build a fire in the body cavity. Once blazing, the fire was carried by torch to community temples, where it was then distributed by torch to each home's hearth across the empire.
Aztec religion lent great symbolic significance to the New Fire ceremonies, which paid homage to the mysteriously life-giving passage of the sun. If the fire would not light during the sacrifice, it meant the coming 52-year calendar cycle would pass without sunlight. Apparently, the priests religiously got the fire burning. Once the torches started passing to the citizenry, a celebration took root, with a full seven days of festivals, feasting and frolicking. Then it was back to work securing the new year's food and shelter.
The Aztec New Fire festival occurred regularly for as many as 1,100 years, until Spanish conquest began dispersing the culture in 1519. Archaeological evidence presented online by Arizona State University in "Ancient Mesoamerica" suggests that the New Fire ceremonies predate the rise of Aztec culture in the 14th century by as many as 800 years. Although it is reported to have lasted 12 days in the height of Aztec times, it is difficult to surmise how long the festivals lasted in earlier times.
How We Know
Several archaeological discoveries have confirmed regular New Fire festivals; historical records and diagrams of the ceremonies were compiled by later Aztec historians as well as by court officials of the Aztec ruler Montezuma. The main temple and altar where these sacrifices most recently took place in Aztec times still stands at the former Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, in the heart of Mexico City, Mexico. Some of the smaller community temples, to which the first torches passed before New Fire festivities could begin around the city, also still stand.
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