Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion by James Maffie

This has been one of the most insightful, informative, and well-researched books that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. I’m still trying to wrap my head around some of the mind-boggling concepts and ideas in Aztec metaphysics. The author used the term “Aztec” instead of the more accurate “Mexica” or “Nahua” due to the popularity of the word “Aztec” in describing the Nahua peoples and Pre-Columbian culture. Unfortunately, due to the ubiquity of the term “Aztec”, it has become necessary for modern scholars to use the term in their references to the Mexica people.

I think the two most important and interesting insights that I learned from this book was the foundational, Indigenous worldview of Process-Metaphysics and the manner in which the Aztec language is actually structured via the agglutinative structure of their language. The former has a whole chapter explaining how each “God” was interpreted and named by their functionality and since everything inherently has its contradictory nature embedded within its existence; the supposed “Gods” portrayed these contradistinctions in the linguistics, graphical depictions, and even the architecture. So, to my understanding, the Aztec pantheon was not actually a pantheon, it was functional terms for a vaguer creative, all-encompassing process or power that demonstrated itself as “Gods” to display different parts of its “functionality” within the world. Maffie makes it thoroughly clear that these processes were “immanent” and not transcendent. They were always composed of the world and not outside of it. So, the different forms of Quetzalcoatl, including forms in which he turned into a monkey or into other deities, were explanations of a “process” to explain actions in the world. For me, Gods as “actionable occurrences” is a better way of understanding how the Aztec metaphysical system works. What surprised me was that this helped to further elaborate on both the naming systems and deities in Indigenous North American cultures. The following is my own anecdotal experience, so if a thoroughly trained Navajo or Nahuatl language speaker and writer finds these explanations silly or wrong, then you should follow their advice as I’m only speaking from a point of view of cursory curiosity. As an example, when reading about some Navajo folktales, it was incredibly hard for me to understand why a “Talking God” had 6 or 7 hyphens with a long string of words; however, when I think of Process-metaphysics of the Aztecs, the concept behind the Navajo folktale started to make much more sense. The deity is being defined by their specific actionable occurrence and the hyphens exist because of the agglutinative structure of the language. So, for example, in the ancient Nahuatl language, you could mash two words together similar to “port” and “end” creating “portend” or “birth” and “mark” creating “birthmark” to create a fusion of the meaning of both individual words, but you don’t necessarily stop there as you can keep mashing words to restructure it into a “large word” that is the equivalent of an English sentence. While Nahuatl and Navajo have their own sentence structures as well, it seems far less significant of a prerequisite within the structures of their language and so what appears to be sentences are much shorter than the English equivalents because the agglutinative word is essentially a “fusion upgrade” so that a longform sentence is unnecessary. But, as a result, it translates into very long and confusing hyphens for predominately English language readers and speakers. Therefore, learning the internal structure and process-metaphysics as the internal logic helped explain it a lot better. I could better appreciate the UK scholars of Indigenous American studies explaining how names within traditional Native American cultures “upgraded” based on a person’s actions for their own community and I analogously likened it to military ranks to better understand it, but that analogy was weaker than I thought since a person doesn’t necessarily have to succeed in an achievement to have a name upgrade. Instead, they could take part in a specific function for the community or possibly be famous for something of significance related to the community.

The three major systems of Ollin, Mallinalli, and Nepantla of Teotl are thoroughly explored and explained with a plethora of citations on the Spanish codices as citations. I cannot get too deep into the context as it really is all quite dynamic and an enormous amount of information on an entire cultural belief system to explain in shorthand. Here is a short explanation by the author himself, if you’re interested. I think trying to fit it all into a few bite-sized sentences wouldn’t do much of anything and could cause greater confusion. To give a better appreciation of how complex and thorough his research is, here is but a small snippet of one of the three energy transmission concepts related to human existence in the Aztec conceptualization of the self that the aforementioned three major concepts serve as the substrata for:

7.2. The Tonalpohualli

One of the most fundamental ontological expressions of the self-unfolding and selffaceting of teotl, reality, and the cosmos is the repeating pattern of 260 tonalli, or tonalpohualli (“count of the tonalli”). This repeating 260-fold pattern characterizes how the cosmos move-changes and processes. Expressed less statically, the tonalpohualli is an immanent patterning continually disclosed and displayed in the becoming of the cosmos (teotl). If we think of the cosmos as an ongoing weaving-in-progress, then the cosmos is constantly weaving itself in the pattern of the tonalpohualli. The tonalpohualli is metaphysically objective in the sense that it existed prior to the creation of humans and will continue to exist after their demise, and also in the sense that it characterizes the cosmos independently of humans’ counting-reading-interpreting of it. Its objectivity is fully compatible with the fact that skilled diviners are able to interact with it in the course of divining its significance.17 The Aztecs recorded the tonalpohualli in the tonalamatl (“book of the tonallis”). The person who used the tonalamatl to count-read-interpret the tonalpohualli was called a tonalpouhqui. The activity of counting-reading-interpreting was called tonalpohualiztli.18 In order to avoid confusion, we need to keep distinct the tonalpouhqui and the tonalamatl from that which the tonalamatl records and that which the tonalpouhqui counts-reads-interprets. And what is that? It is the 260 tonallis of the tonalpohualli.

