Reading Mesoamerican
Pictorial Codices
Cynthia L. Stone, 2008
Primary sources
Borgia Codex
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Housed in the Vatican Library, Vatican City
Strip of amate paper folded into 39 sheets, 27 X 26.5 cm
Pre-Hispanic, Late Post-classic period (13th-14th century)
Mixtec-Puebla style
Relación de Michoacán
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Housed in the Royal Library of the Escorial, outside Madrid
Codex of European paper arranged in 277 folios, 20 X 15 cm
Post-Spanish conquest (circa 1538-1541)
Compiler and translator from Purépecha into Castilian: Fray Jerónimo de Alcalá, OFM
Indigenous collaborators:
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A former high-priest (petámuti) provided an account of the arrival in Michoacán and rise to
power of the ancestors of the ruler (cazonci) at the time of the Spanish conquest
The governor (angátacuri) of the city of Tzintzuntzan, Don Pedro Cuiníarángari, provided an
account of the Spanish conquest of Michoacán
Several other elders (curáecha) provided additional oral testimonies
Several scribe-painters (caracha) provided forty-four colored pen and ink drawings
Words and Images
Alphabetic versus pictographic writing
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Differ in the degree to which they privilege words (made up of phonemes) as opposed
to images (made up of graphemes)
Although the Latin alphabet consists of letters (graphemes), these are designed to
reproduce verbatim units of language (phonemes)
Mesoamerican scripts combine more or less abstract glyphs with pictographic
scenes, some of which are designed to reproduce verbatim units of language, but
which can also be “read” independently of their linguistic component
While the Western European tradition tends to draw a sharp distinction between
writing and painting and, by extension, literature and the visual arts, the
Mesoamerican tradition does not. Thus, there is no separate word for “scribe” and
“painter” in languages such as Nahuatl and Purépecha. Rather, the same individual,
the scribe-painter (tlatoani, carari), is responsible for recording important information
in pictographic books or codices
Cosmology as the link between words and images
South (left hand)
Equivalence between cosmography,
spatiotemporal organization, and
grammar
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One can begin to “read” the pictorial
components of Mesoamerican codices
once one understands the variable
meanings assigned to spatial position
in Mesoamerican cosmography (in
much the same way that one can
begin to read an alphabetic text once
one understands the grammar of the
language in which it is written)
North (right hand)
RM, fig. 33
In a 1585 littera annua from the Jesuit missionary
Francisco Ramírez to his superiors in Castile, he
describes how the peoples of Michoacán believed that
the creation of all things emanated from the womb of a
goddess positioned face-down “with her head pointed
west and her feet pointed east, one arm to the north and
the other to the south. And the god of the sea held her by
the head and the mother of the gods by the feet and
another two goddesses, one by one arm and one by the
other, so she would not fall”
Cosmology as the link between words and images
Equivalence between mythology,
iconography, and vocabulary
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One can progress to “reading” the
iconographic elements of
Mesoamerican pictorial codices once
one understands the relationship
between key icons and the gods and
heroes of Mesoamerican mythology (in
much the same way one can progress
in the reading of an alphabetic text
once one understands enough key
vocabulary)
Top left: The lunar goddess Xarátanga is sustained by the
hearts of valiant women who are sacrificed in her temples
Bottom left: The solar god Curícaueri is sustained by the
hearts of valiant men who are sacrificed in his temples
Top right: The god of the underworld is sustained by the
sacrifice of a wrongdoer whose body is dragged to an
empty field
Bottom right: The earth goddess is sustained by the
commoners who are bound to her service
What’s with all the blood and sacrifice?
Answers to basic human questions
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What is our place in the cosmos?
Why do suffering and death exist?
How can we contribute to the continuation of life on earth?
