Home > Kalākośa > Kalāsamālocana Series > List of Books > Prakrti Series > Man in Nature >


[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]

Fire, and Sun, The Positive Energy of the 

Cosmos in Mesoamerican Cosmovision

Yolotl Gonzalez Torres

When one talks about Mesoamerican cosmovision, in a no mesoamericanist context, it is unavoidable to make a brief introduction about the sources where our data come from. The loss of the ancient Mesoamerican religion and everything related to it was almost total, as the Spanish held as one of their main excuses for the conquest the ‘evil’ rituals and practices the Indians had. Therefore one of their most important tasks was to destroy and persecute whatever had anything to do with the ancient religion.

The sources we have to study the Mexican ancient culture are the archaeological findings, the very few codexes or books written before the conquest which were not destroyed and which are mostly augural, the chronicles of the conquerors, and the writings, specially of priests, about the costumes of the mesoamericans; among these there is one book which was written by Friar Bernardino de Sahagun at the end of the sixteenth century which is a treasure of information specially about the Mexica. It is interesting to point out that Sahagun gathered around him many noblemen or children of noblemen, who were aquainted with the ancient costumes and registered all the answers in nahuatl, their language. Based on this material, he wrote several books which were published during many decades after his death. The information given to him by the Indians has been also published in nahuatl with its translation into Spanish and into English. There is another source of information, and that is the ethnographical material, registered by anthropologists because, in spite of the fact that the State religion was destroyed, part of the folk religion remained more or less intact in the far off places which were not touched or were partially touched by the catholic missionary zeal.

There are some other points to clarify: we don’t have any corpus of knowledge like the Vedas or the Epics or the Puranas in India. There is a Mayan myth called the Popol Vuh, which is supposed to be very old and few legends from other places which were recorded in different manners. Most of the data we have belong to the Mexica, the people who were ruling most of the present Mexico during the sixteenth century when the Spanish came and which is placed chronologically in the late Postclassic period (900-1521). We know very little of the people who lived in the Classic period (200-900) in the cities like Teotihuacan, Tajin, (which has just been excavated and shows an incredible splendour), or the Mayans, about which there is still a controversy whether their writing has been partially or 80 per cent deciphered. In any case what was written by these people in the codexes and in the stones show a great knowledge of astronomy and a very careful recording of time, which goes back to many thousands of years ago; the date of the beginning of their era is 3113 bc which is very close to the date of the beginning of the Kali Yuga in 3102.

Having mentioned all these facts we can now talk a little about the Mexica who were the inheritors of other people who had lived in the high semidesertic plateau of Mexico. They had very recently arrived in the Valley of Mexico, their capital city, Tenochtitlan, which surprised the Spanish by its splendour, was founded as a small gathering of huts only in 1321, and from that humble origin they started growing till they became the rulers of almost all of what is today Mexico. Their city was founded on a lake, and even if they were agriculturists with maize as their main crop, the recollection of the products of the lake: plants as well as animals and insects played an important part in their diet. Two cactus plants of their semidesertic habitat also played an important role in their economy and in their cosmovision: the nopal and the maguey. The first one whose leaves and fruits are edible was the most important symbolic plant in the foundation of the city as after a long pilgrimage, travelling from a mythic place called Aztlan, their patron God told them that the place where they could establish themselves would be signalled by an eagle eating a serpent and standing on a nopal. The fruit of this plant — which in some species has dark red — had also the esoteric meaning of the heart of the captive which was offered to the sun.

In the same manner the maguey, which was a very useful plant, was also the source of an alcoholic drink which was used in many rituals. The Mexicas also gave a high symbolic meaning to animals specially to the snake, the jaguar and the eagle, the first two being associated to earth and water and the last to the sky and the sun.

