Painted Manuscripts of Pre-Columbian America

Article excerpt

Painted manuscripts of pre-Columbian America

THE Mexican, Maya and Peruvian Indians discovered and cultivated different "modes' of transmitting their culture and ethics. Some of them still amaze us with their plastic beauty and their esoteric ingenuity, and in them all we discern a fundamental and even obsessive urge to preserve and transmit through original forms of writing the profound meaning of man and the universe.

For this reason writing became something sacred and esoteric for the pre-Hispanic peoples. Written signs, writing materials and those who could handle them were considered by the people as being connected with the divine. The writings themselves, in their creation and their appearance, had a magical character, closely linked to cosmogonic conceptions.

That is why the various systems of writing that evolved among people with such a high level of technical expertise bore no relation to practical needs; they were symbols for the sacred message concealed within.

We know that writing, its preservation and interpretation, were the responsibility of a special class of dignitaries with priestlike functions--sometimes they even were priests--who used language, materials, colours and contents indissolubly related to the archetypal situations of the Indian deities.

The pre-Columbian peoples possessed several systems of writing (ideographic, calendric, pictographic, numeral, phonetic with which they wrote on deerskins, stones and strips of amatl paper. In their eyes, however, the very fact of recording and of keeping these records was of such vital importance that their loss or preservation was identified with the destruction or continuity of the universe.

In fact, in order to make sure that the world will continue to exist and that the loss of the instruments of transmission does not bring about the end of their lives and the destruction of the universe, the ancient Nahuas meet to reinvent or rediscover the old knowledge and the old form of preserving the past, the life and essence of their people.

They are not concerned with the form and various ways of recording the past-- hence their infinite variety--but with the act of recording it so that its remembrance may illuminate and give coherence to a world filled with gods, conflicts and doubts. …