Mexican Connections

(In this title, I use “Mexican” as an anachronistic term for the pre-Columbian period of Mesoamerican history and as the modern-state designation for the broader Mesoamerican area. By “connections” I intend cultural “influences” and “exchanges”—specifically with the area of the American Southeast.)   

Around four years ago I posted an article entitled appropriately “Mesoamerican Influences in Mississippi” to rave about three dramatic incised shell gorgets (discs of conch shell), which I found on the internet through Google Images. They looked like great evidence of the influence of Mesoamerican cultures on the Mississippian civilization in North America’s Southeast. Perhaps two years later I received an anonymous email from an academic “enforcer” from establishment  archaeology or anthropology intent on “debunking” this evidence.

With no counter-evidence, the writer denied the authenticity of the first gorget and with an almost reasonable but shaky argument refuted the significance of the second. The third gorget, a superb illustration of my point, was simply ignored. Shaken by the inquisitorial tenor of the complaint, I didn’t want to waste my time arguing with a brick wall and took the post down.

Recently I’ve been hugely gratified to find that Richard Thornton of the Apalache Foundation is continuing his ground-breaking research into foreign influences in the ancient American Southeast, including from Europe, South America, and Mesoamerica. Using DNA, physical, architectural, and sociological evidence, he has discussed migrations into the area by bronze-age peoples from Sweden and Ireland, Panoan and Arawak peoples from South America, and many Mesoamerican peoples from “Mexico.”

Mr. Thornton’s research and tribal migration legends reveal several waves of immigration as cultural groups fled from environmental degradation or from the aggression of neighbors. Many ethnic groups fled the dangers of constant warfare between Maya city-states, brutal invasions by militant Toltecs, and genocidal imperialism of Aztecs. In fact, several times over at least two millennia there was a mass exodus of refugees. Per Wikipedia, when the Toltecs invaded the area of Veracruz, most of the indigenous Totonacs fled north to Cempoala. Others continued east along the Gulf Coast, across the Mississippi River, and north into the Tennessee River Valley.

I’ve been re-inspired by Mr. Thornton’s perseverance in the face of animosity from the academic establishment—and by the recent broad acceptance of Mesoamerican inspiration for the pyramid mounds of the Mississippian civilization. (See my 1992 book about Indian Mounds and my Gallery of Indian Mounds.) As a result, I’ve decided to re-post my discussions of these three shell gorgets and let folks make what they will of this evidence of Mexican connections.

THE FIRST GORGET was reportedly found along the Tennessee River in the Muscle Shoals area of northwestern Alabama. The scholarly debunker claimed both it and its provenance were faked, but I have no reason to suspect such pointless fakery, fully accepting Mr. Thornton’s case for “Mexican” immigrants in exactly that area. From the photograph on Google images, I drew this Muscle Shoals gorget:

Having spent 30+ years with the art and mythology of ancient “Mexico,” I instantly recognized the designs in the band encircling the very Mississippian-style head. They are standard day-signs from the Aztec ceremonial calendar and virtually identical to those in Codex Fejervary-Mayer. One of the few Mexican manuscripts to survive the Conquest’s book-burning, this Codex is believed to have been created in Veracruz:

Day-signs, Codex Fejervary-Mayer

Crocodile is the first day of the 20-day “month,” and Flower is the last. I can’t say why there are two Flowers, but Vulture is the day right before Earthquake. Meanwhile, the four Earthquake signs are particularly eloquent. In “Mexican” cosmology, Four Earthquake is the day-name of the current Fifth Sun (era or world). Thus the head on the gorget is most likely that of the deity of the Fifth Sun, Tonatiuh, familiar as the face in the Aztec Stone of the Suns which is centered in the decorative day-sign of the Fifth Sun.

I still maintain that this Fifth Sun Gorget is unambiguous, conclusive evidence of Mesoamerican influence in Mississippi.

THE SECOND GORGET I again drew from a Google Image. Called simply “Muskogee Creek,” it’s a cut-out of a turkey, also from the Tennessee River Valley in Alabama.

It happens that the turkey was famously the Mexican symbol of war and military glory, like the Aztecs’ god Chalchiuhtotolin, the Jade Turkey. This gorget immediately called to my mind images of turkeys in the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Borgia (both from Puebla), particularly because of the strange protrusion out of the turkey’s breast:

Turkey, Codex Vaticanus

I claimed this gorget as additional proof of a Mesoamerican influence in Mississippi, but my academic assailant argued that the protrusion was a natural feature of all turkeys and no such proof. Raising turkeys as a 4-H adolescent, I never saw such a feather tuft on one, but then my birds had never lived very long before being eaten. Checking internet references, I discovered that as male turkeys age, they do indeed grow a clump of slender, fibrous feathers in the center of their breasts, called a beard or tassel—the longer the beard, the older the turkey. Some, but not all, female turkeys may also grow beards.

