John Pohl, THE CODICES John Pohl's

ANCIENT BOOKS: Highland México Codices

The codices were folded so that they could either be stored compactly or opened to reveal all of the pages on one side

The following pages are intended as a basic introduction to the codices of highland México. These Pre-Columbian style books were employed by a multi-cultural royal class that dominated central and southern México between 1200-1520. The Mixtec group is basically historical in nature, while the Borgia group emphasizes matters of prophecy. Despite thematic variations, all of the codices prescribe the sacred feasts and festivals that bound royal families together into systems of alliance and mutual obligation.

After the conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521, a few learned Spaniards began to collect pictographic books and sent them back to Europe. There are about a dozen pre-Conquest style codices attributed to the people of Highland México. The Books were made of animal hide covered with a gesso-like foundation upon which figures were painted. These books were then folded so that they could either be stored compactly or opened to reveal all of the pages on one side.


The differences in ritual and religious behavior reflected in the Borgia Group and Mixtec Group codices extends into the tradition of polychrome "codex-style" ceramics as well. Neutron-activation analysis indicates that there is a great deal of overlap in the exchange of ceramics between the Eastern Nahua dominated kingdoms of Tlaxcala and Puebla (Borgia Group). But there is little or no comparable exchange between the Eastern Nahua, of the Borgia Group and the Mixtecs and Zapotecs of Oaxaca (Neff et al. 1994). Michael Lind attributes such preferences in ceramic consumption to significant differences in the ritual contexts for royal feasts. He notes that the Eastern Nahua primarily served food and drink from goblets, vases, deep communal serving basins, and wide flat plates while the Mixtecs and Zapotecs employed pitchers together with tripod ollas, cajetes, and platters (Lind 1994). Variance in these vessel forms is matched by differences in emphasis in iconographic content as well.

The ornamental bands of human skulls, hands, hearts, and shields that appear on vases were particularly diagnostic of the Tzitzimime, the supernatural patrons of the court diviners who served as intermediaries with the souls of the dead. The demons were primarily equated with a series of calendrical deities known as the Cihuateteo and the Maquiltonaleque. Confirmation that their cult was pivotal to the more private ritual life of the royal palace is confirmed by a story of the first Franciscan friars sent to convert the lords of Tlaxcala. Upon entering the royal court of Tizatlan, they were shocked by the statue of a Maquiltonal which they described as being a frightening apparition of the dead. Mixtec vessels on the other hand generally portray scenes from the historical codices while Zapotec vessels emphasize imagery associated with a supreme god called Bezelao or Lord Thirteen Flower, patron of a royal paradise.

Image of Mixtec ceramic styles

Image of Tolteca Chichimeca ceramic styles

Image of Zapotec ceramic styles



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