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Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate

Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate

A major new analysis and interpretation of the surviving body of ancient Mexican divinatory codices.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

January 2007
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338 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 12 color illus. in 8 page section, 144 b&w illus. |

In communities throughout precontact Mesoamerica, calendar priests and diviners relied on pictographic almanacs to predict the fate of newborns, to guide people in choosing marriage partners and auspicious wedding dates, to know when to plant and harvest crops, and to be successful in many of life's activities. As the Spanish colonized Mesoamerica in the sixteenth century, they made a determined effort to destroy these books, in which the Aztec and neighboring peoples recorded their understanding of the invisible world of the sacred calendar and the cosmic forces and supernaturals that adhered to time. Today, only a few of these divinatory codices survive. Visually complex, esoteric, and strikingly beautiful, painted books such as the famous Codex Borgia and Codex Borbonicus still serve as portals into the ancient Mexican calendrical systems and the cycles of time and meaning they encode.

In this comprehensive study, Elizabeth Hill Boone analyzes the entire extant corpus of Mexican divinatory codices and offers a masterful explanation of the genre as a whole. She introduces the sacred, divinatory calendar and the calendar priests and diviners who owned and used the books. Boone then explains the graphic vocabulary of the calendar and its prophetic forces and describes the organizing principles that structure the codices. She shows how they form almanacs that either offer general purpose guidance or focus topically on specific aspects of life, such as birth, marriage, agriculture and rain, travel, and the forces of the planet Venus. Boone also tackles two major areas of controversy—the great narrative passage in the Codex Borgia, which she freshly interprets as a cosmic narrative of creation, and the disputed origins of the codices, which, she argues, grew out of a single religious and divinatory system.

  • List of Figures
  • List of Color Plates
  • List of Tables
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1. Containers of the Knowledge of the World
  • Chapter 2. Time, the Ritual Calendar, and Divination
  • Chapter 3. The Symbolic Vocabulary of the Almanacs
  • Chapter 4. Structures of Prophetic Knowledge
  • Chapter 5. The Almanacs
    • Multipurpose Almanacs
    • Directional Almanacs
    • Topical Almanacs
  • Chapter 6. Protocols for Rituals
  • Chapter 7. The Cosmogony in the Codex Borgia
  • Chapter 8. Provenience
  • Chapter 9. A Mexican Divinatory System
  • Appendix: Content Summaries
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Elizabeth Hill Boone holds the Martha and Donald Robertson Chair in Latin American Art at Tulane University in New Orleans.


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The year was 1541. Tenochtitlan had fallen twenty years earlier; and the Franciscan friar Motolinia (Toribio de Benavente) had already been evangelizing in Mexico for seventeen years when he sat down to write to his friend and patron, Lord Don Antonio Pimentel, sixth count of Benavente. The letter would introduce and accompany Motolinia's History of the Indians of New Spain (an account of Aztec religious beliefs and customs as well as the subsequent conversion efforts of his fellow mendicants), on which the Franciscan had labored for many years. Reflecting on his understanding of ideas and events once so foreign to him, he reveals that his knowledge came, at least in part, from the painted books of the Mexicans themselves.

These books looked very different from the European books in his library or the manuscript he had just completed, because they were fashioned of long strips of native paper or hide, which were rolled as a scroll or folded back and forth into pages as a screenfold. Moreover, their messages were painted in images rather than written in letters and words. But for Motolinia, as for the Aztecs, they were containers of knowledge, and books nonetheless.

I shall treat of this land of Anáhuac or New Spain . . . according to the ancient books which the natives had or possessed. These books were written in symbols and pictures. This was their way of writing, supplying their lack of an alphabet by the use of symbols. Moreover, the memory of man being weak and feeble, the elders in the land disagree in expounding the antiquities and the noteworthy things of this land, although some things . . . have been gathered and explained by their figures. . . . These natives had five books which, as I said, were written in pictures and symbols. The first book dealt with years and calculations of time; the second, with the days and with the feasts which the Indians observed during the year; the third, with dreams, illusions, superstitions and omens in which the Indians believed; the fourth, with baptism and with names that were bestowed upon children; the fifth, with the rites, ceremonies and omens relating to marriage. (Motolinia 1951:74)

Motolinia then declared: "Only one of all these books, namely the first, can be trusted because it recounts the truth." This truthful book, which Motolinia called "the book of the count of the years" and explained in some detail, was the annals history, the book that recorded such secular events as conquests, the succession of rulers, and other noteworthy events that Motolinia understood to be rational facts. Intellectually Motolinia could recognize and accept the validity of this book as a historical record, not unlike the annals and histories written in Europe, even though related "in signs and figures" rather than in letters and words. As for the other books he so neatly listed, however, their content was implicitly idolatrous and thereby false.

These other books, the ones Motolinia described but then so quickly—and, we might imagine, warily—passed over, were the dangerous books. They were the books that contained the tenets of religious ideology, against which Motolinia and his colleagues had been battling so arduously for many years. They told about the invisible world: not the secular world of rulers, dynasties, armies, and tribute but the world of divine or spirit beings, supernaturals, and cosmic forces. Among other things, these were books of fate. As Motolinia described them, these books treated divination, feasts and rituals, "dreams and illusions," and spiritual preparations accompanying birth and marriage. Although he divided the books topically into four separate genres, we know from existing versions that the different topics could be, and were, intermixed and gathered in single volumes.

These dangerous books were first and foremost about cycles of time and the spiritual meanings that adhere to time. For the Aztecs and their neighbors, time created the nexus that connected humans to their fates and the gods. And time was particularly understood in terms first of days and then of larger sets and cycles of days. These books segmented the flow of time into the days and their cycles and explained which mantic forces were at work there. These were the books that articulated the sacred calendar: not the count of fifty-two years or the annual civil calendar of 365 days that marked the seasons and agricultural cycles, but the shorter, divinatory cycle of 260 days that governed all the details of life and extended its reach even into death itself. Called tonalamatl (meaning "book of days"), they presented cycles of divinatory time as interlocking armatures to which meanings are attached. In this way the books not only articulated specific quantities of time but showed their qualities as well. They explained what supernatural forces influence each unit and each cycle.

Principally they were books of divination. They described and thereby fixed the fate of newborns and instructed them how to live as they matured. They later guided them in choosing marriage partners and fixing auspicious wedding dates. These divinatory books outlined what kinds of rituals should be performed and when, in order to suppress a dire fate or nurture a positive one. They aided in the interpretation of dreams, helping to indicate the path of proper action. The Mexicans looked to these books as guides for correct living. The sons of the Aztec lords who helped friar Bernardino de Sahagún (1953-1982, bk. 10:191) in his great ethnographic project described these and other painted books as the guides, rules, models, standards, and even torches that illuminated the way for the Aztec people.

The Dominican friar Diego Durán often complained in exasperation at the Aztecs' continued reliance on the divinatory books, even fifty years after the conquest. He decried the Nahuas' habit of not harvesting a field, for example, even though it was dry and ripe and in danger of deterioration, until the diviner ordered it. Specifically, he recalled one instance when the people all rushed out of church as soon as the diviner said the crop was ready to be harvested:

I dare to swear to these things because in church I myself have heard the public announcement, all the people being present, that the time of the harvest has come. They all rush off to the fields with such haste that neither young nor old remain behind. They could have gathered the crop earlier, at their leisure; but since the old sorcerer found in his book or almanac that the day had come, he proclaimed it to the people, and they went off in great speed. (Durán 1971:397)

As divinatory manuals, these books of fate are fundamentally different from the painted histories. They point to the future rather than the past. Unlike history books, which record actions and actors of an earlier time and describe how things were (or are understood to have been), the divinatory books concern themselves with the way things now are in a present that continues into the future; they yield potentials, for they are windows into the future that allow one to see dangers and successes ahead. They give access to a world that, in Alfred Gell's (1992:303) words, "has enacted itself, and will enact itself, beyond our direct experience and without our intervention." In books such as these Moctezuma's diviners sought to understand the arrival of the Spaniards and the subsequent destruction of all that the Aztecs held dear.

These divinatory books also have a universal quality to them, especially when compared to the histories, tribute lists, and other secular documents. Because they usually lack references to specific locations and dates, and they never include named humans, they float unanchored in space and time. They do not pertain only to one place, and they do not exert local loyalties. Rather they concern themselves with universals that are potentially applicable to all people. An Aztec merchant preparing to leave Tlatelolco on a long journey, for example, would be guided by one of these books to set out on an auspicious day (such as 1 Serpent). His Mixtec colleague who was preparing to depart from distant Tochtepec, on the Oaxaca-Veracruz border, would be guided by a similar book, one that perhaps contained the same almanac; and he, too, might wait for the day 1 Serpent or another equally auspicious. Five hundred years later, the divinatory books still serve as portals to that invisible world of days, supernaturals, and signs. Those who believe in the ancient Mexican divinatory system can still be guided by these same books.

The books stand for an entire body of indigenous knowledge, one that embraces both science and philosophy. When the mestizo historian Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl (1985, 1:527) described the books of his forefathers, he spoke of histories, genealogies, and such practical, secular works as land documents, but he also mentioned books of "the [religious] laws, rites, and ceremonies," the religious calendars, and the books that embodied "all the sciences that they knew and understood." Besides tracking time and its cycles, these books also described the very structure and working of the cosmos. By explaining the temporal and supernatural forces that shaped and governed the world as it was then known, they articulated its universal laws. Their goal was to express the unrepresentable, to provide through structured figuration an understanding of invisible forces and principles. These divinatory and religious books were thus equivalent to our books of philosophy, theoretical physics, astronomy, and astrology. In terms of the rituals they described, the books functioned like Christian devotionals, catechisms, and other books of prayer. It is no wonder that Motolinia chose not to elaborate on their content and importance for the Aztecs.

The knowledge that the books encode is largely relational. It concerns systems of correspondence that obtain between units and cycles of time and the meanings that adhere to them. In this they are not unlike the "systems of correspondence" described by Manfred Porkert (1974:2) for Chinese medicine, where every part is largely defined by its relation to the others and to the whole. This knowledge is of a topological rather than a topographical character, for (as per Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen 1996:101) it is not concerned with physical spatial relations or actual locations but with "the logical relations between participants, the way in which participants are connected to each other (whether they have common boundaries, or are partially or wholly included in each other, in which sequence they are connected, etc.) but not the actual physical size of the participants or their distance from each other." It is knowledge that concerns itself with complex structures and the relationships among variables. The goal of the divinatory books is therefore to represent graphically the principles by which the sacred calendar, on the one hand, and the rest of the cosmos, on the other, operate and to show the links and associations between these spheres.

