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Mexica/Aztec scribe with wise old man

‘Codex Corner’: sound

One intriguing aspect of ancient Mesoamerican manuscripts that we hardly think of is a sensory one: the SOUND made by learned Aztec scholars as they handled and turned the pages of precious sacred books. This is specifically mentioned in an important Mexica (Aztec) document, the Colloquies of the Twelve - a statement of beliefs made by elderly Nahua wise men as they defended their views against attacks on them by Franciscan friars in the year 1524. It is commented on by the grandfather of Mexica studies in Mexico today, Miguel León-Portilla in his book Aztec Thought and Culture. (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Sheets of different colour ‘amate’ paper made from the bark of fig trees
Sheets of different colour ‘amate’ paper made from the bark of fig trees (Click on image to enlarge)

The lines in question from the Colloquies (earnest discussions), referring to spiritual leaders/guides, are these (translated from the Nahuatl):-

Those who observe [read] the codices, those who recite [tell what they read]. Those who noisily turn the pages of the illustrated manuscripts. Those who have possession of the black and red ink [wisdom] and of that which is pictured...

León-Portilla explains:-
’Here is an allusion to one of the chief tasks of the tlamatinime [wise men]: to read and make doctrinal commentaries [what should and shouldn’t be believed] on the codices. With striking vividness and realism, these men are described as “noisily turning the pages of the manuscripts”. Since the long strips of amate paper on which the codices were painted were dry and hard, unfolding them produced a characteristic sound which inevitably became associated with the figure of the wise man.’

Totonac scribe; detail from a mural by Diego Rivera, National Palace, Mexico City
Totonac scribe; detail from a mural by Diego Rivera, National Palace, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Info from:-
Aztec Thought and Culture by Miguel León-Portilla, translated by Jack Emory Davis, University of Oklahoma Press, 1963

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: detail from a mural of the meeting between Moctezuma and Cortés by Roberto Cueva del Río; photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
Amate sheets: photo by Maricela González/Mexicolore
• Totonac scribe: photo by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 02nd 2016

Hear the crackly sound of manuscript page turning!

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