by Karl Young

We know that book production flourished in pre-Conquest Mexico. Among the types of books produced were genealogies, histories, books used for interpreting dreams and determining suitable marriage partners, law books, bureaucratic documents, and a wide range of religious books. At least three formats were simultaneously in use: the screenfold, the scroll, and the lienzo (Spanish name for a large piece of cloth that could be folded up like a map or a bed sheet when not in use) - and several other forms are hinted at. Unfortunately, only about a dozen pre-Conquest books have survived from central Mexico, though we also have a number of post-Conquest books produced more or less in the indigenous style. Codex Vindobonensis is one of the pre-Conquest books that has survived.

This manuscript was painted on 15 strips of deerskin, glued together to form a single band about 44' 3" long and about 9" tall. It is folded accordion fashion so that there are 52 pages on each side, each about 10 3/4" across. The ends are glued onto wooden boards, leaving only 50 pages open for painting on the reverse. All 52 pages of the front are painted, while the painting breaks of in the middle of the thirteenth page of the reverse. Chemical analysis has not been not been made of the manuscript, but we may assume that it painted with the same materials as other books of its type: a ground of lime gesso was first applied to the entire surface, line was drawn using a carbon base ink, and color was filled in afterward, using the basic pigments - mineral blue, yellow, and red oxide, and possibly cochineal base red; other colors, used sparingly, seem to be combinations of the basic pigments. Though we can't be sure at this point what kind of applicators were used, two instruments that may be a pen and a brush are shown at the middle right of page 35 (18) in this codex. Most scholars agree that this book was produced in the Mixtec area to the south of Mexico City.

The first side of the manuscript tells of the creation of the world and the Mixtec people. It lists the places within the Mixtec area and defines its lordships. It relates the struggles and interactions of the Mixtecs with the Stonemen - possibly Teotihuacan colonizers or Toltec conquerors - and the history of their most important plants: corn, maguey, and hallucinogenic mushrooms. After the prologue dealing with the creation of the world and the Mixteca, the book is divided into ten major chapters, each centering on the New Fire Ceremony that began historic and mythic eras, and showing related rituals in detail. The main personage in the book is the form of the god Quetzalcoatl known as 9-Wind, after the date of his birth. This god plays a crucial role in the creation of the world and the establishment of the Mixtec lordships, and it is he who lights New Fire for the first time. The book tells the story of the Mixteca in a general, mythic, almost extrahistorical sense. It is one of the most beautiful examples of pre-Columbian bookmaking we have. It seems to be the product of a serene and unhurried workshop, whose artists had received long and rigorous training in both the techniques of book manufacture and in the religion and history of their people.

The reverse side is a reverse indeed: it is one of the worst examples of indigenous painting we have. Its creator does not seem to have been particularly skilled but he does seem to have been working at breakneck speed. Toward the end, he simply lists names, without accompanying images. This side of the manuscript records the lineage of the House of Tilontongo from A.D. 720 to the middle of the 14th century. We may conjecture that side 1 was painted at royal command during a relatively stable period of Mixtec history. Side 2 was then added when that stability was broken by an invasion from one of the city-states around Lake Texcoco, perhaps Colhuacan. The vanquished Mixtecs may have presented the book as tribute to their conquerors, after someone had hastily painted the lineage of their house on the back as evidence of their legitimate claim to their lands.

In his Prymera Relacion of 1519, Cortez wrote that he was sending "two books such as the Indians use" along with other loot to Charles V of Spain. We can feel relatively certain that Codex Vindobonensis was one of them because an ownership inscription on the manuscript says that Charles V gave it to Manuel I of Portugal who was dead by the time the next consignment of Mexican plunder reached Europe. Albrecht Durer viewed some of the loot sent back to Europe, and noted in his diary that he wept to see metalwork of such beauty melted down to make conveniently negotiable ingots. What might he have written had he seen the books? Cortez may have obtained the book in one of two ways. Since the recto of the manuscript centers on Quetzalcoatl, and since Moctezoma believed that Cortez was a manifestation or a lieutenant of that god, he may have sent it to the Spaniard with other gifts shortly after Cortez landed on the Mexican coast. We have record of a consignment of gifts sent by Moctezoma along with the message that Mexico was still being well managed, that its people still venerated Quetzalcoatl, and that there was no need for the god to come to the capital. This book would certainly have been an appropriate one to include with such a collection of gifts, since it would seem to confirm Moctezoma's message.

