Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Posts tagged “Codex

A Few Aztec Riddles

Watching the Hobbit in theatres last weekend got me thinking about riddles.  Not only are they amusing, but the figurative language and ideas contained within them can point to interesting tidbits of culture.  I’ve pulled a few of my favorites from the Florentine Codex and included them below, in slightly more informal language.  After each riddle and its answer I’ve added some of my own notes and interpretations of the concepts they nod to (the commentary is my own work, not that of Anderson and Dibble).

Q: What’s a small blue gourd bowl filled with popcorn?

A: It’s the sky.

Mesoamerican cosmology divides the universe into sky and heavens (topan) above, the earth’s surface like a pancake or tortilla in the middle (tlalticpac), and the underworld (mictlan) below.  Though all three have their own distinct and separate characteristics, they interpenetrate to a certain degree, and this riddle hints at that in a playful manner.  The gourd itself is a product of the earth and its underworld powers, doubly so as it’s a water-filled plant (and is often likened to the human head), as is popcorn.  In fact, first eating corn is the moment where an infant becomes bound to the earth deities as it takes of their bounty and starts to accumulate cold, heavy “earthy-ness” within its being.  It’s also the start of a debt to the earth and vegetation gods — as They feed the child, one day that child will die and return to the earth to feed Them.  I covered some aspects of this idea in my Human Corn post, if you’re curious to read more.

Q: What’s the little water jar that’s both carried on the head and also knows the land of the dead?

A: The pitcher for drawing water.

The land of the dead is traditionally conceived of as a place dominated by the elements of earth and water, filled with cool, oozy dampness.  Rivers, wells, springs, and caves were places where the underworld power was considered to leak through to the mortal realm.  Not only did this power seep through to us, but we could sometimes cross through them to reach the underworld as well (the legendary Cincalco cave being one of the most famous of these doors).  Thus, thrusting the jar down into a watering hole or a spring, breaking through the fragile watery membrane, was sending it into Tlaloc and Chalchiuhtlicue’s world in a way.

Q: What lies on the ground but points its finger to the sky?

A: The agave plant.

The agave plant, called metl in Nahuatl and commonly referred to as a maguey in the old Spanish sources, is a plant loaded with interesting cultural associations.  Its heart and sap is tapped to produce a variety of traditional and modern liquors like pulque, octli, and tequila, linking it to the earth-linked liquor gods like Nappatecuhtli, Mayahuel, and even Xipe Totec and Quetzalcoatl in their pulque god aspects.  Additionally, each thick, meaty leaf is tipped with a long black spine that’s much like a natural awl.  This spine was one of the piercing devices used by priests and the general public alike to perform autosacrifice and offer blood to the gods.  Lastly, the beautiful greenish-blue color of the leaves of some species (like the blue agave), is the special color traditionally associated with beautiful, divine things.  Take a look at a photo of the respendent quetzal’s tailfeathers — they’re just about the same color as the agave.

Q: What’s the small mirror in a house made of fir branches?

A: Our eye.

The Aztecs strongly associated mirrors with sight and understanding.  Several gods, most notably Tezcatlipoca (the “Smoking Mirror”), possessed special mirrors that would allow them to see and know anything in the world by peering into them.  Some of the records we have  from before and during the Conquest record that some of the statues of the gods had eyes made of pyrite or obsidian mirrors, causing a worshipper standing before them to see themselves reflected in the god’s gaze.  In the present day, some of the tigre (jaguar) boxers in Zitlala and Acatlan wear masks with mirrored eyes, discussed in this post and video.  One last point on mirrors — in many of the huehuetlatolli (ancient word speeches), the speaker implores the gods to set their “light and mirror” before someone to guide them, symbolizing counsel, wisdom, and good example.  The comparison of eyelashes to fir branches is rather interesting, as it reminds me of the common practice in many festivals of decorating altars with fresh-cut fir branches.  The two elements combine to suggest a tiny shrine of enlightenment, the magic mirror nestled in its fragrant altar like a holy icon.

Q: What’s the scarlet macaw in the lead, but the raven following after?

A: The wildfire.

I included this one simply because I thought it was exceptionally creative and clever.  I’m pretty sure it would stump even a master riddler like Gollum!


Sahagún, Bernardino , Arthur J. O. Anderson, and Charles E. Dibble. General History of the Things of New Spain: Florentine Codex. Santa Fe, N.M: School of American Research, 1950-1982, Book VI, pp.236-239.

Colloquies Of The Twelve

I have quite the research treat for you tonight, dear reader!  After quite some time patiently hunting and following threads (and guessing the correct URL behind a broken link when one last barrier tried to put an end to my quest), I successfully tracked down the only English, full-text translation of an important Conquest-era work… the Colloquios y doctrina christiania (“Dialogues and Christian Doctrine”), often known to English speakers by its nickname “The Colloquies of the Twelve.”

The bilingual Nahuatl/Spanish text dates to about 1564 and was penned by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún.  The work concerns itself with recording a series of debates between Mexican religious and political authorities and a team of twelve friars sent by the Spanish crown to attempt to destroy the indigenous faith.  These verbal battles took place in the early 1520’s, shortly after the fall of the Aztec empire.  While Sahagún didn’t reach Mexico until 1529 and thus was a few years too late to have witnessed these discussions himself, he did consult ten out of twelve of the friars, as well as four Mexica informants and four eminent native scholars (Antonio Valeriano, Alonso Vegeriano, Martin Jacobita, and Andres Leonardo), in order to reconstruct the debates (albeit in a highly-poetic and dramatic form).

The lone surviving manuscript was lost for over three hundred years until it was rediscovered in the Vatican archives in the early twentieth century.  Sadly, of the thirty chapters, only fourteen have endured the ravages of time.  It received a German translation by Zelia Nuttall in the 1940’s, but remained untranslated into English until 1978, thanks to the effort of Jorge Klor de Alva (the first complete modern Spanish translation was executed by Miguel Leon-Portilla in 1977).  Its first and only publication was in the final issue of Alcheringa: Ethnopoetics, Volume Four, Number Two, published by Boston University in 1980.  This printing is the one I present you with today.

Click HERE to access the downloadable PDF containing the Colloquies of the Twelve at Alcheringa’s online archive.

I also recommend poking around in other volumes in Alcheringa’s archives, as they have quite a bit of interesting stuff back there, including more Mesoamerican research and several recordings of indigenous poetry recitations.  Thumbs up to Boston University for releasing these archives to the public, including the audio recordings that came with issues of this journal.

P.S. — As a bonus, this particular volume also includes several interesting Mayan legends I haven’t encountered anywhere else, and, related to my previous post, Thelma D. Sullivan’s full text translations of several birth/pregnancy huehuetlatolli speeches from Book 6 of the Florentine Codex.


Book of the Colloquies; The Aztec-Spanish Dialogues of 1524. English edition translated and edited by Jorge Klor de Alva. Alcheringa/Ethnopoetics vol 4, no. 2:52—193.  1980.

The Grandfather

My dear grandfather passed away this month at 90 years of age, so in his honor I am going to post the entry about the grandfather from the Florentine Codex, as well as the related entry about the old man, as it expands on concepts discussed in the first one.  Xolotl guide you, Grandpa.

One’s Grandfather — Grandfather (Tecol, Colli)

One’s grandfather is hardened, lean, white-haired, white-headed. He becomes impotent, childish.

The good grandfather is an adviser, an indoctrinator. He reprimands one, beats one with nettles, teaches one prudence, discretion.

The bad grandfather is negligent, of misspent days and nights; of no fame, of no renown. A luxurious old man, he is decrepit, senile.


Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain (Translation of and Introduction to Historia General De Las Cosas De La Nueva España; 12 Volumes in 13 Books ), trans. Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O Anderson (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1950-1982).  Book 10 – The People, Chapter 1, pp. 4-5

The Old Man

The revered old man, the aged man is white-haired, white-headed, hardened with age, aged, ancient, experienced, a successful worker.

The good old man is famous, honored, an advisor, a reprehender, a castigator, a counselor, an indoctrinator. He tells, he relates ancient lore; he leads an exemplary life.

The bad old man is a fabricator, a liar, a drunkard, a thief; decrepit, feeble; a gaudy old man, a luxurious old man, an old fool, a liar. He invents falsehoods.


Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain (Translation of and Introduction to Historia General De Las Cosas De La Nueva España; 12 Volumes in 13 Books ), trans. Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O Anderson (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1950-1982).  Book 10 – The People, Chapter 3, p.11

An elderly male figure, Borgia Codex Plate 57

An elderly male figure, Borgia Codex Plate 57

Eduard Seler’s Commentary On Codex Vaticanus 3773 (Vaticanus B) — Vol. 1

Back on January 29th of this year, I spotted on GoogleBooks the full text of Volume 2 of Eduard Seler’s commentary on Codex Vaticanus 3773, otherwise known as Vaticanus B.  I said I’d be watching for Google to finish scanning Volume 1 and post it… and guess what, it’s finally up in its entirety.  It can be read online, or the full text can be downloaded as a PDF. Volume 1 is on the obverse (front) side of the scroll-like book, while Volume 2 is about the reverse (back).  I’ve also updated my Codices page with the link to Volume 1.

Thanks Google!

