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Mexicolore contributor on the Aztecs Katarzyna Mikulska

Central Mexican Writing Systems

We’re hugely grateful to Dr. Katarzyna Mikulska, Research Professor at the Institute for Iberic and Ibero-American Studies, University of Warsaw (Poland) and a specialist in religious pre-Hispanic codices, for this valuable and enlightening introduction to the writing systems and books of the ancient Mesoamericans - in particular, of those inhabitants, like the Aztecs/Mexica, from the Central Highlands of Mexico.

Pic 1: Replica of the Codex Borbonicus, on display in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 1: Replica of the Codex Borbonicus, on display in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

One of the most intriguing questions about the Aztecs is whether they had a writing system like ours. As we encounter Mesoamerican books, we find that they are very different from our own books which have lines of letters, with the letters forming words, the words forming sentences, the sentences forming paragraphs and chapters, and so on. In Aztec books, in contrast, there are plenty of images, drawings, colours, figures, mountains, buildings, and so on. Is it possible that this strange system could, at least in part, be as effective as our writing? Or perhaps it more resembles images from Medieval religious or Classic mythological paintings?

Pic 2: Classic ‘screenfold’ format: replica of the Codex Laud (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)
Pic 2: Classic ‘screenfold’ format: replica of the Codex Laud (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) (Click on image to enlarge)

To begin with, we shouldn’t doubt that the ancient inhabitants of Mesoamerica had books. They were, of course, different from ours, because they were made with bark paper called amatl (in Nahuatl), or with prepared deer skin. They were not made of pages sewn together on one side. Instead, they were usually made of a long strip or strips, folded like a folding screen or a hand fan (pic 2: folded codex). They were called amoxtli in Nahuatl, but this name often was used together with tezcatl, “mirror”, forming an expression composed of two elements (a diphrasism) in amoxtli in tezcatl, “the book, the mirror”.

Pic 3: A diviner determines the prognosis of an illness by casting maize kernels. Codex Magliabechiano folio 78r
Pic 3: A diviner determines the prognosis of an illness by casting maize kernels. Codex Magliabechiano folio 78r (Click on image to enlarge)

These terms referred not only to sacred books, but also to the cloth on which diviners cast maize grains or beans to perform a divination (Olivier 2004: 454-455; pic 3); to a patient’s arm, on which a prognostication was carried out, or to tobacco, which served as a powerful medium for gaining insight into the other world. In its full sense, in amoxtli in tezcatl, “the book, the mirror”, seems to refer to any “portal” to the other or divine world, where religious specialists looked for a cure, guidance or any other solution to their patients’ or clients’ problems. We can therefore appreciate that amoxtli was not necessarily a book-like object with rows of letters, but essentially something that facilitated insight into a world normally hidden from the eyes of ordinary people (cf. Díaz 2011: 102).

Pic 4: One of the 4 double-page sacred calendar sections of the Codex Cospi, showing 65 days in 5 rows of 13
Pic 4: 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)

Certainly, this perspective is connected most directly with the divinatory books, such as the Codex Borgia, Vaticanus B, Cospi, Fejérváry-Mayer, Laud, Manuscrito Aubin No. 20 and part of the Codex Porfirio Díaz, which are commonly called the “Borgia group” (here it should be noted that Batalla Rosado has recently questioned the accuracy and utility of this name and concept), and the Codex Borbonicus and Tonalamatl de Aubin. Beyond these, it is still possible that other codices, such as the Codex Xolotl or Codex Vindobonensis could have had, as one of their functions, the provision of moral and security advice to people (Offner, personal communication 2012). But we cannot say the same of other later supposedly divinatory codices, such as the Codex Telleriano-Remensis or Codex Vaticano A, because they were created to help missionaries understand indigenous religion and improve their evangelization efforts.