This makes the divinatory codices fundamentally different from the historical manuscripts, which tell stories and track events over time and thus have a linear structure to them. Excepting some specific passages (e.g., the eighteen-page narrative section in the Codex Borgia), the divinatory codices do not follow a story or narrative and thus have no need for a continuing thread to string the parts together in a temporal or causal sequence. Instead they gather information into discrete and largely independent units: almanacs and protocols (prescriptions) for rituals. Each almanac or protocol functions independently of the others. Each is governed by its own semantic properties, employing its own internal structure for putting the images into meaningful association with each other. Within an almanac, units may often be linked as a series or even a sequence, but such a sequence does not then extend to the units of other almanacs. Instead the almanacs all stand as autonomous but complementary entities. This makes the divinatory codices books of many separate parts that are intended to be consulted individually. A user does not "read" one of these books from beginning to end, but instead searches selectively among the various almanacs and protocols for information relevant to a particular situation.

This being said, the extant divinatory books do reveal a loose canonical sequence for the almanacs they contain. As explained in the conclusion of Chapter 5, certain kinds of almanacs tend to open and close the books, and other almanacs tend to cluster together. Still, the meaning contained within each almanac functions independent of the others.

The graphic vocabulary of these sacred books is esoteric and extremely difficult to decipher. Pertaining as it does to the supernatural and invisible realm, it has all the richness and polyvalent qualities of any religious language. Like religious languages that are spoken (Keane 1997), the images in the divinatory codices bring forth the presence and actions of beings and essences that are not otherwise knowable to the senses, and they do this in highly marked ways. We can understand this graphic, religious language as an interdependent but parallel discourse to the divine and sacred speech of the Mexican priests and diviners.

Among the Aztecs, this sacred speech—nahuallatolli or "speech of the sorcerers"—was used by the priests and diviners to speak to and about the gods and spiritual forces (López Austin 1967b; Jansen 1985). It was a rich and complex manner of speaking, one that approached meaning obliquely and through metaphor. This was an articulation that seemed superficially to obscure and hide rather than clarify but that revealed by its indirectness the fuller qualities of an essence. Thus, something as ordinary and prosaic as "water" could be conjured as "she of the jade skirt," "her blouse is jade," "the mistress of jade," "her skirt is dark green, her blouse is dark green," "the dark green woman," "the white woman," "the white priest," "the brilliant priest" (López Austin 1967b:7).

According to Francisco de Burgoa (1989, 1:331), the Mixtec elite similarly commanded an esoteric and elaborate speech for matters relating to their gods and sacrifices, a speech that was equally rich with metaphors and occult phrases (Jansen 1985:7). This speech employed its own special language, which Evangelina Arana (1960) and Maarten Jansen (1985:8-11) have called iya ("lord"). Iya appears to have involved normal Mixtec and a language related to Cuicatec, the language of the region near the town of Apoala, the mythical place of origin for the Mixtec dynasties. In Mixtec sacred speech, iya thus seems to be an archaism, a reference to the distant and mythological past.

Another manifestation of this sacred language of the Mixtecs is the special vocabulary used to vocalize the day signs and the day numbers painted in their codices. The glosses written in Mixtec on postconquest pictorials do not name the day signs and numbers in everyday Mixtec but instead use a different vocabulary with many variations in the words for each term, a vocabulary thought to be an archaic form of Mixtec (Dahlgren 1954:367-370; Caso 1956:488-491; Smith 1973a:23-27). The Mixes are additionally known to have had a special vocabulary for the temporal elements of their sacred calendar (Lipp 1982:203), although there is no evidence that the Aztecs also had one.

The divinatory and religious codices, as in nahuallatolli and iya, rarely state anything plainly. They are indirect, they obscure, they bring the past to bear by archaizing. The graphic images hold and release their meaning through euphemism, metonym, and metaphor; they show by analogy. Meanings themselves are layered. This recalls C. S. Jung's distinction between a sign and a symbol, where "a sign is an analogous or abbreviated expression of a known thing. But a symbol is always the best possible expression of a relatively unknown fact, a fact, however, which is none the less recognized or postulated as existing." The distinction is between something whose totality can be conveyed by a single image (a sign) and something whose totality can perhaps never be adequately expressed (a symbol). The ancient Mexican calendar priests and diviners spent years of study in the temple schools learning to decipher, interpret, and give voice to these visual messages. We thus should not be surprised that today the books yield their secrets to us very reluctantly.

Surviving Corpus

In the years before Europeans came to Mexican shores, divinatory books were everywhere. Since all children had to have their fates read shortly after birth, and since most significant events required a diviners' opinion, such books must have been common in cities, towns, and villages throughout the land, stored in temple repositories or in the homes of the calendar priests themselves. They were brought out and consulted daily or weekly. Some were glorious masterpieces of the painter's art, painted and used by the highest elites of indigenous society; others were inelegant and poorly crafted things, the products of provincial minds and unskilled hands. Well made or not, almost all the divinatory codices were gathered up and burned by the friars soon after the conquest or shortly fell into disuse and eventual decay. These were the books that the evangelizing friars targeted. These were the ones sought out and thrown into the great bonfires along with the indigenous cult images. The destruction of the books was so complete in the years after the conquest that several friars later decried their loss, deploring the obliteration of so much basic information about Aztec religion. Writing in 1581, Diego Durán (1971:55), observant enemy of hidden idolatries, lamented:

Those who with fervent zeal (though with little prudence) in the beginning burned and destroyed all the ancient Indian pictographic documents were mistaken. They left us without a light to guide us—to the point that the Indians worship idols in our presence, and we understand nothing of what goes on in their dances, in their market places, in their bathhouses, in the songs they chant (when they lament their ancient gods and lords), in their repasts and banquets; these things mean nothing to us. Heathenism and idolatry are present everywhere: in sowing, in reaping, in storing grain, even in plowing the earth and in building houses; in wakes and funerals, in weddings and births. . . .

Only a very few divinatory books have survived today. It is a wonder that any did. Most left Mexico during or soon after the conquest, shipped to Europe as curiosities, and this seems to have been what spared them; others survived in Mexico in personal and official archives.