The concept of tonalli is one of the most complex and difficult in Aztec metaphysics, and I can only touch upon its nature here.19 The concept of tonalli incorporates a variety of ideas, including:

(1) Solar heat, heat-energy, or power (sometimes translated as “heat”).20

(2) Solar radiation.

(3) Inner vital energy, life force, animating power, and energy that is transmitted and sensed as heat. Tonalli as life force contributes to the functioning of the total mindbody fusion of human beings (i.e., both physiologically and psychologically). Tonalli in this sense is sometimes translated as “soul” or “spirit.”21

(4) Summertime.

(5) Time-place orientation or position in the overall tonalpohualli. In this way human beings are essentially timed and placed.22

(6) Day.

(7) Day sign.

(8) Mahcehualli – that is, birth-merit; allotment of quality and quantity of energy at birth; that which is granted one; that which is one’s portion; and that which one is worthy of (deserves or merits) in the sense of being adequate to, suited to, fit for, or capable of earning. Tonalli in this sense sometimes translated as “fate” or “destiny.”23

(9) Personal and calendrical name.

(10) Innate physiological, psychological, and mental vigor, character, or temperament.

(11) Face (ixtli), overall physical visage and its “doubles” – including one’s resemblance to family members, artistic image, and reflection in mirrors and water. Each of the 260 days of the tonalpohualli has its own “face” (ixtli) – that is, identity or character. Those born on this day partake of this face. Events and processes occurring during the day are influenced by the day’s face.

(12) Coessence (alternatively but less felicitously, nagual, spiritual alter ego, or companion animal): consists of two apparently distinct entities (e.g., human and animal) who share the same birth time-place, hence the same birth day sign, and hence the same birth-merit or birth-destiny. According to Monaghan, if personhood consists of having a specific destiny and having a specific destiny consists of being born at a specific time-place, then there can be no essential difference between beings born at the same time-place location. They are essentially one and the same self or person. A human and her coessence may, in addition, also share a consciousness.24

López Austin and McKeever Furst contend the various aspects of tonalli cluster around the notion of heat-light energy that radiates upon the earthly plane, principally from Tonatiuh.25 Hunt situates tonalli within a cluster of ideas including fire, heat, power, energy, life force (“élan vital”), and human soul life.26 Read attributes the existence of a close conceptual relationship in Aztec metaphysics between sun, energy, and heat, on the one hand, and existence, on the other.27

The foregoing suggests an equally close relationship between qualitative differences in the 260 different kinds of tonalli and qualitative differences in existence itself.28 On its allotted day in the 260-day sequence of the tonalpohualli, each of the 260 tonallis diffuses “over the earth’s surface, bathing and infiltrating all beings in the intermediate sector.”29 In doing so it energizes, influences, and transforms everything on the earth’s surface. This was called the day’s “burden.”30 The Aztecs believed tonalli is absorbed by and becomes lodged in humans, animals, and plants as well as fire, statues, people’s shadows and reflections in water, gemstones, brilliantly colored avian feathers, warriors’ costumes, and ritual objects. According to Bernardino de Sahagún, the name for fine turquoise, teoxihuitl, for example, derives from teotl and xihuitl (“turquoise”). Such gems embodied itonal in teutl (“the tonalli of teotl”).31

