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52-YEAR CALENDAR ROUND
Across Mesoamerica, the combination of two calendars, the solar or seasonal calendar and the 260-day ritual calendar, produced an extended sequence of sacred time, in which the two calendars concluded on the same day only once every 52 solar years--a cosmic cycle of extreme import.
This 52-year cycle the Maya called the Calendar Round and the Aztecs a "bundle of years" or "Perfect Circle" of years. Interestingly, to Sylvanus Morley observes that the Maya "never indicated dates in hieroglyphic texts or historical documents by the solar year designation alone. Most often the date was specified by its designation in the Calendar Round."
Among the Aztecs this extended cycle was intimately tied to the myth of Quetzalcoatl, who was born on the day ce acatl ("One Reed") and departed on the day ce acatl 52 years later. He will return, the Aztecs claimed, on a future day ce acatl. It is only reasonable to assume, therefore, a close relationship between the symbolism of the Calendar Round and the symbolism of the founding god-king.
Mesoamerican timekeepers show an extreme ambivalence about this extended calendar period. Its conclusion was both a renewal- the end of the old cycle and the beginning of a new cycle--and a potential moment of disaster, since the Aztecs believed that the entire world order was then in jeopardy. At that critical moment the astronomer priests anticipated world destruction by fire, wind, or water, repeating the great cataclysm that ended the golden age of Quetzalcoatl.
The synchronous Earth-Venus movements appear to have figured prominently in the calendar, enabling priest astronomers to draw on the mathematics of Venus cycles to anticipate the recurrence of doomsday. For example, 65 Venus cycles were equivalent to 104 solar years, or two 52-year cycles, which the Aztecs called "huehueliztli", an old age or "long-period."
To Velikovsky, this role of Venus in calculations of world ages was, at the very least, evidence to be considered in assessing Venus' catastrophic role in the past.
The works of Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, the early Mexican scholar (circa 1568-1648) who was able to read old Mexican texts, preserve the ancient tradition according to which the multiple of fifty-two-year periods played an important role in the recurrence of world catastrophes. He asserts also that only fifty-two years elapsed between two great catastrophes, each of which terminated a world age.
Now there exists a remarkable fact: the natives of pre- Columbian Mexico expected a new catastrophe at the end of every period of fifty-two years and congregated to await the event. "When the night of this ceremony arrived, all the people were seized with fear and waited in anxiety for what might take place." They were afraid that "it would be the end of the human race and that the darkness of the night may become permanent: the sun may not rise anymore."
It happened that the end of a cycle occurred in mid-November, 1507, and available records give us a good sense of the collective fears embedded in the symbolic rites of renewal. It is said that five priests moved in procession with a captive warrior out of the city of Tenochtitlan to the great ceremonial center on the Hill of the Star. The occasion was proceeded by ritual extinction of fires across Mexico, the casting of statues and hearthstones into the water, and rites of sweeping- -all of these gestures bearing a significant symbolic tie to an ancient cultural memory of catastrophic transition. We are also told that on this frightening occasion women were locked in granaries to avoid being turned into man-eating monsters, pregnant women donned masks of maguey leaves, and children were kept awake to keep them from turning into mice while asleep. (That these fears trace to the cosmic night and the associated chaos hordes should become clear in the course of this series.) David Carrasco writes,
For on this one night in the calendar round of 18,980 nights the Aztec fire priests celebrated "when the night was divided in half": the New Fire Ceremony that ensured the rebirth of the sun and the movement of the cosmos for another fifty-two years. This rebirth was achieved symbolically through the heart sacrifice of a brave, captured warrior specifically chosen by the king. We are told that when the procession arrived "in the deep night" at the Hill of the Star the populace climbed onto their roofs. With unwavering attention and necks craned toward the hill they became filled with dread that the sun would be destroyed forever.
When the priest astronomers did confirm that the heavens were still in order, the country broke into celebration, the Sacred Fire was rekindled, houses, roads and walkways were swept clean and normal life resumed, the gods having granted man another 52-year cycle.
As in the case of disaster portents, the fears implicit in the calendar symbolism flowed from a core idea of recurrence. In the same way that the appearance of a comet OR the rising of Venus recalled the world-ending catastrophe, the calendar system (which undeniably related to observed Venus cycles) rested on a memory of former upheaval, when heaven fell into confusion. Could the terrestrial king, whose life always mirrored that of the founding god-king, escape the fate of the great predecessor, whose death ENDED a cosmic cycle? Would the world itself survive a full turn of time's wheel?
It's too easy for archaeoastronomers, when chronicling the calendar symbolism, to slip into a state of enchantment over the system's mathematical symmetry, forgetting that there is a far more vital question: what were the experiential origins of the collective fear--the fear of a world falling out of control? And why did the planet Venus figure so prominently in the calculations of world ages?
Perhaps the answer lies with the famous Calendar Stone, on which the time-keeping hieroglyphs are recorded. Enclosing the stone, and thus encompassing the entire cycle or world age is the two-fold form of the great serpent Xiuhcoatl, the mythical parent of comets, the great celestial torch launched against the rebel powers when the world was overrun by demons of chaos. That the archetypal comet should define the great cycle of time does not surprise us. For it seems that bringing one world age to an end and inaugurating another is, in the universal tradition, the comet's most distinctive role.
ONE FEAR, MANY EXPRESSIONS
Due to the progressive fragmentation of evidence over time, the experts have missed the most significant fact of all. Mesoamerican cultures as a whole expressed the doomsday anxiety in pervasive ritual practices which themselves offer vital keys to the nature of the original events: the rites of sweeping practiced in every sacred precinct; the great festivals reckoning with critical moments in the calendar and repeating memorable episodes in the age of the gods; the virtually endless rites of sacrifice, by which tens of thousands died in a culture-wide bargaining with celestial powers; and the ritually-ordained wars by which the city's bravest and strongest repeated the catastrophic interlude between two world ages. Together with the available information on disaster portents, these mythically-rooted themes provide a great reservoir of evidence as to the character of the remembered catastrophe. (See sections to follow.)
The repeated ritual patterns re-enacted on every scale (from household sweeping rites to nation-wide celebrations of the 52- year cycle) a world falling into darkness; the death of the creator-king, whose heart-soul was torn from him to soar aloft as a comet-like "spark"; the end of the kingdom (symbol of the "world"); a sky filled with celestial dust and cometary debris- -the feared chaos-hordes; the gathering of great armies in the heavens to wage celestial combat; and overwhelming commotion: reverberating shouts and cries, the earthshaking moans of the great goddess, the shrieks of whistles, trumpets blaring, the beating of drums, and--in the very midst of this world-ending havoc--a smoking star (the prototypical comet of the Aztecs and Maya, the planet Venus) announcing the disaster in the most literal, causative sense, and presiding over the recovery of order, as if sweeping clear the darkened and cloud-filled sky.
To see how these vivid memories of cometary disaster found expression in the local rites, we shall next turn to the role of the feared chaos hordes in the remembered events.