The New Fire Ritual of the Mexica was a re-enactment of their creation myth. According to this myth the previous world age had ended in a cataclysmic flood: “there was water for 52 years and then the sky collapsed” (Hancock 16). In the midst of this desolation the Mexica gods gathered to reignite the fires of life and begin a new age. Two gods, Tecciztecal and Nanahuatzin stood before the sacred fire, Tecciztecal retreated before the scouring heat of the flames, but Nanahuatzin “made an effort and closed his eyes, and rushed forward and cast himself into the fire” (Hancock, qtd. 16-17). Nanahuatzin was consumed but also transformed through self-sacrifice into the Fifth Sun, which restored light and harmony to the world below.
According to the Mexica cosmovision, every 52 years human sacrifices were made in similar fashion to re-ignite the cosmic fire and stave off world cataclysm. The sacrificial victims were often 52 years old (Read 125). The time leading up to the 52 year mark was filled with insecurity and fear (Read 125). In preparation for the New Fire ritual, “all fires were extinguished, all wood and stone statues of gods kept in people’s homes cast into the water, and all cooking utensils and fire implements thrown away. Everything was swept clean and all rubbish disposed of” (Read 125). All things of the previous order were discarded. Darkness descended upon Mexica civilization in cosmic re-enactment of the end of the previous age: “Everywhere people perched on rooftops in the darkened valley; no one was touching the ground. All watched for the fire to be sparked above on an isolated mountaintop called Uixachtlan” (Read 125).
This mountain was known as the Hill of the Star (Jenkins 82). The star in question is actually a star cluster known as the Pleiades. The priests performing the ritual did so only when the Pleiades reached its zenith at midnight. Were the Pleiades to reach the zenith before or after midnight all believed the world would end (Jenkins 83). At the moment of the Pleiades zenith a sacrificial victim was laid upon an altar on the Hill of the Star and his heart was cut out (see figure 1). In his gaping chest a new fire was built that consumed his flesh. The new fire was started by a fire drill which image is the Mexica representation for the ceremony itself. The victim’s heart was fed back into the flames and once his entire body was consumed a faggot from this fire was taken and distributed throughout “all the regions of Mexica dominion” to rekindle the fire of civilization and to birth a new age (Read 126). The ritual ended with feasting and celebrating, and more human sacrifices, as the communal fires were rekindled from the sacrificial heart bathed in the starlight of the Pleiades.
The New Fire ritual is complex and subject to diverse interpretations; according to Read, no theory is sufficient to explain adequately the phenomenon (Read 128). Read herself explains the ritual in terms of a cosmic meal: “Death necessarily is accentuated in an eating environment such as the Mexica’s, because for one thing to eat, another must die” (Read 136). As the Mexica must eat from the resources of nature so also nature required sustenance from the Mexica, allowing a “dynamic exchange to occur in what is an ecological balancing act” (Read 136). In this view, the idea of human sacrifice is an ecological exchange: the cosmos feeds the community and therefore the community must feed the cosmos.
Read’s thesis focuses on the biological cycle of eating a meal: harvesting, eating, excrement. Read compares this cycle with the human sacrifice of the Mexica where the victim is harvested, eaten (by the cosmos) and whose remains are consumed leaving the ash of sustenance. It is an intriguing idea, but it clearly de-emphasizes the essential elements of the ritual: the heart, the new fire, and the Pleiades. All three of these features correspond not only to a Mexica cosmovision about creation and renewal, but to an entire, world-wide body of myth and ritual which also share these three key features. While space does not allow for an in-depth examination of these world-wide “coincidences”, a brief synopsis of some of them will show that the heart, the fire, and astral alignment, in this case with the Pleiades, are all synonymous images reinforcing an idea basic to ancient ritual–not an ecological exchange or biological meal–but a grand cosmology dealing with properties that can only be termed “soul.”
The whole complexity of the New Fire ritual can be symbolized by one salient image: the heart. In the ancient view, the heart was the nexus of all physiological processes, and it appears that ancient cultures understood it’s function of circulating and oxygenating the blood (Young 4-6). The heart creates life, not from ex-nihilo, out of nothing, but from a pumping action that causes the blood to flow throughout the four corners of the body. Blood whose nutriment has been used is renewed with the flame of life by cyclically reentering the chambers of the heart. The heart therefore, was the sacred center which both created and renewed the life of man.