In sum, tonalli includes within a single concept a variety of aspects that appear by our lights as distinct: heat, irradiation, destiny or birth merit, spatiotemporal orientation, life energy (élan vital, soul, spirit), vigor, coessence, and character. I accordingly propose translating tonalli as “day-force-heat-life-energy.” We must remember there are 260 different kinds of tonalli, each of which constitutes a qualitatively unique force or energy. Moreover, each one admits of quantitative differences or degrees of intensity. The tonalpohualli is an overarching and internally complex pattern that is immanent within the becoming and self-weaving of the cosmos and teotl. It is how teotl becomes. The complete tonalpohualli pattern is formed by the combination of two basic patterns. The first basic pattern consists of a repeating arrangement of twenty named tonallis. Each of the twenty is a different kind of tonalli. They are depicted graphically in the tonalamatl using twenty different day signs. The twentyfold ordering of the named tonallis is: crocodile (or earth monster), wind, house, lizard, serpent, death, deer, rabbit, water, dog, monkey, twisted grass (malinalli), reed, jaguar, eagle, vulture, movement (olin), flint, rain, and flower. Given the systematic coherence of Aztec metaphysics, it is reasonable to assume that this pattern is not an arbitrary “grabbag of disconnected symbols” (to borrow from John Bierhorst).32 The tonalpohualli is an irreducible, brute fact about the way the cosmos (teotl) works, just as agonistic inamic unity is. In both cases, we hit metaphysical bedrock. The second basic pattern consists of a repeating arrangement of thirteen numerals, running from 1 to 13. This group was called a trecena by the Spanish chroniclers. They are depicted graphically in the tonalamatl by dots. The aforementioned patterns combine to form a complete tonalpohualli pattern of these 260 different kinds of namedand-numbered tonallis and 20 groupings of 13 different kinds of named-and-numbered tonallis. Aztec metaphysics maintains that numbers possess specific essences or personalities, and it is these that play a determining role in the working of the cosmos.33 Numbers are thus neither abstract, Platonic-style entities nor mere symbols (numerals). They are concrete metaphysical forces that shape the unfolding and becoming of the cosmos. Each has a unique essence or personality; each is deemed propitious or unpropitious.34 Numbers, their manifold properties, and their manifold interrelationships (including their qualitative and semiotic interrelationships with one another) contribute essentially to the tonalpohualli and hence to the patterns, rhythms, and cycles of the cosmos (teotl). Counting-reading-interpreting the tonalpohualli required an intimate understanding of these various attributes. Numerology – that is, deciphering the qualitative and semiotic properties of time-place numbers, periods, and cycles – played an essential role in this activity, too. The twenty named tonalli and thirteen numbers combine to form the major tonalpohualli pattern of 260 (20 × 13) namedand-numbered units (tonalli or days): for example, 1 Cipactli, 2 Wind, 3 House, 4 Lizard, and so on. Each unit represents a unique kind of tonalli or day-force-heat-life-energy. After the completion of one 260-fold pattern the pattern begins anew. Thirteen named-and-numbered days constitute a 13-day ordering, or trecena. Each trecena begins with the number 1 and ends with the number 13. Employing the Aztec vigesimal counting system, the complete 260-fold tonalpohualli divides into twenty trecenas. The twenty trecenas were also ordered into 65-day groups of five trecenas each. A third, less well-understood pattern ran concurrently with the 260-day tonalpohualli. It consisted of a repeating sequence of nine distinct forces of influence standardly referred to as “Lords of the Night.”35

Quiñones Keber refers to the Night Lords as “a set of fundamental divinatory patrons.”36 Each Night Lord named a different kind of nighttime power, efficacious during the Sun’s nocturnal journey below the Earth’s surface and through the Underworld. The nine appear to have sequentially influenced the nocturnal hours of successive days and to have represented the nocturnal processing and becoming of the cosmos. They are depicted in the tonalamatls by a distinct face or glyph. The repeating sequence of nine Night Lords ran alongside each trecena, so that thirteen (nine plus four) Night Lords were gathered with each trecena. Furthermore, the nine are not numbered – unlike the 260 days of the tonalpohualli – and they do not contribute to the count of 260 days of the tonalpohualli.37 Each trecena was also influenced by several additional forces: for example, one of twenty patron deities, one of thirteen Lords of the Day, and one of thirteen volatiles (twelve birds and one butterfly). Each trecena was thus constituted by the complex transformational confluence or interweaving of forces and influences: named-and-numbered days, patron deity, Night Lord, Day Lord, and volatile.38 The basic metaphysical unit of the tonalpohualli – that is, that which the tonalpohualli counts – appears to be the individual named-and-numbered tonalli (or day). Yet we must remember that this unit is also defined in terms of its relationships with the entire assemblage of forces depicted in a trecena panel. This is consonant with the fact that the fundamental epistemological and semiotic unit was the trecena. The tonalpouhqui took into account the entire assemblage of forces depicted in a trecena panel when counting-reading-interpreting an individual named-and-numbered tonalli. The tonalamatl recorded the 260-fold pattern of the tonalpohualli along with the manifold forces of influence associated with them. The most common way of representing the tonalpohualli in Central Mexico was by dividing it into twenty trecena panels.39 The artistscribes depicted in each panel the complex confluence of powerful forces influencing a thirteen-day period. The tonalamatl functioned as a preeminently practical instrument or “guide for living” well on Tlalticpac.40 It was first and foremost practical – not theoretical or descriptive. In this respect, the tonalamatl resembles instruments such as the medieval European seafarer’s compass rose, which Charles Frake characterizes as a “cognitive map” of time, tide, place, and direction.41 Frake’s discussion suggests the Aztec tonalamatl (e.g., Codex Fejérváry Mayer) functions similarly as a “cognitive map” and computational device. It orients humans regarding the currents of the 260 tonalli, the Night Lords, Day Lords, and so on, with the aim of helping them navigate these currents. Its purpose is to guide life, to edify, to cultivate proper character, and to shape future behavior.42