Pic 5: Fragment of the marriage almanac (Codex Borgia, sheet 60). In this specific part, the reading order is from left to right
Pic 5: Fragment of the marriage almanac (Codex Borgia, sheet 60). In this specific part, the reading order is from left to right (Click on image to enlarge)

How was the information in the divinatory books transmitted? First, the book was divided into sections – which we can easily compare to our chapters – of different almanacs. These were based on different calendric cycles and contained augural information, concerning the future of new born infants, marriages (pic 5), journeys (pic 6), and so on, or more specifically, information about the fortune of specific days, that was used to decide what kind of action should be undertaken on that particular day rather than on another.
In picture 5, the augury is made taking into account the date of birth of the couple to be married. If one of them was born on, let’s say, day 3-rabbit, and the other on the day 8-rain, the sum of the numbers is 11, so the augury for them is to be found in the box with 11 colorful circles - the left-hand one of the three in the picture; the middle box has 12, the right-hand one has 13...

Pic 6: Fragment of the travel almanac for merchants (Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, sheets 35-36). The reading order is from right to left
Pic 6: Fragment of the travel almanac for merchants (Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, sheets 35-36). The reading order is from right to left (Click on image to enlarge)

Every almanac was divided into sections, ascribed to a certain date or period, or periods of time starting on special dates (pic 7). As the almanac generally followed the calendar cycle, that is to say that the sections were organized according to a concrete calendar order, it was easy for the diviner to find quickly a section for which he was looking, in the same way as it is easy for us to find information we are seeking in an encyclopaedia or dictionary. This is exactly the same way we use our encyclopaedias or even a Bible - we know precisely where to look for certain information in the same way as the pre-Hispanic specialists knew where to look for the data they needed.

Pic 7: Information ascribed to periods of time called ‘trecena’ (period of 13 days); Codex Borgia, sheets 47-48
Pic 7: Information ascribed to periods of time called ‘trecena’ (period of 13 days); Codex Borgia, sheets 47-48 (Click on image to enlarge)

In picture 7, the first day of a ‘trecena’ (period of 13 days) is marked with a concrete sign, as well as the fifth and 13th, and the others are represented just as red circles. The reading order is from right to left. The trecenas in the lower row are 1-deer, 1-rain, 1-monkey, 1-house and 1-eagle. The trecenas in the upper row are 1-flower, 1-grass, 1-lizard, 1-vulture and 1-rabbit.

Because information from the divinatory books was regarded as emanating from the divine world, it was not, as is typical in such situations, supposed to be direct or unequivocal. Rather, as with all oracles in world history, it was supposed to be ambiguous and subject to actual interpretation (or later reinterpretation). We can recall the prophecy of the oracle at Delphi, that Oedipus would murder his father and marry his mother, but as it was not precisely stated (neither the names of the parents were mentioned, nor any other detail), and as his real parents, like him, tried to avoid the prophecy, it was finally fulfilled as a result of tragic coincidences.

Pic 8: Born in the ‘trecena’ 1-deer: the shield-and-arrows signs are open to interpretation... Details from Codex Borgia, sheet 63 (top) and Codex Borbonicus, sheet 3 (bottom)
Pic 8: Born in the ‘trecena’ 1-deer: the shield-and-arrows signs are open to interpretation... Details from Codex Borgia, sheet 63 (top) and Codex Borbonicus, sheet 3 (bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

In the same way, in case of Mesoamerican divinatory books, information was also transmitted in an imprecise manner, so the client (or patient) could agree with it even if after some time, it turned out to be correctly understood the other way round. A good example would be the scenes concerning people born in the trecena 1-deer, found in the Codex Borgia (sheet 63; pic 8 top) or in the Codex Borbonicus (sheet 3; pic 8 bottom). There, a sign of shield and arrows appears that could be voiced as “war” or “warrior”, but it could be interpreted and understood either as a sign of luck in war, culminating in the capture of many prisoners, or the other way round: that a person born in this trecena would be taken as a captive in war. Alternatively, if the augury were being made for a woman, the same sign of war could refer to childbirth – again a lucky or unlucky destiny – because women during childbirth were considered to be warriors, with the whole process perceived as a war battle, and the child fortunately born – as a captured prisoner.

