By Kirby Vickery from the September 2013 Edition
I find it a little ironic that I am entitling this series in Roman Numerals. A numbering system which did not recognize ‘zero’ as a number place and required a little subtraction and addition just to read an existing number (or numeral) without or before doing anything with it.
The irony is that the Aztec’s created and used a set of glyphs for their numbers which included a ‘zero’ and could be lined up and have mathematical functions run on them as we do with our Arabic generated numbering system. These glyphs are like those of the Egyptians only they were developed much later (1325).
The Aztec’s numbering system was built on a numbering system with a base of 20 and it is called a ‘Vigesimal’ system. We use a decimal system while our computers use binary (base 2), octal (base 8) and hexadecimal (base
16). The Aztec or the Mexica people’s treatment of the zero was unique in that it was represented by a shell surrounding the other symbols, mainly dots (representing fingers) and lines (representing five dots).
This meant that each group of symbols up to and including twenty were represented by one symbol as our numbering system does with our individual characters of zero thru nine
(Source: Luis Ortiz-Franco, The Aztec number system, algebra, and ethno mathematics,, in Judith Elaine Hankes and Gerald R. Fast, eds., Perspectives on Indigenous People of North America National Council of Teachers of Mathematics: Reston, VA, 2002, pp. 238-241.)
The Mexica were late comers into what is now the American southwest and into Mexico. Their governing city was Tenochtitlan, which is now Mexico City. Being warlike they would overtake the holders of land all the way into Central America. With that being done they would install a local king or leader and demand tribute back to Tenochtitlan. Their gain is figured to be one of the major causes of some of the older civilizations and cultures declining and reverting back into the jungles. It also made up many hybrid cultures which are all rich in their own take on mythologies even though most have at least one common thread.
How Music came to the Aztec World
The sky god, Tezcatipoca had grown tired of fighting with Quetzalcoatl who was the very powerful wind god so he called for a meeting on a high and distant mesa. He was pleased that Quetzalcoatl had accepted his invitation but was becoming vexed because was being forced to wait for a long time because Quetzalcoatl wasn’t any where to be seen. Finally, just as the sun was going down, the god of the sky saw the god of the wind sweeping down toward him.
Quetzalcoatl landed close by and started telling Tezcatipoca why he was late. “I’ve been very busy.” The wind god said. “This is hurricane season and I’ve been hard at work making huge waves. The reason that you brought me here had better be more important than that.”
“Oh it is,” replied Tezcatipoca. “Just stop your huffing and puffing for a second and listen and tell me what you hear.”
So he stopped and cocked his ear to the four different directions for a minute and said, “I don’t hear anything but animals scraping around and rain hitting the ground here and there, so what?”
“That’s exactly my point, Wind. You hear nothing. No one is singing or playing notes or anything joyous or fun.
Outside of your roaring and wave crashing where isn’t any music or sounds that would make folks smile. This world needs to be awakened with something new and joyous. We need to have music.”
“Well, don’t look at me. I don’t have any music,” cried the wind god.
“Everyone knows that you don’t have anything like that, but I know where we can find some. Our friend the Sun god has had music for himself for ages and generations. He surrounds himself with instrument players and those that sing every day. The problem is that he won’t share ‘Won’t share?’ said Quetzalcoatl. “That’s not fair.”
“I know,” said Tezcatlipoca. “ So listen, oh great god of the Wind. You’re the only god that can get these things. I want you to travel to the House of the Sun and bring back the best singers and the best musicians. Remember,” he said as the wind god unfolded his wings, “we need to wake up the world. We need music!” Then he wondered if he had laid it on a little too thick. But, he soon realized he hadn’t when Quetzalcoatl started to unfold his wings with a very serious expression strapped onto his face. Quetzalcoatl hurled himself into the air. He flew over land and sea, searching the endless coastline for a single beach. He knew there was only one way he could travel to the House of the Sun.
Spying the beach at last, he landed and called out the names of the sky god’s three servants. When Cane And Conch, Water Woman, and Water Monster appeared, he ordered them to make a bridge.
The servants grabbed hold of each other and began to morph into three long and very thin things. Then they began to twist themselves into a long, thin, but very strong rope which disappeared into the sky.
Quetzalcoatl climbed the bridge, following it higher and higher, as the earth grew smaller and smaller below. At the top of the rope above the clouds he finally came to the House of the Sun.
He could see its towers shimmering in the distance. Getting to them was not so easy, though. He had to find his way through a maze of streets with high walls and kept getting lost while going around in circles. Nearly ready to give up, he heard a beautiful sound that he had never heard before. It was cool and bright. It was sweet and light. It was music. Quetzalcoatl followed the sound until it led him out of the maze. Then he saw the musicians in the great courtyard of the Sun. The flute players were dressed in golden yellow. The wandering minstrels wore blue. The lullaby singers were dressed in white, and the singers of love songs wore red.
When the Sun saw Quetzalcoatl he told them to stop playing and singing. He looked at them and said: “It’s that terrible wind! Don’t even speak to him, or he will take you back to that silent planet of his!”
Quetzalcoatl lifted his wings and called to the musicians to join him. But none of them moved.
Becoming a little irritated, he called to them again saying: “‘Singers! Musicians! The Lord of the Sky commands you!
Still the musicians remained silent.
Quetzalcoatl wasn’t one who tolerated being ignored and exploded with anger, like a hundred hurricanes going off at once. Lightning cracked and thunder boomed and clouds swirled around the House of the Sun, turning the daylight into darkness.
The wind god roared as if there was no end to his voice. Everything fell down. The Sun flickered like a tiny flame. The musicians ran to the wind and huddled in his lap, trembling with fear.
Instantly the wind’s anger passed. The thunder faded and the clouds vanished. Quetzalcoatl took the musicians in his arms and left the House of the Sun, moving through the maze as if it were not there.
The wind god was filled with great happiness as he followed the sky bridge back to earth. He felt like a father carrying his children home.
The earth also felt something new was coming. Something it needed and had been secretly wishing for. As the wind god came nearer, the earth let out a slow sigh of relief. Its fruit began to ripen and its flowers began to bloom with new, deeper colors. The whole planet seemed to be waking up from a long sleep.
Finally Quetzalcoatl touched down on the earth with the musicians and singers. They looked around curiously at the silent, waiting planet. Then they began to play.
Through forests and valleys and deserts and oceans they wandered, filling the air with music. Soon people learned to sing and play, and so did the trees and birds, the whales and wolves, the running streams, the crickets and frogs, and every other creature.
From dawn to dusk the melodies spread until music covered the earth. The wind god was pleased. So was the sky god. The musicians were happy with their new home. And ever since that day, the earth has been filled with music.