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Pre-Hispanic writing: detail of a mural by Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City

Aztec books - an introduction

We’re grateful to our Research Officer, Julia Flood, for this entry-level piece on Aztec/Mexica books and writing. Thanks, Julia, for kickstarting our new section on Aztec Writing with this excellent introduction, aimed at young learners...

Pic 1: A facsimile edition of the Codex Laud screenfold book (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)
Pic 1: A facsimile edition of the Codex Laud screenfold book (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) (Click on image to enlarge)

Do you like to read amoxtin?
Amoxtli or amoxtin (plural) is the Náhuatl (language of the Aztecs) word for ‘book’. According to sixteenth century sources, the Aztecs had vast libraries that explored many different subjects from family histories, to religious books. The Spanish conquistadors, who conquered the city of Tenochtitlan in 1521, rejected many aspects of Aztec culture and destroyed these libraries and their contents because of their non-Christian subject matter.
However, after the conquest some religious and administrative establishments asked some Nahua (Aztec) elders to write their histories once more so that the Spanish might better understand their culture and ancient land rights. The books made during this period are considered to be colonial (made in the 1520s or after).

Pic 2: The toponym for Huitzilopochco. Codex Mendoza, fol. 20
Pic 2: The toponym for Huitzilopochco. Codex Mendoza, fol. 20 (Click on image to enlarge)

What was a book made of?
Aztec books were widely varied in their material of production, which ranged from tree bark, to European paper, cactus fibre and animal skins.
Books were painted!
We often call Aztec books ‘codices’, which is a medieval word for ‘book’ or ‘manuscript’. Pre-Hispanic and colonial codices communicated through painted pictures, not words. However, some colonial codices show pictures accompanied by European writing. This must have been for the benefit of Spanish readers. In each codex, some pictures mimicked the spoken word (logograms), whilst others showed ideas (pictograms and ideograms). Here (pic 2) is an example of a toponym, a picture that describes a place. This is the toponym for the Aztec town of Huitzilopochco. If you were an Aztec you would read the picture as a hummingbird on a blue background. The colour blue is synonymous with the sun and, therefore, the sun god Huitzilopochtli, whose name was Left Hand Hummingbird. People who could read this sign would identify the humming bird and the blue background with Huiztilopochtli.

Pic 3: One of the 4 double-page sacred calendar sections of the Codex Cospi, showing 65 days in 5 rows of 13
Pic 3: One of the 4 double-page sacred calendar sections of the Codex Cospi, showing 65 days in 5 rows of 13 (Click on image to enlarge)

The shape of a codex
Codices from the colonial period look like the books and documents we read today – they could be loose sheets, scrolls, or be bound at the spine and read from left to right. Pre-Hispanic books, on the other hand, were often presented as screen-folds, an accordion-like arrangement which could be spread out and read in their entirety. In pre-Hispanic times, people did not read from left to right; the direction depended on the book and it was sometimes a very complicated affair (see pic 3)! You can see a picture of a screenfold codex above (pic 1) and at the end of this article.

Pic 4: Pre-Hispanic scribes prepare natural colourings... (detail from a mural by Diego Rivera, National Palace)
Pic 4: Pre-Hispanic scribes prepare natural colourings... (detail from a mural by Diego Rivera, National Palace) (Click on image to enlarge)

Who made codices?
The people who painted codices were called tlacuilos, which we loosely translate as ‘scribes’. They were men and women who were well educated and specially trained, often members of the Aztec nobility. Not everyone could read codices, so those who knew how to paint and interpret them had the unique advantage of being able to tell other people what they were about. The books were ‘mnemonic’, which means that the pictures they contained served as prompts or key reminders of lists, songs, stories, religious rituals and myths that were not written down but formed part of Aztec oral history. The Aztecs would tell these stories while they displayed the codices at religious ceremonies or formal occasions.

