The traditions of indigenous Mesoamerican literature extend back to the oldest-attested forms of early writing in the Mesoamerican region, which date from around the mid-1st millennium BCE. Many of the pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica are known to have been literate societies, who produced a number of Mesoamerican writing systems of varying degrees of complexity and completeness. Mesoamerican writing systems arose independently from other writing systems in the world, and their development represents one of the very few such origins in the history of writing. The conquistadors brought their distinctive cultural baggage, in the form of books, from Spain to the New World.
The literature and texts created by indigenous Mesoamericans are the earliest-known from the Americas for primarily two reasons: Firstly the fact that the native populations of Mesoamerica were the first to enter into intensive contact with Europeans, assuring that many samples of Mesoamerican literature have been documented in surviving and intelligible forms. Secondly, the long tradition of Mesoamerican writing which undoubtedly contributed to the native Mesoamericans readily embracing the Latin alphabet of the Spaniards and creating many literary works written in it during the first centuries after the Spanish conquest of Mexico. This article summarizes current knowledge about indigenous Mesoamerican literatures in its broadest sense and describe it categorized by its literary contents and social functions.
When defining literature in its broadest possible sense including all products of "literacy", what becomes primarily interesting about a literate community is the manner in which literacy and literature is used. Which topics are chosen to be written and spoken about? And why did they do it? Which genres of literature are found in Mesoamerica? The answer to this question is complex and is the topic of the rest of this article that will try to describe and resume what is known about the genres and functions of indigenous Mesoamerican literatures.
Three major subjects of Mesoamerican literatures can be identified:
Geoffrey Sampson distinguishes between two kinds of writing. One kind of writing he calls 'semasiographical', this covers kinds of pictorial or ideographic writing that is not necessarily connected to phonetic language but can be read in different languages, this kind of writing is for example used in roadsigns which can be read in any language. The other kind of writing is phonetic writing called by Sampson 'glottographic' writing and which represents the sounds and words of languages and allows accurate linguistic readings of a text that is the same at every reading. In Mesoamerica the two types were not distinguished, and so writing, drawing, and making pictures were seen as closely related if not identical concepts. In both the Mayan and Aztec languages there is one word for writing and drawing ((tlàcuiloa in Nahuatl and tz'iib' in Classic Maya)) Pictures are sometimes read phonetically and texts meant to be read are sometimes very pictorial in nature. This makes it difficult for modern day scholars to distinguish between whether an inscription in a Mesoamerican script represents spoken language or is to be interpreted as a descriptive drawing. The only Mesoamerican people known without doubt to have developed a completely glottographic or phonetic script is the Maya, and even the Mayan script is largely pictorial and often shows fuzzy boundaries between images and text. Scholars disagree on the phoneticity of other Mesoamerican scripts and iconographic styles, but many show use of the Rebus principle and a highly conventionalised set of symbols.
The monumental inscriptions were often historical records of the citystates: Famous examples include:
The function of these kinds of historical inscriptions also served to consoliate the power of the rulers who used them also as a kind of propaganda testimonies to their power. Most commonly monumental hieroglyphocal texts describe:
The epigrapher David Stuart writes about the differences in content between the monumental hieroglyphical texts of Yaxchilan and those of Copan:
Some common household objects of ceramics or bone and adornments of jade have been found with inscriptions. For example, drinking vessels with the inscription saying "The Cacao drinking cup of X" or similar.
The largest part of the Mesoamerican literature today known has been fixed in writing after the Spanish conquest. Both Europeans and Mayans began writing down local oral tradition using the Latin alphabet to write in indigenous languages shortly after the conquest. Many of those Europeans were friars and priests who in trying to convert the natives to Christianity. They translated Catholic catechisms and confessional manuals and acquired a good grasp of the indigenous languages and often even composed grammars and dictionaries of the indigenous languages. These early grammars of native languages systematized the reading and writing of indigenous languages in their own time and help us understand them today.
The most widely known early grammars and dictionaries are of the Aztec language, Nahuatl. Famous examples are the works written by Alonso de Molina and Andrés de Olmos. But also Mayan and other Mesoamerican languages have early grammars and dictionaries, some of very high quality.