Now (coincidentally on this Thanksgiving Day 2021), I have to thank my astute critic kindly for teaching me something new about turkeys. But confounded at the time by his or her (or gender-neutrally their?) argument, I conceded my point and dropped the subject. But now I’ve searched Google Images for other Mississippian turkey gorgets and have only found one of a pair of the iconic birds, neither of which sports a beard. Therefore I’m now reclaiming this Muskogee Creek turkey with its ornamental beard (and militant spurs) as legitimate thematic, iconographic evidence of Mesoamerican influence. Let my fowl-minded critic refute that if they wish.

THE THIRD GORGET, this one from Tennessee, presents the quintessentially “Mexican” motif of the anthropomorphic jaguar, shown here again in my drawing.

In the codices (primarily Bodley, Nuttall, and Vindobonensis–all three of Mixtec origin), there are many images of traditional Jaguar Warriors of the Night.

Jaguar Knight, Codex Vindobonensis

The artist of the Tennessee example clearly had the concept down pat but just as clearly wasn’t all that familiar with the real pattern of a jaguar’s pelt. (Nor did the “Mexican” artists manage to realistically illustrate the creature’s rows of rosette designs.) The blending of Mesoamerican and Mississippian traditions is shown by the Tennessee figure’s forked eye.

Newly convinced and content with the evidence of these three shell gorgets, I will simply declare Q.E.D. and include them in my Gallery of Pre-Columbian Artifacts.


However, still smarting from the academic antagonism directed at my original post, I want to avenge the attack by bringing forth a bit more evidence for Mesoamerican “connections” in the Mississippian area. First, let me note that several other Mississippian shell gorgets also show felines with decorative pelt patterns—surely jaguars, which by then and there must have become purely mythical creatures. A striking example is my (reconstructed) drawing of the Fairfield Gorget from Missouri (an area of many pyramid and platform mounds):

In scholarly mentions of this eye-catching piece, the figure is called a panther, but there’s no known species of such an ornately patterned feline in North America. It can only be a jaguar from Mesoamerica in a Mississippian artist’s fanciful conception.

I’ll rest my case with one more example, merely one of several possible. It’s a shell gorget from the Mississippian site of Etowah in northern Georgia (which Mr. Thornton has identified as the town of Etula peopled by immigrants from Mexico):  

This image of a “falcon” warrior displays typical Mississippian details like the beaded forelock and deer-horn headdress, and holds items of debatable significance, but the wing and tail, clawed feet, and posture are standard for the traditional Mexican eagle-warrior:

Eagle Warriors

Codex Nuttall                     Codex Vindobonensis


Aztec Calendar – Crocodile Trecena


The first trecena (13-day “week”) of the Aztec Tonalpohualli (ceremonial count of days) is called Crocodile for its first numbered day, also the first of the 260-day ritual Turquoise Year. In the Nahuatl language it is Cipactli and is referred to in the ancestral Maya languages as Imix in Yucatec and Imox in Quiché. Crocodile is the mythical Earth Monster which carries the world on its back; it was defeated by the god Tezcatlipoca, who lost his left foot in the battle, to create the First Sun, Four Jaguar (as shown in my Icon #19).


The patron deities of the Crocodile trecena are Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl (Lord and Lady of Sustenance). Also known as the dualistic deity Ometéotl, the conjoined pair Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl (Lord and Lady of Two) is the supreme creator and progenitor of the primary Aztec gods. As shown in my Icon #12, they rule the highest (13th) heaven of Omeyocan where unborn souls reside, and Omecihuatl chooses the days for their birth and thus their fates. The pair is also called Ilamatecuhtli and Ilamacihuatl (Lord and Lady of Creation). This deity of duality has no cult, rites, or temples and exists beyond the stars, in which capacity they are Citlalatonac and Citlalicue (Lord and Lady of the Stars).


By Marguerite Paquin, author of “Manual for the Soul: A Guide to the Energies of Life: How Sacred Mesoamerican Calendrics Reveal Patterns of Destiny”

The Crocodile trecena is associated with the watery primordial realm or place of origin that was seen as the birthplace and source of nourishment for all life, overseen by the masculine and feminine energies at the nucleus of life, and protected by the fierce Earth Monster. Symbolic of the fertile earth, as well as the cosmos itself, this is a time frame that can set the stage for new beginnings and the development of new possibilities. Although it can be somewhat chaotic as new ideas take shape, this trecena is seen generally as a favorable period representing the “realm of all potential.”

