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General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 30 Mar 2017/4 Flower
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An Aztec book

Basic Aztec facts: AZTEC BOOKS

The Aztecs read painted books! The Aztec city of Tenochtitlan had books which they called amoxtin. 500 years ago, many of these books were kept in libraries. However, Spanish conquerors arrived shortly after and destroyed all the books they could, thinking that they were evil! Tenochtitlan is now modern day Mexico City, but the few books that were written before the conquest are now spread all over the world! (Written by Julia Flood/Mexicolore)

The Florentine Codex now lives in Italy
The Florentine Codex now lives in Italy (Click on image to enlarge)

After the Spanish conquered Mexico, some native people who remembered the days of the Aztecs wrote their own memories of Aztec history, religion and maps. We still have many of these colonial texts in our libraries and museums, like the Florentine Codex (pic 1).

Pic 2: A ‘screenfold’ book from ancient Mexico
Pic 2: A ‘screenfold’ book from ancient Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

What were books made of?
Aztec books (or ‘codices’) made before the Spanish conquest did not look like they do now. For example, their pages were often folded together like an accordion (pic 2). This type of binding is called ‘screen-fold’. They could be made from tree bark, cactus fibre and animal skins.

Pic 3: The place-sign for Huitzilopochco. Codex Mendoza
Pic 3: The place-sign for Huitzilopochco. Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

Books were painted!
We use the alphabet to read, but traditional Aztec books could be read through painted pictures that showed people symbols and ideas. Here (pic 3) is an example of a picture that describes a place. This is the Aztec city of Huitzilopochco. If you were an Aztec this picture would mean a hummingbird on a blue background. The colour blue reminded the Aztecs of the sun and the warrior god Huitzilopochtli, whose name was Left Hand Hummingbird. People who could read this sign would identify the humming bird and the blue background with Huitzilopochtli.

Pic 4: An Aztec elder tells a story from an Aztec book
Pic 4: An Aztec elder tells a story from an Aztec book (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec books were also ‘mnemonic’, which means that their paintings were supported by songs, histories, prayers and myths that were spoken out loud. The Aztecs would tell these stories while they displayed their books at religious ceremonies or formal occasions.

Pic 5: An Aztec book painter. Codex Mendoza
Pic 5: An Aztec book painter. Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

Who made books?
The people who painted codices were men and women who were well educated and specially trained, often members of the Aztec nobility (pic 5). Pre-Hispanic books varied in theme, but only two types remain for us to see: books which talked about religion, calendars and the gods; and histories, which focused on the actions of great leaders, and the history of their people.

Pic 6: A Spanish landlord sets native men on fire. Codex Kingsborough
Pic 6: A Spanish landlord sets native men on fire. Codex Kingsborough (Click on image to enlarge)

Colonial books were books written after the arrival of the Spanish. They covered many themes such as the bad treatment that native people received from Spanish landowners. Here (pic 6) is a page from the Codex Kingsborough, a document showing the struggle between the Indians of Tepetlaoztoc and Don Velázquez de Salazar. You can see from this page that the native people experienced terrible treatment at the hands of the Spanish. Here, they are being burned alive for not delivering payment on time!

Pic 7: The Codex Zouche-Nuttall in the British Museum (top); the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, Liverpool World Museum (below)
Pic 7: The Codex Zouche-Nuttall in the British Museum (top); the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, Liverpool World Museum (below) (Click on image to enlarge)

Go and visit a codex!
Did you know that some of the most incredible pre-Hispanic and colonial codices can be found in British Museums? On display at the Liverpool World Museum is the Codex Fejérváry Mayer, a pre-Hispanic religious document probably painted in southwest in Mexico.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 29th 2015

emoticon Q. Why might we call a battered old Aztec book ‘DOG-eared’?
A. Because it was made of tree BARK...

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