The heart as symbol, however, was not a metaphor for tissue and blood. The heart was a referent for the processes and relationships which existed above (macrocosm) and below (microcosm). Furthermore, these vast realms of above and below were not divided, but as shall be seen, intrinsically connected. The New Fire ritual must be understood in these terms.
Heart as Macrocosm
The grand scope of the cosmos was often represented by the image of a heart (see figure 2). This is so because the human heart had a celestial correlation–an astral heart that served the exact same purposes. This astral heart was generally thought to be the sun. Like the human heart, the sun pumped a celestial blood (universally symbolized as fire) throughout the four corners of the world. It pumped this life-giving fluid through its four revitalizing chambers or cardinal points (equinoxes and solstices) or by its circulatory ascent to the apex of the grand arch of the sky (zenith). Thus the astral heart also created and renewed life over cycles of time. Indeed, its heartbeat was time: days, years, and world ages.
Curiously, the Mexica performed their New Fire rite in conjunction with the Pleiades and not the sun, and this is unique amongst so many ritual cosmologies. Perhaps, however, there is another understanding to be had, and as John Jenkins ingeniously observes, by performing the New Fire ritual in November when the Pleiades reached its zenith at midnight, the Mexica could track the true astral alignment they were supposedly reckoning: the sun-Pleiades conjunction which occurred exactly six months after the New Fire ritual (Jenkins 82-84). This conjunction cannot be seen because the light of the sun obscures the entire stellar background, yet it occurs like clockwork nevertheless, and was central to the Mexica zenith-cosmology (Jenkins 83).
Whatever the solar connection, it is clearly seen that the Pleiades zenith and/or its solar conjunction symbolized the heart of the sky continuously pumping the fecundating solar fire into the world, renewing its spin or energy around its center. The New Fire ceremony, therefore, is a rite completely transfixed upon the image of the zenith heart. We cannot ignore the importance that zenith cosmology has in ancient ritual. On the subject Mircea Eliade writes:
Let us dwell for a moment upon this mythological image of the zenith which is at the same time the Summit of the World and the ‘Center’ par excellence, the infinitesimal point through which passes the Cosmic Axis (Axis Mundi)…. A ‘Center’ represents an ideal point which belongs not to profane geometrical space, but to sacred space; a point in which communication with Heaven or Hell may be realized: in other words, a ‘Center’… where the planes intersect, the point at which the sensuous world can be transcended. (Eliade 75)
Many rituals around the world coincided with the New Fire ritual at least in this fact: they were performed on days of equinox, solstice, or zenith, and represented a ritualized renewal of life utilizing the solar fluids (symbolized by fire) which were produced by a pole or fire drill (symbolizing the Center). James Frazer in his Golden Bough records numerous such rituals throughout Europe where cosmic orientation, the extinguishing of lights and fires in the community, re-lighting those lights with a sacred flame, and starting that flame in many cases by a fire drill, or upon a pole or tree around which a wheel was turned letting friction ignite the flames, were performed to renew earth and sky (Frazer 246-293). These ritual elements can be seen across cultures (see figures 3-5).
By comparison, the Mexica fire drill can be nothing but an image of this axis-mundi, the cosmic pole or tree around which the universe flows and beats. It cannot be coincidence that the Mexica priests placed the fire drill in the place where the human heart had been. What better representation of connecting earth and sky by placing a pole between the hearts of each? The literal fire drill the priests used to rekindle the earthly flame was therefore a representation of the “Center”, above and below, around which the cosmic flames were produced.
Heart as Microcosm
Wherever we see zenith-solar cosmology we could say it is heart-cosmology. As Aristotle observed, the heart is the first organ to form in the embryo. It is the “prime mover of life” from which all things flow (Young 15). The heart is a cosmic center. This notion is to be understood literally. If the heavens have a heart, then the heart of man must contain the heavens.
We are dealing here with a highly metaphysical and mythological paradigm. It begins with the notion that man and the universe are intrinsically bound, especially through the heart of each. Paracelsus, writes:
Man is heaven and earth, and lower spheres, and the four elements, and whatever is within them, wherefore he is properly called by the name of microcosmos, for he is the whole world…know then that there is also within man a starry firmament with a mighty course of planets and stars that have exaltations, conjunctions and oppositions. The heart is the sun; and as the sun acts upon the earth and upon itself, so also acts the heart upon the body and upon itself. (Young 12)
This poetic idea is no idle metaphor, but an essential paradigm of ancient thought. The heart of man was the seat of life which produced a fire that revealed the gods and the cosmos within him. The heart of man was analogous to the sun, that orb which brings light, heat, and fecundation to the earth. Without the sun there is no life; therefore no firmament. Likewise, without the heart there is no life, no vital spark, no soul. Thus it is the human heart that brings the cosmos into view. The one does not feed upon the other, they in fact form a symbiotic relationship comparable to the covalent bond between atoms that share electrons. The cosmos is the hydrogen producing firmament, man is the oxygen breathing heart, together they form the waters of life.
