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Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate

By Elizabeth Hill Boone

Publication Year: 2007

In communities throughout precontact Mesoamerica, calendar priests and diviners relied on pictographic almanacs to predict the fate of newborns, to guide people in choosing marriage partners and auspicious wedding dates, to know when to plant and harvest crops, and to be successful in many of life’s activities. As the Spanish colonized Mesoamerica in the sixteenth century, they made a determined effort to destroy these books, in which the Aztec and neighboring peoples recorded their understanding of the invisible world of the sacred calendar and the cosmic forces and supernaturals that adhered to time. Today, only a few of these divinatory codices survive. Visually complex, esoteric, and strikingly beautiful, painted books such as the famous Codex Borgia and Codex Borbonicus still serve as portals into the ancient Mexican calendrical systems and the cycles of time and meaning they encode. In this comprehensive study, Elizabeth Hill Boone analyzes the entire extant corpus of Mexican divinatory codices and offers a masterful explanation of the genre as a whole. She introduces the sacred, divinatory calendar and the calendar priests and diviners who owned and used the books. Boone then explains the graphic vocabulary of the calendar and its prophetic forces and describes the organizing principles that structure the codices. She shows how they form almanacs that either offer general purpose guidance or focus topically on specific aspects of life, such as birth, marriage, agriculture and rain, travel, and the forces of the planet Venus. Boone also tackles two major areas of controversy—the great narrative passage in the Codex Borgia, which she freshly interprets as a cosmic narrative of creation, and the disputed origins of the codices, which, she argues, grew out of a single religious and divinatory system.

Published by: University of Texas Press

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Series in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

Title Page

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pp. vii


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pp. ix-xii

Color Plates

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pp. xiii-xiv


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pp. xv-xvi

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pp. xvii-xix

The painted books and manuscripts of Mesoamerica are increasingly the focus of scholarly and popular interest. Those who see the manuscripts for the first time are both astonished at the gorgeous and complex imagery in the books and intrigued...

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1. Containers of the Knowledge of the World

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pp. 1-12

The yearwas 1541.Tenochtitlan had fallen twenty years earlier; and the Franciscan friar Motolinia (Toribio de Benavente) had already been evangelizing in Mexico for seventeen years when he sat down to write to his friend and patron, Lord Don Antonio Pimentel, sixth...

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2. Time, the Ritual Calendar, and Divination

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pp. 13-32

In Mesoamerica everything that happened and everything that mattered was bound together and controlled by time. Time, as it was organized and codified in the pan-Mesoamerican calendrical system, characterized and qualified all actions and happenings...

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3. The Symbolic Vocabulary of the Almanacs

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pp. 33-64

When the calendar priest opened the stiff pages of his tonalamatl to seek a fate, he was confronted not with a phonetically referenced text that provided a single answer but with a diverse array of...

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4. Structures of Prophetic Knowledge

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pp. 65-82

The tonalamatl is a graphic discourse for conceptualizing time. It allowed the daykeepers literally to see time: to know it as being composed of discrete, concrete units that participate in interlocking cycles and to recognize these units and cycles through their...

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5 The Almanacs

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pp. 83-156

The divinatory codices are not characterized by the narrative unity found in the historical codices, where one (or, at most, a few) long flowing set of ideas and events carries the reader along. Instead, their prophetic messages are parceled into many discrete and...

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6. Protocols for Rituals

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pp. 157-170

The daykeepers looked to the almanacs for the auguries of the days and other units of time, but they also needed to know what kinds of offerings or penances these auguries required and what actions might improve them or ensure the most positive fate. When Sahagún...

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7. The Cosmogony in the Codex Borgia

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pp. 171-210

One part of the religious-divinatory corpus that is both unique and especially enigmatic is the eighteen-page section of the Codex Borgia from page 29 through page 46. Most scholars who have offered interpretations or descriptions of this section differ to varying extents...

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8. Provenience

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pp. 211-230

The geographic and ethnic origins of the surviving divinatory codices, especially those of the Borgia Group, have occasioned much debate. There is little solid evidence about the acquisition and early history of the codices to help determine their provenience. Despite...

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9. A Mexican Divinatory System

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pp. 231-238

The exact provenience of the divinatory codices has been so hard to determine because they contain very little that is local. In contrast to the historical documents, which tend to reflect the politics and perspectives of their particular towns, the books of fate...


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pp. 239-252


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pp. 253-272


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pp. 273-294


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pp. 295-307

E-ISBN-13: 9780292795280
E-ISBN-10: 0292795289
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292712638
Print-ISBN-10: 0292712634

Page Count: 338
Illustrations: 12 color illus. in 8 page section, 144 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Series in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture