The ninth trecena (13-day “week”) of the Aztec Tonalpohualli (ceremonial count of days) is called Snake for its first numbered day, which is also the 5th day of the vientena (20-day “month”). In the Nahuatl language Snake is Coatl, and it’s known as Chikchan in Yucatec Maya and Can in Quiché.
For the Aztecs the Snake symbolizes mystical power, and it’s probably no accident that it was associated with the male genitalia. The patron of the day Snake is Chalchiuhtlicue, goddess of flowing water (see Reed trecena). Images of the snake are frequent in the codices simply as reminders of divine power. It’s often a manifestation of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent, and the core element of the divine weapon wielded by many deities, the Xiuhcoatl or Fire Serpent.
PATRON DEITIES RULING THE TRECENA
The principal patron of the Snake trecena is Xiuhtecuhtli, the Lord of Fire—or alternatively, of Turquoise (a homonym). As the latter, he is the lord of time and the sacred calendar, the Turquoise Year (tonalpohualli), in which capacity he determines mortals’ day of death and watches over departed souls on their journey to Mictlan. Also lord of the blue sky of day, Xiuhtecuhtli symbolizes the unfathomable, the limitless, unity, and completion. In Aztec astronomy, he’s lord of the Pole Star, the center of all things, and spindle of the universe. In addition, he’s both the Lord of the number 1 (with the Blue Hummingbird as his totem bird) and first Lord of the Night. Historically, Xiuhtecuhtli is a new, younger version of the ancestral deity of fire, Huehueteotl (the Old God). His birth day-name is One Rabbit.
The secondary patron of this trecena is Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (Lord of the House of the Dawn), a nagual of Quetzalcoatl representing the planet Venus as the Morning Star. He’s symbolic of re-emergence, of the triumph of life over death. Meanwhile, he’s a dangerous deity, his gaze very destructive for both mortals and gods. Legend has him shooting a dart at the Sun, Tonatiuh, who throws it back at him but hits instead Itztlacoliuhqui (Curved Obsidian Blade), the god of stone and cold, a nagual of Tezcatlipoca. After Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli periodically disappears from the eastern morning sky to descend into the Underworld, he’s replaced in the western evening sky by Xolotl, the Evening Star. The Lord of the number 12 with (logically) the Quetzal as his totem bird, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli’s birth day-name is One Reed.
AUGURIES OF SNAKE TRECENA
By Marguerite Paquin, author of “Manual for the Soul: A Guide to the Energies of Life: How Sacred Mesoamerican Calendrics Reveal Patterns of Destiny”
This dynamic trecena’s theme is emergence and liberation. The energies associated with this trecena are strongly aligned with Lifeforce, Fertility, Sacred Authority, Justice, Liberation, Cyclical Regeneration, and the promulgation of higher knowledge. A sense of new vitality or awakening to new ideas often accompanies this time frame, suggesting that transcendent events, possibly of a world-shaping nature, could manifest during this period, opening up the realm of new possibilities.
Further to how these energies connect with world events, see the Maya Count of Days Horoscope blog at whitepuppress.ca/horoscope/. The Maya equivalent is the Chikchan trecena.
THE 13 NUMBERED DAYS IN THE SNAKE TRECENA
The Aztec Tonalpohualli, like the ancestral Maya calendar, is counted through the sequence of 20 named days of the agricultural “month” (vientena), of which there are 18 in the solar year. Starting with the 5th day of the current vientena, 1 Snake, this trecena continues with 2 Death, 3 Deer, 4 Rabbit, 5 Water, 6 Dog, 7 Monkey, 8 Grass, 9 Reed, 10 Jaguar, 11 Eagle, 12 Vulture, and 13 Earthquake.
There are four important days in the Snake trecena:
One Snake (in Nahuatl Ce Coatl) was noted in the Florentine Codex as traditionally a favorable day for merchants/traders (pochteca), travelers, and armies to “set forth to far lands.” In that spirit, the Codex indicates that One Snake was often the occasion for declaring of war. It is significant that in 1521 this was the day the Aztecs surrendered to Hernan Cortés and his conquistadores at Tenochtitlan after being defeated in a fierce battle.
Seven Monkey (in Nahuatl Chicome Ozomatli)is traditionally associated with wealth and prosperity. This day-sign appears on the Aztec Calendar Stone, below the central face.