In the cosmogonic myths of the Mexica there is a concept of a distant dual God called Ometeotl, 2 sacred, which became a feminine and a masculine God who created four masculine gods who were the real creators of the rest of the universe of the gods and of humankind. I have pointed out in other articles, the absence of feminine deities or powers in the process of creation. We can say that the Mexica believed in two opposite and complementary forces of the universe which had to be in harmony in order that everything in the world would function properly. The concept of opposite forces is practically universal, and it is characterized in China by the yin and the yang, the hot and the cold, the humid and the dry, the obscurity and the light, the earth and the sky and so on. In ancient Mexico this hot energy was known under the name of tona, and the sun, Tonatiuh was its maximum source, it was distributed throughout the universe in different quantities and probably in different qualities according to a very complicated combination of forces which included the ritual cycle of 260 days which received the name of tonalpohualli, the "count of the tona" or the "count of destinies" which was recorded in special books called tonalamatl which were interpreted by specialists called tonalpouhque. These books are some of the codexes I mentioned before and of which a certain number survived. The cycle of 260 day was formed by the combination of 20 signs: alligator (or makara), wind, house, lizard, snake, death, deer, rabbit, water, dog, monkey, weed, cane, jaguar, eagle, zopilote, ollin, or movement, flint knife, rain, flower and 13 numerals. Four of these signs: cane, flint knife, house and rabbit were also used to name the years, the four quadrants of the universe and the four elements. This cycle of 260 days which was repeated eternally, plus the combination of 9 figures of gods called the nine lords of the night, plus thirteen figures of different gods and different birds, and taking into consideration that each one of the 20 signs was ruled over each group of thirteen days, the amount and quality of tona energy which each person, kingdom, type of year, and so on had, and which decided their destiny, was very precisely measured and accordingly diagnosed, forecasted and if necessary remedied.

This cycle of 260 days which was also combined with a solar cycle of 360 plus five days, was prevalent all through the cultural area of Mesoamerica and it is one of the traits which characterizes it, along with other things like a particular type of ball game which also had a cosmic meaning.

I had mentioned long ago, that this hot vital energy or tona should have its equivalent and counterpart in a cold and humid energy, much in the same manner as there were specialists who cured the loss of tona energy, which was believed to be located at the top of the head, in such a way that sometimes in order to take the strength of a person, specially one with strong energy like the witches, the hair of the crown of their head was cut. But there were also shamans who cured diseases caused by the loss of the cold energy, probably related to the loss of the shadow, and they were also rain makers. Signorini and Luppo (1989) have found that in the nahuatl speaking village of Santiago Yancuictlalpan in Puebla there is a belief in the ecahuil or shadow, and they think that this is the counterpart of the tona.

At present in many of the communities which still believe in the tona, this concept has got a different connotation, and it is more related to the soul energy which is connected with a certain animal or animals, and which becomes a sort of soul animal of the person, in such a way that whatever happens to one happens to the other, if the animal or the person, becomes ill or dies, the counterpart animal or person suffers the same fate. This animal alter ego is also called a nahual.

While some of the energetic characteristics of the tona in Santiago may lead to the idea that they are the opposite concept of the ecahuil, the shadow, whose existence depends on the sun, on the light, but on the other hand is very close to the earth, it is the dark part of an individual, and it even has his form: "ecahuil constitutes the axis of the belief which links the individual with the animal alter ego, the tona . . . The coessence with the tonal is insoluble as long as both poles of relation are alive and thus sets a remedy to the lack of vital energy of man. The companion animal comes to be it’s strongest link with the surrounding nature, a sort of insurance against the insufficient human forces to face the ‘envies’ of that natural world over which men becoming a ‘cultural animal’, has risen, but in which in spite of everything it continues to live and to act."