Mesoamerican pictorial codices as guides to understanding the hidden relationships between
things (correspondence between cycles of birth and death and cycles of light and darkness)
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Cycles of birth and death
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260-day count that charts the various permutations of vital energies associated with all possible
combinations of 13 numbers and 20 daysigns
Cycles of light and darkness
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365-day solar cycle (consisting of 18 months of 20 days each, plus a 19 th month of 5 days) 52 solar cycles
= 73 birth cycles
29.5-day lunar cycle (consisting of 9 periods of unequal length corresponding to the new moon, crescent
moon, 1st quarter moon, waxing gibbous moon, full moon, waning gibbous moon, 2 nd quarter moon, crescent
moon, new moon) 235 lunar cycles = 19 solar cycles
584-day Venus cycle (consisting of 4 periods of unequal length corresponding to appearance of Venus as
morning star, the disappearance of Venus as morning star, the appearance of Venus as evening star, the
disappearance of Venus as evening star) 5 Venus cycles = 8 solar cycles
Analogies between cycles of human life and other cycles (key iconographic symbols in bold)
Human family
Kinship relations
(social functions)
Analogies with plant and mineral
kingdoms The “heart” or essence of
matter
Analogies with animal
kingdom
The external soul or animal
double of matter
Analogies with heavenly bodies The
“head” of matter as source of vital
energies whose rays are like arrows
that “pierce” various parts of the body
Analogies with
cosmography
The “houses” or
stations of matter
Ancestors
(founders of the
major ethnicities)
NOBILITY: The condition of
possibility for both life and light. Plant
kingdom: teocintli or primitive corn.
Mineral kingdom: turquoise,
obsidian, granite, basalt
Butterfly (spirit double of
flames)
Vulture (spirit double of
those of advanced age)
Deities: Lords of fire and the hearth,
Ancient ones (associated icons: fire
serpents)
Body parts: navel, womb
The “house” of the
center, the tree of life,
the place of seven
caves
Grandparents
(first humans,
diviners, healers,
daykeepers)
CREATIVITY: Originators of the
principle of dynamic equilibrium.
Together they form the divine duality
that underlies the cycles of life and
light . Plant kingdom: the elote or
kernel of corn used as basis for new
harvest as well as for divination.
Mineral kingdom: flint as condition of
possibility for fire
Coyote and peccary (spirit
doubles of matchmakers)
Opossum and coati (spirit
doubles of midwives)
Caiman or fish-reptile (spirit
double of the sky-earth)
Deities: Lords of duality, Lords of
sustenance (associated icons: bone
piercing tool, calendar)
Body parts: organs of knowledge and
judgment (eye as organ of reasoning,
nose as organ of truth and morality,
ear as organ of counsel and
understanding)
The place of duality
(home of the numeral
two), the place of
origin (home of the
broken tree)
Lovers (first
couple, fertile
ones, patrons of
the arts)
PRODUCTIVITY: Those who
engender life and light. Plant
kingdom: the flower, the seed, the
jilote or unripe ear of corn, the
maguey plant. Mineral kingdom:
jade
Lizard (spirit double of rain)
Deities: Rain god, Goddess of flowing
waters, Gods of springtime
(associated icons: cloud serpents,
rain stick or rattle)
Body parts: sexual organs and their
by-products, skin, hair, nails
The bath “house”
(sweatlodge)
Parents: mother
and mother’s
sister, father and
father’s brother
(those who
teach by
example, those
who rule over
us)
LEADERSHIP: Those who nurture
life, who light the way for their
children. Plant kingdom: the
mazorca or mature ear of corn,
pulque. Mineral kingdom: gold as
“excrement” of the sun, silver as
“excrement” of the moon
Eagle (spirit double of the
sun), hummingbird (spirit
