The Aztecs could hear parts of the universal voice most clearly in certain
segments of the continuum that stretches through the living world. The sacred
manifestations that issue from animal and human forms could be schematicized as
follows: 1. Gods who appear as animals. 2. Gods who act as nahualis. 3. Unified
nahualis - the two parts of a nahuali pair joined in one figure or two
figures that cannot be separated in their current state. 4. Aspects of gods
who appear with some animal attributes. 5. Multiple base hybrid gods whose
characteristics are inextricably fused. 6. Purely anthropomorphic gods,
sometimes accompanied by animals, sometimes not. In the following, I will
present examples of each of the these categories, showing how the animal
component of each of the first five is essential to the function of each
god, and how an animal assistant can act in the sixth, and show how the
human, animal, and divine elements carry out vital dialogues within the continuum of life.
It seems best to present them with specific examples of Aztec iconographic
representation, and to move in some instances out of the Quetzalcoatl family,
in part to give the images a better and fuller context, in part to show
them as the Aztecs saw them in their own writing system. This seems
particularly important to me since I think it likely that the Aztecs made
and kept religious books not so much as a means of remembering things they
would otherwise have forgotten or of conveying new information, but to
help make them unforgettable, to give them more tangible form, and to aid
in internal visualization. All the iconographic images in this series
come from a single work, Codex Borbonicus.
This book itself presents its share of puzzles and paradoxes. The first
half of it contains the most lavishly and clearly drawn divinatory
calender that has come down to us. Its large page size (approximately
15 1/2 x 15 1/2 inches) and striking colors suggest that it may have
been used for ceremonial purpose. Although scholars have engaged in
sometimes heated debate as to its date of composition, we can feel
sure that if it was painted after the conquest of Mexico, it was
produced in a style that could just as easily have been done earlier.
All the material presented in the calendar finds verification in older
manuscripts, and no European forms appear in it, apart from some notes
and glosses in Roman letters added after the original painting. The
first two pages were removed after the manuscript was brought to
Europe, and will probably never be recovered, though we know from
other books more or less what they contained. Large boxes appear
in the upper left hand corner of each page, flanked on two sides by
the grid of the calender. I present here only the images in these
large boxes, not the grids of day signs around them. Each page shows
a "week" of thirteen days. Twenty of these weeks made up the 260
day augural cycle, which, in a 52 year period, charts the
interrelation of solar years with the rotations of Venus.
The number thirteen probably derives from the approximate number of
lunations in a solar year, so that the moon also takes part in
this cycle. 52 divided by 4 yields 13: thus each of the 13 numbers in the
day signs, and the four year signs, pertains to one of the four sacred
directions that frame the earth as well as to the cycles of the
sun, moon, and Venus, which in turn get worked back into the
significance of each day. Each of the days in the calender is
listed by its day sign and number and includes other
symbols used in divination and ceremony. The images in the large
boxes, those shown here, present the deity who governs each "week,"
often accompanied by another god who modifies the significance of
the primary figure.
The second section of the book provides year signs correlated with
the "Lords of the Night," enabling an adept to adjust any given 260
day period to the 52 year cycle of time or Aztec "century." The rest
of the book was left unfinished by the scribes, though it presents
intriguing suggestions of the kind of book it was meant
to be. The images in the third section center on ceremonies,
particularly those that end a 52 year cycle, when "New Fire" must be
lit to make the transition from one period to the next. Perhaps this
might have related to historical events, such as
those found in Codex Vindobonensis, had the scribes been able
to finish their work. The incompleteness of this section contains
suggestive possibilities, the answers to which may always elude us.
I sometimes think of this part of the book as a sort of nahuali for
the initial calendar. That's simply a poet's way of looking at it.
Whatever this section may be or whatever the scribes wanted it to
be, the opening calender remains a major work of Aztec book art, and
gives us clear and well-rendered images of the gods who governed the
calendar, and who moved through the continuum of life in the Aztec
The iconographic texts from Codex Borbonicus presented here are my
line drawings. For many years, making drawings and painted facsimiles of
the Codicies and related work formed a major nexus of my study of these
books, an activity and discipline I recommend to anyone seriously interested
in Meso-American studies - though, of course, it also reflects my own
orientation as artist and poet.
To access each icon from Codex Borbonicus,
click on the title of the section you're reading.
To return, click on the image.