Chichen Itza, northern Yucatan, Mexico
Behind me, towering almost 100 feet into the air, was a perfect ziggurat, the Temple of Kukulkan. Its four stairways had 91 steps each. Taken together with the top platform, which counted as a further step, the total was 365. This gave the number of complete days in a solar year. In addition, the geometric design and orientation of the ancient structure had been calibrated with Swiss-watch precision to achieve an objective as dramatic as it was esoteric: on the spring and autumn equinoxes, regular as clockwork, triangular patterns of light and shadow combined to create the illusion of a giant serpent undulating on the northern staircase. On each occasion the illusion lasted for 3 hours and 22 minutes exactly.1
I walked away from the Temple of Kukulkan in an easterly direction. Ahead of me, starkly refuting the oft-repeated fallacy that the peoples of Central America had never succeeded in developing the column as an architectural feature, stood a forest of white stone columns which must at one time have supported a massive roof. The sun was beating down harshly through the translucent blue of a cloudless sky and the cool, deep shadows this area offered were alluring. I passed by and made my way to the foot of the steep steps that led up to the adjacent Temple of the Warriors.
At the top of these steps, becoming fully visible only after I had begun to ascend them, was a giant figure. This was the idol of Chacmool. It half-lay, half-sat in an oddly stiff and expectant posture, bent knees protruding upwards, thick calves drawn back to touch its thighs, ankles tucked in against its buttocks, elbows planted on the ground, hands folded across its belly encircling an empty plate, and its back set at an awkward angle as though it were just about to lever itself upright. Had it done so, I calculated, it would have stood about eight feet tall. Even reclining, coiled and tightly sprung, it seemed to overflow with a fierce and pitiless energy. Its square features were thin-lipped and implacable, as hard and indifferent as the stone from which they were carved, and its eyes gazed westwards, traditionally the direction of darkness, death and the colour black.2
Rather lugubriously, I continued to climb the steps of the Temple of the Warriors. Weighing on my mind was the unforgettable fact that the ritual of human sacrifice had been routinely practised here in pre-Colombian times. The empty plate that Chacmool held across his stomach had once served as a receptacle for freshly extracted hearts. ‘If the victim’s heart was to be taken out,’ reported one Spanish observer in the sixteenth century,
they conducted him with great display … and placed him on the sacrificial stone. Four of them took hold of his arms and legs, spreading them out. Then the executioner came, with a flint knife in his hand, and with great skill made an incision between the ribs on the left side, below the nipple; then he plunged in his hand and like a ravenous tiger tore out the living heart, which he laid on the plate …3
What kind of culture could have nourished and celebrated such demonic behaviour? Here, in Chichen Itza, amid ruins dating back more than 1200 years, a hybrid society had formed out of intermingled Maya and Toltec elements. This society was by no means exceptional in its addiction to cruel and barbaric ceremonies. On the contrary, all the great indigenous civilizations known to have flourished in Mexico had indulged in the ritualized slaughter of human beings.
Villahermosa, Tabasco Province
I stood looking at the Altar of Infant Sacrifice. It was the creation of the Olmecs, the so-called ‘mother-culture’ of Central America, and it was more than 3000 years old. A block of solid granite about four feet thick, its sides bore reliefs of four men wearing curious head-dresses. Each man carried a healthy, chubby, struggling infant, whose desperate fear was clearly visible. The back of the altar was undecorated; at the front another figure was portrayed, holding in his arms, as though it were an offering, the slumped body of a dead child.
The Olmecs are the earliest recognized high civilization of Ancient Mexico, and human sacrifice was well established with them. Two and a half thousand years later, at the time of the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs were the last (but by no means the least) of the peoples of this region to continue an extremely old and deeply ingrained tradition.
They did so with fanatical zeal.