The other possibility also involves Quetzalcoatl's prominence in the book. Before the invasion began, Moctezoma had disaffected large segments of the indigenous nobility by reducing their privileges and meddling in affairs they considered their own. One of his major activities during this period seems to have been seeking omens about the return of Quetzalcoatl and then trying to circumvent or hide from them. One approach to the problem was to systematically gather books that dealt with the god, have them searched for omens, and then destroyed if the omens were unfavorable. Moctezoma had heard that one such book was in the hands of two lords, Atonal and Tlamapanatzin, and he ordered them to burn the book. These lords were among those disaffected by Moctezoma. They thought that such a book would help anyone wishing to overthrow the emperor. They secretly approached Cortez, who was then on the coast, offering him the book and their support if he would unseat Moctezoma and restore them to their former status. Cortez, of course, accepted the offer. He probably couldn't think of anything to do with the book except send it back to Spain with his first consignment of exotic loot, but it was the sort of aid that these two lords offered that gave him key advantages over Moctezoma. Along with the diseases the Spaniards brought with them, such assistance made the rapid conquest of Mexico possible.

We can reconstruct part of the book's history in Europe. Between the time Cortez received it and the time at which it came to the Austrian National Library, where it now resides, it was owned by two emperors, a duke, a pope, and three cardinals - the list includes two Medicis and a Habsburg. Clearly during the first 350 years of the book's European career, it functioned as a pawn in the game of political flattery, a token to curry favor. Thus the book took part in at least two major conquests in Mexico, and, in a quiet way, hovered behind its share of aristocratic intrigue in Europe.

A major characteristic of pre-Conquest central Mexican books is that they could be given what I call a brief or an extensive reading. An extensive reading would involve elaborate recitation of prayers, hymns, legends, etc. A single page could take hours to read. A brief reading simply involved identification of images and their functions. In the following pages I have attempted to approximate a brief reading of three early pages of Codex Vindobonensis. Of course, since our knowledge of the books and the world in which they functioned is limited, and since nearly everything we do know is interpreted differently by contemporary students of these books, the speculative and tentative nature of such a reading cannot be stressed too much. As much as this speculation makes huge leaps into the unknown, we should stress with absolute certainty that Aztec reading practices differed radically from our own.

A few brief notes before presenting my reading: Most pre-Conquest deities existed in numerous and often bewildering variant forms. In this manuscript, a number of distinct forms of the god Quetzalcoatl are presented, but the one distinguished by the calendar name 9-Wind is the most important. Dates were written by a combination of one of the twenty day-signs and a numeral from 1 to 13, indicated by the appropriate number of dots. 9-Wind is represented by a wind-mask and nine dots. Each day in the indigenous calendar had a specific fate and the pre-Conquest Mexicans and their gods took their birth dates as their names, since the date defined who they were. Hence 9-Wind is both the name of a specific manifestation of Quetzalcoatl and the date of birth of that manifestation. In some of the historical manuscripts, like Bodeley and Selden, dates not used as names are simply dates, little different from our December 2 or August 12. In Codex Vienna, however, dates not used as names of persons or gods probably have a mythic rather than a chronological significance. This book is not a history in our sense of the word: an event takes place on a specific date because that's the date in the indigenous calendar on which such an event has the proper significance.

I use the Nahuatl names of deities in this reading. The people who first used this book probably used Mixtec names for them, but these names are unknown to us now. A problem that remains unsolved is to what extent the Mixtec notions of these deities varied from those of the peoples of the Valley of Mexico, where we have more extensive documentation in European script, and hence the names of deities. We do, however, use the name Buddha when discussing Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Burmese and Tibetan religion, even though this figure (and his name) varies from one context to the next. I think we can do the same here, provided that we bear in mind the probability of significant local variations.

Reading begins in the lower right hand corner of each page. Start there and follow the arrows in my reading. Generally, reading proceeds in a boustrophedon or meander pattern. There is an exception to this rule on p. 5: when you come to the bottom of the second column, you do not proceed up the third, but rather start over again at the top of column three. The painter of the manuscript probably interrupted the normal pattern of reading here to emphasize the important event depicted in this column.

As part of my study of this manuscript, I have painted a facsimile of it. I recommend this sort of activity for any serious student of these manuscripts. It provides insights I don't think could be gained simply by looking at a facsimile, and, perhaps, in a small way, helps to make up for the loss of the oral counterpart of the book - at least it allows the reader to participate on an active level. The reproductions used here are from my painted copy. This essay, facsimile, and reading first appeared in New Wilderness 11, December, 1982, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and David Guss. The isue was reprinted by Granary Books as The Book, Spiritual Instrument in 1996. Electronic publication allow some new methods of presentation. First, it permits color reproduction. And in setting up the pages in html, I have done so in such a way as to permit the reader to flip back and forth between the facsimile and the reading by clicking anywhere on either. The codex thus slyly slips into a new dimension of American culture.

Page One.
Page Five.
Page Six.

Bibliography and notes for further reading

Copyright © 1982, 1996, and 2002 by Karl Young

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