by Karl Young

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 world.

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.

Go to First Iconic Text and Commentary

Got to beginning of Animal and Human Stages in the Aztec Continuum of Life

Go to Tezcatlipoca

Copyright © 2000 by Karl Young