Eight Grass (in Nahuatl Chicueyi Malinalli), according to some sources, is an alternate birth day-name of the goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, generally called One Water (again see Reed Trecena).
Nine Reed (in Nahuatl Chicnahui Acatl) is the birth day-name of the Earth Goddess Tlazolteotl, Goddess of Filth (see Deer Trecena). On this day, gifts of cacao, precious feathers, and flowers are offered to her.
THE TONALAMATL (BOOK OF DAYS)
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 earlier 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!
My version of the Snake trecena portrays Xiuhtecuhtli in a wild interpretation of his image in Codex Borbonicus, mixing a fancy snake on his back from the Stone of the Suns with a flaming crest much like Quetzalcoatl’s plumes in the Jaguar Trecena. Obviously, I took the turquoise and fire homonyms to heart in the coloration and wisely incorporated his traditional pendant plaque. I really should have made the bird totem on his forehead blue, and I have no idea where I got the shield design with the sun motif. Though I hadn’t seen any other images of the deity, I think my fantasy makes a very convincing Lord of Fire.
TONALAMATL BORGIA (re-created by Richard Balthazar from Codex Borgia)
The Snake trecena page in Codex Borgia is the busiest one in its tonalamatl and raises a huge number of questions, both mythological and iconographic. It definitely begs a narrative.
Let’s start with the primary patron (the big red guy on the right), Xiuhtecuhtli himself enthroned and looking very pensive or stern/aggravated. In the original, his image is quite deteriorated, his regalia blurred and spotty. In their restoration of the Codex Borgia (Dover Publications, 1993), Gisele Diaz & Alan Rodgers have been inventive in restoring his ornaments, some of which I’ve used; another anonymous facsimile made other choices; and I’ve made my own in some places.
The best example is the feathery thing on his back, the top of which in the original is basically blank (or worn away?). Diaz and Rodgers fill it with rows of short lines; the other facsimile intimates a spiral of same. My close study of the blankness found tiny indications of a possible second row of lines, but I’ve left the rest blank. Another problematic motif is that odd thing on his forehead, maybe a bird, which would make sense as his totem, but it looks nothing like any other bird I’ve ever seen in any of the codices.
When we consider the mass of material adjacent to the deity, things get really mysterious, like that slanting bundle of jaguar hide and spotted blue strips (with a surreal bird’s head) running behind Xiuhtecuhtli’s shoulder. We’ll see something similar in the Vaticanus patron panel later. Does it mean something that the water (from above) flows into the bundle and deity, rather than away from him as from Tlaloc in the Rain Trecena and Chalchiuhtlicue in the Reed Trecena? The two arrows in the stream are almost to be expected as power symbols.
However, that ornamental scorpion is a major enigma. Since the scorpion apparently has had obscure connections with the planet Venus ever since Maya times, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli being the Morning Star is probably the key. The scorpion’s sting would be a fine material metaphor for the Morning Star’s divinely destructive gaze. Also, I’m puzzled by the patterns of squared and spiral water flowing at/onto Xiuhtecuhtli.
Briefly, the other major enigma is the central vacant throne, the jaguar pelt indicating that there should be some deity sitting there. Who?
Now let’s talk about the secondary patron with the tongue-twisting name, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, sitting gingerly on the jaguar seat on the left. The only evidence of his identity is the headdress with the long spokes and feathery crown. Otherwise, he’s just an innocent little blond guy with standard Aztec finery. His hands-in-the-air gesture certainly must mean something like, “I know nothing about it!” “What did you expect?” “Who cares?” Or perhaps a hundred other probably dismissive comments relating to the vacant throne or to the flood dousing the Lord of Fire. Between Xiuhtecuhtli’s pout/glower and Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli’s nonchalance, some story is definitely going on in this page, but it would take an Aztec priest to provide an exegesis.
I must confess that I made the personal choice to color the Morning Star’s “mask” in a pleasant light blue as opposed to the depressing grey or brown to be seen in images that follow. The little flag on his nose-piece is actually indicative of Tezcatlipoca, but this might just be a convenient decoration. Meanwhile, his predominantly white body and clothing are most unusual for deities in Codex Borgia. Maybe the artist simply left him unfinished—too busy with Xiuhtecuhtli? In any case, we’ll see more detail in later images of this god.
