Obscure Pre-Columbian Sunday: The Mirthless Mixtecs

“As I sat atop the ruins of the main pyramid at Tilantongo years ago, I kept replaying the frightening scenario over and over in my mind, trying to determine where the brutal murders have taken place.”

Blood-bath in a sweat bath (Native American sauna): Lord 8 Deer's brother is brutally murdered at his most defenseless. From Codex Zouche-Nuttall.

Blood bath in a sweat bath (Native American sauna): Lord 8 Deer’s brother is brutally murdered at his most defenseless. From Codex Zouche-Nuttall.

So starts the main section of John Pohl’s (2004: 218) chapter on the Mixtecs, in Hendon & Joyce’s anthology Mesoamerican Archaeology. And indeed, the brightly coloured deerskin “books” left behind by the Mixtecs are rich in the kinds of violence and intrigue that would be at home in any Game of Thrones episode, or good gangster film, today–for example, the scene in which Lord 8 Deer’s half-brother is murdered in a sweat bath (where he was, presumably, naked and weapon-less) is the Mesoamerican equivalent of that scene in Eastern Promises in which Viggo Mortensen’s character is ambushed by Chechen thugs in a sauna.

Clearly, Horrible Histories missed a juicy opportunity when they neglected to make a Mirthless Mixtec book (or even mention them in Angry Aztecs)–but this is exactly what Obscure Pre-Columbians Sundays are for!

Nobles and commoners

The Mixtecs (pronounced meesh-tecs) called themselves tay ñundzavui, the “People of the Rain Place”, and their language dzaha dzavui, “Rain Speech”. “Mixtec” itself is the name the Aztecs gave them, which means “Cloud People”. They lived (and most of their descendants still live) in La Mixteca, in what is today Southern Mexico. This is an ecologically diverse region, with tall, cool mountains looming over hot, tropical shores: and because different altitudes provided different types of resources, many families survived by spreading themselves out to cover as many areas as possible, or made an effort to maintain as many contacts in different areas from their own as possible–which guaranteed a broad resource base, and several back-ups in case a particular area went through a bad patch. This sort of thing is also common in Peru, where it is referred to as the “vertical archipelago” strategy.

Before the aristocracy came along to civilise them, Mixtec peasants were thought to have been ugly little mole-people (Marcus 1993).

Before the aristocracy came along to civilise them, Mixtec peasants were thought to have been ugly little mole-people (Marcus 1993: 276). Keep in mind that this illustration, and the next two, are as colourful as the last image in their original form.

Commoners’ back-breaking work, both in the fields and at home (the traditional method for making tortillas takes up to eight hours, and involves a lot of skeleton-wrecking postures) supported the extravagant lifestyles of their lords and ladies: one of the few depictions of peasants in Mixtec painted documents shows a man and a woman offering tribute to their betters, in the form of cooking skills in the woman’s case (she carries a grinding stone on her back) and a bag of maize in the man’s.

This was only fair: according to Mixtec origin myths, before the aristocracy came along, peasants spoke no Mixtec, and had no laws, no respect for their ancestors, and, effectively, no religion, as they did not practice ritual bloodletting. Indeed, they were little more than animals: Mixtec sources depict them as tiny mole-like creatures with bumpy bald heads made of stone, who had crawled into the Mesoamerican daylight out of the very centre of the earth. Nobles, on the other hand–they were born from the trees on the bank of the sacred Apoala river, and some of them were able to shapeshift: 9 Wind “Serpent” could turn himself into an eagle that was so swift it basically had the power of invisibility, while his brother 9 Wind “Caves” could transform into a very small winged snake, and use this body to slither inside the narrowest cracks in cliffs and stone walls.

The Mixtec nobles are shown being born from a tree, at the beginning of time (Marcus 1993).

The Mixtec nobles are shown being born from a tree, at the beginning of time (Marcus 1993: 275).

Though nobles were eventually able to civilise the Mixteca mole-people, the two remained separate species, as suggested by the completely different anatomical terms used to describe the noble’s bodies, compared to commoners’ (which we know of partly from the codices–see below–partly from Spanish-Mixtec vocabularies compiled by Friars in the 16th century). For example, lords and ladies had no ordinary legs, but swift “arrows”. They had no fingernails: instead, turquoise ornamented the tips of their fingers. Their teeth were made of flint, lactating noblewomen stored honey in their breasts, and lords and ladies alike are often represented with smoke or flames coming out of their eyes or brows. It is even possible they had a secret language that they only used amongst themselves, like the Zuyua used by Maya elites, but, if they did, it died out with them.

