Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate

Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate

Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate

Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate


In communities throughout precontact Mesoamerica, calendar priests and diviners relied on pictographic almanacs to predict the fate of newborns, to guide people in choosing marriage partners and auspicious wedding dates, to know when to plant and harvest crops, and to be successful in many of life's activities. As the Spanish colonized Mesoamerica in the sixteenth century, they made a determined effort to destroy these books, in which the Aztec and neighboring peoples recorded their understanding of the invisible world of the sacred calendar and the cosmic forces and supernaturals that adhered to time. Today, only a few of these divinatory codices survive. Visually complex, esoteric, and strikingly beautiful, painted books such as the famous Codex Borgia and Codex Borbonicus still serve as portals into the ancient Mexican calendrical systems and the cycles of time and meaning they encode.

In this comprehensive study, Elizabeth Hill Boone analyzes the entire extant corpus of Mexican divinatory codices and offers a masterful explanation of the genre as a whole. She introduces the sacred, divinatory calendar and the calendar priests and diviners who owned and used the books. Boone then explains the graphic vocabulary of the calendar and its prophetic forces and describes the organizing principles that structure the codices. She shows how they form almanacs that either offer general purpose guidance or focus topically on specific aspects of life, such as birth, marriage, agriculture and rain, travel, and the forces of the planet Venus. Boone also tackles two major areas of controversy- the great narrative passage in the Codex Borgia, which she freshly interprets as a cosmic narrative of creation, and the disputed origins of the codices, which, she argues, grew out of a single religious and divinatory system.


The painted books and manuscripts of Mesoamerica are increasingly the focus of scholarly and popular interest. Those who see the manuscripts for the first time are both astonished at the gorgeous and complex imagery in the books and intrigued by the reality of a system of graphic communication that was fully figural. As Western culture increasingly moves beyond alphabetic writing to embrace other graphic systems that convey information, scholars from a number of disciplines are beginning to look more closely at the painted books of Mesoamerica. Literary theorists, linguists, and specialists in cultural studies are joining anthropologists, art historians, and historians in their efforts to understand the special features of the indigenous codices. Two inexpensive paperback facsimiles of ancient Mexican codices, The Codex Nuttall and The Codex Borgia, as well as several overviews of the manuscript tradition have brought Mesoamerican manuscript painting to the general public.

Despite this interest, however, the world of the divinatory codices (the books of fate) has remained a particularly impenetrable one for nonspecialists. the very features that allow these books to hold their specialized knowledge—the complexity of the imagery, the multiple calendrical system in many different permutations, their particular graphic structure, and their esoteric content—impede an easy understanding. There are detailed commentaries on individual codices, to be sure, but what has been needed is a larger synthetic treatment that can introduce and draw people into the field. the present study is intended to help fill this lacuna by providing an overview of the genre, one that explains the esoteric world of Mesoamerican fortunetelling, the canons that governed the creation of the painted books, their content, and the rules by which they were read. in the process it explains how most of the almanacs operate and offers new interpretations of several passages. My goal is to open up and provide an entrance into the world of codical divination. in this way, the book stands as a complement to Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and Mixtecs, which similarly treats the historical genre.

This book has been long in gestation. the idea for it grew out of a Summer Research Seminar that H. B. Nicholson and I organized in 1982 at Dumbarton Oaks. That seminar brought together Nicholson, Ferdinand Anders, Carlos Arostegui, John Carlson, Maarten Jansen, Edward Sisson, Peter van der Loo, and me to focus our attention for the summer on the codices of the Borgia Group. We were a raucous and agreeably argumentative group, and we learned much from each other. the diagrams of the Borgia Group codices that appear in the Appendix to this book draw their inspiration from the brilliant diagrams that Anders developed for the seminar. the seminar culminated in a two-day symposium that brought an additional fifteen scholars into . . .

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