As you can see, this is definitely one of the most thorough and well-researched books I’ve ever read. The details were just staggering. My mind is still trying to process all of it. Only real question I have is how much disagreement or variation existed regarding the belief in Teotl among Aztec / Mexica peoples. Although, the thorough descriptions of the belief structure seem ambiguous enough to suggest there’d be power struggles over what constitutes Nepantla / Middling among the city-states that composed the Mexica civilizations. I’m more curious now as to what the Toltecs may have believed as the Mexica / Aztec socio-religious historical narrative indicates Toltec scholars abandoned them and a lot of Aztec metaphysics seems as if they were close to figuring out Newton’s Laws of Motion, if they had spent more time on research and less on militarism. Nepantla, more than Ollin and Mallinalli, seems to be the problematic philosophical concept that prevented them from harboring more inquisitiveness about the world. I’m more curious now on the Northern Indigenous civilizations as, insofar as I understand, they seemed to have a greater awareness of herbology and a better appreciation for women’s rights than the Aztecs / Mexica, which resemble European Monarchic dynasties more closely than other Indigenous civilizations. I was surprised to learn the cultural history of North American indigenous groups that had matriarchal systems like the Navajo. Perhaps that, too, is the reason for European cultural fascination with the Mexica above other groups. An affirmation for a false narrative of the ubiquity of patriarchy, when in fact the US deliberately and successfully committed cultural genocide upon Matriarchal family systems via Christian Boarding Schools.

Anyway, this is a fantastic read and a great resource for learning Aztec / Mexica philosophical belief systems for anyone curious about indigenous cultures before the genocidal violence imposed upon them by Western cultural norms and values as per the Doctrine of Discovery — which is still imposed upon by the US government upon Native American people of the US who were effectively barred from suing their rapists until 2013 when the Violence Against Women’s Act was amended under President Obama and the subsequent lack of accounting for predominately white, male registered sex offenders who hunt down, rape, and murder Indigenous girls (meaning children) throughout the US and for which both Republicans and Democrats protected and continue to shield from lawsuit under the 1978 Supreme Court case of Oliphant vs Suquamish and the Indian Civil Rights act which allows White male, violent sex offenders (who are more likely to be Bible-thumping Christian conservatives who believe in the Bible literally, according to research done by the US Justice department under George W. Bush’s administration in 2006) to rape and kill Indigenous girls and women as per the patriarchal war-raping religion of Christianity’s Doctrine of Discovery, which the US Supreme Court still upholds to this day in the US denying Native American women equal rights to due process. And if you think I’m lying or exaggerating, read Amnesty International’s updated report on the issue (including their full report).

Overall, although I’m only beginning to read into Mesoamerican and Indigenous American belief structures, I think the author hit the mark and helped explain a lot of the graphical imagery and supposed contradictory belief structures. Inamic Unity and the foundation being process-metaphysics helped to explain the terminology of the “deity” names and the supposedly contradictory elements that existed in each of them. The culture of twoness is rather fascinating and it is interesting to observe and read about cultures that grew-up naturally to have supernatural views on diametric oppositional systems and structures that weren’t inherently related to Manichean concepts; even in the context of a “purity” culture that was completely unrelated to vilifying sexual intercourse. It’s rather sad that it took so long for curiosity to flourish regarding the coherence of indigenous belief structures against the more racially charged and bigoted views regarding their beliefs that dominated the 1800s, 1900s, and early 2000s views of them and even sadder that the US public and US government still don’t care to rectify tossing away hateful, racist power structures like the doctrine of discovery that continue to dehumanize and promote violence against both Indigenous women and Indigenous men throughout the US (Indigenous men and young boys have been hunted and murdered by violent sex offenders and murderers throughout the US as well, but not as extreme as what Indigenous women continue to suffer due to Christian colonial-based laws in the US that are still in effect). If only fascination with Indigenous American cultures could translate to a greater appreciation for their fundamental human rights being trampled by the narcissism of Western cultural values.

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