Pic 5: Page 5 of the Codex Borbonicus, thought to be a pre-Hispanic ritual codex. Here, we can see the calendar week of 1 Reed. Children born under this sign were predicted to have bad luck!
Pic 5: Page 5 of the Codex Borbonicus, thought to be a pre-Hispanic ritual codex. Here, we can see the calendar week of 1 Reed. Children born under this sign were predicted to have bad luck! (Click on image to enlarge)

Pre-Hispanic codices
Pre-Hispanic codices were written before the conquest. There are very few of these left remaining. With only 16 in Mexico, 2 of these are considered to be Aztec. Pre-Hispanic codices varied in theme, but only two types remain for us to see: ritual books, which talked about religion, the lunar and solar calendars and the gods. They also allowed priests to predict good and bad omens for the future. The second type, histories, focused on the actions of great leaders, and the history of their people. The two surviving pre-Hispanic Aztec codices are the Codex Borbonicus and the Tonalamatl Aubin.

Pic 6: Page 9 of the (colonial period) Codex Xolotl; figures are joined together by lines which place them in a family tree. This makes their relationships and family ties easy to see
Pic 6: Page 9 of the (colonial period) Codex Xolotl; figures are joined together by lines which place them in a family tree. This makes their relationships and family ties easy to see (Click on image to enlarge)

Colonial codices
There are around 500 codices that were made after the Spanish conquered the Aztecs in 1521. You might ask why these books have survived if the Spanish were so eager to destroy them just a few years before! There are many answers to this question. One of them is that Spanish friars, in charge of converting indigenous communities to Catholicism, were eager to better understand indigenous cultures in order to make religious education easier. Therefore, they asked people to write their histories and customs. Additionally, native leaders needed to show proof of their lands and ancestry so that they could be claimed and recognised by the colonial authorities. This led to many maps and family trees being produced.

Pic 7: A Spanish ‘encomendero’ sets Nahua (Aztec) men on fire. Folio 8 of the Codex Kingsborough
Pic 7: A Spanish ‘encomendero’ sets Nahua (Aztec) men on fire. Folio 8 of the Codex Kingsborough (Click on image to enlarge)

Some codices were produced in order to highlight the bad treatment that indigenous communities experienced at the hands of Spanish enconmenderos (landowners who received tribute from local communities in exchange for conversion to Catholicism and instruction in Spanish). For example, here is a page from the Codex Kingsborough, a document supporting a legal dispute between the Indians of Tepelaoztoc and Don Válezquez de Salazar. You can see from this page that the indigenous people experienced harsh treatment at the hands of the Spanish. Here, they are being burned alive for not delivering tribute on time!

Pic 8: The Codex Zouche-Nuttall at the British Museum displayed in its original screen-fold presentation
Pic 8: The Codex Zouche-Nuttall at the British Museum displayed in its original screen-fold presentation (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 in Gallery 27 of the British Museum is a facsimile (a faithful replica) of the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, a pre-Hispanic historical document painted by the Mixtecs, who lived in present day Oaxaca in Mexico.

Picture sources:-
• Main picture (detail - pre-Hispanic scribes - from a mural on the history of Mexico by Diego Rivera in the National Palace, Mexico City): photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 1, 3 and 4: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: image (folio 20r, detail) from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 London facsimile edition
• Pix 5 and 7: images supplied by Julia Flood
• Pic 6: image from the Codex Xolotl from www.amoxcalli.org.mx
• Pic 8: from Wikipedia.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Nov 13th 2013

emoticon Did you know the Bible is a collection of screenfold books, cleverly disguised? Remember the Gospel ‘accordion’ to St. Luke, the Gospel ‘accordion’ to St. Mark, the Gospel ‘accordion’ to...

Learn more about Aztec toponyms...

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Sounds like two interesting lines of research...! Please keep us posted!
Mexicolore replies: Good questions, Yann, and sorry for the long delay in replying. We can only offer a few general comments here...
• The Aztec writing/painting style evolved out of and benefitted from its neighbours; it is an eclectic style, incorporating the ‘best’ of preceding cultures
• It’s impossible to separate ‘Aztec style books’ from those of other cultures: many elements were shared; eg the ‘Aztec’ Codex Borbonicus contains a similar iconography to that of the more southerly cultures, and there are iconographic representations in Aztec sculptures (such as those on the Tizoc stone) that are similar to those found in the Mixtec Codex Zouche-Nuttall
• The more geometric ‘patterned’ style from the Mixtec simply became more refined, well defined and matured in Tenochtitlan
• The Aztecs added their own distinctively cosmological style, reflecting the central role of history and mission in their ideology.
So things are very far from being clear-cut or black-and-white!