Click HERE to read Volume 1 of Eduard Seler’s commentary on Codex Vaticanus 3773


Click HERE to read Volume 2

Quetzalcoatl and Mictlantecuhtli

Quetzalcoatl and Mictlantecuhtli Over Cipactli/Tlaltecuhtli (Codex Vaticanus B, Plate 76)

Tigre Boxing In Acatlan: Jaguar & Tlaloc Masks

Up today is another video about the Mexican Tigre combat phenomenon I discussed  a few weeks ago.  This one shows a style of fighting practiced in Acatlan.  Instead of rope whip-clubs as in Zitlala, these competitors duel with their fists.

Courtesy link to ArchaeologyTV’s page on YouTube for this Tigre combat video.

A particularly interesting feature of this video is the variety of masks.  Not only do you see the jaguar-style masks, but you’ll also see masks with goggle eyes.  Goggle eyes are, of course, one of the signature visual characteristics of Tlaloc, the very Teotl this pre-Columbian tradition was originally dedicated to.  (And still is in many places, beneath the surface layer of Christian symbols.)  If you look closely, you might notice that some of the goggle eyes are mirrored.  The researchers behind ArchaeologyTV interviewed one of the combatants, who said that the significance of the mirrors is that you see your own face in the eyes of your opponent, linking the two fighters as they duel.

This idea of a solemn connection between two parties in sacrificial bloodshed was of major importance in many  of the pre-Conquest religious practices of the Aztecs.  It can be seen most clearly in the gladiatorial sacrifice for Xipe Totec during Tlacaxipehualiztli.  During this festival, the victorious warrior would refer to the man he captured in battle as his beloved son, and the captive would refer to the victor as his beloved father.  The victim would be leashed to a round stone that formed something of an arena, and given a maquahuitl that had the blades replaced with feathers, while his four opponents were fully-armed.  As the captor watched the courageous victim fight to the death in a battle he couldn’t win, he knew that next time, he might be the one giving his life on the stone to sustain the cosmos.

Eduard Seler’s Commentary On Codex Vaticanus 3773 (Vaticanus B)

I just had an incredible stroke of luck.  I just discovered an English translation of Dr. Eduard Seler’s commentary on the Codex Vaticanus 3773, a.k.a. Codex Vaticanus B.  Well, half of it anyway.  The complete English text of the second volume of Seler’s commentary is available to read and download as a PDF via GoogleBooks.   This volume is devoted to the reverse side of the codex.  Volume 1 is about the obverse side.  I dredged Google and determined that they’ve scanned Volume 1 but don’t yet have it available to read.  I hope they’re planning on making it fully available soon, and not doing something sleazy like keeping it locked down.  Might be a good idea to petition them for this one if you’re feeling frisky.  I’ll be watching for it to go up at any rate.

Speculation about Google’s intentions aside, I’m pleased to be able to point you to an excellent commentary by one of the premier luminaries of Mesoamerican religious studies.  A quick link to the book is below, and I’ve updated my Codices page with this link as well.  Incidentally, this volume includes a complete black and white scan of the codex as Appendix A, with Seler’s notes.  Visually not as nice as viewing the high-resolution color scans on FAMSI, but quite useful.

Click HERE to read Vol. 2 of Dr. Eduard Seler’s Commentary on Codex Vaticanus 3773

UPDATE 9/21/09:  Google’s posted Vol. 1 now!  Click HERE to get it too!

Eagle, Serpent, & Rabbit, Plate 27 of Codex Vaticanus B
Eagle, Serpent, & Rabbit, Plate 27 of Codex Vaticanus B

Codex Badianus & Aztec Herbal Medicine

While prowling around online I finally rediscovered a page that has some excerpts from the Codex Badianus on it.  The Codex Badianus, also known as the Codex Barberini or the Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis, was the first book of herbal medicine published in the Americas.  It was written by Martin de la Cruz, a young Nahua herbal physician of good repute, and published in 1552.  The University of Virginia has a nice little exhibit about the codex, including several traditional Aztec medical recipes and photos of some of the plants.  If you’d like to learn a bit more about the codex itself and some general info about Aztec medicine, including a few more recipes, Mexicolore has a handly little introductory article on it to whet your appetite.  Finally, if you’re  curious to learn more at a more technical level, I even found some professional journal articles on the subject on PubMedDon’t forget to check the References list at the bottom of the page for more articles on Aztec medicine available on PubMed.

Go HERE to visit the University of Virginia’s excepts from the Codex Badianus.

And go HERE to visit Mexicolore’s feature on the Badianus and Aztec medicine.

Finally, go HERE to read “Aztec Medicine” by Francisco Guerra,  in Med Hist. 1966 October; 10(4): 315–338.  Full text online, downloadable PDF also available.

The Herb Quauhtlahuitzquilitl, Page 32 Recto of the Codex Badianus
The Herb Quauhtlahuitzquilitl, Page 32 Recto of the Codex Badianus