TONALAMATL YOAL (compiled and re-created by Richard Balthazar on the basis of
Codex Telleriano-Remensis and Codex Rios)
Speaking of detail, the image of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli on the left in this Telleriano-Remensis and Rios vision has them in spades, including a little One Reed identifier hovering overhead. The toothy feathered snake-monster on his back probably underlines his relationship to Quetzalcoatl (whose birth day-name is Nine Wind but sometimes called One Reed). As they will also occur in later images, the tear-drop motifs in his headdress (and in the snake’s) are other identifiers. Note his brown mask and mostly white raiment. Here his hand-gestures seem simply formulaic for his “dancing” or sitting posture on the standard place symbol/glyph.
On the right, Xiuhtecuhtli also “dances” or sits on a place symbol and wears ornate regalia. His headdress is very like that on his bust as Night-Lord (fifth from the left in the top row). The Telleriano-Remensis page with his image is missing, and I’ve had to base this representation on the uninspired Rios copy, supplementing it with details from elsewhere in T-R—like the fiery Xiuhcoatl he wields in his raised right hand. In his image in both T-R and Rios for the Pachtontli (Teotleco) solar vientena, Xiuhtecuhtli wears a flaming serpent on his back, but I thought that would be a little too much here. However, in both of those images one of his feet is the mystical water-fire symbol (atl-tlachinolli), which I’ve inserted as the Fire Lord’s right foot. Note his red and black face-paint as in the Borgia version—and in the following examples.
Once again, the patron panel in Tonalamatl Aubin gives one serious aesthetic pause. It’s got most of the canonical elements, but they seem viewed through a strange (psychedelic?) lens. Of course, there’s fair reason to believe that psychoactive drugs were involved. Here, the patrons of the trecena have switched sides and seats, and the head of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (recognizable by the brown mask and teardrop ornaments in his headdress) is grossly distorted. Borgia’s vast flow of water has now become a mere spurt as part of the Morning Star’s headdress—another instance of the atl-tlachinolli water-fire symbol.
Meanwhile, Xiuhtecuhtli on the left has the standard red and black face and a fire-snake “cape,” and he holds his blue bird totem, which is by no stretch of the imagination a hummingbird. And by the way, I sort of hoped to see an empty throne and miss the scorpion.
Most startling is the fact that Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli has been flayed—sacrificially skinned! (In his Rios copy he is also flayed, but in the T-R original, only his hand shows the red stripes. I chose to ignore those details in Tonalamatl Yoal as too much information.) Here there’s no way around the ritual flaying of this deity. In fact, in several Borgia images of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli he’s been skinned. In Vaticanus there are also many such images, as well as a section of five panels with the flayed deity attacking various people, places, and even a jaguar. In each of those he wears an odd eyepiece representing his dangerous gaze. (These five panels also appear in Codex Cospi in much different style and similar detail but without the flaying.)
The consistent representation of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli as flayed suggests a close relationship with Xipe Totec, the Flayed God, whom we will see later as a patron of the 20th trecena, Rabbit. His virtues of fertility, renewal, and spring are broadly discussed in the “The Flayed God” by Roberta H. and Peter T. Markman (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), who note that several other deities are also shown in the codices as flayed. I’ve found many skinned images of Tlaloc, Mixcoatl, Tlazolteotl, and even some of the Cihuateteo and Ahuiateteo.
I think the flaying of victims and deities must have been a transcendent sign/symbol of holiness—like the ubiquitous western tradition of the halo—and suspect that Xipe Totec, who usually only wears their skins, is the “high priest” of the bloody sect. Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli seems to be the principal flayed god in the pantheon. I wonder why he, the Morning Star, would be chosen for such grisly glory. Maybe because he’s a nagual of the great god Quetzalcoatl?
That being said, in the tonalamatl of Codex Borbonicus, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (back on the left side) is once again white-skinned in largely white clothes—maybe meaning his Borgia image was in fact completed. He wears his usual brown mask and has teardrop designs in his headdress, appearing in a constellation of motifs: water flowing at/onto the Lord of Fire (with arrows); some kind of a watery link (like the odd item at the center of the Aubin panel) to a throne (vacant but for a pile of ritual offerings); and what looks like a spider but is really a scorpion, both arachnids. Under high magnification one can see a tail/stinger curved up across its body. This is all stuff we already know from the Borgia panel, but I’ve never seen that surreal blue pointy-nose mask-thing on the back of his head before. Might it relate to his dangerous gaze?
