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In Tlilli In Tlapalli: Reproducing Ancient Mexican Books

For at least two thousand years before the conquest, the peoples of ancient Mexico painted manuscripts on deer hide, paper, and cotton cloth. These codices—which the Aztecs poetically called in tlilli in tlapalli (the red, the black), referring to commonly used colors—took the form of paper sheets, wall-sized cloth maps, and screen-fold and accordion-fold books.

Ancient Mexican books addressed themes as diverse as those found in European books of the same time, including the creation and organization of the universe, religion, the calendar, astronomy, medicine, history, and genealogy. Although a great many codices were burned or otherwise destroyed during the conquest because they contained images of pagan rites and deities, those that survived were of great interest to Europeans, and reproductions of them were made as early as the sixteenth century. Such reproductions continue to be made to the present day; these copies, as well as the rare originals, remain an inspiration for contemporary artists.

Chronicling the Aztec Migrations

The Codex Boturini chronicles the history of the Aztec migrations from Aztlan to the Valley of Mexico. A strip of bark paper eighteen feet long and divided into twenty-two panels, the codex recounts how the Aztecs—or Mexica, as they called themselves—began their migrations at a place called Aztlan (Place of the Heron).

Guided by their tribal war deity, Huitzilopochtli, the Aztecs departed from Aztlan in the Aztec year 1 Flint, which many scholars calculate as A.D. 1168. The Codex Boturini maps the progress of the Aztecs across space and time by using footprints that connect the episodes of their migration.

Many believe that Aztlan was an island in a lake, but its exact location is unknown. Chapultepec (Grasshopper Hill) is in modern-day Mexico City. In the codex, a grasshopper marks its location. This facsimile is based on the copy made by Agostino Aglio for William Bullock's Ancient Mexico exhibition of 1825.

A Pre-Conquest Manuscript

The Vienna Codex, a pre-conquest Mixtec manuscript painted on several strips of deer hide, was most likely sent to Europe shortly after Cortés's arrival in Mexico. Illustrated here is the history of the direction east from a section on how the cardinal directions were established at the beginning of time.