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Mexicolore contributor Dr Angélica Baena Ramírez

Sacrifice in the pre-Hispanic Mixtec codices

We’re sincerely grateful to Dr. Angélica Baena Ramírez for this illuminating article on the evidence of sacrifice in Mixtec codices. Dr. Baena received her PhD in Mesoamerican Studies (National Autonomous University of Mexico) specializing in Mesoamerican Iconography. She taught at the Faculty of Higher Studies Acatlan (UNAM) for 6 years. She has published several articles regarding pre-Hispanic codices and Mexica religion.

Pic 1: ‘The head of a sacrificial quail thrown on the earth or the swallowing of darkness by the earth at sunrise’, based on an image in the Codex Borgia
Pic 1: ‘The head of a sacrificial quail thrown on the earth or the swallowing of darkness by the earth at sunrise’, based on an image in the Codex Borgia (Click on image to enlarge)

What is sacrifice?
Sacrifice is a religious act that seeks to make something sacred. For a sacrifice to exist there must be a consecration through the death of a victim (which can be an animal, a vegetable, a human being or an object that is symbolically destroyed), in order to establish communication with the gods to get your favour, pay a debt or atone for a fault.
There is also another ritual practice that was very widespread throughout Mesoamerica, which is self-sacrifice, which implies that a person, of his own will, hurts himself so that his body drains blood, which was accompanied by fasts and penances, in order to obtain the favour of the gods.
The performance of a sacrifice could serve to achieve the following objectives:
1. As part of a ritual deposit, where different things are offered in gratitude to the gods, seeking to obtain their continued favour in earthly life and in the hereafter.
2. As a means of support for the gods and the current world.
3. As a sign of power and social prestige of the members of the upper classes, and a means to intimidate enemy peoples.
4. To renew the myths of origin.

Pic 2: The Mixtec region is located in what is now the State of Oaxaca, parts of Guerrero and Puebla in Mexico
Pic 2: The Mixtec region is located in what is now the State of Oaxaca, parts of Guerrero and Puebla in Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

The Mixtec codices of pre-Hispanic origin
The Mixtecos or Ñuu Dzahui (“People of the Rain”) inhabited a region in southern Mexico (in the states that are currently called Puebla, Guerrero and Oaxaca). Due to its great ecological diversity, the region is divided into Mixteca Alta, Mixteca Baja and Mixteca de la Costa. The Mixtec lordships had their peak and further development during the Postclassic period (900 AD-1521 AD).
Codices are a group of documents painted before the arrival of the Spanish, generally folded as a screen. They are known as Mixtec historical codices, since they contain the important lineages and events made by the yaa or lords, who based their power on a mythical origin. In them we can find stories of the rulers, their families, the wars they waged and the sacrifices they made in honour of the gods in order to maintain their power, as thanks or as an offering to the gods of their political enemies.

Pic 3: The great ruler Eight Deer, Jaguar Claw; Codex Nuttall, plate 48 (detail)
Pic 3: The great ruler Eight Deer, Jaguar Claw; Codex Nuttall, plate 48 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The codices of the Mixtec region that were made before the arrival of the Spanish are:-
• The Nuttall Codex, which is currently in the British Museum. This codex was made of leather and is painted on both sides, although each side was made in a different time frame. The first side tells the story of the lordship of Teozacualco and the second focuses on the story of the great ruler Eight Deer, Jaguar Claw, lord of Tilantongo (pic 3).
• The Vindobonensis Codex is located in the National Library of Vienna, Austria. It is made of leather and is painted on both sides. Each side was painted at a different time and tells different stories; the obverse side (front) describes the sacred and mythical origins of the Mixtecs, as well as the history of the first kings. The reverse side tells the story of the rulers of Tilantongo.
• The Bodley Codex is currently in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England. It is made of leather and has 24 sheets, of which 20 are painted on both sides. This codex focuses on representing the genealogies of the Mixteca Alta, particularly Tilantongo, although it also provides information on the Teozacualco, Tlaxiaco or Achiutla lineages.

Pic 4: The original Codex Selden on display in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Its suggested new name (‘Codex Añute’) is shown in the explanatory text alongside
Pic 4: The original Codex Selden on display in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Its suggested new name (‘Codex Añute’) is shown in the explanatory text alongside (Click on image to enlarge)

• The Selden Codex (pic 4) is currently deposited at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England. It is made of leather and only one side is painted (front section). The reverse section was also apparently painted but was covered. This codex tells the history of the Jaltepec (Añute) dynasty, from the 10th to the 16th century. Although it was finished after the arrival of the Spanish, it is considered pre-Hispanic since no Spanish influence was present in its elaboration.
• The Colombino Codex (pic 5) is located in the National Library of Anthropology and History of Mexico. It is made of leather; it has 24 leaves painted on one of its two sides. The theme of the codex is the life of the important character called Eight Deer, Claw Jaguar. It remained in the hands of the caciques of Tututepec, Oaxaca, until it was acquired by the Junta Colombina de México, founded by the government of Porfirio Díaz, to commemorate the IV Centenary of the discovery of America.