The Mixtec aristocracy was a relatively populous one–it seems that only once, and briefly, the Mixtecs were united under one ruler, while the rest of the time they were divided into dozens of separate kingdoms (or coupledoms, as suggested by the fact that kings are seldom shown without their queens), vying with one another for power and resources, making and breaking alliances through marriages and backstabbings, respectively, and starting wars over petty insults–as in Lady 6 Monkey’s story, in which she goes to war against the towns “Hill of Moon” and “Hill of Insect” because “cutting words” (represented by little speech scrolls with tiny sharp flints sticking out of them) were thrown at her and her ambassadors.

The tiny flint knives sticking out of these guys' "speech scrolls" indicate that their words are harsh (Marcus 1993).

The tiny flint knives sticking out of these guys’ “speech scrolls” indicate that their words are harsh (Marcus 1993: 383).

And so, just like with the Maya, the non-heir children of Mixtec lords and ladies were schooled in historical and calendrical lore, and taught how to produce the Mixtec codices–eight of which survived Spanish bonfires, and are without the least shadow of a doubt among the most astounding things to ever come out of Central America.

But before I move on to talking about Mixtec books, I’ll just say a few quick words on Mixtec names. Some of you may have been wondering at the above-mentioned “Lord 8 Deer” and “Lady 6 Monkey”. The way it worked among the Mixtec was that your birthday was your name. It’s kind of as if people got their name from the day of the week they were born in, and the number of the month–so, for example, because I was born on August 2nd, 1990, on a Thursday, my name would be 2 Thursday. Only, Mixtec names sounded much cooler than that, because the name of their days were the same as those of animals, plants, and sacred items. Hence 6 Monkey, 8 Deer, 9 Wind, and so on. Interestingly, we know from Spanish sources on the Aztecs that, in Mesoamerican calendars, some days were thought of as auspicious, and others as inauspicious, based on their number-name combination–and studies of Mixtec noble names show that many more nobles had names that indicated auspicious birthdays than you would expect statistically. In other words, it was not uncommon to lie about your birthday.

Just to give you a sense of what these screenfolds are like... this is about half of the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, which I got from Cambridge's Haddon Library. The other side is covered in tiny drawings too. Photo by Elsie Powell-Smith.

Just to give you a sense of what these screenfolds are like… this is about half of the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, which I got from Cambridge’s Haddon Library. The other side is covered in tiny drawings too.
Photo by Elsie Powell-Smith.

Also, to solve the problem of multiple people having the same birthday, all Mixtec nobles had a nickname. It’s not clear how they acquired it, but examples include “Jaguar Claw”, “Bloody Coyote”, “Sun Jewel”, and, my favourite, “Ballcourt Astronomical-Apparatus” (which I’m sure sounds beautiful in Rain Speech).

The Mixtec screenfolds

It would probably be more correct to refer to the Mixtec codices as screenfolds: unlike European books, they were not spine-bound sets of multiple pages, but very long, continuous strips, usually made of deerskin, and folded back and forth like an accordion (left). Moreover, Mixtec screenfolds do not convey their information through words, but through colourful and oddly cartoonish imagery. And, before I forget, I should say that they were made in the Post-Classic Period, so between about 1000 and 1530 AD.

The Mixtec screenfolds were, on a very basic level, records of the history and genealogy of the aristocracy. A good proportion of them seems to be dedicated to long lists of who married whom and how many children they had and what the children did when they grew up and who they married and so on–though there are also battles, visits to oracles, ritual sacrifices, long foot-journeys and brutal murders. A particularly gripping narrative is that centred around the already-mentioned Lord 8 Deer “Jaguar Claw”, a man who managed to unite the different Mixtec kingdoms under a single throne through a mixture of strategic marriages and ruthless warfare, but was eventually undone by his own greed when he took one of his wives’ family’s land by force, and the survivors led an alliance to avenge Lord 8 Deer’s victims.

British Museum: Codex Zouche-Nuttal, Mixtec

…and this is what the codices look like up close. Again, this is the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, which is currently kept at the British Museum. Photo credit: victoriabernal.

But there’s also a lot of mythology in the screenfolds as well, as elite lineages extended all the way back to a time even before time–I’ve already mentioned how nobles claimed to have descended from people who had been born from trees. And, along with history, genealogy and myth, Mixtec screenfolds were also an important vehicle for aristocratic propaganda, used to legitimate different lineages’ claims to their respective thrones. Indeed, there is evidence for some of these screenfolds (for example, the Codex Vibonensis) having been re-painted with different stories from the original ones they contained, presumably because a new ruler, perhaps even a new lineage, had risen, and they wanted to re-write history so that it cast the best possible light on them.

It’s also worth noting that the screenfolds contain a lot of invaluable information on how the Mixtec nobility dressed for each occasion, how they painted their faces, and the sort of jewellery they wore.

Lord 8 Deer "Jaguar Claw", celebrating his latest military victory by having his septum pierced. This act was important enough to have depicted in three different screenfolds.

