The Legend of the Fifth Sun

Close-up of Aztec Calendar stone carving
Close-up of Aztec Calendar stone carving.

PBNJ Productions/Getty Images

The Aztec creation myth which describes how the world originated is called the Legend of the Fifth Sun. Several different versions of this myth exist because the stories were originally passed down by oral tradition, and also because the Aztecs adopted and modified gods and myths from other tribes that they met and conquered.

According to the Aztec creation myth, the world of the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish colonization was the fifth era of a cycle of creation and destruction. They believed their world had been created and destroyed four times before. During each of the four previous cycles, different gods first governed the earth through a dominant element and then destroyed it. These worlds were called suns. During the 16th century—and the period in which we still live today—the Aztecs believed that they were living in the "fifth sun," and it would also end in violence at the end of the calendrical cycle.

In the Beginning

In the beginning, according to Aztec mythology, the creator couple Tonacacihuatl and Tonacateuctli (also known as the god Ometeotl, who was both male and female) gave birth to four sons, the Tezcatlipocas of the East, North, South, and West. After 600 years, the sons began to create the universe, including the creation of cosmic time, called "suns." These gods eventually created the world and all the other deities.

After the world was created, the gods gave light to humans, but to do this, one of the gods had to sacrifice himself by leaping into a fire. Each subsequent sun was created by the personal sacrifice of at least one of the gods, and a key element of the story, like that of all Aztec culture, is that sacrifice is required to begin renewal.

Four Cycles

  • The first god to sacrifice himself was Tezcatlipoca, who leaped into the fire and started the First Sun, called "4 Tiger". This period was inhabited by giants who ate only acorns, and it came to an end when the giants were devoured by jaguars. The world lasted 676 years, or 13 52-year cycles according to the pan-Mesoamerican calendar.
  • The Second Sun, or "4-Wind" sun, was governed by Quetzalcoatl (also known as the White Tezcatlipoca), and the earth was populated by humans who ate only piñon nuts. Tezcatlipoca wanted to be Sun, and turned himself into a tiger and threw Quetzalcoatl off his throne. This world came to an end through catastrophic hurricanes and floods. The few survivors fled to the top of the trees and were transformed into monkeys. This world also lasted 676 years.
  • The Third Sun, or "4-Rain" Sun, was dominated by water: its ruling deity was the rain god Tlaloc and its people ate seeds that grew in the water. This world came to an end when the god Quetzalcoatl made it rain fire and ashes. The survivors became turkeys, butterflies or dogs. Turkeys are called "pipil-pipil" in the Aztec language, meaning "child" or "prince." This world ended in 7 cycles or 364 years.
  • The Fourth Sun, the "4-Water" sun, was governed by the goddess Chalchiuthlicue, sister and wife of Tlaloc. The people ate maize. A great flood marked the end of this world, and all the people were transformed into fish. The 4 Water Sun lasted for 676 years.

Creating the Fifth Sun

At the end of the fourth sun, the gods gathered at Teotihuacan to decide who had to sacrifice him/herself for the new world to begin. The god Huehuetéotl, the old fire god, started a sacrificial bonfire, but none of the most important gods wanted to jump into the flames. The rich and proud god Tecuciztecatl "Lord of the Snails" hesitated and during that hesitation, the humble and poor Nanahuatzin "the Pimply or Scabby One" leaped into the flames and became the new sun.

Tecuciztecatl jumped in after him and became a second sun. The gods realized that two suns would overwhelm the world, so they threw a rabbit at Tecuciztecal, and it became the moon—that is why you can still see the rabbit in the moon today. The two celestial bodies were set in motion by Ehecatl, the god of the wind, who fiercely and violently blew the sun into motion.

The Fifth Sun

The Fifth Sun (called 4-Movement) is ruled by Tonatiuh, the sun god. This fifth sun is characterized by the sign Ollin, which means movement. According to Aztec beliefs, this indicated that this world would come to an end through earthquakes, and all the people will be eaten by sky monsters.

The Aztecs considered themselves “the People of the Sun” and therefore their duty was to nourish the Sun god through blood offerings and sacrifices. Failure to do this would cause the end of their world and the disappearance of the sun from the sky.

A version of this myth is recorded on the famous Aztec Calendar Stone, a colossal stone sculpture whose images referred to one version of this creation tale linked to Aztec history.

The New Fire Ceremony

At the end of each 52-year cycle, the Aztec priests carried out the New Fire ceremony, or "binding of the years." The myth of the Five Suns predicted the end of a calendar cycle, but it was not known which cycle would be the last one. The Aztec people would clean their houses, discarding all household idols, cooking pots, clothing, and mats. During the last five days, fires were extinguished, and the people climbed on their roofs to await the fate of the world.

On the last day of the calendar cycle, the priests would climb the Star Mountain, today known in Spanish as Cerro de la Estrella, and watch the rise of the Pleiades to ensure it followed its normal path. A fire drill was placed on the heart of a sacrificial victim: if the fire could not be lit, the myth said, the sun would be destroyed forever. The successful fire was then brought to Tenochtitlan to relight hearths throughout the city. According to the Spanish chronicler Bernardo Sahagun, the New Fire ceremony was conducted every 52 years in villages throughout the Aztec world.

Updated by K. Kris Hirst


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