Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate.

Author:Baird, Ellen T.
Position:Critical essay


Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate

Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007. 338 pp.; 12 color ills., 144b/w. $55.00

Since the nineteenth century, scholars have studied the strikingly beautiful indigenous books of ancient central Mexico (ca. 1200-1521 CE). Created by painter-scribes trained in the pictorial conventions and esoteric lore they painted, the surviving pictorial texts are historical and divinatory in content. The historical manuscripts have received considerable attention, to the extent that the narratives they relate, the specific locations in which those narratives occur, and the individuals whose lives are recounted are increasingly well documented and analyzed. Elizabeth Hill Boone's most recent work, Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate, is a comprehensive study of the religious manuscripts and a much anticipated companion to her earlier excellent study of the historical manuscripts, Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and the Mixtecs (2000). In Cycles of Time and Meaning, Boone trains her considerable expertise in Mesoamerican pictorial language and her acute analytic skills on the small, rich corpus of surviving central Mexican divinatory manuscripts (the "books of fate") almost entirely consisting of prognosticative almanacs, as well as manuscripts containing ritual protocols. In this book, she both synthesizes and significantly expands ideas presented in her previously published articles.

In analyzing and identifying patterns of structure, meaning, and function in the 102 almanacs (of which there are sixty-five different kinds) contained in the extant divinatory manuscripts, Boone states that her goal is

to determine the canons that govern the production and interpretation of these books. This involves understanding the graphic vocabulary for presenting the calendrical units and prophetic forces as well as recognizing the organizational structures that bring these two elements into association. Thus, I am less concerned with reaching a correct and exhaustive reading of a single almanac or with creating a prognostication based on the reading of several almanacs than I am with explicating the general principles by which the almanacs operate. (p.10)

In doing so, she provides copious examples and great insight into ways in which the almanacs were used as guides for everyday life and into the universal, cosmic conceptions in which they were framed. Underlying her focus on the religious manuscripts is a significant subtext that addresses a much broader topic central to much of her scholarly work: image as graphic language, encoded knowledge, and visual thinking. (1)

Although most of the pictographic divinatory books of central Mexico were destroyed after the Spanish conquest, twelve survive: the preconquest Borgia Group (seven manuscripts on hide: the Codices Borgia, Cospi, Fejervary-Mayer, Laud, Porfirio Diaz Reverse, Vaticanus B, and Aubin No. 20); the Aztec tradition Codex Borbonicus and Tonalamat1 Aubin (painted on traditional indigenous bark paper); and three colonial copies of divinatory almanacs (painted on European paper and bound in a European format: Codices Tudela, Telleriano-Remensis, and its copy, Vaticans A, also called Rios). (2) The traditional divinatory manuscripts are all in screenfold format, which makes it possible and even necessary that they be opened and read across multiple contiguous and noncontiguous pages. Set within universal space and cosmic time, unrooted in specific locations, dates, and individuals, the esoteric, nonnarrative divinatory texts, unlike the historical texts, have been difficult to decipher. A deeper understanding of the meaning and the function of the manuscripts in the practice of religion and in everyday life has proven elusive, the scholarly interpretations of them varying widely.

The first three chapters of Cycles of Time and Meaning present a historical and cultural overview and background on the ritual calendar and its symbolic vocabulary, fundamental to reading a divinatory manuscript. The graphic vocabulary is framed within the context of the 260-day ritual calendar (the tonalpohualli, or "day count" in Nahuatl), composed of repeating, interlocked cycles of twenty calendrical day signs and thirteen numerical coefficients (one through thirteen; for example, the fourteenth day sign in the twenty name sequence is accompanied by the number 1, the fifteenth day sign is number 2, and so on) aligned with the supernaturals, humans, and animals (the "actors") who carry out actions accompanied by qualifiers (toponyms, accoutrements, and objects) and signify the immanent mantic forces. Boone compares the esoteric, polyvalent graphic vocabulary representing the calendrical elements and the influential prophetic forces to the richness of religious language: "The divinatory and religious codices, as in nahuallatolli and iya [sacred speech], rarely state anything plainly. They are indirect, they obscure, they bring the past to bear by archaizing. The graphic images hold and release their meaning through euphemism, metonym and metaphor; they show by analogy. Meanings themselves are layered" (p.4).

The calendrical elements (time) and the actors (mantic forces) are located within red-framed cells, gridded rather like a spreadsheet. Boone points out that it is the relations between the elements of time and the actors that are most important in reading the divinatory manuscripts, as they represent in graphic form the invisible forces that govern the cosmos through the structured interlinking ("systems of correspondence," p.3) of recurring cyclical time and the supernatural. These mantic matrices elucidate and articulate both the...

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