Decades ago I saw an aerial photograph of Mexcaltitán in a book by John Michell.1 It wasn’t so much what Michell claimed for the place (because his books are academic fiction) — it was the way the photograph made you feel. The photograph is of a lagoon with a cosmic anchor point.

One of the magical villages of Mexico, Mexcaltitán is a wonderful destination if you are a birder or nature-lover, or simply like to visit interesting places.

Some say it is the birthplace of the Méxica (“Aztecs”). Jesus Jauregui2 of INAH notes that no one has undertaken serious fieldwork in the village, so the truth still awaits discovery.

That doesn’t stop anyone from looking at aerial photographs and wondering about the place.
Mexcaltitán is sometimes known as the Venice of Mexico because during the rainy season the streets become canals, and people punt around town. It is a lovely way to commute — except for the mosquitoes!

One of the “avenues”. Photo by Cate Bramble, all rights reserved.

Actually a better candidate for Venice was ancient Tenochtitlán because the streets were permanent canals, according Bernal Diaz de Castillo:

we saw that from every house of that great city and of all the other cities that were built in the water it was impossible to pass from house to house, except by drawbridges which were made of wood or in canoes … 3

Tenochtitlán was divided into four sectors, just like Mexcaltitán today. A central plaza, like the Great Teocalli, contains the church and museum. Mexcaltitán could be an old city. The state of Nayarit (which contains Mexcaltitán) was a nice place to live during the Neolithic.

The world is a flower with four petals in the cosmology of ancient Mexico. Tenochtitlán before the coming of the Europeans

had a huge temple at the ritual cenre of quadrants: beneath the temple was the underworld filled with the sacrificial bodies of celestial and terrestrial animals.4

Nobody knows whether there was an intersection in ancient Mexcaltitán that had to be fed regularly, as there was in Tenochtitlán. But foursquare is classic Neolithic thinking.5 The Maya bacab (jaguars) anchor the sky at each cardinal point:

  • East is a red jaguar
  • North is a white jaguar
  • West is a black jaguar
  • South is a yellow jaguar
  • The center is green.

Ancient Chinese used the foursquare philosophy very early in their cosmology. Because precession shifts the cardinal points westward 30 degrees over roughly 2000 years, humans developed mythologies of worlds “dying,” “drowning,” and the like, and being reborn. Astronomer Nu Gua established a new calendar and cardinal directions using the sawed-off feet of a huge turtle — she reset the heaven-round, Earth-square “mandala” (tianyuan difang) for the stars of her time. Yao would do the same around 2300 BCE.6 This would be repeated throughout Chinese history.

It is Nu Gua’s turtle that made me look again at Mexcaltitán.

This turtle recorded a lunar eclipse of 27 March 1373 BCE for King Wuding of the Shang. (You get a sense of the beginnings of Five Element Theory in Shang China: sacrifice to the cardinal directions while crack-making.)

The cosmic turtle in numeric form.

The cover of Sarah Allan’s book shows one way that the cosmic turtle was interpreted, and it included a directional scheme.

Long before King Wuding, Chinese were creating the Cosmic Turtle as a schematic, like the famous jade below, that Li Xueqin links with feng shui.

Famous Neolithic jade linked by Li Xueqin to the Luopan.

Ao, the Great Turtle, had the head of a dragon, the back of a tortoise, and the tail of a qilin (which, depending on the times, might be interpreted as the tail of a giraffe, a lion, a horse, or other animal). Ao was allegedly defeated after 72 battles (72 is an astronomical number), and transformed into a dragon.

The tale of Ao explains why there is a “snake” wrapped around the body of the Mysterious Turtle (the circumpolar region or “Central Palace,” the most sacred part of the Chinese sky). Ao indicates a time between the autumnal equinox and the spring equinox — the yin part of a year — for the qilin signifies the west, the turtle signifies the north, and the dragon identifies the east.

Now that we have his position in the sky we know that Ao moves with the apparent path of the sun, and he is facing south.

In astronomy at the time of the Han, only two lunar mansions or xiu — Xu and Wei — were associated with the turtle. When the other xiu came to be added to the system, Ji (which is the seventh xiu of the Green Dragon) contained the ancient Bie (River Turtle) constellation (Corona Australis). Thus Bie was tangled in the Dragon’s tail.7

For a later age, the River Turtle was “born” as an intertwined dragon tail (a snake, which is a “little dragon”) and a turtle. After all, Tengshe (alpha Lac), the “snake of heaven,” mated with river turtles (Bie) and tortoises (Gui).

You may recall the old story that Fuxi discovered the Luoshu on the back of Bie, the River Turtle, who crawled out of a tributary of the Yellow River (in this case, the Celestial River or Milky Way). Ao and Bie are the same turtle, but explained for the skies of their times.

You can’t tell time by the clocks (or the streets)

Without archaeological analysis, it is difficult to know whether those who originally oriented the Mexcaltitán streets did so with any precision. Google Earth is no help because the resolution is poor. You have to look at the shape of the village, look at photographs, and try to compose the city in your head. (You would have better luck knowing the original designers of Manhattanhenge.)

In the lagoon. Photo by Cate Bramble. All rights reserved.

Everywhere the ancients used sightlines: people observed where the sun or stars met a feature of the landscape (the sacbeob in some instances). Consider the precision of measurements elsewhere in Mexico. 

With the flatness of the lagoon, where would the sightlines originate on the neighboring hills? You couldn’t see the hills for the vegetation, unless the landscape was very different then.

Maybe accurate solar alignment was not a concern. As some researchers have observed,8 once the cosmology is in place, you need only approximate conditions for people to see the world in terms of sacred geography.

Which leaves us right back where we started: a cosmic anchor point in a lagoon.


  1. John Michell. The Earth Spirit: Its Ways, Shrines, and Mysteries. New York: Avon Books, 1975.
  2. Jesus Jauregui. Mexcaltitlan-Aztlan: Un nuevo mito. Arqueologia 67.
  3. Miguel Leon-Portilla (trans.). The Broken Spears. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.
  4. David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce: Inside the Neolithic Mind. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Sun Xiaochun and Jacob Kistemaker. The Chinese Sky During the Han. Leiden: Brill, 1997.
  7. Ibid.
  8. James J. Aimers and Prudence M. Rice. Astronomy, Ritual, and the Interpretation of Maya “E-Group” Architectural Assemblages. Ancient Mesoamerica (2006), 17: 79-96.