Pic 5: The Colombino Codex (replica) - the only pre-Hispanic codex conserved in Mexico
Pic 5: The Colombino Codex (replica) - the only pre-Hispanic codex conserved in Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

• The Codex Becker I is currently in the Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna. It is made of leather, folded like a screen and is painted on one side. Actually, this codex is a fragment of the Colombino Codex, so we know that it comes from Tututepec, Oaxaca.
The way in which we refer to these pictographic documents today is due to the place where they are currently located, the people who studied them (as in the case of the Codex Nuttall) or in reference to the European owners who acquired these documents. There are important proposals to rename these codices based on their content, their place of origin and the language of the speakers who made it. This effort seems very important to me, since it is a way of returning history to the current communities descended from the great lords that appear in the codices.
The Mixtecs called these documents tonindeye, “histories of lineages”, tnuhu niquizda yaa, “relations of what the lords did” or ñehe ñuhu “sacred skins”. The rulers appear interacting with the gods, being direct descendants of them, and the history of their lineages was considered sacred, so their right to rule was unquestionable. In these codices are represented births, marriages, alliances, wars and genealogies.

Pic 6: Offering the blood of a decapitated quail; Codex Vindobonensis, plate 20 (detail)
Pic 6: Offering the blood of a decapitated quail; Codex Vindobonensis, plate 20 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Sacrifices in the Mixtec codices
The representation of sacrifice in these codices is not very abundant. Representations of sacrificial activity appear in the following specific contexts:
1. As part of an offering to seek the favour of the gods.
2. Scenes of enemies captivated and sacrificed as part of a war/political conflict.
3. The sacrifice of mythological beings.
An example of sacrifice, as part of an offering to please the gods and to seek their protection, is the sacrifice of animals. Quails, dogs, deer, eagles and jaguars are slaughtered as part of a ritual, and their blood is offered to the gods. The quails are beheaded and their blood is shed as part of an offering. For example, in plate 20 of the Codex Vindobonensis, the blood of a quail is spilled as part of an offering to venerate the gods (pic 6).

Pic 7: Sacrifice of a deer and a dog in honour of the god Thirteen Reed; Codex Nuttall, plate 49 (detail)
Pic 7: Sacrifice of a deer and a dog in honour of the god Thirteen Reed; Codex Nuttall, plate 49 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Sacrifices of a dog and a deer by heart extraction are represented as part of propitiatory offerings. For example, Eight Deer and Twelve Movement sacrifice a dog and a deer by heart extraction, offering the heart to the god Thirteen Reed, who descends from heaven to receive the offering (pic 7).
In order to encourage a good marriage between Lord Three Flint and Lady Five Flower, a puppy’s heart was sacrificed and a quail was slaughtered. In this sacrificial ritual, the couple appears accompanied by the elderly priests Ten Grass and Ten Rain, who are in front of the couple (pic 8). These sacrifices were prior to the marriage bond and before the New Fire ritual in the Feathered Serpent enclosure, to indicate the beginning of a new lineage and to propitiate the relationship to be successful.

Pic 8: Sacrifice of a dog; Codex Nuttall, plate 17 (detail)
Pic 8: Sacrifice of a dog; Codex Nuttall, plate 17 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The sacrifices of enemies captured in a context of war and political conflict are very important in these codices, since they confirm the power of the lords, their triumphs in wars and their political rights in a certain place. One of the best-known examples is the sacrifice of Lord Ten Dog, probably as revenge for the death of Lord Twelve Movement, brother of the great ruler of Tilantongo Eight Deer, and to consolidate the political power of this last character over a place known as Bulk of Xipe. This conflict was both political and a family dispute, since Ten Dog was a nephew of Eight Deer.
Eight Deer, uncle of Ten Dog, decided to sacrifice his nephew as a part of the ritual known as Rayamiento. This sacrifice consisted of attaching the victim to a round stone known as temalacatl and giving him broken or decorative weapons, with which the victim would have to fight against well-armed warriors. Ten Dog had to defend himself with ornamental weapons against two well-armed warriors, including his own uncle Eight Deer. It is not surprising that Ten Dog appears crying at his inevitable defeat (pic 12).

Pic 9: Sacrifice of Six House by arrowing; Codex Nuttall, plate 90 (detail)
Pic 9: Sacrifice of Six House by arrowing; Codex Nuttall, plate 90 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Lord Ten Dog’s brother, Lord Six House, had a similar fate. He was sacrificed on the orders of his uncle Eight Deer. Six House appears tied to a wooden frame, wearing the conical cap of the god Xipe, his body is pierced by an arrow, and his blood is directed to a wooden mosaic. Like Ten Dog, he appears to be crying (pic 9).
Finally, we know that the powerful Lord Eight Deer, Claw Jaguar, had the same fate as his nephews, several years later, when he died sacrificed as well. In the Bodley Codex, Lord Eight Deer, Claw Jaguar, appears sacrificed by heart extraction and his mortuary bundle is transferred to a sacred place called Chalcantongo (pic 10).