With all that symbolic paraphernalia, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli seriously overshadows Xiuhtecuhtli, who sports only that fire-snake on his back (the model for my own trecena above), the beautiful Borbonicus-blue totem bird on his brow and plaque-pendant. The artist apparently didn’t care much about this supposedly primary patron, grotesquely distorting his torso and shrinking his arms and hands—in contrast to complex and careful execution of the secondary patron.
As a post-script to this description, note the snake in the lower left denoting the trecena and the blue creature on the lower right. Whatever its species, it’s the same as the blue animal held by Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli in the Aubin panel. Like the vacant throne and scorpion, such repeated motifs surely must mean something integral to the implied narrative.
The Codex Vaticanus patron panel for the Snake trecena is obviously badly “weathered,” and I’ve tried to touch it up, restoring most faded and broken lines and filling in some of the color, except for the spotty flow of water. The patrons have switched sides once more, Xiuhtecuhtli in a divinely complex headdress brooding over Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, who’s appropriately flayed now. We’ve again got the main narrative motifs, including Borgia’s strange staff with curls (but no weird bird’s head), the flow of water with scorpion and arrows, and the vacant throne—clearly a retelling of the same old story. The staff and flow of water being placed subtly in the foreground in this panel tells me they’re probably the main theme of the implied narrative.
But here the scorpion- and arrow-laden flood (apparently summoned by Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli) no longer flows at/onto Xiuhtecuhtli, instead getting “swallowed up” by the staff itself. Perhaps that motif is the Fire Lord’s symbolic “spindle of the universe” neutralizing the flood—or maybe the smoke-like staff is a stylized column of his divine fire? If the latter, then we’re again looking at an enormous atl-tlachinolli, which I’m told is a symbol of war. Does that mean the Morning Star is challenging the Pole Star for supremacy (the empty throne) of the sky? Or maybe that’s way too metaphysical.
Let me try another reading: perhaps this is all about Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli trying to take over the primary patronage of the trecena from Xiuhtecuhtli, in the Borgia panel sitting nonchalantly on his modest jaguar seat but ready to jump onto the empty throne, while Xiuhtecuhtli scowls at him and fends off his flood. In the Yoal panel, the Fire Lord is still on the prominent right, but One Reed displays imposing glitz with his serpent-monster cape. The two have switched sides in the Aubin panel, where Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli now sits on the primary throne, with Xiuhtecuhtli on the secondary jaguar seat. Back on the left side in Borbonicus, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli with all his paraphernalia has basically usurped the panel from the battered Xiuhtecuhtli, having physical possession of the throne at least, and in Vaticanus he holds off the Fire Lord with the huge war symbol, the trecena’s throne now his for the taking.
Such are my amateur shots at playing Aztec priest, whether or not either of these stories is true. Either way, the roles of primary and secondary patron of this trecena aren’t exactly clear-cut, not that it makes a great deal of difference.
The flayed Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli is the main evidence I see of Dr. Paquin’s ancient Maya themes for this trecena of fertility, emergence, and liberation. Xiuhtecuhtli’s divinatory significance for authority, justice, and higher knowledge is nebulous. And my tentative readings have little to do with any Maya themes. After the several intervening centuries, I wouldn’t be surprised if the later Aztec iteration of this trecena’s themes might be substantially different than the Maya. Perhaps now it’s about confrontation, ambition, and power. After all, the Snake’s all about power, One Snake’s a great day for a war, and Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli is well known as a very aggressive deity, a holy terror. Maybe Xiuhtecuhtli represents the unified center of reality, and the bellicose Morning Star represents the antithetical force of chaos and anarchy, another elemental dichotomy like water and fire. Maybe not…
The calendar’s tenth trecena will be that of Flint, its patrons being the existential Lord of the Land of the Dead, Mictlantecuhtli, and the mighty Tonatiuh, God of the Fifth Sun. Stay tuned.
You can view all the calendar pages I’ve completed up to this point in the Tonalamatl gallery.