Aztec Rituals

Aztec image

How to seek a prediction: Consult a trained expert (applicable for both commoners and royalty)

(Sample) Equipment: sortilege (e.g. throwing dice); gazing deeply into reflective surfaces; observation of nature, including the motions of stars and planets

Personnel: Trained expert

Aztec Civilization, which consisted mainly of the Nahua people (speakers of the Nahuatl language), coalesced in the 13th and 14th century CE in the Basin of Mexico in and around the modern metropolis of Mexico City. The Aztecs believed that, in a primordial time prior to the “Fifth Age,” in which we currently live, their gods obscured humans’ ability to see the past and the future as clearly as the gods could. Old legends say the nature of this obscuration was as if the gods “breathed on a mirror” that would otherwise show the true nature of the world around, in the past, present, and future. (In the video below, Professor David Carrasco suggests the gods purposely clouded the mirror for fear that otherwise humans would know much about their own future as the gods did.)

Divination through ritual process is an act that goes far back in time in native Mesoamerican tradition and is even described in the creation myths as something the gods did prior to their creation of the world.

The Maya and the Aztecs both believed some people within their societies had a closer relationship with the gods and supernatural domains than others, and thus had increased access to information about the future or advice from gods. These remarkable people (#human prediction experts) were: 1) ritual specialists, known as “day-keepers” or “soothsayers” in the codices; 2) astronomer-priests who observed and recorded astronomical information on the movements of celestial bodies across the sky; and 3) members of the royal family who could conjure dead ancestors or patron gods for advice or favor and were intermediaries.

Day-keepers or counters still exist today in many native Mesoamerican communities, and they interpret a 260-day ritual calendar using divinatory codices as a guide to determine the fate or auspiciousness of specific day sign-number combinations in the calendar. Day keepers would be consulted when a child was born, before its naming ceremony, since one of an Aztec person’s names was always based on their day of birth and many characteristics of their lives are predetermined by this date/name. In many Mesoamerican traditions, dreams are also considered to be a type of communication with the supernatural world. The same was true of events occurring in the natural world that Aztecs believed were omens, with predictive meaning. Aztec people had certain common beliefs about the everyday predictive power of random, natural events, but some things occurred that people thought were strange enough to warrant a consultation with a ritual specialist for a higher level prognostication. Examples include the omen of the fiery comet or the bird with a mirror on its head that were observed (and recorded) and correlated with the arrival of Europeans in 1519.

While all social classes consulted diviners and “soothsayers,” special high-ranking ritual experts from the noble classes were consulted by royalty in matters of state. In addition to the interpretation of dreams, omens, and the calendar, soothsayers also used various techniques involving external stimuli for prognostication. By creating randomized patterns with everyday materials (e.g. casting maize kernels or beans across textiles or into water), diviners interpreted patterns as portending particular future events. (Interpreting #randomized inputs (e.g. throwing dice) is part of a class of prediction more generally known as sortilege.) They also used scrying or peering into reflective surfaces (mirrors, crystalline rock, or water), observation of the movements of animals or insects or observations of color changes in water to predict positive or negative outcomes and even to diagnose illness.

In similar ways to the ancient Maya, the Aztecs also made careful observations and records of visible astronomical events over extended periods of time that were used to predict future like-in-kind events or to back-calculate eclipses or other celestial phenomena that could then be correlated with socio-political or natural events that impacted life on the earthly plane. All of this could be used to provide further “evidence” in support of ritual interpretations of calendrical cycles or day counts.

Aztec Diviners

Aztec Mirrors

Meet the Expert: Professor David Carrasco

The Diviner's Guide expert for Aztec diviner is Professor David Carrasco, who is the Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America, with a joint appointment at the Harvard Divinity School and the Faculty of Arts and Science. Professor Carrasco is a world renowned expert in the history of religion in Mexico and he has done research and excavations at the sites of Teotihuacan. He is the author of numerous books, including The Aztecs: A Very Short Introduction.

Additional Resources