The Renewing Sun

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K'inich Ajaw

Despite the Maya civilization's obsessions with timekeeping and astronomy, the sun itself received very little worship. Whenever the sun was presented as a god, he was often portrayed with a shark tooth jutting from his upper jaw and large eyes flaring into a petal ring, the latter inspiring the name K'inich Ajaw, the 'Sun-Eye Lord.' Many Maya kings likened themselves to the sun, which became rejuvenated as it rose each morning.

National Museum of Anthropology and History


The Aztecs had vivid myths about the sun’s origins and purposes. Much like the Aztecs themselves, the sun emerged from lowly origins and vigorous sacrifice. The crippled, postulate god Nanahuatzin cast himself into a bonfire and became the brilliant sun to light the earth. Tonatiuh is Nahuatl for 'Goes Along Radiating,' from the verb tona which describes the sun as both bright and hot. This ceramic brings out the sun god's intense warm hues, which focus on ochre and gold. The sun's triangular rays point outward along the yellow circle surrounding him.

National Museum of Anthropology


Sacrifice was a fundament of Aztec religion because it kept the gods fed and alive to maintain the cosmos. They could thus justify their conquest of other nations because they were civilizing the world and also sustaining the natural order. Every 52 years the universe reached a precarious threshold when the sun risked getting extinguished. To prevent this the Aztecs held a major ceremony that included "tying" the past 52 years together, each as a stick into a full bundle. The Aztec priests would then burn the 52 sticks to conclude the cycle and pray for the renewal of the sun for the next 52 years – until the time to renew the sun again. This stone sculpture features the bound sticks representing the years and the year of Two Reed, the year reserved for this great occasion.

National Museum of Anthropology

The Year Serpents

The Calendar Stone is not only the most iconic work of Mesoamerican art but also one of the most complex, and parts of its readings remain controversial. Two great Xiuhcoatl Year Serpents run down the perimeter and meet at the bottom of the monument's face. Their monstrous jaws open to expose profile faces of the gods of fire and sun, on left and right, respectively. As their sacrificial blade tongues touch, together they represent the continuity of night and day. Too much of one or the other would endanger life on earth and the order of the cosmos itself, so these two principles required balance.

National Museum of Anthropology and History

The Sun Lord

By the Colonial Period the Zapotecs called the sun Pitao Copichja, god of sun and war. This relief from Oaxaca features the sun god in a halo of rays.
Many Mesoamerican religions compared the sun to a powerful bird: the Aztecs, Cora, and Huichol likened it to an eagle. The Zapotec and (to an extent) the Maya related the macaw’s intense red plumage to the sun, especially during its descent toward the earth. A common belief across the area was that upon its setting the sun entered the underworld. Every night it underwent trials through the spirit worlds yet victoriously returned to the sky by morning, thus renewing itself daily.

Regional Museum of the Cultures of Oaxaca