For information on how these energies connect with world events, see Marguerite’s Maya Count of Days Horoscope blog at


The Aztec Tonalpohualli, like the ancestral Maya calendar, is counted through the sequence of 20 named days of the agricultural “month” (or vientena, of which there are 18 in the solar year). Starting with 1 Crocodile, the trecena continues with 2 Wind, 3 House, 4 Lizard, 5 Snake, 6 Death, 7 Deer, 8 Rabbit, 9 Water, 10 Dog, 11 Monkey, 12 Grass, and 13 Reed. Each day and number have their own patron deity and divinatory significance, and for additional auguries, each is associated with a specific Lord of the Day and a cyclical Lord of the Night.


Several of the surviving so-called Aztec codices (some originating from other cultures like the Mixtec) have Tonalamatl sections laying out the trecenas of the Tonalpohualli on separate pages. In Codex Borbonicus and Tonalamatl Aubin, the first two pages are missing; Codex Telleriano-Remensis and Codex Rios are each lacking various pages (fortunately not the same ones); and in Codex Borgia and Codex Vaticanus all 20 pages are extant. (The Tonalpohualli is also presented in a spread-sheet fashion in Codex Borgia, Codex Vaticanus, and Codex Cospi, but that format apparently serves other purposes.)


As described in my previous blog The Aztec Calendar – My Obsession, some thirty years ago—on the basis of very limited ethnographic information and iconographic models —I presumed to create my own version of a Tonalamatl, publishing it in 1993 as Celebrate Native America! In my artistic ignorance—let’s less harshly call it naiveté—I chose as patron of the Crocodile trecena the goddess Omecihuatl (Tonacacihuatl), modelled on the secular Codex Nuttall, which was the only one I’d found. Since most of the other tonalamatls show only Ometecuhtli (Tonacatecuhtli), maybe I unwittingly exercised a bit of much-needed gender balance.

Aztec Calendar – Crocodile trecena – Tonalamatl Balthazar

The serpentine framework for the days was my own fantasy based on the snakes encircling the Stone of the Suns. With my artistic license, I arranged the normally linear number-dots in easily recognizable composite shapes. The ornate regalia and headdress of the goddess are pure Nuttall, but they turned out to be perfectly appropriate for deities. I was mystified by the items she carries, which I later found out are a torch and an incense bag. Live and learn.

TONALAMATL BORGIA (re-created by Richard Balthazar from Codex Borgia)

Aztec Calendar – Crocodile trecena – Tonalamatl Borgia

Codex Borgia doesn’t indicate the days’ numbers, simply relying on the sequence (starting from lower right in this first half of the Tonalpohualli). In his right hand Tonacatecuhtli holds a fancy incense bag, sacrificial knife, and plant-symbol of life; in his left he holds penitential thorns. I’m unable to explain why he has golden hair or what that temple is with the strange extrusions (some containing stars). However, the serpent below it is a standard symbol of existential power. The two figures on the left would seem to represent the union of duality consistent with the patron deity, but there’s no indication of sexual duality, unless the male is gripping the female’s arm… Why they’re sucking on a sacrificial knife is beyond me, but I recognize the incense-burner on the upper figure’s head, lending the scene a sacred aspect.

You may note a marked difference between the day-signs in this Borgia trecena and those in mine. There is even variation in other Borgia trecenas, and other codices have their own styles. The vientena sequence remains the same, and you’ll just have to get used to the variant day-signs. Oddly, the Borgia day-sign for Deer has no horns.

TONALAMATL YOAL (compiled and re-created by Richard Balthazar on the basis of Codex Telleriano-Remensis and Codex Rios)

Aztec Calendar – Crocodile trecena -Tonalamatl Yoal

I call this Tonalamatl Yoal (Night) because it includes with the days the cycle of the nine Lords of the Night:  Xiuhtecuhtli, Itztli, Pilzintecuhtli, Centeotl, Mictlantecuhtli, Chalchiuhtlicue, Tlazolteotl, Tepeyollotl, and Tlaloc, most of whom will later appear as patrons of other trecenas. Because of the number nine—if my math is correct—the cycle takes nine Turquoise Years to repeat. However, all the extant tonalamatls start with Xiuhtecuhtli, even the Codex Cospi spreadsheet, the only one of those to include the Night Lords.

This tonalamatl righteously presents both Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl as patrons of the Crocodile trecena and helpfully includes the dot-numbers for the days. I can only ascribe the omission of Tonacacihuatl as a trecena patron from the other tonalamatls—and the remarkable difference in “divine magnificence” in this one—to a strain of misogyny in the Aztec culture. Perhaps making her the patron in Tonalamatl Balthazar may atone for this in some way.