The introduction of the Latin alphabet and the elaboration of conventions for writing indigenous languages allowed for the subsequent creation of a wide range of texts. And indigenous writers took advantage of the new techniques to document their own history and tradition in the new writing, while monks kept on extending literacy in the indigenous population. This tradition lasted only a few centuries however and due to royal decrees about Spanish being the only language of the Spanish empire by the mid-1700s most indigenous languages were left without a living tradition for writing. Oral literature, however, kept being transmitted to this day in many indigenous languages and began to be collected by ethnologists in the beginnings of the 20th century, however without promoting native language literacy in the communities in which they worked. It is an important and extremely difficult job in the Mesoamerica of today, and what that is only beginning to be undertaken, to return native language literacy to the indigenous peoples. But during the first post-conquest centuries a large number of texts in indigenous Mesoamerican languages were generated.
Many of the post-conquest texts are historical accounts, either in the form of annals recounting year by year the events of a people or city-state often based on pictorial documents or oral accounts of aged community members. But also sometimes personalized literary accounts of the life of a people or state and almost always incorporating both mythical material and actual history. There was no formal distinction between the two in Mesoamerica. Sometimes as in the case of the Mayan Chilam Balam books historical accounts also incorporated prophetical material, a kind of history in advance.
The post-conquest situation of the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica also required them to learn to navigate in a complex new administrative system. In order to obtain any kinds of favorable positions pleas and petitions had to be made to the new authorities and land possessions and heritages had to be proven. This resulted in a large corpus of administrative literature in indigenous languages, because documents were often written in the native language first and later translated into Spanish. Historians of central Mexican peoples draw heavily on native-language documentation, most notably Charles Gibson in The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule (1964) and James Lockhart in The Nahuas After the Conquest (1992). The emphasis on native-language documentation for indigenous history has been emphasized in the New Philology.
These administrative documents include a large number of:
In the late sixteenth-century the Spanish crown sought systematic information about indigenous settlements now part of the Spanish Empire. A questionnaire was drawn up and local Spanish officials gathered information from the indigenous towns under their administration, using local elites as their informants. Some reports were a few pages, such as that from Culhuacan, while some major indigenous polities, such as Tlaxcala, took the opportunity to give a detailed description of their prehispanic history and participation in the Spanish conquest of central Mexico. Most geographical accounts include a native map of the settlement. The Relaciones geográficas were produced because colonial officials complied with royal instructions, but their content was generated by indigenous informants or authors.
The most extensively researched Mesoamerican indigenous literature is the literature containing mythological and legendary narratives. The styles of these books is often very poetic and appealing to modern aesthetic senses both because of the poetic language and its "mystical", exotic contents. It is also of interest to establish intertextuality between cultures. While many do include actual historic events the mythological texts can often be distinguished by focusing on claiming a mythical source to power by tracing the lineage of a people to some ancient source of power.
Some famous collections of Aztec poetry have been conserved. Although written in the late 16th century they are believed to be fairly representative of the actual style of poetry used in precolumbian times. Many of the poems are attributed to named Aztec rulers such as Nezahualcoyotl. Because the poems were transcribed at a later date, scholars dispute whether these are the actual authors. Many of the mythical and historical texts also have poetic qualities.
Not all specimens of native literature can be readily classified. A prime example of this are the Yucatec Mayan Books of Chilam Balam, mentioned above for their historical content, but also containing treatises on medical lore, astrology, etc. Although clearly belonging to Maya literature, they are profoundly syncretic in nature.
Amate (Spanish: amate [aˈmate] from Nahuatl languages: āmatl [ˈaːmat͡ɬ]) is a type of bark paper that has been manufactured in Mexico since the precontact times. It was used primarily to create codices.
Amate paper was extensively produced and used for both communication, records, and ritual during the Triple Alliance; however, after the Spanish conquest, its production was mostly banned and replaced by European paper. Amate paper production never completely died, nor did the rituals associated with it. It remained strongest in the rugged, remote mountainous areas of northern Puebla and northern Veracruz states. Spiritual leaders in the small village of San Pablito, Puebla were described as producing paper with "magical" properties. Foreign academics began studying this ritual use of amate in the mid-20th century, and the Otomi people of the area began producing the paper commercially. Otomi craftspeople began selling it in cities such as Mexico City, where the paper was revived by Nahua painters in Guerrero to create "new" indigenous craft, which was then promoted by the Mexican government.
