Back to top

Time, History, and Belief in Aztec and Colonial Mexico

Time, History, and Belief in Aztec and Colonial Mexico

A bold new look at the Aztec conception of time.

April 2001
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
238 pages | 6 x 9 | 19 b&w photos, 2 line drawings, 2 maps, 8 figures |

Based on their enormously complex calendars that recorded cycles of many kinds, the Aztecs and other ancient Mesoamerican civilizations are generally believed to have had a cyclical, rather than linear, conception of time and history. This boldly revisionist book challenges that understanding. Ross Hassig offers convincing evidence that for the Aztecs time was predominantly linear, that it was manipulated by the state as a means of controlling a dispersed tribute empire, and that the Conquest cut off state control and severed the unity of the calendar, leaving only the lesser cycles. From these, he asserts, we have inadequately reconstructed the pre-Columbian calendar and so misunderstood the Aztec conception of time and history.

Hassig first presents the traditional explanation of the Aztec calendrical system and its ideological functions and then marshals contrary evidence to argue that the Aztec elite deliberately used calendars and timekeeping to achieve practical political ends. He further traces how the Conquest played out in the temporal realm as Spanish conceptions of time partially displaced the Aztec ones. His findings promise to revolutionize our understanding of how the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican societies conceived of time and history.

  • List of Illustrations
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  1. Time and the Interpretation of Other Cultures
  2. Outside the Focus
  3. Reinterpreting Aztec Perspectives
  4. Why the Aztecs Manipulated Time
  5. The Ripples of Time
  6. The Colonial Transition
  7. Time and Analysis
  • Appendix: Pronunciation Guide
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Ross Hassig is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oklahoma.


The Aztecs had a strange culture with bizarre practices and beliefs, or so many conventional discussions would have it concerning one of anthropology's favorite whipping boys. They have been at the center of my research for some twenty-five years, yet I have never seen them this way. To me, the challenge is not only to understand them in their own terms but also to understand them as a group seeking the same things that all groups seek: to make sense of their world and to inhabit it as best they could in rational ways, albeit from a different cultural perspective.

Studying the Aztecs blends anthropology and history, though not always harmoniously. To oversimplify: history tends to emphasize the specific facts of the events of concern whereas anthropology tends to emphasize theoretical explanations. In both cases, the tendency is the result not only of the orientations of the respective disciplines, but also of their structural organizations. For academic purposes, history tends to be specialized by time and place, with a heavy emphasis on specifics as a way of knowing that time and place, whereas anthropology tends to be divided on the basis of theoretical issues.

Anthropological studies have traditionally focused either on complex non-Western societies with long and complicated histories or on simpler societies for which there is little historical record. The former are often walled off as belonging to area specialists who possess a mastery of exotic languages, complex historical backgrounds, and archaeological data. As a result, these areas are often ignored by those who study simpler societies—traditionally the majority of anthropologists. These traditional societies, however, are of little interest in and of themselves to most people, anthropologists included; their interest lies in being exemplars of some theoretical consideration that can then help enlighten us about other, similar, groups.

Anthropology has a long-standing concern with its epistemological underpinnings, in part owing to an emphasis on the theoretical sinews that hold the disparate field together. But the struggle to create a satisfying intellectual structure has become self-consuming, leaving too little concern for explaining the world, even if this must be done conditionally. Much of the current divisiveness in anthropology can be traced to the struggle over the proper relationship between theory and data. Today, the focus on how we know something has become greater than the focus on what we know; our inability to frame a completely satisfactory explanation has led to a paralysis that is belied by our own ability to negotiate the world around us; and whatever theoretical orientation is adopted tends to be applied to the world as a leitmotif more than as a way to engage the data, even provisionally. In short, theory dominates anthropology in a way that it does not in history precisely because theory is what is shared in anthropology—what holds it together as a discipline and makes a Melanisianist interested in a culture in South Africa or lowland South America.