"The ecahuil which has it’s seat in man but derives its strength from the tonal and ceases to insuflate the vital energy, which at its turn takes from the tonal, leading to disease and death. It should not surprise us that in this village the tona and the ecahuil are frequently mistaken . . . When there is fright, the ecahuil flies away from man." (Signorini and Luppo, 57)

Fire and sun have a strong link — both share the hot positive energy, that is why lightning can also be a very strong tonal or nahual of a person. Fire has a quadruple aspect, as it can be the fire of the sky, the fire of the earth — specially in a volcanic country like Mexico — and as such is the old God Huehueteotl; the fire of water, which is the thunder, and the fire of the wood, the fire which lives through the friction of two pieces of wood. It also has a feminine aspect, the Goddess of the domestic earth, which may be connected with the earth mother, for that is why when a child was born he was offered to the water and passed over the fire for purification and probably to strengthen his own energy. Fire had to be kept burning for forty days after the mother had given birth.

Fire, as well as water, could be benefic and malefic, as it was benefic for warming up men and cooking their food, and it was malefic as a destroyer, but this destruction brought purification and new life. (Most dead people were incinerated and only a few, the ones who were buried and had died in any way related to water or to diseases which they considered watery or to the gods of water.)

The four eras of the universe which had been ruled by four different gods of the elements came to an end when they were destroyed by water, fire, wind and earthquakes. But fire played an important part in the creation of the sun and the moon, and so the myth says that when there was total darkness, the gods decided to create the sun and they built a great fire in the ancient city of Teotihuacan and they chose two of them as victims to be transformed into the luminaries, one of them was rich and handsome and the other poor, ugly and full of diseases. When they were about to jump into the fire the rich and the handsome hesitated while the other had no fear, the sick one became the sun and the other the moon. The last one was deprived of its shining strength because the fire was not strong enough when he jumped into it or, after another version, because a rabbit was thrown to his face.

In one of the legends of the creation of the sun and the moon, it is said that the sun did not want to move and the gods became worried because the earth might become too hot, so one of them tried to shoot an arrow at him, but the sun was quicker and sent the arrow back and killed the god and, not content with this action, he asked for the lives of the rest of the gods and only then he would continue his way through the sky. This was the beginning of a new time, as with the killing and posterior resurrection of the gods, through fire, which was the destroyer and the creator, time was also created.

There was another case of purification and rebirth through fire, and that was when the culture hero Quetzalcoatl, "the feathered serpent", was made to abandon his city Tula, and headed towards the eastern sea, there in a place called the land of red and black, he incinerated himself and became the planet Venus, which is a very important star in Mesoamerica, and is very frequently depicted in the codexes, in the murals and in many inscriptions, specially of the augural type, as a man shooting an arrow which was believed to cause many evils. Venus seemed to have a most powerful energy which may very well have been part of the tona. Quetzalcoatl was also a very complex God, as we mentioned he was a cultural hero, the God of Venus, one of the four sons of the creator gods, he played an active part in creating the universe, he created a new humankind mixing the blood of his penis with a powder made of the bones of the ancestors, he helped in discovering the maize seeds, and he was the patron of knowledge and of the highest priests. During his life-time as ruler of the mythic Tula, he lead a life of prayer and ascetism. He was also the God of wind.

The myth of death and resurrection in the form of a star, specially the sun, is found all over what we call present Mesoamerica and it survives with different variants for instance among the Totonacs of Veracruz and the Huicholes of Nayarit and Jalisco.

The Mexicas, besides their ideological manipulation, which no doubt existed, believed that the hot vivifying energy acted as a reciprocally feeding stream: the sun which was it’s maximum generator distributed it to the universe, but it had to be refueled as a cosmic dynamo, and this was done first, through the offer of the lives of the gods and then of the hearts and blood of the brave warriors, men who were in their full vigour.

Fire was one of the oldest gods, Huehueteotl, some of the oldest images found in the Mexican plateau depict this god with a wrinkled face and a bent back holding a fire container on his shoulders; he was also Xiuhtecuhtli, the Lord of the year, therefore he was also the Lord of time and the calendar. The God of fire presided the central direction, the navel of the world, which he shared with Mictlantecuhtli the Lord of death. He had images, representations, maybe shadows, of four colours, the colours of the four quadrants of the universe, and every four years a special celebration took place in the last month of the year, in which captives were offered to him.

There was also a very important fire ritual in the month of Teotleco, which corresponds to October, just after the hiemal equinox had passed, when a repetition of the sacrifice by fire of the sick God who became the Sun, and of the resurrection of the gods took place.

Fire and sun shared more closely their life and energy every 52 years, when the cycles of 365 and of 260 days coincided: the ancient Mexicans thought that a great danger threatened the world and that it could be destroyed, if the sun failed to appear. Then the greatest ritual, first of expectation, and then of celebration took place: all fires on the land were put off, were killed; a great ceremony took place in a hill near the city, where all the living images of the gods, who were high priests dressed in their costumes were present, then the heart of a very special chosen captive was taken out and in that hole, full of energy, a new fire was made alive through the rubbing of a vertical stick on a horizontal one: then the forces of yin and yang sprang again anew, creating fire, the sun and time. The first fire was fed with the heart of the warrior, and this fire was then distributed throughout the empire.

The daily appearance and disappearance of the sun in the firmament, was assumed as his daily death and rebirth, and it’s annual movement to the north and south of the horizon which produced the seasons, and became compass and calendar, was thought as a pulsating increase and decrease of it’s heat, tona, which had to be combined with the adequate humid energy to produce life, above all through maize, the plant which was the subsistence base of Mesoamerican man. Therefore one can very clearly see in all the festivals that were celebrated throughout the year in which the sowing and harvesting of maize played such an important role and how there were always the rituals which combined a propitiation to the God of the sun and the gods of water, as if precisely the maize, the sacred plant, were a synthesis of both.

In the same manner that the sun needed human energy through the life of the warriors who died in battle or were offered in sacrifice, the yin forces of the universe, specially — the gods of water also associated to mountains and caves — needed special victims who were mostly children.

As the Mexica was an eminently warlike and masculine society, the gods who incarnated the humid and dark forces were also masculine, as in the case of Tlaloc, God of water and the moon, and the earth Himself, though it is sometimes pictured as feminine, it is more often taken as an androginous being which had the form of a crocodile or a frog, and even the name of the God of earth is Tlaltecuhtli, the Lord of the earth. This God is always depicted in the underside of the eagle vessel, while inside, there is the symbol of the sun; this vessel was used to contain the hearts of the sacrificed human victims.

We don’t known exactly when the Mexica year started, even if all the evidences led to February, but one can clearly see how the festivals and the rituals which were celebrated along the year coincided with the days which become longer or shorter, with the sun reaching a solsticial, equinoxial, or zenithal point and it’s relation with the rains, which in Central Mexico start usually in May, which makes a humid summer and autumn and a dry winter and spring. The vernal and hiemal equinoxes, spring and autumn and the birth and the decay of nature were celebrated with similar rituals, which included the flaying of the bodies of human victims who had been sacrificed by the usual method of taking out the heart, and their skins were worn in a terrible act of fusion of energies. The skins were worn by different people who were prepared for that discharge of energy; they were persons who had made a vow, or were ill, or were priests.

In the case of the vernal equinox, when the sun was on his way to reach its highest strength, the main actors of the ritual were the warriors of the community and war prisoners. The most important part of the ceremony, was a sacral performance in which the best captive warriors, fought an unequal battle against four Mexica warriors of the orders of the eagle and the jaguar who had been specially selected for the occasion, they were different from the men who had taken the captives, and who had offered them for this special sacrifice. When the captive was touched by the obsidian sword of one of his opponents, a special priest came and took his heart out and immediately offered it to the sun on the high, and then it was thrown into the ‘eagle vessel’. The captive himself was called the ‘eagle warrior’. In the festival which took place in the hiemal equinox, the sacrificial victim was a middle aged woman, who had been consecrated as the Goddess Toci ‘our mother’. She was offered by the guild of healers and midwives, and later Her skin was worn by a priest, while in the following ceremonies and dances the warriors also played a role, but it was less important than during the vernal equinox, as this time the feminine, dark forces were specially propitiated.