Through this and other innovations, amate paper is one of the most widely available Mexican indigenous handicrafts, sold both nationally and abroad. Nahua paintings of the paper, which is also called "amate," receive the most attention, but Otomi paper makers have also received attention not only for the paper itself but for crafts made with it such as elaborate cut-outs.Antiquities of Mexico
Antiquities of Mexico is a compilation of facsimile reproductions of Mesoamerican literature such as Maya codices, Mixtec codices, and Aztec codices as well as historical accounts and explorers' descriptions of archaeological ruins. It was assembled and published by Edward King, Lord Kingsborough, in the early decades of the 19th century. While much of the material pertains to pre-Columbian cultures, there are also documents relevant to studies of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. Antiquities of Mexico was produced to make copies of rare manuscripts in European collections available for study by scholars.
The work consists of nine volumes, each published in a large elephant folio format. It was originally planned as ten, but Lord Kingsborough died before the full work could be completed.
Kingsborough commissioned the Italian landscape painter Agostino Aglio to furnish the reproduction drawings and lithographs of the Mesoamerican artworks and codices used to illustrate the volumes. Born in Cremona and resident in London since 1803, Aglio had previously illustrated antiquities of Ancient Egypt and Magna Græcia on behalf of the English architect William Wilkins. Aglio spent the better part of six years travelling to the libraries and museums of Europe to examine and draw all of the "Ancient Mexican" documents, artefacts and manuscripts known in European collections of the time.
Many of the facsimiles of codices are hand-colored.Aztec philosophy
Aztec philosophy was a school of philosophy that developed out of Aztec culture. The Aztecs had a well-developed school of philosophy, perhaps the most developed in the Americas and in many ways comparable to Ancient Greek philosophy, even amassing more texts than the ancient Greeks. Aztec philosophy focused on dualism, monism, and aesthetics, and Aztec philosophers attempted to answer the main Aztec philosophical question of how to gain stability and balance in an ephemeral world.Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza was a large pre-Columbian city built by the Maya people of the Terminal Classic period. The archaeological site is located in Tinúm Municipality, Yucatán State, Mexico.Chichen Itza was a major focal point in the Northern Maya Lowlands from the Late Classic (c. AD 600–900) through the Terminal Classic (c. AD 800–900) and into the early portion of the Postclassic period (c. AD 900–1200). The site exhibits a multitude of architectural styles, reminiscent of styles seen in central Mexico and of the Puuc and Chenes styles of the Northern Maya lowlands. The presence of central Mexican styles was once thought to have been representative of direct migration or even conquest from central Mexico, but most contemporary interpretations view the presence of these non-Maya styles more as the result of cultural diffusion.
Chichen Itza was one of the largest Maya cities and it was likely to have been one of the mythical great cities, or Tollans, referred to in later Mesoamerican literature. The city may have had the most diverse population in the Maya world, a factor that could have contributed to the variety of architectural styles at the site.The ruins of Chichen Itza are federal property, and the site's stewardship is maintained by Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (National Institute of Anthropology and History). The land under the monuments had been privately owned until 29 March 2010, when it was purchased by the state of Yucatán.Chichen Itza is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico with over 2.6 million tourists in 2017.Codex Totomixtlahuaca
The Codex Totomixtlahuaca or Codex Condumex is a colonial-era map produced on a large piece of cotton. The map represents Totomixlahuaca, Mexico, and includes a creation date of 1564. It documents a meeting over a land conflict in communities of the current Mexican state of Guerrero.Conservation and restoration of Mesoamerican codices
Conservation and restoration of Mesoamerican codices is the process of analyzing, preserving, and treating codices for future study and access. It is a decision-making process that aims to establish the best possible methods and tools of preservation and treatment. The conservation-restoration of Mesoamerican literature is essential for understanding the ancient civilizations of Mexico. Efforts of restoration have proved difficult due to their fragility and importance of preserving historical and evidential value. Non-invasive technologies have been a more recent advancement, making analysis and treatment of pre-Hispanic codices a delayed process. As analysis continues, digitization has also been a more recent and valuable means of making information accessible to a wider audience, thus contributing to further research and preservation.Cortez the Killer
"Cortez the Killer" is a song by Neil Young from his 1975 album, Zuma. It was recorded with the band Crazy Horse. It has since been ranked #39 on Guitar World's 100 Greatest Guitar Solos and #329 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.Young has stated in concert that he wrote the song while studying history in high school in Winnipeg. According to Young's notes for the album Decade, the song was banned in Spain under Francisco Franco. According to El País and book author Xavier Valiño, the album Zuma was released in Spain in full following Franco's death, with the song renamed to the less inflammatory title "Cortez."Difrasismo
Difrasismo is a term derived from Spanish that is used in the study of certain Mesoamerican languages, to describe a particular grammatical construction in which two separate words are paired together to form a single metaphoric unit. This semantic and stylistic device was commonly employed throughout Mesoamerica, and features notably in historical works of Mesoamerican literature, in languages such as Classical Nahuatl and Classic Maya.
The term was first introduced by Ángel María Garibay K.For example, in Nahuatl the expression "cuitlapilli ahtlapalli" or "in cuitlapilli in ahtlapalli", literally "the tail, the wing", is used in a metaphoric sense to mean "the people" or "the common folk".Earl Shorris
Earl Shorris (Chicago, 25 June 1936 – New York City, 27 May 2012) was an American writer and social critic. He is best known for establishing the Clemente Course in the Humanities, named after baseball great and humanitarian Roberto Clemente. The Clemente Course is an "educational institution founded in 1995 to teach the humanities at the college level to people living in economic distress." He was critical of Western culture as "sliding towards plutocracy and materialism." Shorris published extensively on Mexico and Mexican history. Shorris made the acquaintance of Miguel León-Portilla, who published a widely-read anthology of accounts of the conquest of Mexico from Aztec viewpoints, The Broken Spears. The two subsequently published an important anthology of Mesoamerican literature, bringing to a mass market the existence of significant body of writings by indigenous Mexicans.Frances Karttunen
Frances Esther Karttunen (born 1942), also known as Frances Ruley Karttunen, is an American academic linguist, historian and author. She received her BA in 1964 from Harvard and her PhD in 1970 from Indiana University. In her linguistics career Karttunen has specialised in the study of Mesoamerican languages such as Mayan but in particular Nahuatl, on which topic she has authored seven books and numerous academic papers. She has also written about endangered languages, linguistic diversity and language translation. Early in her career Karttunen also produced several studies of Finnish phonology and syntax.
As a historian Karttunen has published research in areas such as historical Mesoamerican literature, colonial-era Aztec and Nahua history, and the social organizations, socio-political concerns and literacy rates of indigenous peoples of Mexico. Karttunen has also written and lectured about the local history of Nantucket.
Her 1976 publication Nahuatl in the Middle Years: Language Contact Phenomena in Texts of the Colonial Period, with James Lockhart, is a foundational text for the New Philology. She followed this by an insightful article on Nahua literacy, showing how the Mesoamerican tradition of pictorial writing then transitioned to alphabetic writing in Latin letters by local-level notaries in a self-perpetuating tradition. Her 1997 article, "Rethinking Malinche", on La Malinche, known in the colonial era as Doña Marina, is a significant revisionist take on the choices that Cortés' cultural translator and consort faced and took.She also published An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl and several iterations of a Foundation Course in Nahuatl Grammar, culminating in the 1994 edition (with linguist R. Joe Campbell).Most of her academic career was spent in association with the University of Texas at Austin, where she held researcher and lecturer positions for over 30 years, until her retirement in 2000 as senior university research scientist at the Linguistics Research Center.Lisa Sousa
Lisa Sousa (born 1962) is an American academic historian active in the field of Latin American studies. A specialist in the colonial-era history of Latin America and of Colonial Mexico in particular, Sousa is noted for her research, commentary, and translations of colonial Mesoamerican literature and Nahuatl-language historical texts. She has also published research on historical and contemporary indigenous peoples in Mexico, the roles of women in indigenous societies and cultural definitions of gender. As of 2009 Sousa holds a position as assistant professor in the History Department at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California.Louise Burkhart
Louise M. Burkhart (born 1958) is an American academic ethnohistorian and anthropologist, noted as a scholar of early colonial Mesoamerican literature. In particular, her published research has a focus on aspects of the religious beliefs and practices of Nahuatl-speakers in central Mexico. Her work examines the historical documention from the time of the Spanish Conquest and the subsequent era of colonial Mexico, and studies the continuities and transformations of indigenous Nahua communities and culture. Burkhart has written extensively on colonial Nahuatl drama, folklore, poetry and catechistic texts, translating a number of these documents from the original Nahuatl with commentaries and historical interpretations and notes. She has also published research on the aesthetics and iconography of pre-Columbian and Indochristian art, Nahuatl linguistics, and the rise of the Virgin of Guadalupe cult within Mexican Roman Catholicism.