Pic 10: Sacrifice of Eight Deer; Codex Bodley, plate 14 (detail)
Pic 10: Sacrifice of Eight Deer; Codex Bodley, plate 14 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

As we can see with these examples, the representation of these sacrifices is within a context of power struggles, territorial expansion, wars of conquest, as well as family and political disputes. Finally, I would like to point out the representation of sacrifices of mythological beings, which were carried out in order to initiate the history of the Mixtec rulers and the current times. An example of this is the war that the first Mixtec rulers waged against the stone men. The stone men seem to correspond to the original inhabitants of the region, subdued throughout the war by the Mixtec lords. After the triumph of the Mixtec lords, the god Seven Movement sacrificed a stone man by heart extraction. We can distinguish him as a stone man because he has the same colouring as the stones represented in the codex (pic 11).

Pic 11: Sacrifice by heart extraction of a stone man; Codex Nuttall, plate 3 (detail)
Pic 11: Sacrifice by heart extraction of a stone man; Codex Nuttall, plate 3 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

In conclusion, I want to reiterate that the sacrificial images in the pre-Hispanic Mixtec codices appear in specific circumstances linked to the struggles and intrigues of the rulers to consolidate their lordships or as part of political revenge, as well as offerings of sacrificed animals for the goodwill of their marriages, wars and alliances. Also, thanks to the wars waged against mythical beings and the sacrifices made since primordial times, the gods and the ancestors of the Mixtec rulers triumphed and gave rise to the history of one of the most important civilisations of Mesoamerica during the Post-classic period. It should be reiterated that human sacrifices are part of a broader ritual context, so that both victims and sacrificers use certain attire and are linked to certain gods. As we could see in the examples mentioned in this work, we can confirm that these are cases of sacrifices and not simply murders for political ends.

Pic 12: Sacrifice of Ten Dog; Codex Nuttall, plate 89 (detail)
Pic 12: Sacrifice of Ten Dog; Codex Nuttall, plate 89 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Sources/Further Reading:-
• CABALLERO, Omar (2013) “On the Development of Speech Resources for the Mixtec Languages”. The Scientific World Journal (3) 19 pages. Available online:
https://www.hindawi.com/journals/tswj/2013/170649/
• GRAULICH, Michel (2016 [2005]) El sacrificio humano entre los aztecas. México. Fondo de Cultura Económica
• HERMANN LEJARAZU, Manuel (2000) “Estrategias de integración y alianza según el ‘Códice Bodley’”. Estudios Mesoamericanos (UNAM-IIF) 2: 57-63
--- (2007) “Códice Nuttall. Lado 1. La vida de Ocho Venado”. Arqueología mexicana (ed. Raíces) Número Especial 23
--- (2008) “Códice Nuttall. Lado 2: La historia de Tilantongo y Teozacualco”. Arqueología mexicana. México, Número Especial 29
--- (2011) Códice Colombino: Una Nueva Historia de un Antiguo gobernante (edición con facsímil) México, INAH
• JANSEN Maarten (1982) Huisi Tacu, estudio interpretativo de un libro mixteco antiguo: Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus I, 2 vols. Amsterdam. CEDLA
• JANSEN, Maarten y PÉREZ JIMÉNEZ, Aurora (2004) “Renaming the Mexican Codices”. Ancient Mesoamerican 15(2):267-271
--- (2007) Historia, literatura e ideología de Ñuu Dzaui: El Códice Añute y su contexto histórico-cultural. Oaxaca, Instituto Estatal de Educación Pública
• MAUSS, Marcel y HUBERT, Henri (2010 [1898]) “Ensayo sobre la naturaleza y función del sacrificio” en Ricardo Abduca (trad. Y ed.) El sacrificio. Magia, mito y razón. Buenos Aires Cuarenta: 71-181
• POHL, John (1996) Codex Bodley. Notebook for the Mixtec pictographic writing workshop. Austin, Texas. FOUNDATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF MESOAMERICAN STUDIES. Available on line: http://www.famsi.org/research/pohl/jpcodices/bodley/index.html

Códice Becker I/II (1961) Karl A. Nowotny (introduction) Graz-ADEVA (Codices Selecti, vol. IV)
Códice Bodley (2005) Codex Bodley. A painted Chronicle from the Mixtec Highlands. Maarten Jansen and Aurora Pérez Jiménez (facsimile edition) Oxford, University of Oxford, Bodleian Library
Codex Nuttall (1987) Ferdinand Anders and Nancy Troike (introduction and commentary), Graz-ADEVA (Codices Selecti vol. 84)
Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus I (1974) Graz-ADEVA (Codices Selecti vol. V).

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: illustration by an anonymous artist, scanned from Art and Life in Ancient Mexico by C.A. Burland, Bruno Cassirer, Oxford, 1948
• Pic 2: Image taken from Caballero, 2013
• Pix 3, 7, 8, 9, 11 & 12: Images from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1987
• Pix 4 & 5: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 6: Image from the Codex Vindobonensis scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsiimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pic 10: Image from the Codex Bodley scanned from our own copy of the Sociedad Mexicana de Antropología facsimile edition, Mexico, 1960 (Interpretación del Códice Bodley 2858 by Alfonso Caso.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jun 03rd 2020

‘An Introduction to pre-Hispanic Mixtec Codices’

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