The central figures more explicitly represent unity in duality, though it’s impossible to determine which is male or female. In Aztec iconography it’s standard to indicate sex by figures behind a blanket, but I have no clue what the “club” between them is—or the items above their heads.


Since Codex Borbonicus and Tonalamatl Aubin lack the Crocodile trecena, I can only offer the patron panel from Codex Vaticanus for comparison. a much less picturesque image:

Aztec Calendar – Crocodile trecena – Patron Panel from Codex Vaticanus

Note the awkwardly cross-legged figure of Tonacatecuhtli, the power-serpent, and the two figures suggesting unity in duality. These may be vaguely gendered with the upper male gripping the lower female’s arm as in Tonalamatl Borgia. Surely the different colors are supposed to signify something, and one must wonder about the striations on the upper body.

In any case, the iconography and orthodoxy of the Crocodile trecena seems fairly consistent in the extant tonalamatls. I wish we could see the missing patron panels in Codex Borbonicus and Tonalamatl Aubin and would bet that the lost Borbonicus page showed the pair of deities in its typically ornate fashion.


The next trecena will be that of Jaguar, its patron the rock-star god Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent. Soon! Stay tuned!


The Aztec Calendar – My Obsession

The Aztec count of days (tonalpohualli in the Nahuatl language) is commonly called the “Aztec Calendar,” a ritual cycle of 260 days in 20 13-day “weeks” or trecenas, its purpose divinatory or prophetic. Like the well-known zodiacal system of horoscopes in which a person is born in one of 12 “houses” with character and fate influenced thereby, the Aztec day on which one is born is that person’s ceremonial name and is believed to determine their character and fate. (You can discover your own Aztec day-name by entering your birth-date at

Calling the Tonalpohualli “Aztec” is in fact a historical misnomer. They inherited the basic ritual of the calendar from the ancient Maya, who in their turn adopted it from the even earlier Olmec. I have found circumstantial evidence that the roots of this Mesoamerican ceremonial calendar may reach still deeper into the past, possibly originating in distant South America. See my blog posting on this iconoclastic theory:  Source of Aztec Calendar.

The way my obsession with the Tonalpohualli came about is a long and probably tedious story, but I’m going to tell it—if only as a cautionary tale about unbridled enthusiasm. Over several decades, my possession by the Aztec muse happened gradually, simple curiosity growing into bemused fascination, to an eccentric fixation, and then to a full-fledged obsession.

Like most folks, in high school I learned about the conquest of the heathen Aztecs by the devout Catholic Conquistador Hernando Cortez in 1519, supposedly thanks merely to his miraculous horses and muskets. (Only in the 90s did I learn that his dramatic victory was actually thanks to10,000 Tlaxcalan warrior allies, and that the godly Conquest destroyed a monumental city, an efflorescent culture on a par with the Roman empire, and untold millions of native peoples.)

In the later 70s I came across a later16th-century narrative by Fray Diego Duran about the arduous legendary migration of the barbarian Aztecs into the Valley of Mexico and was intrigued by the intertwined story of their war-god Huitzilopochtli, Hummingbird of the South. For a while I sketched out a pseudo-sci-fi novel about that journey but finally abandoned the project.

About ten years later, a friend passed me the book “The King Danced in the Marketplace” by Frances Gilmore which gave me somewhat more information on the Conquest, though hardly less fanciful or slanted. In the story of the Aztec ruler Montezuma, the author also made an off-hand comment that the Aztec “century” was only 52 years long, counted in four sequences of thirteen. Being a crypto-mathematician, I was struck by the numerical system—and by the curious fact that it sounded exactly like a deck of playing cards.

That inspiration triggered a creative frenzy in the later 80s. On the model of the century-count, I laid out a deck of cards with eight intersecting suits called Palli for the four 13-year periods. Then, discovering that the ceremonial year was counted in 20 sequences of 13 numbered days, I created another deck called Tonalli (days) to reflect that cycle. Having nowhere to go with these “inventions,” I forged on to design a Tarot-type fortune-telling deck called Ticitl (priest/teacher), a couple unworkable board games, and a set of six-sided dice. I wrote out detailed rules, but frankly, these thirty years later, I can’t remember how the games were supposed to be played.