From central Mexico there remains only a small corpus of nine books painted in the indigenous tradition on native materials and several colonial copies painted on European paper. Seven are documents of hide that reflect traditions shared within the greater Mixteca-Puebla-Tlaxcala region. These are the "Borgia Group codices," so named for their resemblance to the Codex Borgia: the Codices Borgia, Cospi, Fejérváry-Mayer, Laud, Porfirio Díaz Reverse, Vaticanus B, and Aubin No. 20 (see the Appendix). All are screenfold books, being composed of a long strip folded like an accordion or screen into pages, except Aubin No. 20, which is a hide sheet. All are undoubtedly Precolumbian except for the Porfirio Díaz Reverse, which occupies ten pages on the back of a history known to have been painted decades after the conquest. In addition to its divinatory content, the Borgia Codex also contains an eighteen-page cosmogony, painted as a narrative. The Cospi, Fejérváry-Mayer, and Laud contain protocols for rituals.

The Aztec tradition of central Mexico is represented by two screenfold books of bark paper, the Codex Borbonicus and Tonalamatl Aubin. Although both seem to have been created after the conquest, they are painted almost fully in the native style. In addition to its two divinatory almanacs, the Borbonicus also includes a depiction of the monthly feasts and a partial annals history.

This corpus of primary sources is amplified by several copies of earlier lost divinatory almanacs, the copies executed under Spanish patronage and incorporated into colonial encyclopedias of native culture. These almanacs are included in the Codices Tudela and Telleriano-Remensis and its copy the Vaticanus A (or Ríos), all painted on European paper in the middle or second half of the sixteenth century. These colonial pictorials most closely reflect the Aztec tradition of the Borbonicus and Tonalamatl Aubin, and they contain written texts and glosses that explain the imagery in varying degrees of detail. Our knowledge of the indigenous calendar and divinatory system is also augmented by the written word of several other chroniclers, among them Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, Juan de Cordova, Diego Durán, Bernardino de Sahagún, and Jacinto de la Serna. Sahagún (1953-1982, bk. 4, 1997:169-174), who decried the divinatory cycle as not being a calendar at all but the work of the devil, ironically recorded the most extensive reading we have of a 260-day almanac. This relatively small corpus gives us a taste of the larger genre.

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of these few surviving divinatory codices. Together they contain some 102 pictorial almanacs, with many almanacs recurring in multiple manuscripts. (Their contents are described in the Appendix, which also includes structural diagrams of the Borgia Group manuscripts.) These books also include some of the most visually complex and exquisitely executed manuscripts of the entire Mexican tradition. The Codex Borgia, for example, is often held up as the finest exemplar of the wide-ranging Mixteca-Puebla Horizon style, and the Codex Borbonicus is the great masterpiece of Aztec painting. The Fejérváry-Mayer and Laud are crafted with precision and balance that are unparalleled in all the manuscript corpus. Also, these codices are our best portal into the religious ideology and cosmology of the Aztecs, Mixtecs, and their neighbors. They are as close as we are likely to get to the spiritual world of ancient Mexico.

Editions and Modern Interpreters

Serious scholarly study of the divinatory manuscripts can be traced back to the latter part of the eighteenth century, a time when intellectuals in Mexico and Europe were beginning to take a more active interest in the ancient Mexican past. In Italy the principal figures were the exiled Mexican Jesuits Francisco Clavijero and José Fabrega. Clavijero came to know the Codex Cospi when he lived in Bologna, although he mentioned it only summarily in his Storia antica del Messico (1780-1781, 2:189). Fabrega, however, focused his efforts more fully on the codices themselves and wrote the pioneering commentary on the Codex Borgia. Working under the patronage of the erudite and well-connected Cardinal Stefano Borgia in the Vatican Library, he had access not only to the Borgia but also to the Vaticanus B, the early colonial Vaticanus A/Ríos, and a copy of the Cospi. In order to explain the Borgia tonalamatl, he drew heavily on the extensive Italian glosses in the Vaticanus A/Ríos. Fabrega also briefly reviewed and brought further scholarly attention to nearly a dozen other religious and historical codices that were in European collections. Although Fabrega's commentary was not published until 1899, it was widely consulted by Americanists during and after his lifetime: for example, Antonio León y Gama in Mexico and Abbé Brasseur de Bourborg in France owned copies; Alexander von Humboldt and Lord Kingsborough (Edward King) knew and cited it. Humboldt (1810) made several of these pictorials known to a broader international audience when he published drawings of selected pages of the Borgia, Vaticanus A/Ríos, Vaticanus B, and Telleriano-Remensis in his Vues des cordillères et monumens des peuples indigènes de l'Amérique.

It was Lord Kingsborough, however, who changed the way the manuscripts would be studied when he published most of the codices in their entirety. The first three volumes of his monumental, nine-volume Antiquities of Mexico (1831-1848) contain lithographic plates of drawings of sixteen pictorial codices, including seven of the religious manuscripts: the Telleriano-Remensis, Vaticanus A/Ríos, Laud, Cospi, Borgia, Fejérváry-Mayer, and Vaticanus B; volumes five and six provide transcriptions and English translations of the texts of the Telleriano-Remensis and Vaticanus A/Ríos. Although the individual manuscript pages appear without reading guides or specific commentary, and occasionally occur in a broken and reverse sequence, Kingsborough's opus meant that scholars no longer had to rely solely on their personal notes and copies of the originals but now had working copies of the images and texts. Relatively little progress was made in interpreting the Mexican religious codices, however, until later in the century.

The breakthrough came in 1887, with the research of the German Americanist Eduard Seler. Seler recognized the close affiliation of several divinatory codices and, in a landmark article, defined what he called the "Codex Borgia Group" and explained its religious and divinatory nature. This article established a firm basis for the analyses that would follow in the next two decades. Seler (1890) also contributed a long article that explained the Tonalamatl Aubin and the other 260-day calendrical manuscripts from central Mexico.

The next turning point in codex study came in the 1890s, when the wealthy American Joseph Florimond, better known by his papal title the Duke of Loubat, decided to finance the publication of Mexican codices in chromolithography, with introductions and commentaries by the most eminent scholars. Loubat's interest and resources effectively ushered in the great age of facsimile publication and study. Seven major codices appeared under his auspices between 1896 and 1904: the Vaticanus B (1896), Borgia (1898), Cospi (1898), Telleriano-Remensis (1899), Vaticanus A/Ríos (1900), Tonalamatl Aubin (1900-1901), and Fejérváry-Mayer (1901), as well as the Magliabechiano (1904), a mid-sixteenth-century cultural encyclopedia. Loubat's facsimiles faithfully retain the screenfold format of the originals or otherwise follow accurately the structure of the codices, and the chromolithographic technique yielded excellent reproductions of the forms, imagery, and texts of the originals. In these two respects the Duke of Loubat facsimiles are greatly superior to the earlier Kingsborough reproductions.

At about the same time, four other divinatory manuscripts appeared in print. The manuscript Aubin No. 20 (Fonds mexicain 20) was published in photographic facsimile by Eugène Boban in the catalogue of the Aubin-Goupil collection (1891). The Porfirio Díaz was reproduced in color lithography with other manuscripts by Alfredo Chavero under the auspices of the Junta Colombino in Mexico (1892). And the Borbonicus was issued in facsimile by Ernest Théodore Hamy (1899a) in Paris. By 1901 almost all the divinatory codices had appeared in facsimile.

Most of the Loubat facsimiles were either published with commentaries or accompanied by short introductions, with fuller commentaries published separately. Franz Ehrle, prefect at the Vatican, oversaw the Vatican codices (Vaticanus B, Borgia, and Vaticanus A/Ríos) and authored the commentary on the Vaticanus A/Ríos, published with the facsimile (Ehrle 1896, 1898, 1900). In Paris Ernest Théodore Hamy, president of the Société des Américanistes, published a brief commentary with his edition of the Borbonicus and wrote a fuller study (with transcriptions of the texts) of the Telleriano-Remensis (Hamy 1899a, 1899b). Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, the director of the Mexican National Museum, who had been investigating manuscripts in Europe since 1892, wrote short introductions that accompanied the Cospi and Vaticanus B facsimiles and provided a separate, fuller commentary on the Borbonicus (Paso y Troncoso 1896, 1898a, 1898b).

It was Eduard Seler, however, whose association with the Duke of Loubat bore the most fruit. Seler had already been studying the religious codices for some time. With Loubat's support, he elaborated his earlier 1887 and 1890 analyses to create what John Glass (1975b:99) has called "the fundamental body of interpretation" for the Borgia Group manuscripts. Between 1900 and 1909 Seler published commentaries on four of the divinatory codices: the Tonalamatl Aubin, Fejérváry-Mayer, Vaticanus B, and Borgia. As H. B. Nicholson (1973:353) notes:

These famous monographs, taken together, probably represent Seler's most significant single contribution to Mesoamerican studies, and on them rests his greatest reputation. Although each was ostensibly devoted to an analysis of a single pictorial specimen, to aid his analyses Seler employed a broad-ranging comparative technique with the result that they also constituted fairly thorough interpretations of many other pieces as well (especially Telleriano-Remensis/Vaticanus A, Laud, Cospi . . . , Borbonicus, and Magliabechiano), nor were relevant Maya area data omitted.

The greatest achievement of Seler's commentaries is his descriptive analysis and iconographic identification of the imagery. He described, identified, and interpreted just about every image in the codices. Most of Seler's specific readings of individual iconographic details have been accepted by subsequent scholars and remain fundamental to all later research. His deeper or metaphoric readings of the images and his interpretations of whole almanacs, however, are more problematic (Nicholson 1973:352-359). They can sometimes be as valuable as his surface readings but can also be extremely speculative or simply erroneous. The problem has arisen when later scholars have simply accepted Seler's interpretations because of the weight of his authority.

Seler was influenced by then-current paradigms for understanding ancient religions from an astral perspective; he also looked to contemporaneous interpretations of Babylonian religion to find parallels in Mesoamerica. Following Ernst Förstemann's identification of the Venus table in the Dresden Codex, Seler correctly recognized the Venus almanacs in the Borgia, Cospi, and Vaticanus B; but he then began to seek, and "find," Venus references in other almanacs when they were not actually in evidence. Ferdinand Anders, Maarten Jansen, and Gambina Aurora Pérez Jiménez (1994:64) point out that the epic journey of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar to the underworld supplied Seler with a model for interpreting the ritual section of the Borgia as Quetzalcoatl's own descent into the underworld, which he read as an allegory for the invisible periods of Venus. Seler used astronomy as the interpretive key to the almanacs, sometimes without full regard for the imagery itself (Anders, Jansen, and Pérez Jiménez 1994:62-65). Thus, investigators who use Seler's commentaries—and everyone must—should be aware of his overarching astronomical paradigm and be prepared to screen many of his interpretations.

The much-needed corrective to Seler's approach came in 1961, with Karl Anton Nowotny's Tlacuilolli, which synthetically presented the content of all members of the Borgia Group along with the related Aztec tonalamatls. Nowotny was the first since Seler's 1887 article to focus on the religious-divinatory codices as a single corpus. He established the mantic or prophetic, as opposed to the astronomical, function of the almanacs and recognized that most of the almanacs referred to the patrons and symbolic associations of various periods of time. Often he relied on Seler's fundamental iconographic identifications; but in important departures, he reinterpreted the narrative passage of Borgia 29-46 as a series of rituals (not as the passage of Venus through the heavens and underworld), and he recognized the rituals of counted and bundled offerings that appear in the Cospi, Laud, and Fejérváry-Mayer. Shunning the fantastic overinterpretation that he saw in Seler and others, Nowotny reanalyzed the almanacs not according to themes (astronomical or otherwise) but in terms of their calendrical structure. This approach allowed him to identify and compare similarities and parallels in almanacs from different manuscripts. It also clarified the structure of the almanacs and provided a firm foundation for new interpretations (Anders, Jansen, and Pérez Jiménez 1994:71).

Nowotny's contribution has not received the attention it deserves, however, because Tlacuilolli was written in German, which is spoken by fewer and fewer Americanists; moreover, its conceptual style is difficult to comprehend (Anders, Jansen, and Pérez Jiménez 1994:71). Nowotny organized his presentation not as a well-developed argument but as a series of captions, plates, and a catalogue, which tends to fragment the material rather than highlight the most significant features. A recent English translation of Tlacuilolli (2005) by George A. Everett, Jr., and Edward B. Sisson will undoubtedly make Nowotny's views and approaches better known.

Despite Nowotny's "corrections" to what he saw as the interpretive excesses of Seler, Seler's perspective continued to find an increasing audience. While Tlacuilolli was largely unread outside of Europe, Seler's pivotal commentary on the Codex Borgia was translated into Spanish and published with a reprint of the Loubat facsimile in Mexico and Buenos Aires in 1963. By virtue of its accessibility, this commentary has been one of the principal ingresses into the Borgia Group.

Between 1964 and 1967 José Corona Núñez issued the Antigüedades de México, basadas en la recopilación de Lord Kingsborough, which reproduces photographically a number of the codices originally published by Kingsborough, including the Cospi, Fejérváry-Mayer, Laud, Telleriano-Remensis, and Vaticanus A/Ríos. Although the quality of the color photography and/or printing varies greatly from manuscript to manuscript, the Cospi and Laud reproductions are particularly outstanding. Corona Núñez also included his own page-by-page commentaries (which were largely based on Seler), transcriptions of the texts of the Telleriano-Remensis, translations of the Italian texts of the Vaticanus A/Ríos, and Kingsborough's own outdated notes on these documents. The commentaries in the Antigüedades de México may not themselves have advanced scholarship appreciably, for they relied extensively on earlier work; but the publication was significant in presenting the codices to a much wider audience. Few had access to the rare Kingsborough and Loubat publications.

The major difficulty with this edition, as with almost all editions that publish the pages of indigenous codices in separate plates (e.g., Kingsborough and the Spanish edition of Seler's Borgia study), is that the reader cannot see how the individual pages are joined together and how these long screenfold manuscripts should be read along the length of the strip; sequence can be fragmented and lost. This is especially problematic with manuscripts, like the Borgia, that read from right to left and had their pages thus numbered. Since Western readers traditionally work from left to right, the publishers reproduced "Plate 1" as the first plate rather than the last and continued from left to right with the plates in backward sequence; this means that the connections between adjacent pages are totally lost. The page-by-page presentation also encourages the reader to comprehend each page as the principal unit of organization, rather than to understand how an individual almanac may run along the top or bottom register for several pages. True facsimiles that preserve the format of the original thus become crucial for study of the screenfolds.

The next great age of facsimile publication arrived concurrently with Corona Núñez's edition. Consciously following in the footsteps of the Duke of Loubat, the Austrian scholar Ferdinand Anders and the Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt (ADEVA) in Graz, Austria, initiated a program to offer the important Mesoamerican pictorials in high-quality photographic facsimile, each as a separate publication. Anders himself photographed the originals to maintain consistent excellence. Between 1966 and 1979, the ADEVA issued the Laud, Cospi, Fejérváry-Mayer, Vaticanus B, Borbonicus, Borgia, and Vaticanus A/Ríos, a number of other Mexican codices, and the three major Maya books. The ADEVA policy was to retain the manuscript's original format and size, to reproduce the manuscript as accurately as possible in every way, and to limit accompanying material to an introductory text that describes the manuscript's physical properties and history. The goal was to provide the highest quality of reproduction but leave interpretation and reading to others. These facsimiles soon became the mainstay of current scholarship on the divinatory codices.

With the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus's voyage to America, the ADEVA joined with the Fondo de Cultura Económica in Mexico and the Sociedad Estatal Quinto Centenario in Spain to reissue the ADEVA facsimiles, this time accompanied by new commentaries written by Ferdinand Anders, Maarten Jansen, and other specialists who joined Anders and Jansen as co-authors on different volumes relevant to their expertise. Between 1991 and 1996 the Borbonicus, Borgia, Cospi, Fejérváry-Mayer, Laud, Vaticanus A, and Vaticanus B appeared, along with several other Mexican codices. Each commentary on the divinatory books opens with one or more major essays that treat larger themes pertinent to most of the documents, such as the structure of the codices, provenience, divination, and the divine and human in Mesoamerican religion; the Laud volume also includes drawings and a reading of the reverse of the Porfirio Díaz (renamed the Codex of Tututepetongo).

As a body of scholarship, the effort is impressive. The authors drew on the best of previous scholarship, balancing Seler's iconographic identifications with Nowotny's clarity and structural emphasis; but they also reached back afresh to the sixteenth-century sources—the Magliabechiano Group, the Telleriano-Remensis and Vaticanus A/Ríos, and chroniclers such as Sahagún, Motolinia, Durán, and Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón—and brought in contemporary ethnographic research on living Mesoamerican religious traditions. The result is the latest in scholarly understanding of the individual manuscripts and of the divinatory group as a genre. Diagrams help the reader understand the structure of almanacs and manuscripts alike.

The new commentaries do not replace earlier studies, however, for the actual discussions of each scene or each almanac are more literary than analytic. Instead of providing a detailed and referenced analysis of the material, they give a descriptive reading, one that identifies the imagery and assigns meaning to the whole but is without the usual supporting evidence and arguments. As the authors admit, they "offer a preliminary reading, although limited and speculative" (Anders, Jansen, and Reyes García 1993:69). I often agree with their readings but do not always. The reader is hindered in judging the veracity of the readings because the authors do not usually give their reasons for interpreting the imagery and message in a particular way. Therefore, serious students will still want to work through the almanacs themselves, building on the work of Seler, Nowotny, Anders, Jansen, and others and drawing on the chroniclers and modern ethnography; these new readings may be the latest word on the almanacs, but they were never intended to be the last word. For more casual readers, however, the readings bring the imagery to life in a particularly accessible and vibrant way.

Several other facsimiles and commentaries fill out the published corpus. A 1992 edition of the Cospi edited by Laura Laurencich Minelli includes a number of excellent essays on the manuscript's content, history, and physical properties, as well as the most accurate photographic reproduction of each page. In 1995 the University of Texas Press published an outstanding photographic facsimile of the Telleriano-Remensis, with an important, full commentary by Eloise Quiñones Keber.14 Quiñones Keber's commentary represents the state of our understanding of the complex document and is a good introduction to the genres of manuscripts that compose its sections (monthly feasts, tonalamatl, annals history); it is automatically now the standard reference for the codex. The superb 2002 facsimile of the Codex Tudela with a detailed commentary by Juan José Batalla Rosado replaces the 1980 edition by José Tudela de la Ordén, although it is so expensive that only a few libraries may acquire it.

Another enterprise entirely (and one that has become increasingly important to studies of the divinatory codices) is the paperback version of the Borgia issued in 1993 by Dover Publications. The commentary by Bruce Byland is quite good and up to date but relatively brief, for the focus of the book is the facsimile, which reproduces a hand-painted restoration of the Borgia created by artists Gisele Díaz and Alan Rodgers. Their aim was to restore the Borgia as accurately as possible to its pristine condition; although specialists will find errors in some places where images were reconstructed, overall Díaz, Rodgers, and Byland have succeeded admirably. They have given the field a useful version of the Borgia that is so inexpensive that nonspecialists and members of the general public can easily afford it. Specialists can buy several copies and make notes and amendments directly on the images. The affordable price and Dover's wide distribution mean that the Borgia will remain the best known and most frequently consulted of all the divinatory codices and that more and more amateurs and professionals will develop interests in this genre.

Guides for Living

My own approach to the divinatory codices is to examine and present the genre as a whole. My goal has been to determine the canons that govern the production and interpretation of these books. This involves understanding the graphic vocabulary for presenting the calendrical units and prophetic forces as well as recognizing the organizational structures that bring these two elements into association. Thus, I am less concerned with reaching a correct and exhaustive reading of a single almanac or with creating a prognostication based on the reading of several almanacs than I am with explicating the general principles by which the almanacs operate. In this respect, this present study is closer to the structural and calendrical approach taken by Nowotny than to the dense iconographic exposés of Seler or the verbal readings of Anders, Jansen, and their colleagues. Although I do explain the iconography and mantic properties of a number of almanacs in some detail, reader should consult Seler as well as Anders et al. for the details of other almanacs, passages, and supernaturals.

Beginning with the function and social context of the documents, Chapter 2 examines how the Mexicans segmented time into meaningful units that became the foundation of their divinatory system. It explains the sacred cycle of 260 days, as well as the 365-day "solar" cycle and the greater 52-year cycle that links the two. The chapter introduces the diviners and calendar priests, whom Sahagún called "soothsayers," who owned and interpreted the books of fate. It explains how the books served the Mexican peoples as guides for everyday living and the correct performance of ceremonies large and small.

Chapter 3 presents the graphic vocabulary of the almanacs. It shows how individual units of time are pictured or expressed graphically: how signs, numbers, and "spacers" are to be read. This chapter presents the major actors (supernatural and other), actions, objects, and symbols that represent or otherwise visually convey prophetic forces. Many images are easily identifiable on the surface, and their meanings are well known, but ultimately the divinatory codices employ a challenging language of symbol and metaphor.

It is the graphic structure of the almanacs that brings the calendrical units and prophetic images into meaningful association. Chapter 4 explains the general rules that guide the reading of the books and their almanacs. It shows how almost all the almanacs are structurally arranged as lists, tables, or diagrams, although blendings of these graphic structures make for presentational richness.

The almanacs themselves are explained in Chapter 5. They are organized according to their uses (rather than according to their structures) into three basic types: multipurpose, directional, and topical. Probably most existing almanacs are multipurpose ones, being relevant to almost any action or situation; they involve either the basic count of twenty day signs or the entire 260-day count as a whole. When these multipurpose almanacs treat the 260-day cycle, they often divide it into subcycles of twenty thirteen-day periods (the trecenas), which in the most elaborate versions are accompanied by the complementary series of Nine Lords of the Night and the thirteen Volatiles (flying creatures) and Day Lords. These elaborated trecena almanacs are characteristic of the Aztec tradition. Directional almanacs present the mantic features of the cardinal directions, and sometimes the center (as a fifth direction); they often have the generalized applicability of multipurpose almanacs but focus on the prophetic qualities of the directions. In contrast, topical almanacs are more narrowly focused on a single sphere or activity; the major ones concern marriage, birth, travel, rain and agriculture, and the planet Venus. We see great variation in the structure and complexity of the divinatory almanacs: some almanacs focus on a very limited amount of information, whereas others elaborate and embellish their prophetic message. The Appendix summarizes the divinatory content of the almanacs in each manuscript.

Chapter 6 concerns the protocols or pictorial instructions that guide humans in the performance of ritual. Many of the almanacs, and especially the more elaborate and embellished ones, contain cues for the observance of proper ritual; they tell of blood sacrifices that should be made, offerings that must be given, and rites that must be performed. In addition, three codices—the Cospi, Fejérváry-Mayer, and Laud—also devote whole pages to rituals that involve great quantities of carefully counted offerings. These protocols, which are independent of the almanacs, specify the precise kind, number, and arrangement of offerings to be made.

The great narrative passage in the Borgia, which has been the subject of many differing opinions and much controversy, is the subject of Chapter 7. Here I interpret it neither as the passage of Venus through the heavens and underworld (as per Seler) nor as a series of separate rituals (as per Nowotny and others) but as a cosmic narrative of creation. This Mexican cosmogony begins with the first explosion of power and ends with the drilling of the first new fire. In between we see the creation of cosmic essences, the birth of gods and humankind, the bringing of maize, and the first human sacrifice. Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca play major roles in the narrative, as they do in so many cosmogonies.

The other controversy surrounds the provenience of the divinatory manuscripts (and especially those of the Borgia Group), which is discussed in Chapter 8. There is considerable evidence that the manuscripts of the Borgia Group come from different locales, although all generally within the greater Tlaxcala-Puebla-Mixtec zone. What is so striking is the near identity of their content as well as the similarities they share with the manuscripts of the Aztec tradition. As explained in Chapter 9, a single great religious and divinatory system was spread across much of central Mexico, such that an Aztec priest could probably read and use the Codex Borgia or Fejérváry-Mayer, although he might think it oddly arranged. There was by no means universal agreement in every particular, but the diverse locations of the surviving divinatory books speak to a sacred ideology and iconographic system that was shared through most of central Mexico and extended in part even into the Maya region.

Maya divinatory codices are not included here, except for the few almanacs that were influenced by central Mexican practices. The Maya graphic system of communication, employing hieroglyphic texts that reference spoken language as well as pictorial imagery, was fundamentally different from that in central Mexico. Maya almanacs also have their own prophetic character and their own structures, which differ from the Mexican ones. Their iconographic and graphic challenges are distinctly their own.

What we see in central Mexico is the presentation of time and its influences in a purely pictorial text. The Mexican divinatory codices communicate by way of a graphic code, a visual language that has its own vocabulary and particular semantic features. Because its subject matter potentially concerns all human action, the pictography of the divinatory codices is particularly rich in imagery and iconographic referents. Its graphic vocabulary is large and diverse. As often as not, meanings are encoded obliquely or indirectly, and the images work through metaphor and analogy. These visual statements, both metaphoric and direct, are then brought together with their calendrical units via a range of graphic structures that establish systems of correspondence. It is an understanding of these structures that allows us to enter the divinatory world of the ancient Mexicans.

A Note on Terminology

In this study I use the term "Mexican" to describe the books and divinatory tradition of central and southern Mexico west of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, what might be called western Mesoamerica. Although some of the Maya codices were likely created within what is now the nation state of Mexico, they participate in a distinctly Maya tradition centered east of Tehuantepec. I use the term "Aztec" expansively to refer to the Nahuatl-speaking peoples of central Mexico that shared a language and culture, including both those people within the Triple Alliance empire and their Tlaxcalan enemies.

Since the nineteenth century it has become traditional among Americanists to refer to the painted books of Mesoamerica as "codices." In Europeanist scholarship (e.g., Weitzmann 1970), the term "codex" refers to the manner of a manuscript's physical construction; it designates a book of individual leaves sewn and bound together along one side, as opposed to a roll or scroll. Americanists, however, use the term to reference pictorial content; it designates a manuscript whose content is significantly pictorial and painted in the native tradition, whether that manuscript is fully pictorial and executed as a screenfold strip of hide (e.g., Codex Borgia) or only partially pictorial and executed on European paper and bound as a European book (e.g., Codex Telleriano-Remensis).

Most of these Mexican codices either bear the names of individuals who once owned them or are named for the city or library in which they are housed. The Codex Borgia, for example, once belonged to that great Italian family, and the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer was owned by Gabriel Fejérváry of Budapest before it was acquired by Joseph Mayer, a wealthy merchant of Liverpool. The Codices Vaticanus A and B, both in the Vatican Library along with the Borgia, are distinguished by numerical precedence: Vaticanus A is Codex Vatic. Lat. 3738, whereas B is 3773. Some scholars have recently assigned different names to some of the manuscripts in order to link them more closely with their place of origin or reflect their character. For the sake of consistency with most previous scholarship, and because attributions can change as more becomes known about a document, here I retain the traditional titles by which the manuscripts have been known.



“A] very readable text on a complicated subject.... This fascinating book is recommended for the specialist and the non-specialist.”
Colonial Latin American Historical Review


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