Pic 9: Warriors in eagle and jaguar disguise: Codex Borbonicus, sheet 11, detail (left), Codex Telleriano-Remensis sheet 16r, detail (right)
Pic 9: Warriors in eagle and jaguar disguise: Codex Borbonicus, sheet 11, detail (left), Codex Telleriano-Remensis sheet 16r, detail (right) (Click on image to enlarge)

This example is even clearer with the figures of warriors in eagle and jaguar disguise, in the Codex Borbonicus (sheet 11; pic 9, left.) This pairing, when it appears in verbal form, is another known diphrasism for “warrior”. But in the graphic image, apart from the eagle and jaguar disguise (we can be sure that this is a disguise, because in the same scene in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis sheet 16r, pic 9, right, we can see the human faces beneath the camouflage), the figures have flags in their arms and an adornment of heron feathers, proper to warriors, but at the same time, it is also the glyph for malli or captive (Whittaker 2009: 64-65).

We expect from our writing an exact reconstruction of what was previously said and written down (at least in theory, because we also write down texts which have never been spoken in reality). This is not the case with the Central Mexican divinatory books; or at least so far as we know given current research. This means that the order of particular words to be reconstructed is not reflected in the graphic expression, although we have to remember that there is an aligned order of sections and periods of time, as explained earlier. Given these considerations, what is important is that there is no one and unique “reading” because in this situation the “reading” would be too specific or limited. The graphic representations of diphrasisms provide good examples here.

Pic 10: Depictions of shields in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (far left), Codex Borbonicus (centre left), Codex Borgia (centre and far right)
Pic 10: Depictions of shields in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (far left), Codex Borbonicus (centre left), Codex Borgia (centre and far right) (Click on image to enlarge)

As mentioned above, a graphic sign composed of arrows and shield seems to be an exact representation of the oral expression in mitl in chimalli, “arrows, shield”. But in graphic form we can also find a shield with macuahuitl (a club with obsidian blades, as in Codex Telleriano-Remensis, fol. 28v, pic 10, far left), or more elaborate combinations like a shield with arrows and a flag (Codex Borbonicus sheet 10, pic 10 centre left), or with arrows and a macana espinosa (something like a ‘sword with teeth’) (Codex Borgia sheets 63 and 64; pic 10 centre and far right), and so on. This variability shows that the graphic communication system didn’t require a perfect correspondence between oral and graphic form, and that we should think instead about parallelism between these two mediums of expression.

Pic 11: Codex Madrid, detail
Pic 11: Codex Madrid, detail

Nevertheless, the resulting situation still allows for more or less exact discourse to be pronounced, based simultaneously on oral formulas and on graphic signs. This means that the codex specialist first learned by heart the basic structure of the discourse – we can compare it to our method of telling fairy tales, which always begin with formulaic words “once upon a time” and always finish with the familiar “and they lived happily ever after”. These oral formulas formed a frame for the discourse, but its parts could be changed according to what was represented in the graphic form. We shouldn’t forget that this is an hypothesis; we still don’t have definitive evidence of how this method of “reading” worked. Nevertheless, a comparison with Maya divinatory codices is useful here. Provided here (pic 11) is part of an almanac from the Codex Madrid. Above the “illustration”, the augury is written in logo-syllabic writing – that is, exact words that can be read, just like in our writing.

Drills his fire, Itzamnaj
Drills his fire, Kinich Ajaw, tree, stone
Drills his fire, Itzamnaaj
Drills his fire, ?
(Craveri and Valencia 2011: 87)

Pic 12: Codex Madrid, detail
Pic 12: Codex Madrid, detail

As we can see, every phrase of the text starts with a formula drills his fire, and then a part that changes appears. This part is also represented in the “illustration” beneath the logo-syllabic text. We can imagine that even someone who didn’t know Maya writing, would have known that the text of the augury has to start with the formula “drills its fire” (hooch’ u k’ahk’), and then that the name of the god represented in the graphic form should be pronounced.