There is no doubt that the sun was the maximum deity of the Mexica pantheon, even if it seemed to be shadowed by the God Huitzilopochtli who had been the guide of these people on a long pilgrimage from Aztlan to the valley of Mexico. He was a sort of an important ancestor and cultural hero, who dictated the rules of behaviour of His people, among which their obligation to nourish and worship the sun was of the utmost importance, and therefore Huitzilopochtli became also the God of war. It has generally been said that this God was the sun, but I insist on my idea that He was only a patron God who had risen to power and, of course, as a war and sky God, had solar characteristics but was not the sun. There was a special God of the sun whose name was Tonatiuh, represented as a young man with red hair, wearing a head-dress of feathers probably of eagle, with the head of a small bird in the front, as an ornament, and this bird is usually associated with yang deities. He had a red facial painting, a nose and ear ornament made of jade, and on his breast a round golden plate symbol of the sun. He wore a loin cloth with its end embroidered with feathers, and his sandals were called solar sandals. He had his own temple where, most probably, there was a great image in stone, very similar to the one in the ‘Aztec calendar’ which has the carved frontal face of the sun surrounded by rays, and the four calendrical signs meaning the four quadrants of the world and around the 20 calendrical signs of the count of tona. The sun God had His own rituals and the bravest warriors were dedicated to Him; they had a special festival and ritual in the day with 4 ollin four movement, when the "warrior of the sun", a human messenger, was sent to Him. It was believed that the men who died in the war or in the sacrificial stone went to join the sun in His paradise in the sky and so did the women who died in their first childbirth and were considered female warriors who had taken a prisoner. The sun in his daily trip was received in the sky by the souls of the dead brave warriors and was taken in a palanquin to the zenith, where the brave women received Him and took him to the west, to start his trip through the underworld. In Maya cosmology the underworld sun is usually depicted as a jaguar, the Maya also had different legends of the creation of the sun and the moon which had as its ingredients a sort of shamanic trip to the underworld, a mystic death to be reborn again. In this case the sun and the moon are also male and brothers, though the Mayans do have a Goddess of the moon which is very important.


I have mentioned the importance of the element water along with fire, and how in ancient Mexico, the God of this element was one of the most important, as most of the rituals which took place along the year were dedicated to Him. This God also had helpers or manifestations which were placed into the four quadrants of the universe. There was also a Goddess of running water which was called the "skirt of jewels".

From what I have mentioned we can see the great importance specially of the sun in the cosmovision of the ancient Mexicans and its relation to fire as the generator and creator of this important concentration of hot energy in the universe, and how the personal energy of all the human beings had to be in a constant feeding back to this cosmic energy, which the Mesoamericans translated into a need of the human heart and blood to keep the world going.

Plate 12.1 Tonatiulu : The Sun Codex

Plate 12.2 Xiulu Tecutilli : The God of Fire and Time

Plate 12.3 Fire and Sun


Gonzalez Torres, Yolotl, 1975. El culto a los astros entre los mexicas. Sepsetentas 217. Mexico.

———, 1979. "El panteon mexica", In Antropologia e Historia 25 Epoca III. Num. 25. enero-marzo. Mexico.

Lopez Austin, Alfredo, 1980. Cuerpo humano e ideologia UNAM. Mexico.

Sahagun, Fray Bernardino de, 1969. Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva Espana. Ed Porrua. Mexico.

Signorini, Italo y Luppo, Alessandro, 1989. Los tres ejes de la vida. Xalapa.

[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]

HomeSearchContact usIndex

[ Home | Search  |  Contact UsIndex ]

 [ List of Books | Kalatattvakosa | Kalamulasastra | Kalasamalocana ]

© 1995 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi