Amoxtli: Painted Histories of Indigenous Mexico

Beneath the Paint: Pre-Hispanic Codices

Pictorial Pedigrees: Historical Screenfolds

Resting at the border of pictograph and hieroglyph, pre-Hispanic Mexican codices represent a rich—albeit, underrepresented—insight into the history and culture of the indigenous Mexicans. These manuscripts, or “screenfolds,” were produced prior to contact with Spanish conquistadors in 1519, demonstrating the unique pictorial system formulated by the indigenous Mexicans for preserving their history, culture, and legacy. However, this painted language did not exist in a vacuum, as it was supplemented by performances that told both the history and religion of the indigenous people. Such insights into the past and belief systems illustrate the two primary functions of pre-Hispanic screenfolds: preservation of cultural histories and genealogies (historical), and divine guides to the calendar (religious). Subgroups of indigenous Mexicans relied on screenfolds for these different reasons. For example, the Ñuu Dzaui (Nahuatl: Mixtec) predominantly employed codices to narrate their people’s histories and important lineages, and the Puebla and Tlaxcaltec peoples relied on these manuscripts for calendrical and divinatory purposes.

While historians today can only speculate as to the number of pre-Hispanic screenfolds that once circulated in Mexico, less than twenty of these painted books still remain. The survival of these manuscripts hinged on the predilections of European missionaries and collectors who either came in contact with them in Mexico or obtained them after they were sent to Europe. Most importantly, early missionaries perceived these screenfolds as a threat to Catholicism and an indicator of the “religious deficiency” of the Ñuu Dzaui: too “idolatrous” in nature, the vast majority of these manuscripts were systematically destroyed. However, tracing the travels of surviving screenfolds can help us further understand the character and significance of these manuscripts within indigenous Mexican and, later, European culture. Nearly all screenfolds that survived eradication did so within the walls of European institutions—and oftentimes, their existence was forgotten and their Mexican contextualization was obscured. Instead, pre-Hispanic screenfolds took on new meanings in European environments: their names drew from those of European collectors and the collections that housed them, while their placement in private collections enabled European collectors to feel a sense of “ownership” over this distant region and people. Thus, both the Mexican origins and subsequent European travels of pre-Hispanic screenfolds dually functioned to imbue differing cultural significances to these documents.

However, pre-Hispanic manuscripts differ from the western concepts of “books”: they were made on long strips of material and fold like an accordion, leading scholars to refer to them as screenfolds. Screenfolds allowed readers to easily fold and reference pages at the end of the book by collapsing pages in the middle or spreading them out to view the entirety of the contents. These manuscripts were made of a combination of both animal skin and paper and generally have a protective cover made of different materials like wood or animal fur. After the base material of the page was prepared, the pages of the manuscript were covered in a white paint. Scribes then wrote on top of the white layer. The color palette for these manuscripts was bright primary colors: black, red, yellow, blue, and green are found throughout all existing pre-Hispanic codices. However, the most distinctive feature of pre-Hispanic manuscripts is the use of pictographic writing. In general, writing systems can be broadly categorized into two types: glottographic and semasiographic. Glottographic writing systems, like English, have words or markings that represent spoken speech. For example, the Mayans used hieroglyphics, a glottographic system similar to that of the Egyptians. Other Indigenous Mexican societies like the Ñuu Dzaui, however, preferred semasiographic systems: in these languages, the writing does not record words or spoken speech but rather conveys ideas or memories meant to be interpreted through context. Thus, context is crucial for readers to interpret or make use of these manuscripts. Only a few trained scribes or priests read and interpreted manuscripts.
Pictorial Pedigrees: Historical Screenfolds

The people from Ñuu Dzaui (Nahuatl: “Mixteca”) created screenfolds using a pictorial script of iconic images. The narrative flows across a two-page spread in a pattern known as boustrophedon, alternating directions. The screenfolds present historical information such as the genealogies of ruling families, biographies of political figures, and the histories of specific communities, all of which legitimized a ruler's claim to power. The painted manuscripts served as scripts, interpreted by a skilled performer whose song and dance expanded on the text.

Divinatory Directives: Religious Screenfolds

As mentioned above, pre-Hispanic codices can be split broadly into two categories: historical and religious. Historical codicies recorded origins, explaining how societies came about to be, the histories of relationships between different groups, and important historical figures (kings, queens, warriors, etc.) that shaped their societies. Religious books focused on explaining natural phenomena, gods, calendrical cycles and divinatory matters. These texts were generally held by priests, intended for both communal purposes and individual consultations. They functioned as a guide for leading a balanced life and outlined rituals to be performed for the sustenance of the community. They could also be used to divine what forces were affecting an individual's actions or the events they were to face and outlined rituals to help the individual. The styles and format of these manuscripts differed from society to society.

The surviving pre-Hispanic historical codices were created by the Ñuu Dzaui, or people of the rain (Nahuatl: Miztec), who occupied several mountain ranges and valleys in the modern day Mexican states of Puebla, Guerrero, and Oaxaca. The pictographic writing in their screen folds was arranged in a conventionalized way that was easily interpreted by those familiar with the style. The narrative flows back and forth between a two page spread in a boustrophedon pattern with the various sections of the page divided by red lines and the reading direction often indicated by the way the figures on the page are facing. This style of organization is unique to the Ñuu Dzaui codices. The use of pictorial writing connects to the way that the Ñuu Dzaui viewed writing itself. Writing was not a way to record verbal speech, but rather a blueprint for the performance of the text. The script would be interpreted by a skilled performer who would expand upon what is in the text to express the whole story. These performed codices record the dynastic history of the ruling families of specific towns. Through this format, the artists convey the founding of towns, the history of specific regions, origin myths, wars waged between different towns, and the lives of key influential figures. It is believed that these documents served to legitimize the ruler's claim to their positions by documenting their lineage. Through this exhibition, you will be introduced to several pre-Hispanic Ñuu Dzaui manuscripts that demonstrate these various features. The oldest of the Ñuu Dzaui codices are the Codex Tonindeye (Zouche-Nuttall), Codex Yuta Tnoho (Vienna), and the Codex Iya Nacuaa (Colombino-Becker) which are most likely dated to the 14th century. The Codex Ñuu Tnoo-Ndisi Nuu (Bodley) and Codex Añute (Selden) are most likely dated to the 16th century right before the arrival of the Spanish.

