Neither the Aztecs in Mexico nor the Incas in Peru had before the Spanish conquest a writing system, as we understand it. They gave their stories further by means of mnemonic tools: signs on stones, bones or ceramics, picture-writing on skins or bark, in rituals, narratives and songs. Some we know today because Spaniards wrote about them and because archaeologists, anthropologists and historians have found additional material and have interpreted it. Told for centuries, it has been colored by the narrators.
Aztecs in Mexico – I am talking about specialists, tlacuilol, the one who writes by painting, the word can be translated – had before the arrival of the Spaniards painted codices, picturestories that contained glyphs, signs for times and numbers, names and places – core of the narratives – and which therefore both has been compared with the embroidered Bayeux tapestry, with Catholic frescoes and with rebuses; however, you should not imagine rebus quite like those in the weeklys!
Aztec codices are visually powerful. Initially, they may both have been mnemonic tools at oral performances – speeches, songs or rituals – and as powerful icons; they must have been sacred props.
Picture-writing with the tribes signs for gods, rulers, events and years were painted on deer skin or bark from either fig tree, mulberry tree or agave, and were assembled as 30-50 ft long screenfold books. It was Spaniards who called such a book a codex and codices when there were more – and we still do so, because the Aztecs designation was mexihcatl amoxtli, and it could be a little difficult for the Spaniards to pronounce.
Some Aztecs could immediately see that a codex related to a particular god or leader, and then they could reproduce what these gods represented. Those with a more comprehensive knowledge of characters could also interpret time-signs, and from picture elements determine which concrete myth or historical event was reproduced, which he or she knew in advance, got refreshed and could retell. Such a reading could also be done by scribes who did not speak the same language as the book painter, but who lived in the same cultural circle with shared storytelling. But only the initiates could read a codex, and only select ones had access to them at all.
It is unclear whether these were picture-writings or they also were phonetic writing, where images could become sounds, completely detached from their original meaning.
Codices could record laws, economic regulations, mythology, calendars, and political history.
Some codices rotted in the humid climate since they were painted on organic material. Other aztec codices were burned by the Aztecs approximately 1430 and others were burned by Spanish rulers after 1521.
Psst gone, because censors zealously decided what the Indians had to read and especially to believe, and what Spaniards had to know about the past of the conquered.
To the King of Spain Cortés sent two codices shortly after he had landed in Mexico; it is assumed that it were those who are called respectively Codex Vindobonensis and Codex Zouche-Nuttall. 11 codices from the western part of Mesoamerica and 4 from the Maya area from the time before the Spanish conquest is preserved. However, none of these are Aztec from before the arrival of the Spaniards; the two Cortés had sent and who came to Seville in Spain in 1519 were both Mixtec.
So few original sources!
Less than a hundred years after the conquest, the knowledge to be triggered by drawings, pictograms, was so vague that it became difficult to capture the depth of them.
Still, scholars are trying to break the codes.
After the Spanish conquest, new codices were written by Indians in Latin letters; it is discussed whether Anales de Tlatelolco is the oldest.
Others were written by Spaniards. Some codices contain both Aztecs picture-writing with calendarsigns plus texts in Nahuatl or Spanish written in Latin letters, and they testify cooperative Aztec scribes and Spanish monks.
Indians were willing to retell and explain their codices, and occasionally Spaniards were interested in listening and writing – in other periods it was strictly forbidden, because such writings could strengthen the Indian culture, increase opposition to the Spaniards and promote Indians ‘paganism’.
The interested Spanish ‘writing aid’ resulted in Indian gods in Aztec texts were called devils. One can argue that the Spanish changes were due to their perception of what they had heard; but the goal must have been that their presentations should strengthen the power of the conquerors at the expense of the Indian people. You can call it manipulation.
Scholars have thus had to resort to Spanish reproductions of Indians notions. This is due to the nature of the original material – or rather the lack of original material – but also a fortunate circumstance, namely the curiosity of Spanish King Carlos. The King wanted to know much more about his expanding Kingdom, and it led to a comprehensive written material. Monks were invited to collect and ‘rewrite’ the original codices of the Aztecs. Already in 1521, the Crown decreed that no one should prevent any useful communication reaching the King.
There were also some Spaniards who wrote to satisfy a curious audience in Europe while others wrote to legitimize their bloody deeds as necessary or to make legal demands on the conquered.
However, King Carlos son and heir, Philip 2nd, feared the work of his Spanish subjects with Indian texts. Half a century after the conquest of mainland America had begun – in 1577 – he announced his Viceroy in Mexico:
We understand that friar Bernardino de Sahagún of the Franciscan order has composed a Universal History of the most notable things of that New Spain, and it is a copious compendium of all the rites, ceremonies and idolatries which the Indians used when they were pagans, divided into twelve books, and in the Mexican language; and while it is understood that friar Bernardino did this with the best intentions, and hoped that his work would be useful, it is my opinion that this book should not be printed or circulated in any manner in this country, for weighty reasons; and thus we order that as soon as you receive this cedula, you use much care and diligence to get hold of these books, omitting no originals or copies, and send them immediately to our Council of the Indies, who will see to them; and be warned that you are not to allow any person to write anything concerning the superstitions and way of life the Indians had, in any language.
BOING! A royal ban! The King feared that myths could trigger opposition among the Indians. Fortunately, the royal cen-sorship was not exercised strictly. To the authorities, monks argued, that it was necessary to master local languages and, on the whole, insist on the importance of the works for the Christian missionary work, that these writings would not strengthen the Indians idolatry. Four years later, the Inquisition, the state-controlled ecclesiastical court, relaxed the ban on using Indian languages.
Several resumed the writing, but in the following 240 years – up to Mexicos and Perus independence in the 1820s – such writings could be banned by the Spanish authorities.
Before the end of the 16th century, mission leaders had reported that the natives had now become Christians and that missionaries had used local sources. Indian myths could be used by the Spaniards! However, only a few theologians were interested in Indian religion, culture and cultural objects. First and foremost, they were concerned with how to combat Indian faith. A central attack Catholic missionaries directed against the Indians having worshipped many gods, AND that the true God – the Spaniards, ie, the Christians and originally the Jews – had explicitly emphasized Moses: You shall have no other gods before me.
In the 19th and 20th centuries – centuries of nationalism – interest in the past grew in Mexico. Early Spanish colonial era manuscripts containing myths and stories were found in archives, libraries and collections. Some were printed and thus available to far more readers; before manuscripts in the literal sense of the word had been unique that kept the information very close to the specific piece of paper where the text was once written – something we find difficult to imagine in our digital age.
Today, the existence of about 500 Spanish codices, also these writings are called so, has been recorded, having been given the ‘surname’ after which European city manuscript is stored or after its European employer, book collector or author.
In Peru, the Incas – that will say khipucamayocs, Masters of the knots – before the Spaniards conquest had tied knots on colored woolen cords called khipu (also spelled quipu), which was considered a kind of book of accounts. The oldest description is known from November 1533 when a Spanish conqueror described the system in a letter.
Spanish theologians looked with contempt on khipus. They did not know what these pagan books contained, so they should be burned.
When the amauta – an Inca authorized storyteller – could unravel stories and myths through these cords, they apparently contained more than numbers. That is why the Spaniards harshly concluded they contained devilry. Therefore, it was so necessary to burn khipus so that amautas knowledge of knots should disappear forever.
Knowledge from khipus is difficult – perhaps impossible – to reconstruct. Some historians have attempted to document how khipus could act as carriers of text. However, most scholars are skeptical of the previous attempts to decipher these five hundred year old woolen cords.
In a situation with few written sources, it becomes crucial that many stories about Aztecs, Mayans, Toltecs, Purépechas, Incas, Chanchas, Chimus and Collaguas – to name just a few Indian tribes – we know of thanks to the first Spanish adventurers, soldiers, merchants, priests, monks and others who had sailed to America: I mean conquerors and those who followed in their bloodtrack. From those who left their part of the world on ships with swords, horses and cannons or The Bible, cross and pen. When they returned home, they had a lot to tell about the most unbelievable amazing.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, in Europe, there was an audacity for adventurous stories from the rapidly expanding world, and a story just got better off being retold. Tell! Tell! Descriptions, interpretations and faiths about the great world slid into our collective consciousness.
Without them, our European culture had been poorer.
Other Spaniards wrote purposefully for rulers. Written sources are different from oral, more reliable, one think, when it is black on white. When the scholared writers – especially the people of the church who at that time had a monopoly on knowledge – described people i a distant world, it should most often – but it is not unambiguous and sometimes contradictory – serve a particular purpose: the purpose of the conquerors, the whites, the Christians.
There were commanders defense for crimes that manipulated the readers. It was their look on ‘the strangers’ and ‘the strange’, and the Spanish conquerors thereby participated in defining Europe. Books of ‘the new world’ became part of the European construction or rather reconstruction. The European scholars of those days gained the power of definition in both Europe and America, and it became widespread throughout the world.
A lot was written. I really like presenting a selection of this immense diligence in the form of the extensive book collection in the finely restored Santo Domingo Monastery in Oaxaca, Mexico, where leather binds are backed side by side: social descriptions and theological fights. Even more stunning, indeed fabulous, is the library of the Convento de San Francisco, the monastery of Lima in Peru: fine dust dances in lightbeams past filled shelves over each other, where spiral staircases have accessed even more shelves in the high-ceilinged room with skylights like cut diamonds where desks are loaded with Franciscan truths for centuries about a world in the Andes. When we stand there admiringly, the only thing that reminds us of our own time is a cardboard sign with the pictogram prohibiting photography with and without flash.
(pp. 22-30 in volume 1, reproduced without notes and illustrations):
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO AZTECS AND INCAS: MYTHS AND STORIES FROM MEXICO AND PERU. Edited, translated, retold and commented by Mikael Witte. Volume 1 + Volume 2
476 pages + 540 pages. Richly illustrated in colors
Published by Selskabet for smukkere Byfornyelse