This disciplinary predisposition to emphasize theoretical over descriptive orientations merges in Mesoamerica with a second trend—that toward explaining matters through ideology and symbolism. This is not the only predisposition, of course, but more practical orientations tend to be found in such areas as politics and economics, whereas ideological approaches tend to dominate such intellectual issues as calendars, notions of time, and the nature of history. If there is one topic that is calculated to make most Mesoamericanists run screaming into the night, it is the calendar. Enormously complex and still incompletely understood, the calendar is almost mandatorily studied, even though it is of little practical concern to those of us who do not focus primarily on the ritual or symbolic.

But the calendar is significant because the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican societies are generally considered to have a cyclical concept of time and, consequently, a cyclical notion of history that was largely displaced after the Conquest by the Western perspective of linear time and history, with the indigenous calendrical beliefs and practices surviving only at the village or folk level. But the issue of time, which forms a major part of this book, has been only spottily examined in pre- and post-Columbian Mesoamerica. Whether it has been studied, and to what extent, varies by academic discipline and time period. The pre-Columbian era is especially rich in calendrical studies, but in the post-Columbian era, little attention has been paid to time except to note the fragmentation and demise of the indigenous calendars (and, in passing, to clocks in architectural studies where they appear as part of the fabric of colonial buildings).

This study seeks to make the Aztec calendar, and Aztec notions of time and history, more immediately useful and interesting by confronting the traditional interpretation. I assert that the traditional emphasis on time in Aztec culture as a cyclical phenomenon that patterns behavior is the result of a theoretical predisposition that short-circuits empirical research rather than being solidly grounded in the data, and that it is fundamentally miscast.

My basic argument is that the Aztecs did not have a primarily cyclical notion of time or history; rather, they manipulated time by way of their calendar, for political purposes. And, while I do not discard the ideological approach wholesale, I nevertheless offer a different view of Aztec society. I argue that focusing primarily on Aztec ideology as a way of making sense of their behavior and society has produced an inadequate and seriously distorted assessment. Instead, I argue that the Aztec elite deliberately knit together their political ambitions and ideological beliefs into a coherent, self-referential justification for domination that simultaneously crafted the mechanism of imperial control. If my argument holds, it alters the prevailing notions of Aztec time and history; it also has implications for how we interpret the broader Aztec society, as well as affecting our approach to both pre-Aztec Mexican cultures and the colonial era, and, perhaps, casting doubt on some of the ways we view contemporary Mesoamerican communities.

In the first chapter of this book, I present the traditional explanation of Aztec time and history. This interpretation is then examined to show how it can satisfactorily explain three different types of evidence of Aztec perspectives, the Codex Borbonicus, the Great Temple (Templo Mayor) of Tenochtitlan, and a stone monument called the Teocalli de la Guerra Sagrada (Temple of the Sacred Warfare). In the second and third chapters of the book, I go beyond the issues examined from this perspective, raising others suggesting that the prevailing interpretation may not be wholly satisfactory and that other factors may need to be considered. In the fourth and fifth chapters of this book, I consider evidence suggesting that the Aztecs, in fact, did not have a cyclical notion of time, but a linear one and that their temporal concepts as embodied in the calendar were manipulated for political purposes. Then, as an elaboration on this political orientation toward time, I examine the implications for Aztec and other Mesoamerican societies. And in the fourth part of this book, I extend the analysis into the colonial era, where the shift to European notions of time has generally been passed over in silence, presumably because adopting these concepts has been seen as normal or as a logical part of general patterns of assimilation and Christianization by the Spaniards. In fact, the imported temporal notions did not totally displace the indigenous ones, nor were they the entire suite of European temporal concepts, nor was their imposition of equal concern to all segments of Spanish society—suggesting a further political element in the Mexican adoption of European time.



“Hassig's position is daring and potentially controversial and will be mandatory reading for those who deal with calendrical systems.”
Dr. Barbara J. Price, Columbia University


Available for Kindle
Available on Google Play
Available on Kobo
Available for Nook
Available on the Apple Store

This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca
UPCC/Project Muse