The Sun Stone (or The Calendar Stone) (Aztec)

The Sun Stone (or The Calendar Stone), Aztec, reign of Moctezuma II (1502–20), discovered in 1790 at the southeastern edge of the Plaza Mayor (Zocalo) in Mexico City, stone (unfinished), 358 cm diameter x 98 cm depth (Museo Nacional de Antropología)


Terms and key concepts

  • polychromy
  • Mexica (or Aztec) understanding of the creation of the cosmos
  • Tonatiuh?
  • Nahui-Ollin
  • Mesoamerican calendar
  • Tenochtitlan
  • glyphs

Additional resources

The Sun Stone on Google Arts and Culture

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”sunstone,”]

More Smarthistory images…

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:05] We’re in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, looking at what is perhaps their most famous object, sometimes called the “Calendar Stone” but more accurately called the “Sun Stone.”

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:17] It’s become a modern-day emblem of Mexican culture.

Dr. Harris: [0:20] It looks like a sun, it’s got a circular shape, it has rays emanating out, but in actuality, when we look closely, it’s an incredibly complicated object.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:30] This would have been originally painted, which would have helped pick out the motifs that you’re seeing here.

Dr. Harris: [0:35] And it wouldn’t have been up on the wall.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:37] No, most likely would have been placed horizontally on the ground, and as you see it was unfinished, because there are protrusions of uncarved rock that we see on the top and to the left.

Dr. Harris: [0:46] So, in the center, let’s start there. I see a rather gruesome looking face with deep-set eyes and a wide mouth, and on either side, hanging down, what look like ear ornaments.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:59] He’s wearing ear spools, and within that open mouth you see the tongue protruding out. That’s actually an anthropomorphized sacrificial blade.

Dr. Harris: [1:08] The ear spools were decorations that Aztec elite would wear, so who is that?

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:13] This figure, this face — and if you look to the sides you also see that he has clawed hands, and he’s holding something, possibly human hearts. There have been various interpretations of who this individual actually is. Most people identify him as the sun god, Tonatiuh, which is the Nahuatl word for the sun god.

Dr. Harris: [1:32] Nahuatl is the name of the language spoken by the Nahua people, or the Aztecs.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:37] The Aztecs were part of this larger ethnic group of the Nahua.

Dr. Harris: [1:40] What this records with this figure in the center, what the disc itself records, is this origin of the cosmos as the Aztecs saw it.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:48] This stone relates to one of the main Aztec myths, essentially the creation of the various eras, or as they called them, suns. What we’re seeing here is a record, a cataclysmic history of previous eras, and then the current era under which we live.

Dr. Harris: [2:04] The current era is actually the fifth era, according to this system.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:08] The fifth sun.

Dr. Harris: [2:09] Yet the name of the fifth sun, the fifth era, is Four Movement. We actually see that in the four square lobes that surround that center figure.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:21] That particular shape that it’s forming is a sign for Ollin, which in Nahuatl means “movement.” We also see these four dots surrounding this central figure, which gives us the name Four Movement, which is the title of the fifth sun, or this fifth era that we’re living in right now.

Dr. Harris: [2:40] Then, inside those squares or rectangular shapes that mean Four Movement, we see the names of the previous four suns.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:48] Exactly. So if we go from the top right and go counterclockwise, the four eras are Four Jaguar, Four Wind, Four Tlaloc, and then Four Chalchiuhtlicue.

[3:03] The idea is that in the first era, it’s death by jaguar, devoured by jaguars. In the second era, death by high winds. In the third era, death by rains of fire, and in the fourth era, death by water.

[3:15] The idea with the fifth sun is it’s prophesizing that this current world in which we live is going to be death by earthquakes.

Dr. Harris: [3:23] The city where we are and where this is from, the Aztec capital, is surrounded by volcanoes and a fault line.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:30] You have devastating earthquakes that happen here. Earthquakes were terrifying, and so this is prophesizing how our current world is going to end.

Dr. Harris: [3:37] We have this idea of sacrifice in the center with that face, and then we have this idea in Aztec mythology that this era that we’re in was formed by two gods agreeing to sacrifice themselves.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:50] The sun is brought into creation by the gods sacrificing themselves, but at first it was static, it couldn’t move, and so then another god had to sacrifice himself in order to put the sun in motion.

[4:03] Then the idea is that because the gods have killed themselves willingly, that we as humans need to be feeding them through offerings, and that could include things like animal sacrifice, piercing of our body to give blood, or human sacrifice.

Dr. Harris: [4:18] We have, now, 20 glyphs or symbols, the 20 days, this basic unit of the Aztec calendar.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:25] Outside of that band of calendrical dates, we see the rays of the sun radiating outwards, and you see that the largest ones are pointed in the four cardinal directions.

Dr. Harris: [4:36] North, south, east, west.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:38] And their cosmos, or their universe, was thought to be divided into four quadrants associated with these four cardinal directions.

Dr. Harris: [4:44] Tenochtitlan, the city, the capital of the Aztec Empire, was divided also into four.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:50] Replicating that cosmological diagram of sorts.

Dr. Harris: [4:54] If we look closely at the outside band, we can see two serpents whose heads meet at the bottom center, and from whose mouths emerge two faces.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:03] These are called fire serpents, or in Nahuatl, Xiuhcoatl. They’re associated with time, with the solar calendar, and in some sources as carrying the sun across the sky.

Dr. Harris: [5:15] They, in a way, make time happen.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:17] Exactly. In terms of how we date this monument, there are a couple of other glyphs here that I just want to point out. Next to the date of Four Wind, if we’re going counterclockwise, [is] the royal insignia of Moctezuma II, so we typically date this monument to the reign of that Aztec ruler.

[5:35] Across from the insignia of Moctezuma II, right next to that jaguar head for the date Four Jaguar, we see a flint knife, one of these sacrificial blades. Next to it, we see a single dot, which reads as a date glyph for One Flint. One Flint could be read in two different ways. Some people associate that particular date with the beginning of the era of the fifth sun.

Dr. Harris: [5:59] What we have is a sense of the structure and order of the universe for the Aztecs.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [6:05] This is an object that is very present in our contemporary moment because it’s become so well-known. Yet, most people, they’re not aware of the really complicated messages being conveyed.

[6:16] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris, "The Sun Stone (or The Calendar Stone) (Aztec)," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed June 14, 2024,