It is recorded, for example, that Ahuitzotl, the eighth and most powerful emperor of the Aztec royal dynasty, ‘celebrated the dedication of the temple of Huitzilopochtli in Tenochitlan by marshalling four lines of prisoners past teams of priests who worked four days to dispatch them. On this occasion as many as 80,000 were slain during a single ceremonial rite.’4
The Aztecs liked to dress up in the flayed skins of sacrificial victims. Bernardino de Sahagun, a Spanish missionary, attended one such ceremony soon after the conquest:
The celebrants flayed and dismembered the captives; they then lubricated their own naked bodies with grease and slipped into the skin … Trailing blood and grease, the gruesomely clad men ran through the city, thus terrifying those they followed … The second-day’s rite also included a cannibal feast for each warrior’s family.5
Another mass sacrifice was witnessed by the Spanish chronicler Diego de Duran. In this instance the victims were so numerous that when the streams of blood running down the temple steps ‘reached bottom and cooled they formed fat clots, enough to terrify anyone’.6 All in all, it has been estimated that the number of sacrificial victims in the Aztec empire as a whole had risen to around 250,000 a year by the beginning of the sixteenth century.7
What was this manic destruction of human life for? According to the Aztecs themselves, it was done to delay the coming of the end of the world.8
Children of the Fifth Sun
Like the many different peoples and cultures that had preceded them in Mexico, the Aztecs believed that the universe operated in great cycles. The priests stated as a matter of simple fact that there had been four such cycles, or ‘Suns’, since the creation of the human race. At the time of the conquest, it was the Fifth Sun that prevailed. And it is within that same Fifth Sun, or epoch, that humankind still lives today. This account is taken from a rare collection of Aztec documents known as the Vaticano-Latin Codex:
First Sun, Matlactli Atl: duration 4008 years. Those who lived then ate water maize called atzitzintli. In this age lived the giants … The First Sun was destroyed by water in the sign Matlactli Atl (Ten Water). It was called Apachiohualiztli (flood, deluge), the art of sorcery of the permanent rain. Men were turned into fish. Some say that only one couple escaped, protected by an old tree living near the water. Others say that there were seven couples who hid in a cave until the flood was over and the waters had gone down. They repopulated the earth and were worshipped as gods in their nations …
Second Sun, Ehecoatl: duration 4010 years. Those who lived then ate wild fruit known as acotzintli. This Sun was destroyed by Ehecoatl (Wind Serpent) and men were turned into monkeys … One man and one woman, standing on a rock, were saved from destruction …
Third Sun, Tleyquiyahuillo: duration 4081 years. Men, the descendants of the couple who were saved from the Second Sun, ate a fruit called tzincoacoc. This Third Sun was destroyed by fire …
Fourth Sun, Tzontlilic: duration 5026 years … Men died of starvation after a deluge of blood and fire …9
Another ‘cultural document’ of the Aztecs that has survived the ravages of the conquest is the ‘Sun Stone’ of Axayacatl, the sixth emperor of the royal dynasty. This huge monolith was hewn out of solid basalt in AD 1479. It weighs 24.5 tons and consists of a series of concentrically inscribed circles, each bearing intricate symbolic statements. As in the codex, these statements focus attention on the belief that the world has already passed through four epochs, or Suns. The first and most remote of these is represented byOcelotonatiuh, the jaguar god: ‘During that Sun lived the giants that had been created by the gods but were finally attacked and devoured by jaguars.’ The Second Sun is represented by the serpent head of Ehecoatl, the god of the air: ‘During that period the human race was destroyed by high winds and hurricanes and men were converted into monkeys.’ The symbol of the Third Sun is a head of rain and celestial fire: ‘In this epoch everything was destroyed by a rain of fire from the sky and the forming of lava. All the houses were burnt. Men were converted into birds to survive the catastrophe.’ The Fourth Sun is represented by the head of the water-goddess Chalchiuhtlicue: ‘Destruction came in the form of torrential rains and floods. The mountains disappeared and men were transformed into fish.’10