The pre-Hispanic religious codices originated from a variety of indigenous Mexican cultures. The Borgia Group, for example, is a collection of codices with uncertain cultural and regional origin, most likely from the Puebla or Tlaxcala regions. What distinguishes these codices from the Ñuu Dzaui codices is their religious content. Religious codices contain the information that make up the different ways each of these cultures understood and explained the world. This includes explanations of different rituals or rites performed and pictographic images of different indigenous gods. Religious codices had many uses, which scholars divide into two categories: public use and private use. Public uses included instructions and protocols for the performance of communal rituals that are directed by or called for through natural phenomena such as rain as well as social activities such as farming, hunting, and warfare. Drawings nearly identical to those in some of the codices in the Borgia Group were discovered on altars throughout the region, indicating both the importance and the potential uses of these codices in documenting and perhaps providing instruction for specific indigenous rituals. Private uses, on the other hand, were not tied to social structure; instead, the codices were used by priests or specialists who could read the codices in order to address, avoid, or resolve individual or inter-relational problems. These instructions were often determined by the divinatory calendar; time stands as the link between the people, fate, and the gods. Indigenous Mexican cultures had a specific divinatory calendar with units of time that were distinct from their civil calendar, i.e. 260 days versus the standard 365 days. Each unit of time also had different supernatural influences and historical contexts that gave insight into their future. Time was thus very integral in guiding day to day life. Beyond that, these codices contain the information that make up each indigenous culture's way of understanding and explaining the world. Because this understanding was so foreign to Europeans and resembled idolatry, many of the religious codices were destroyed, so there is so little material to draw from to understand what pre-Hispanic indigenous life and religion were like.
Divinatory Directives: Religious Screenfolds

Mesoamerican religious and calendrical codices addressed natural phenomena, the gods, calendrical cycles, and divinatory practices. Diviners and priests referred to these painted texts when performing communal rituals and for individual consultations. Different Mesoamerican cultures relied on their own unique calendrical cycles, with corresponding gods, patrons, or forces that govern each unit of time. This case presents manuscripts from two different cultures: the Mayan Codex Dresden and the Codex Yoalli Ehēcatl (Codex Borgia), from the Puebla/Tlaxcala region.

[1] Byron Hamann, “Seeing and the Mixtec Screenfolds,” Visible Language 38, no. 1 (2004), 72.

[2] Ludo Snijders, “The Mesoamerican codex re-entangled : production, use, and re-use of pre-colonial documents,” PhD diss., (Leiden University, 2016), 67.

[3] Snijders, 2016, 67-78.

[4] Snijders, 2016, IX.

[5] Daniela Bleichmar, “History in Pictures: Translating the Codex Mendoza,” Art History 38, no. 4 (2015), 683.

[6] Bleichmar, 2015, 683.

[7] Snijders, 2016, X.

[8] Snijders, 2016, XI.

[9] Maarten Jansen and Gabina Aurora Pérez Jiménez, “Renaming the Mexican Codices,” Ancient Mesoamerica 15, no. 2 (2004), 267, and Daniela Bleichmar, “The cabinet and the world: Non-European objects in early modern European collections,” Journal of the History of Collections 33, no. 3 (2021), 9.

[10] Snijders, 2016, XI.

[11] Snijders, 2016, XI.

[12] Snijders, 2016, XI.

[13] Elizabeth Hill Boone, Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and Mixtecs (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 30-33.

[14] Boone, 2000, 30-33.

[15] Elizabeth Hill Boone, “Pictorial Documents and Visual thinking in Postconquest Mexico,” in Native Traditions in the Post World, eds. Elizabeth Boone and Thomas Cummins (Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1998), 150–153.

[16] Boone, 1998, 150-153.

[17] Boone, 1998, 150-153.

[18] Manuel A. Hermann Lejarazu, “Histories & Genealogies Through Images: Pre-Hispanic Mixtec Codices,” Artes de Mexico, no. 109 (2013), 91, and M. Jansen and G.A. Pérez Jiménez, Codex Bodley (Oxford: The Bodleian Library, 2005), 14.

[19] Boone, 2000, 33-34.

[20] Boone, 2000, 61.

[21] Mark B. King, “Hearing the Echoes of Verbal Art in Mixtec Writing,” in Writing Without Words, eds. Elizabeth Hill Boone and Walter D. Mignolo (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1994), 108. [22] Elizabeth Hill Boone, “Aztec Pictorial Histories: Records Without Words,” in Writing Without Words, eds. Elizabeth Hill Boone and Walter D. Mignolo (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1994), 71.

[23] Boone, 1994, 71.

[24] Boone, 1994, 55.

[25] Hermann Lejarazu, 2013, 91.

[26] Hermann Lejarazu, 2013, 91.

[27] Hermann Lejarazu, 2013, 93.

[28] Hermann Lejarazu, 2013, 93.

[29] Elizabeth Hill Boone, Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2007).

[30] Snijders, 2016, 67.

[31] Snijders, 2016, 68.

[32] Snijders, 2016, 67.

[33] Boone, 2007, 13.

[34] Boone, 2007, 13.