Books from ancient Mexico

A codex, in the context of the history of the Americas, refers to books put together before or right at the time of the European conquest. Both Mayas and Aztecs had a tradition of making such books. They describe their customs and rituals, the history of the respective empire, but also the encounter between them and the Europeans. Today there are at least 500 codices in existence in libraries around the world. They are our best source of information about life in pre-Columbian Mexico.

Most Maya codices were destroyed by the Spanish but a few remain. The most important example is the “Dresden codex,” a work consisting of 78 pages, dating from the thirteenth- or the fourteenth-century. It was lost but eventually rediscovered in a library in Germany, and was of great importance for scholars trying to decipher the Maya script. [Read more:Cracking the Maya code“] The Dresden codex contains astronomical information as well as the schedules for rituals such as the celebration of the Maya new year. The book suffered serious water damage during the allied bombing of Dresden during the Second World War.

The “Florentine Codex” is the most important Aztec codex, compiled by a Spanish priest, Bernardino de Sahagún, with the help of his native students. The work has 2,400 pages and more than 2,000 images, organized into twelve books. It describes the culture of the Aztecs, their cosmology and rituals, but also social and economic conditions and the history of the Aztec people. Sahagún worked for several decades on the project and his aim was to facilitate the conversion of the Aztecs to Christianity. We need information about the Aztecs, he argued, just as a doctor needs information about the illness of a patient. The Florentine Codex was written in Nahuatl but has been translated into Spanish and English and is today available online.

The Incas did not compile similar books, but an important primary source is the work of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, 1539-1616 CE. He was the son of a Spanish conquistador and an Inca noblewoman, and his account of the history of the Incas is written from a native point of view.

External links:

In Our Time, “The Aztecs”

History of the World in 100 Objects, “Double-headed serpent”