As of 2009 Burkhart is a professor in the Anthropology Department of the State University of New York at Albany (SUNY Albany), where she has taught since 1990.Maya codices
Maya codices (singular codex) are folding books written by the pre-Columbian Maya civilization in Maya hieroglyphic script on Mesoamerican bark paper. The folding books are the products of professional scribes working under the patronage of deities such as the Tonsured Maize God and the Howler Monkey Gods. Most of the codices were destroyed by conquistadors and Catholic priests in the 16th century. The codices have been named for the cities where they eventually settled. The Dresden codex is generally considered the most important of the few that survive.
The paper was made from the inner bark of certain trees, the main being the wild fig tree or amate (Ficus glabrata). This sort of paper was generally known by the word āmatl [ˈaːmat͡ɬ] in Nahuatl, and by the word huun in Mayan. The Maya developed their huun-paper around the 5th century, which is roughly the same time that the codex became predominant over the scroll in the Roman world. Maya paper was more durable and a better writing surface than papyrus.
Our knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture, for of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their learning and ritual was recorded, only four have survived to modern times (as though all that posterity knew of ourselves were to be based upon three prayer books and Pilgrim's Progress).Mesoamerican creation myths
Mesoamerican creation myths are the collection of creation myths attributed to, or documented for, the various cultures and civilizations of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and Mesoamerican literature.
The Maya gods included Kukulkán (also known by the K'iche' name Gukumatz and the Aztec name Quetzalcoatl) and Tepeu. The two were referred to as the Creators, the Forefathers or the Makers. According to the story, the two gods decided to preserve their legacy by creating an Earth-bound species looking like them. The first attempt was man made from mud, but Tepeu and Kukulkán found that the mud crumbled. The two gods summoned the other gods, and together they decided to make man from wood. However, since these men had no soul and soon lost loyalty to the creators, the gods destroyed them by rain. Finally, man was constructed from maize, the Mayans staple and sacred food. The deity Itzamna is credited as being the creator of the calendar along with creating writing.Mesoamerican writing systems
Mesoamerica, along with Mesopotamia and China, is among the three known places in the world where writing has thought to have developed independently. Mesoamerican scripts deciphered to date are a combination of logographic and syllabic values. They are often called hieroglyphs due to the iconic shapes of many of the glyphs, a pattern superficially similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs. Fifteen examples of distinct writing systems have been identified in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, many from a single inscription. The limits of archaeological dating methods make it difficult to establish which was the earliest and hence the fore-bearer from which the others developed. The best documented and deciphered Mesoamerican writing system, and the most widely known, is the classic Maya script. An extensive Mesoamerican literature has been conserved partly in indigenous scripts and partly in the postconquest transcriptions in the Latin script.Miguel León-Portilla
Miguel León-Portilla (born 22 February 1926 in Mexico City) is a Mexican anthropologist and historian, and a major authority on Aztec thought and literature in the prehispanic and colonial eras. Many of his works have been translated to English and are widely read. The Library of Congress bestowed on him the Living Legend Award in 2013.New Philology
New Philology generally refers to a branch of Mexican ethnohistory and philology that uses colonial-era native language texts written by Indians to construct history from the indigenous point of view. The name New Philology was coined by James Lockhart to describe work that he and his doctoral students and scholarly collaborators in history, anthropology, and linguistics had pursued since the mid-1970s. Lockhart published a great many essays elaborating on the concept and content of the New Philology and Matthew Restall published a description of it in the Latin American Research Review. The techniques of the New Philology have also been applied in other disciplines such as European medieval studies.Relaciones geográficas
Relaciones geográficas were a series of elaborate questionnaires distributed to the lands of King Philip II of Spain in the Viceroyalty of New Spain in North America. They were done so, upon his command, from 1579–1585. This was a direct response to the reforms imposed by the Ordenanzas, ordnances, of 1573.Xayacamach
Xayacamach of Tizatlan was an Aztec poet from the Pre-Columbian state of Tlaxcallan, born between 1450 and 1455.
He was the son of the "Señor de Aztahua de Tizatlan" (Lord of Aztahua of Tizatlan). He took his father's place as governor, and assisted at the meeting called by Tecayehuatzin of Huextonzinco to converse on the meaning of "flower and song", which is where we get both of his recorded poems. Tecahueyatzin said of him:
A beautiful song is heard
Xayacamach Tlapeltuetzin raises it
these are his flowers
It is known that he died before the year 1500, because by this time his brother, Xicohtencatl, was the governor of the altepetl of Tizatlan. He sided with the Huastecs in their war with Mexica and was killed (Leon-Portilla and Shorris 670).