The act that you are doing now, turning a page of paper and interpreting what is written about time, place and power, has been going on in Mexico for more than 20 centuries. The tradition continued, in Mesoamerican style, into the late 16th century. To see what I mean, go to the exhibit “Codices de México: Memorias y Saberes” (Mexican Codices: Memory and Knowledge) on display at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
There you’ll see 44 previously unavailable codices. Some are the size of a book. The largest, almost-square Coixtlahuaca measures 12 square meters (130 square feet) and was meant to be extended on the floor while priests interpreted its content to those standing around. Even experts with access to the museum’s vault have not seen the codex fully extended until the exhibit opened in September.
The last time the long and narrow Pilgrimage Strip was fully extended for public display was in 1824 in London. Using pictographs, it documents the places the Aztecs lived while migrating from mythical Aztlán to the Valley of Mexico.
Typically folded accordion-style, codices were unfolded one page at a time. Their intricate drawings kept records of oral history and knowledge. They were written by scribes, called “tlahuicos” in Nahuatl, on deerskin, cotton or maguey fabric, and amate-bark paper. A few are written on European paper. Once tlahuicos learned the Spanish alphabet they wrote in their own languages using Spanish letters phonetically. In some cases they combined Spanish text with pictographs – or hieroglyphic text, in the case of Maya scribes.
At the time of the Spanish conquest, codices dedicated to astronomy, rituals, mythology, theology, societal structure and history were found throughout Mesoamerica. Early Christian evangelists considered Mesoamerican religion a cult to the devil and whole libraries of codices were burned in “acts of faith.”
Roughly 500 codices survive and are known to exist in the world today – 16 of them pre-Hispanic. Mexico has possession of close to 200 of them. By hook or crook, others are slowly returning. The Chimalpahin Codex was welcomed home on Sept. 17.
The three-volume Chimalpahin Codex is probably the oldest existing description of indigenous daily life in central Mexico. Poet and philosopher Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora had it in the late 17th century. A confidant of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, it’s fun to imagine him sharing this treasure with her in the San Jerónimo convent.
After Sigüenza’s death in 1700, the codex was acquired by José María Luís Mora Lamadrid. One of Father Mora’s favorite causes was national literacy and he traded it with the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) for a shipment of Protestant Bibles.
For 200 years, the Chimalpahin Codex lay forgotten in the archives of the BFBS in England. When Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) discovered it was to be auctioned by Christie’s it made private arrangements with the BFBS and now it again belongs to the nation.
Another codex on display has a cloak-and-dagger story. The divination calendar Tonalámatl de Aubin was part of the Lorenzo Boturini collection, sold to Count Jean Frederick Waldeck, who in turn sold it to Joseph Marius Alexis Aubin who took it to France in 1840.
Facing financial ruin as a result of his investment in the Panama Canal, Aubin sold his entire collection to Eugene Goupil, a Mexican antiquarian, who willed the collection to the National Library of Paris.
In 1898, French President Félix Faure decreed this collection could never be sold or gifted. In June 1982, Mexican lawyer and journalist José Luis Castañeda gained access to study the Tonalámatl in the library research vaults. He stuffed newspaper in its place and returned with the codex to Mexico. When discovered, the removal caused an international scandal. Castañeda was arrested but released two days later and treated as a hero by the Mexican press for returning illegally obtained patrimony. Over the protests of the French government, the Aubin Tonalámatl was deposited in Mexico’s Museum of Anthropology Library.
INAH Director Gastón García Cantú recounted that in October 1982 he took the Aubin Tonalámatl to France in his briefcase as part of a face-saving gentlemen’s agreement. Mexico would return the Tonalámatl and France, in a goodwill gesture, would give it to Mexico. It all came to naught in the French minister of culture’s office when France’s national library director produced President Faure’s decree that nothing from Goupil’s collection could be gifted. García Cantú kept his briefcase closed and the codex slipped out of France for a second time.
France severed cultural relations with Mexico until 1991 when Mexico and France negotiated an agreement allowing Mexico to keep the codex on a three-year renewable loan. In 2009, France and Mexico reached a permanent agreement that Mexico is the rightful owner.
The exhibit runs through January 11, 9 a.m.-7 p.m., Closed Mondays. All of the codices exhibited can be downloaded and viewed at www.inah.gob.mx/codices. However, it is difficult to conceptualize the size, color, texture and beauty of the codices without actually going to the exhibit.