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  • Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate
  • Kay A. Read
Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate. By Elizabeth Hill Boone. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007. Pp. 320. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index.

An extraordinarily complex calendrical system structured the cosmos and lives of peoples in pre-conquest central Mexico. Books showed how this system came into being and shaped the world, its events, and human daily existence. Highly skilled artists painted these books on either hide or bark paper, forming them into folding screens that stood upright, zigzagging accordion-like across a surface. Equally skilled diviners “read” their information, probably lending drama to the exposition of these “containers of the knowledge of the world.”

At one time, such manuscripts would have been ubiquitous throughout the region, but the Spanish conquest ended that (1521). Now, only nine books painted in this sophisticated tradition remain, and only six of them are clearly pre-conquest. The other three, although created in an indigenous style, were produced after the conquest, as were three colonial-influenced copies of lost manuscripts. The books in this indigenous style are key for understanding pre-conquest worldviews, thus making the earlier examples especially valuable. Beyond these books and archaeological evidence, we have only the words of post-conquest Spanish chroniclers. While the chronicles are valuable, their authors sharply mediate indigenous voices. The only primary books are the pictorial manuscripts made in the indigenous style. Many scholars have commented in detail on the books in this corpus, most frequently on single manuscripts, for an academic audience. Up to now, no one has attempted a thorough, yet broadly synthetic study that treats the corpus as a coherent whole, with such clarity as to make it accessible to both lay people and scholars. Boone’s work is a tour de force. [End Page 131]

The corpus as a whole forms an incredibly large and difficult topic, yet Boone manages the unavoidably vast range of scholarly demands adeptly, with numerous balanced discussions of the many debates swirling around the manuscripts, an appropriate amount of interpretive detail to support her viewpoints, the courage to offer some very interesting new interpretations, and enough caution to back off when evidence seems lacking. What more could one want from a single volume of some 250 pages, with pictures?

That said, Cycles of Time and Meaning is not a light read. Boone’s intensely packed book will find interested audiences among Mesoamericanists, graduate students, advanced undergraduates, and interested, serious-minded lay people. I would not recommend it for lower-level undergraduate classrooms, although some sections could be usable. And some scholars will find her work lacking in one way or another, but that is only to be expected in an open academic arena. For example, I find her contrast between the nonlinear and divinatory and linear, historical time a bit pat. Although comparing Mexican divination to the “systems of correspondence” of Chinese divination is excellent, to dichotomize time too simply understates the high degree to which pre-conquest “historical” life intertwined with divinatory forces. The historical books were produced in a linear format, yes, but even so divinatory forces governed just about every aspect of life, including human communities (see Boone’s companion book, Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and Mixtecs, 2000). Similarly troublesome is her persistent use of the category “supernatural” versus “natural,” another Western dichotomy that does not quite hold up to the extreme intermingling in her subjects’ experience of living forces, both human and non-human. Perhaps we lack adequate language to explore this realm, but that should not free us to use verbal categories suggesting a very different sense of the “sacred” from what the pictorial manuscripts seem to depict. I also wonder about a few specific interpretations, but all these disagreements are secondary considering the volume’s brilliance.

Particularly stunning is Boone’s ability to interrogate the books’ spatial canons, suggesting how these visual “syntaxes” structured the “graphic vocabularies.” Comparing this visual language to Western mathematical and scientific notation, Boone moves well beyond the common lexical, iconographic studies that focus on discrete elements of a work but...


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