double of the valiant warrior),
snake (spirit double of the
earth), rabbit (spirit double
of the moon)
Deities: Solar gods, lunar gods, earth
gods
Parts of the body: head
The cardinal directions
(home of the year
bearers): The “house”
of the rising sun, the
“house” of the midday
sun, the “house” of the
setting sun, the
“house of the
midnight sun)
Children
ACTIVITY: Those in whom life and
light unfold in manifest ways. Plant
kingdom: amaranth
Deer (spirit double of Venus
as morning star), dog (spirit
double of Venus as evening
star)
Deities: Venus deities (associated
icons: wind instruments, speech
scroll)
Parts of the body: breath
The horizon or heart of
the sea and sky (home
of the plumed
serpent)
Analogies between cycles of human life and other cycles, cont. (key iconographic symbols in bold)
Parents of the
day
LEADERSHIP: Those who nurture life,
who light the way for their children. Plant
kingdom: the mazorca or mature ear of
corn, pulque. Mineral kingdom: gold as
“excrement” of the sun, silver as
“excrement” of the moon
Eagle (spirit double of the
sun), hummingbird (spirit
double of the valiant warrior),
snake (spirit double of the
earth), rabbit (spirit double
of the moon)
Deities: Solar gods, lunar
gods, earth gods (associated
icons: …)
Body parts: Head
The cardinal
directions (home of
the year bearers):
The “house” of the
rising sun, the
“house” of the midday
sun, the “house” of
the setting sun, the
“house of the
midnight sun)
Children of the
sun
ACTIVITY: Those in whom life and light
unfold in manifest ways. Plant kingdom:
amaranth
Deer (spirit double of the
morning star as hunter of the
day), dog (spirit double of
the evening star)
Deities: Venus deities
(associated icons: wind
instruments, speech scroll)
Body parts: Breath
The horizon (home of
the plumed serpent)
Siblings
The companions, those who form the
entourage for the unfolding of life and
light
Monkey (spirit double of the
elder brothers)
Deities: Pleyades, Mars gods
(associated icons: numeral
400)
Body parts: Extremities,
right-hand side, left-hand
side
Children of the
night
ACTIVITY: Those in whom life and light
unfold in hidden and invisible ways. Plant
kingdom: hallucinogenic plants
Jaguar (spirit double of the
nighttime hunter)
Deities: gods associated with
magic and sorcery (associated
icons: mirror)
Parents of the
night
LEADERSHIP: Those who nurture life
after death, who light the way through the
underworld
Macaw (spirit double of the
Big Dipper)
Deities: Lords of the
underworld (associated icons:
skull, skeleton)
Analogies between cycles of life on earth and in the heavens (with key terms in Náhuatl)
Humans
Kinship relations
(social functions)
Analogies with plant and mineral kingdoms
The “heart” or essence of matter: teyolia
Analogies with animal
kingdom
The external soul or animal
double of matter: nahualli
Analogies with heavenly bodies
The “head” of matter as source
of vital energies: tonalli,
tonamitl
Analogies with
cosmography
The “houses” or
stations of matter: calli
Ancestors
(founders of the
major ethnicities)
The condition of possibility for both life and
light: teocintli, teoxihuitl, itztli, tepetl
papalotl
cozcacuauhtli
Deities: Xiuhtecuhtli,
Huehueteotl
Body parts: xictli, notepixcatl
The “house” of the
center: Xochicuahuitl,
Chicomoztoc
Grandparents
(first humans,
diviners, healers,
daykeepers)
CREATIVITY: Originators of the principle
of dynamic equilibrium. Together they form
the divine duality that underlies the cycles
of life and light : elotl, tecpatl
coyotl, coyametl
tlacuache, pizotl
cipactli
Deities: Ometeotl, Tonacateotl,
Ozomoco, Cipactonal
(tonalpohualli)
Body parts: ixtelotl, yacatl,
nacaztli
Omeyocan,
Tamoanchan
Lovers (first
couple, fertile
ones, patrons of
the arts)
PRODUCTIVITY: Those who engender life
and light: xochitl, achtli, jilotl, metl,
chalchihuitl
cuetzpalin
Deities: Tlaloc,
Chalchihuitlicue, Xipe Totec,
Xilonen, Mayahuel, Mixcoatl
Body parts: tepolli, tepolayotl,
nenetl, cuetlaxtli, tzontli, iztetl
Temazcalli
Parents: mother
and mother’s
sister, father and
father’s brother
(those who
teach by
example, those
who rule over
us)
LEADERSHIP: Those who nurture life, who
light the way for their children: centeotl,
octli, teocuicatl
cuauhtli, huitzilin, coatl, tochtli
Deities: Tonatiuh,
Huitzilopochtli, Nanahuatzin,
Metztli, Coyolxauqui,
Tecciztecatl, Coatlicue
Body parts: cuaitl
The cardinal directions
(year bearers): The
“house” of the rising
sun, the “house” of the
midday sun, the
“house” of the setting
sun, the “house of the
midnight sun)
Children
ACTIVITY: Those in whom life and light
unfold in manifest ways: huautli
mazatl
itzcuintli
Deities: Quetzalcoatl,
Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, Xolotl,
Ehecatl
Body parts: ihyotl
The horizon (home of
Quetzalcoatl)
Analogies between cycles of life on earth and in the heavens (with key terms in Purépecha)
Humans
Kinship relations (social
functions)
Analogies with plant and mineral
kingdoms The “heart” or essence
of matter: mintzita
Ancestors
(founders of the major
ethnicities)
Analogies with animal
kingdom
The external soul or animal
double of matter
Analogies with heavenly bodies
The “head” of matter as source
of vital energies: zuanda
Analogies with
cosmography
The “houses” or
stations of matter
The condition of possibility for
both life and light
Deities: Curícaueri, Querenda
Angápeti?, Taras?
Body parts:
The “house” of the
center
Grandparents
(first humans, diviners,
healers, daykeepers)
CREATIVITY: Originators of the
principle of dynamic equilibrium.
Together they form the divine
duality that underlies the cycles
of life and light
Deities: Tucupachá?
Body parts:
Lovers (first couple, fertile
ones, patrons of the arts)
PRODUCTIVITY: Those who
engender life and light:
Deities:
Body parts:
Parents: mother and
mother’s sister, father and
father’s brother (those
who teach by example,
those who rule over us)
LEADERSHIP: Those who
nurture life, who light the way for
their children:
Deities: Xarátanga,
Cuerauáperi, Tirípemencha
Body parts:
The four parts of the
world: Tambengarani
Children
ACTIVITY: Those in whom life
and light unfold in manifest ways:
Deities: Curita caheri,
Manóuapa, Sirata táperi
Body parts:
The fifth heaven
Siblings (the companions)
ACCOMPANIMENT: those who
form the entourage for the
unfolding of life and light
uitzume
Deities: Firstborn gods,
Uirámbanecha
Body parts: the right-hand side,
the left-hand side
When are arrows just arrows and when are they something more?
RM, fig. 11
“[Taríacuri] untied the bundle and took one of the arrows in his hands and offered it to [the
messengers from the town of Curínguaro], saying: ‘Behold this arrow, how green it is. These
[green] ones are named Técoecha xunganda; these are the [precious] green feathers the
Lords of Curíguaro have asked me for [as tribute]’. Then he showed them another arrow and
said: ‘these [blue ones] are the [aforementioned] turquoise necklaces. And these [arrows] with
white plumes are the silver they are requesting; and [the others] with golden feathers are the
gold, while these red feathers are [valuable] headdresses” (RM pt. 2, ch. 19)
Principal gods of Michoacán
Earth goddess Cueráuaperi: “She who unties in the womb”
• From the P’urhépecha root cuerá-, meaning “desatar,” “crear” (Gilberti); also, “librar,” absolver”
(Lagunas), “desanudar” (DG)
• Verbs derived from this root suggest various processes, including: unbinding (which, in turn,
calls to mind its opposite, unbinding), creating/destroying, discharging/contracting (as in an
obligation, absolving/condemning, knoting/unknoting
Solar god Curícaueri: “He who engenders fire from within”
• From the P’urhépecha root curhí-, meaning “atizar, engendrar,” “componer la lumbre” (Gilberti);
also, “encender, quemar” (Lagunas), “chamuscar” (DG)