Jacob Needleman remarks upon the same idea using different terms:
In this understanding [of the ancient cosmos], the earth is inextricably enmeshed in a network of purposes, a ladder or hierarchy of intentions. To the ancient mind, this is the very meaning of the concept of organization and order. A cosmos–and, of course, the cosmos–is an organism, not in the sense of an unusually complicated industrial machine, but in the sense of a hierarchy of purposeful energies. (Needleman 18)
This is a strange metaphysics to the modern mind, primarily because we view the cosmos differently than ancient man. The modern view sees the universe as interactions between torrential, impersonal powers through vast, profane space. This cosmovision holds no room for man; in this scheme of things he is viewed as a speck of dust with no purpose nor participation in cosmos at all. He is nothing. But this understanding is a recent invention, not accepted by the cultures of antiquity. Ancient man was a prime participant of the cosmos. He was a fulcrum point of “purposeful energies” placing him in the center of creation. Why? Because the anthropomorphic cosmos pumped its celestial fluids throughout all space until it too filled the heart of man. Man knew his encounter with cosmos when he felt a “burning” in the heart.
This concept is elegantly portrayed in a Sufi text called The Wisdom of the Throne, where cosmic paradise was termed the qalb, a word meaning heart, and whose earthly correlation was the heart of the faithful man. The text reads: “The heart of the man of true faith is the Throne of the Merciful,” and “…the heart of the man of true faith is the House of God” (Tvedtnes, Hauglid, and Gee 511). Here, the heart of man and the Throne of the Merciful are synonymous terms. It could be written: “The heart of the man of faith is the Heart of the Cosmos.” Again, this is to be taken literally.
An old Muslim tradition about Abraham also illustrates this idea and curiously shares many of the elements of the New Fire myth and ritual. Because Abraham would not submit to the idols of Namrūd he was tied to a pole (the fire drill) and set ablaze. In this story, however, the fire does not consume Abraham. Sarah, the king’s daughter, was curious and went to see if Abraham had burned. Coming to the great pyre she perceived Abraham was alive, sitting in the flames and in the heart of an orchard, which flames sent blossoms to the world below. Wanting to enter into this fiery realm Sarah asked how it could be done? Abraham responded, “Just repeat after me: ‘Whoever has God’s name in his heart and on his tongue will be unhurt.’” Sarah repeated the phrase and entered (Tvedtnes, Hauglid, and Gee 461-462; see figure 6).
In the Mexica myth, Nanahuatzin is immolated in a cosmic fire, and like Abraham is not slain, but transformed into the macrocosmic heart, the Fifth Sun, sending life (blossoms) to the world below. Nanahuatzin accomplishes this feat because in fact his heart is humble and saintly, unlike Tecciztecal, who is proud and boastful. There is something of Abraham in Nanahuatzin, and vice versa. Just as in the Sufi text, there is something of the faithful man in Abraham and Nanahuatzin. What is their common link? All have access to the heart of the cosmos, and therefore are enabled to bring about renewal of the cosmos, because their own microcosmic hearts are in tune, purified, saintly, burn with the fluids flowing from the heart above.
Anciently, the images of fire and heart through which man is connected with the cosmos keep showing up no matter where we look. Thus, in ancient China the heart’s element was fire, and it controlled the shên, the spirit or “divinely inspired part” that reveals the knowledge of all things (Young 7). In the Upanishad of the Embryo in India the heart is termed an “inner fire” that is the “seat of breath” (Young 9), and the source of life. In Kabbalah tradition, the heart of cosmos is the “vital sparks” which fill all worlds, nations, and creatures (Matt 31, 152). Paracelsus and the old alchemists all represented the heart as the center of the microcosm, source of life and renewal, and portrayed as a burning sun (Hall 151). Additionally, man’s heart was also shown with the universal tree rooted in it, revealing its relation to the great macrocosm above, (see figure 7). In Judeo-Christian literature, the word of god, or the logos, which procured illumination, is revealed as a burning in the heart (Jeremiah 20:9 & Luke 24:32). In Christian tradition, the logos is felt because of the sacrificial act of Christ, who, like Abraham, was tied to a post (again the fire drill), and who, like the Mexica sacrificial victim, had his heart pierced. Christ’s act of atonement thus allowed for his own energies to burn in the hearts of the believers (See figure 8).