The symbol of the Fifth Sun, our current epoch, is the face of Tonatiuh, the sun god himself. His tongue, fittingly depicted as an obsidian knife, juts out hungrily, signalling his need for the nourishment of human blood and hearts. His features are wrinkled to indicate his advanced age and he appears within the symbol Ollin which signifies Movement.11
Why is the Fifth Sun known as ‘The Sun of Movement’? Because, ‘the elders say: in it there will be a movement of the earth and from this we shall all perish.’12
And when will this catastrophe strike? Soon, according to the Aztec priests. They believed that the Fifth Sun was already very old and approaching the end of its cycle (hence the wrinkles on the face of Tonatiuh). Ancient meso–American traditions dated the birth of this epoch to a remote period corresponding to the fourth millennium BC of the Christian calendar.13 The method of calculating its end, however, had been forgotten by the time of Aztecs.14 In the absence of this essential information, human sacrifices were apparently carried out in the hope that the impending catastrophe might be postponed. Indeed, the Aztecs came to regard themselves as a chosen people; they were convinced that they had been charged with a divine mission to wage war and offer the blood of their captives to feed Tonatiuh, thereby preserving the life of the Fifth Sun.15
Stuart Fiedel, an authority on the prehistory of the Americas, summed up the whole issue in these words: ‘The Aztecs believed that to prevent the destruction of the universe, which had already occurred four times in the past, the gods must be supplied with a steady diet of human hearts and blood.’16 This same belief, with remarkably few variations, was shared by all the great civilizations of Central America. Unlike the Aztecs, however, some of the earlier peoples had calculated exactly when a great movement of the earth could be expected to bring the Fifth Sun to an end.
No documents, only dark and menacing sculptures, have come down to us from the Olmec era. But the Mayas, justifiably regarded as the greatest ancient civilization to have arisen in the New World, left behind a wealth of calendrical records. Expressed in terms of the modern dating system, these enigmatic inscriptions convey a rather curious message: the Fifth Sun, it seems, is going to come to an end on 23 December, AD 2012.17
In the rational intellectual climate of the late twentieth century it is unfashionable to take doomsday prophecies seriously. The general consensus is that they are the products of superstitious minds and can safely be ignored. As I travelled around Mexico, however, I was from time to time bothered by a nagging intuition that the voices of the ancient sages might deserve a hearing after all. I mean, suppose by some crazy offchance they weren’t the superstitious savages we’d always believed them to be? Suppose they knew something we didn’t? Most pertinent of all, suppose that their projected date for the end of the Fifth Sun turned out to be correct? Suppose, in other words, that some truly awful geological catastrophe is already unfolding, deep in the bowels of the earth, as the wise men of the Maya predicted?
In Peru and Bolivia I had become aware of the obsessive concern with the calculation of time shown by the Incas and their predecessors. Now, in Mexico, I discovered that the Maya, who believed that they had worked out the date of the end of the world, had been possessed by the same compulsion. Indeed, for these people, just about everything boiled down to numbers, the passage of the years and the manifestations of events. The belief was that if the numbers which lay beneath the manifestations could be properly understood, it would be possible to predict successfully the timing of the events themselves.18 I felt disinclined to ignore the obvious implications of the recurrent destructions of humanity depicted so vividly in the Central American traditions. Coming complete with giants and floods, these traditions were eerily similar to those of the far-off Andean region.
Meanwhile, however, I was keen to pursue another, related line of inquiry. This concerned the bearded white-skinned deity named Quetzalcoatl, who was believed to have sailed to Mexico from across the seas in remote antiquity. Quetzalcoatl was credited with the invention of the advanced mathematical and calendrical formulae that the Maya were later to use to calculate the date of doomsday.19 He also bore a striking resemblance to Viracocha, the pale god of the Andes, who came to Tiahuanaco ‘in the time of darkness’ bearing the gifts of light and civilization.