• Verbs derived from this root suggest various processes, including: stoking (which, in turn, calls to
mind its opposite, snuffing out), generating/concluding, lighting/extinguishing, burning/freezing,
scorching/chilling
Lunar goddess Xarátanga: “She who reveals herself in various guises”
• From the P’urhépecha root xarhá-, meaning “[a]parecer” or “manifestar,” “revelar” or ” mostrar” or
“asomar,” “publicar” “descubrir,” ”deleytar” (Gilberti)
• Verbs derived from this root suggest various processes, including: appearing (which, in turn, calls
to mind its opposite, disappearing), revealing/hiding, publishing/keeping secret,
covering/uncovering, delighting/disliking
The Earth Goddess (Cueráuaperi)
“She who unties in the womb”
-ua = womb, -pe = to be born, to untie, -ri = she who
Present through such acts as unbinding clothes, untying braids, unthatching
roofs, etc., as well as in all manner of creative and destructive acts
“they uprooted their storage houses and
dwellings and tore off their loincloths and lip
plugs, and they pushed and shoved them
[from their villages]” (RM pt. 2, ch. 14)
RM, fig. 7
Cueráuaperi (cont.)
Present through the binding and unbinding captives and prisoners
"And they took all those peoples who had fled
their villages and captured them. Also, they
entered into the houses and took captive all the
women and children and old folks... And they
would [not sacrifice the young ones, but rather]
keep them for their service, to till their fields"
(RM pt. 2, ch. 5)
Fig 33
Fig. 2
"And they brought all the delinquents into the
patio, some with their hands tied behind,
others with their heads tied with reeds. And if
once or twice they were found to have
committed a particular crime, [the high priest]
would pardon them and hand them over to
their relatives. But if they had committed
them four times, they were condemned to
death (RM pt. 2, ch. 1)
The Solar God (Curícaueri)
“He who engenders fire from within
curhí- = to engender, to light, etc.; -ca = nominal case; -eueri = possessive
Present through the generating of light and heat…
…from bonfires
…from the sun
Fig. 41
Fig. 36
Fig. 4
…from ritual cremations
…from the burning of tobacco… …and incense
Fig. 2
Fig. 31
Curícaueri (cont.)
Present in the form of a shaft of obsidian
"I have decided to give you this obsidian knife, which
is a part of Curícaueri, which you are to keep it with
you [at all times]“ (RM pt. 2, ch. 25)
RM, fig. 17
The Lunar Goddess (Xarátanga)
“She who reveals herself in various guises”
xarhá- = to reveal; -ta = various; -nga = reflexive
Present in the proliferation and cleansing of filth and moral
transgressions, especially those of a sexual nature
(by analogy with the Náhuatl goddess Tlazoltéotl)
"The woman would sweep her house and a goodly portion of the road in front
of the house... For this was a kind of prayer she would offer in hopes of being
a good wife“ (RM pt. 3, ch. 13)
Fig. 38
"they began to fondle her.. And since they were all blackened with soot,
her face and clothing became besmirched” (RM pt. 2, ch. 16)
Fig. 9
All the gods
Present through the giving and receiving of offerings
Fig. 38
“…firewood... for the temples of [our]
mother Cueráuaperi and for the celestial
creator gods; also, for the gods of the
four parts of the world, the gods of the
right-hand and left-hand sides, and all
the other gods“ (RM pt. 3, ch. 18)
“…textiles and cotton from the
tropical lowlands, copper axes
and woven mats for carrying
things, agricultural produce, ...
Bows [and arrows].. and each
according to their
circumstances” (RM pt. 3, ch.
18)
Fig. 41
After the conquest…
"Those of you who are first-born gods and those of the lefthand side, [you must] shatter the vessels of food and drink;
...[you are to] bring no more offerings. For so it is to be from
this day forward” (RM pt. 4, ch. 1)
Fig. 42
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Correlation of birth cycles with cycles of light and darkness