Lord 8 Deer “Jaguar Claw”, celebrating his latest military victory by having his septum pierced. This act was important enough to have depicted in three different screenfolds. As you can see, the man’s name is on the top right (eight dots, attached to a deer’s head), while his nickname is on the bottom right (a single jaguar claw). Again, this image is taken from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall.

Most interestingly, however, the Mixtec screenfolds were not just meant to be read–rather, they were meant to be performed. In a way, then, they could also be seen as dramatic scripts–or even music sheets (this latter analogy is a bit too complex to be properly summarised here, but you should head over to Mesolore if you’re curious). That the sheets were used for performances we can guess from the fact that the Mixtec name for them, tacu, means “book”, “to write”, “to paint” and “to listen”. Apparently, Spanish sources also say that they were used for performances, but, so far, the only source I’ve found is Friar Burgoa, who simply says that the screenfolds were hung up on the walls of nobles’ palaces, as a proud display of their ancestors’ exploits. Still, it was common enough for elites to put up dramatic performances in Mesoamerica (especially among the Maya) that it would not be a gigantic leap to say that the screenfolds were used for that kind of thing too. Also, depictions of elites and priests dancing and singing are fairly common in the screenfolds.

The main question, then, is this: who was the audience? The ancestors, certainly: they were always watching, and, based on their descendants’ actions, and how well they honoured their memory, they would be more or less generous in aiding living kings and queens in their terrestrial affairs. Commoners, perhaps: Spanish sources tell us that Mixtec elites sometimes gave spectacular dances and performances to peasants in exchange for tribute. But, given the fact that the screenfolds were hung up in nobles’ halls, and that, in Mesoamerica generally, there is a good correlation between where a certain performance is depicted and where it had actually been held, the most likely audience for Mixtec performances were restricted audiences made of other elites. A particularly intriguing hypothesis is that the screenfolds were whipped out whenever there were succession problems: on these occasions, different claimants to the throne would have performed their own particular screenfold, or the same one, and the best performance (i.e. the most convincing, or perhaps the most spectacular) would decide who got the throne. Kind of as if the different aspirants to the Iron Throne in Game of Thrones decided to settle the matter not through war, but through a singing contest.

Mixtec codices are full of weird little artistic conventions. Here, a woman is leaving some offerings at the foot of a mountain--so the mountain is depicted with feet. From the Codex Zouche-Nuttall.

Mixtec codices are full of weird little artistic conventions. Here, a woman is leaving some offerings at the foot of a mountain–so the mountain is depicted with feet. From the Codex Zouche-Nuttall.

Another question I’ve been asking myself about Mixtec screenfolds is whether performances consisted in a single performer singing, or a performer singing while elite/dancers played the parts of the different characters, or a small cast of elite/actors sang and danced their parts, like some grave musical.

Summing up

There’s a lot more stuff I could write about the Mixtecs, but this post is slightly too long as it is–though I’d be happy to continue in the comments section if anyone has any questions. I think the main thing about the Mixtecs is this: they are absolutely fascinating, and it’s a crime that they are not as well known as the Aztecs or the Maya. Spread the word then, readers! The best way to do this may be to travel around the country with in an ice-cream van, and when kids and grown-ups run excitedly towards you, surprise them by showing them Mixtec screenfolds instead of giving them ice-cream–they’ll be so astounded by the craftsmanship that went into them, and so dazzled by the intricate, colourful images, that they will soon forget that you deceived them, and will be forever grateful that you unlocked this whole amazing lost world to them.

References and tips for further reading

If you want to know more, you should definitely head over to Mesolore–it’s a wonderful site, with a digital version of the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, the most famous screenfolds, to explore (under the Ñudzavui heading). There’s also some cool stuff on the Aztecs and the Tlaxcaltecans.

Also, John Pohl’s website has detailed descriptions of the Selden and Bodley screenfolds if you’re interested.

In terms of books, I would recommend Joyce Marcus’ (1993) wonderfully accessible classic, Mesoamerican Writing Systems, which also includes lengthy sections on the Aztecs, the Maya and the Zapotecs. And, if you can, you should definitely get your hands on a replica of one of the codices.

Finally, if you’re curious to find out what your Mixtec name would have been–I can’t tell you that, but there’s a website that offers to find your Aztec name (i.e. your Aztec birthday), which is close enough. I think mine would have been 4 Flower.

Further references:

Hamann, B. 2004. Seeing and the Mixtec screenfolds. Visible Language 38 (1): 66-124.

Pohl, J. 2004. The archaeology of history in Post-Classic Oaxaca. In Joyce, R. and J. Hendon (eds) Mesoamerican Archaeology pp. 217-238. Oxford: Blackwell.

Other Obscure Pre-Columbians Sunday posts

The Wacky Huastecs

The Tenacious Tarascans

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