In the next almanac on the same page (pic 12), the formula hooch’ u k’ahk’ is changed to hooch’ tok’, “drills its flint”. What’s important is that in the illustration beneath, the gods are not drilling the fire in a piece of wood, but in a flint knife. So we can see how the part that changes in the oral formula (also written down in logo-syllabic writing) is represented in the drawing. This means that even someone who did not know Maya writing, just by seeing the picture, could change the word in the formula that he would have learned earlier by heart.

Pic 13: Same time, same face... details from Codex Borgia, sheets 47-48
Pic 13: Same time, same face... details from Codex Borgia, sheets 47-48 (Click on image to enlarge)

With this possibility in mind, we can take a look at the Central Mexican divinatory codices. Even if they lack a form of writing that exactly reflects spoken language, as in case of Maya writing, the graphic part of the auguries is represented in a form very similar to the Maya codices. By this I mean that a deity or deities, in the same almanac, have the same position and posture, the same object in their hands, and so on. But there are also some differences, like the colour of the body, small differences between adornments, and so on. So we can imagine that the codex specialist, knowing by heart the formula or formulas that had to be said in these auguries, could have used such knowledge to verbalize the contents of every box from the almanac, only needing to change the part or parts which differ between the boxes of the same almanac (pic 13).

Pic 14: Drawing attention: texts for reading aloud in different worlds - through pictures in Mesoamerica (top) and words (Latin Bible, bottom)
Pic 14: Drawing attention: texts for reading aloud in different worlds - through pictures in Mesoamerica (top) and words (Latin Bible, bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

We may conclude, then, that the system of graphic communication used in central Mexican codices, and especially in the divinatory ones, fulfilled some of the functions that our writing has, but also differs in an important way. The function in common is to communicate, regardless of time and space, and to preserve the information and social memory that people want to keep. The system makes use of graphic space to organize information so it can be easily located. In this sense, it is also a kind of tool that allows the creation of information as required, just as we record information in graphics, diagrams or tables. The main difference between this central Mesoamerican system and our writing is of course that this graphic communication system does not reflect perfectly what was said before, but nevertheless, it contains clues and cues which enable the specialist to reconstruct, or better, to construct a discourse, appropriate for the actual situation and the problems of his client (or patient).

Special thanks to Jerome Offner for his assistance with reviewing the English text.

References:-
• Olivier, Guilhem (2004) Tezcatlipoca. Burlas y metamórfosis de un dios azteca. Mexico, Fondo de Cultura Económica
• Díaz Álvarez, Ana (2011) Las formas del tiempo. Tradiciones cosmográficas en los calendarios indígenas del México Central. PhD thesis. FFyL-UNAM (unpublished)
• Whittaker, Gordon (2009I “The Principles of Nahua Writing”. Göttinger Beiträge zur Sprachwissenschaft. 16: 47-81
• Craveri, Michela y Rogelio Valencia (2011) “The Voice of Writing: Orality Traces in the Maya Codices”. In: Roberto Cantú y Aaron Soonenschein (eds.) Tradition and Innovation in Mesoamerican Cultural History. München, Lincom Europa: 77-113.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: photo by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Pix 2, 4 & 14 (top): photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 3: image from the Codex Borgia scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1976
• Pic 14 (bottom): from ‘Calligraphy in a Latin Bible of AD 1407 on display in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England. The Bible was hand written in Belgium, by Gerard Brils, for reading aloud in a monastery’. From Wikipedia (Calligraphy)
• All other pictures supplied by and courtesy of Katarzyna Mikulska.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Dec 26th 2013

emoticon Q. What did the Aztecs accuse scribes of if they pinched others’ work?
A. Cue-barging...
Aztec cracker joke: Q. What did one forgetful Aztec scribe say to another?
A. I don’t know: give us a cue...

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