Finally, this imagery and symbolism is also found in ancient Egypt, though in reverse terms. According to the Egyptian paradigm the soul of man, upon mortal death, enters the underworld facing challenges which test its very essence. In fact, no soul could endure the challenges unless, like both the Muslim and Christian traditions, it had been ritually purified in mortality by being initiated, and having God’s word written upon the heart. Without such preparation the soul would be outcast into darkness. This drama is portrayed in the Book of Caverns in a curious likeness to the Mexica New Fire ritual. Here, enemies of the sun whose souls cannot endure the cosmic flame have their hearts torn out and blood spouting from their chests (Schoch 106). The Book of Caverns reads: “O you who have fallen, without soul, into the Place of Terror….O you upside down ones, the bloodstained ones, whose hearts have been torn out, in the Place of Terror” (Lubicz 135). Schwaller de Lubicz interprets this passage as a sacred science wherein “the vital organs of the anthropocosmos” are related to “cosmic influences and human organs” (Lubicz 136). In other words, for the soul of man, represented by the Egyptians as the heart, to enter into Paradise, his heart must already be filled with the cosmic fluids, “be pure of heart”, and thereby enabled, like Abraham, to endure the cosmic flame. If he cannot his heart is torn asunder and cast into the “Place of Terror” where darkness and destruction await. This representation is also shown in the Book of the Dead, where the ib was weighed in the scales of cosmic judgement.
In all these traditions the heart of man is a cosmic entity which is the source of life, a place of burning, a receptor for intelligence, the logos, consciousness, and divinity. In other words, a receptor for what Needleman calls a “hierarchy of energies” in which both man and cosmos participate: each share the same heartbeat in an act of cosmic harmony. Simply put, Christ’s atonement is an exchange of soul, just as is Nanahuatzin, Abraham, or the Mexica sacrificial victim.
Problematically, the English language gives us only one word for heart, though even brief introspection recalls that this word has multiple meanings. One’s heart is an organ, but the word is also used in terms of a state of being or a state of action: “You have no heart!” or the opposite, “You have such a big heart!” In ancient Egypt there were two words for “heart”: haty was a term meaning the physical heart, and ib, was the word for the spiritual, emotional, heart-soul (Young 112). In all the traditions above, the heart of man is seen as his soul, and it is man’s soul that shares in the vital energies pumped out from the cosmic heart; just as it is man’s soul that shares in the cosmic nature itself: immortal, eternal, the flame of life.
The New Fire ritual is a creation of an axis-mundi linking the points of the axis to the heart of man and to the heart of the sky. The heart of man is not just a pumping, fleshy, organ, but a “microcosmos” analogous to the sun radiating microcosmic energies–energies of life. The Pleiades is not just a star cluster, but when bound with the zenith and solar conjunction, is the cosmic heart from which flow macrocosmic energies–these too are energies of the soul. Thus, the Mexica’s sacrificial heart is an ecological exchange of soul enacted on a cosmic stage.
Principally, man’s participation with cosmos was always displayed through a ritual re-enactment of cosmic processes: creation, renewal, and orientation to the sky and ground. In turn, cosmic processes were symbolized by the actions of the beating heart; it sent out life giving energies and returned them so that it might renew its potency through fire. This is exactly what the New Fire ceremony represents: it is a creation of cosmos through the sacrifice of a heart, the renewal of a cosmic age by the re-igniting of flame, and a re-orientation of cosmos under the light of the Pleiades. But ritual is always a two way street. And where the Mexica performed their ritual as an act of cosmic prolongation, they too saw it as an act of microcosmic creation. By re-enacting the acts of the gods, they were preparing themselves to become like the gods and to enter into their realm (Read 147).
So, like Abraham, the Sufi faithful, the Egyptian initiate, the enlightened Christian, or the Chinese shên, the Mexica were circulating soul, incorporating the cosmic flames into their souls and at the same time extending their vital energies (heart and microcosmos) to the realm above. According to this cosmovision, balance was preserved in both realms.
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