Samples of Early Games Based on Aztec Calendar

Palli                                     Tonalli                                Ticitl                                    Aztec Dice

Only much later did I come to understand the complicated connection between the 52-year century, the 260-day Tonalpohualli, and the solar year with 18 months of 20 named days. However, in the course of working on those games, I’d drawn all the day signs and several deities, mostly on popular models from the Codex Borbonicus, and when I decided in the early 90s to create my own Aztec Book of Days (published in 1993), all I had to do was lay out the trecenas and draw the other patron deities. Coloring them was time-consuming but great fun.

In those BI (Before Internet) years, finding authentic models for those other Aztec deities was almost impossible. Fortunately, in the University of New Mexico library I found a rare facsimile of the Codex Nuttall, which I photographed and studied for figures, regalia, and paraphernalia. (More than a decade later I happened upon “The Codex Nuttall” in a 1975 Dover edition.)

I had no way of knowing at the time that Nuttall was actually a historical document rather than a ritual model. As a result, my images of the deities largely reflected that secular iconography. However, my skewed artistic inspiration produced 20 trecenas with eye-catching deities which are often viewed on my website under “Aztec Images.” (Visitors have often used them with my compliments for design purposes on clothing, other products, and even tattoos.) One of my more imaginative Nuttall-inspired creations was the God of the Moon:

Tecciztecatl – (God of the Moon)

Resting on these Aztec artistic laurels, for the next dozen years or so I turned to sculpture (found-object assemblages). Though focusing on sculpture, I still had the Aztec bug, and amongst many abstract works, I created figures of various Aztec-deities and day-signs. By 2008. my enthusiasm for sculpture faded, and I reverted to my old Aztec obsession, creating another deck of cards. “Six Snake” was much simpler than my earlier calendrical fantasies, composed of 54 cards with six suits of nine in the colors of the rainbow. Intended as a game for children to learn math, it worked on the closed numerological system of collapsing numbers to a single digit, 1 to 9. But the elegant idea proved to be flawed because it could only handle addition and multiplication; subtraction and division were beyond its scope.

After that, in the later AI (After Internet) years, I assembled a complete collection of the other Aztec codices that survived the book-burnings after the Conquest of Mexico and wrote a summary treatise on them: Ye Gods! The Aztec Codices. Studying these hundreds of ancient pages, I identified the vast Aztec assortment of gods and goddesses and posted an illustrated encyclopedia of them on my website: Ye Gods! The Aztec Pantheon.

Over the next several years I used these authentic images to create digital black-and-white icons of 20 deities for a coloring book called Ye Gods! The Aztec Icons.

Detail from Icon for Ehecatl, Aztec God of the Wind

In the midst of these painstaking digital drawings, in 2018 I was once again seized by the mania for cards and made a deck reflecting both the Tonalpohualli and the Aztec concept of specific gods and groups of days representing the cardinal directions. Those cards turned out to be too complicated to play with reasonably, but I presented them in a blog entitled “Aztec Gods of the Directions,” which for some odd reason has become far and away the most popular of my posts.

Aztec Gods of the Directions

Early in that same year, I had my icons printed on large-scale vinyl banners for an informational exhibition called Ye Gods! Icons of Aztec Deities. The exhibition was shown for two years in six venues before tragically being closed down by the covid pandemic in March 2020.

After eight years of drawing icons, this year I turned to re-creating the book of days (tonalamatl) pages from the Codex Borgia for Canadian friend Marguerite Paquin’s use in her blog on current Mayan trecenas, that calendar of course being quite the same as the Aztec. Only last year did I see the faithful full-color restoration/facsimile of the entire Codex Borgia published in 1993 by Gisele Díaz & Alan Rodgers (Dover Publications), but my digital re-creations are much freer in color and “rectified” detail, creating images essentially impossible for the ancient Aztec artists.

Chalchiuhtotolin, The Jade Turkey

In tandem with my Tonalamatl Borgia re-creations, I’m also compiling and re-creating the trecenas from the related Telleriano-Remensis and Rios codices, which both present them on two separate pages. The latter codex is a later 16th-century Italian (slap-dash) copy of the (awkwardly sketchy) former document, and my compiled re-creation attempts visually sophisticated images of their unique day-signs and deities. As this Book of Days also includes the cycle of the nine Lords of the Night, I’m calling it the Tonalamatl Yoal (Night).

As the various trecenas of the Tonalamatls Borgia and Yoal are completed, I’ll post them along with those from my 1993 Tonalamatl Balthazar, present Dr. Paquin’s notes on their auguries, and remark on their iconography.

The obsession endures. When I’ve completed the Tonalamatls (should I live that long), I intend to create another series of 20 icons, this time in color—of the day-signs with their patrons and divinatory details. After that (if the creek don’t rise), I plan to build a complete mandala of the complex Aztec concept of time and space.