Night of the Demons

In the Aztec empire, every fifty-two years, once in an average lifetime, the world was on the verge of coming to an end. The sun would no longer move, night would be eternal, and man-eating demons would descend to rule the earth.

On that day all fires were extinguished, and floors were swept clean. Old clothes, the images of gods kept in the house, the hearthstones on which cooking pots were kept, mats, pestles, and grindstones were cast into lakes and rivers. Pregnant women were given maguey masks and locked in granaries; if the world ended, they would turn into monsters.

That night, everyone dressed in new clothes, climbed onto terraces and rooftops; no one touched the ground. Children were poked and threatened, to keep them awake; those who slept would wake up as mice. In Tenochtitlan, the capital, eyes were fixed on the temple atop the Hill of the Star. There, at midnight, the priests were watching the stars called Tianquitzli, the Marketplace, our Pleiades, to see if they would cross the meridian and ensure another fifty-two years of life.

In the temple, a prisoner without physical blemishes, with a name meaning turquoise, year, fire, grass, or comet— words that denote precious time— was stretched across a flat stone with a piece of wood on his chest. As the Tianquitzli constellation crossed the line, a priest began furiously spinning his fire drill into the wood. A little smoke, a few sparks, and then, as the wood took flame, the prisoner’s chest was slit open with an obsidian knife, his heart pulled out and set in the fire. Four bundles of tied wood, each with thirteen logs, were piled around him so that his whole body was consumed by flames. As the bonfire became visible, the people slashed their ears and the ears of their children, scattering blood toward the flames.

Messengers carried torches from the Hill of the Star to the principal temples, and from there to the palaces, and from the palaces, street by street, house by house, until the whole city was lit again. All night, relay runners carried the new fire throughout the empire. People threw themselves at the fire to be blessed with blisters.

Children born in the night were given the name New Time. In the morning new mats were spread out, new hearthstones placed, incense lit, and honey-dipped amaranth seed cakes eaten by all. Quails were decapitated.

—Eliot Weinberger, An Elemental Thing

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