Myth or History? by Elizabeth H. Boone



[00:00:00] I tend to look at the world through manuscripts rather than through stelae. My perspective will be from the Aztec world where you have pictorial codices and relief sculpture. The manuscripts were not public documents. Essentially they were created for the nobility, for the rulers and their families because the painted histories explained how the present order had come to be and told the history of the people. One thing that the structure suggests to me is that this kind of history grounds the Aztec empire in the ancient past and shows that it will continue regardless of the coming of the Spaniards.

What we in the 1990s would call “myth” and “history” blend together. Most of the histories begin in what we might call “mythological time,” in a time that cannot be so precisely pinned down, and then the stories continue into what we might call “real time” and end either with the foundation of a city or carry it up to the present rulers. You can’t really separate myth and history functionally in these manuscripts. I think that if we start trying to say, “Oh, this is myth, this is history,” we cause ourselves needless trouble because I don’t believe the Precolumbian peoples made that distinction. Certainly there are dates that are to be read as metaphoric dates, especially in the Aztec and Mixtec manuscripts, but if we try to draw hard edges between myth and history, my sense is that we’re asking the wrong question.

When you ask, “Do they convey history? Do they convey propaganda?” I would say yes. Except the problem with using history/propaganda in that way and setting up that dichotomy is that propaganda is so loaded as a term, and I think the use of the term propaganda is not really as apt. The manuscripts are telling stories of the past and all of these stories have a point of view and a reason for being told—and if you consider the fact that each story will suppress certain things that aren’t important to that story line and will highlight others, then yes, they do manipulate. They are propagandistic to that extent. But all stories, all histories do that. My interest is in finding what kinds of things are selected and why they are selected, because it tells us why the manuscript was created and tells us about the mind of the manuscript painters. And our idea that history always has to be true, well, these manuscripts are true—in a larger sense.

Aztec and Mixtec Examples

[03:05:00] The story that the Aztecs told about themselves is that they left Aztlán in the year 1 Flint, which is in fact a metaphoric year, a year of beginnings. And they traveled, endured hardships, and emerged a fiercely independent, tough, willful people committed to their patron deity, Huitzilopochtli. So that the migration as a process transformed the Aztecs from just one of seven or eight bands of people into a strong solid body—a polity that was then ready to control Mesoamerica. So my sense about the migration is that it functions on a metaphoric level, as a rite of passage, as a transformative journey that changed the Aztecs from just a tribe into a group that then could control Mesoamerica.

When we try to pin down all the little facts that are included in the migration histories we have trouble. The problem was all the sources disagreed. What I think we should be asking these sources is: Why does this particular document include these places, or why does one particular document include certain kinds of events? Each manuscript is selecting the elements that the patrons feel are important to go into their story.

The Mixtecs trace the founders of the dynasty from their origins out of the earth or from supernaturals. The Aztecs are not so interested in genealogy. Over drinks one time Betsy [Mary Elizabeth] Smith said the Aztec story was “We came a long way to get here and that is why we control this land,” and the Mixtec story was “We’ve been here all the time, we came out of the earth and that’s why we control this land.” So they are two different stories.

Burning History

[05:07:00] Much has been made about Itzcoatl’s burning history, burning the manuscripts when Itzoatl came to rule. It’s mentioned by Sahagún in an account of the origins of the Aztec people, and the account talks about how the wise men abandoned them. And they took with them the books, the paintings, the songs, [and] the musical instruments, and the people set up a great cry of anguish: “What will lead us? What will be the guide? What will show us the way?” Not “who” but “what,” meaning the books. But there were four priests who stayed behind, and these wise people recreated the books and gave the people guides for living, essentially. It then says that this account was recalled but the details aren’t clear because the manuscripts, the ancient histories, were destroyed when Itzcoatl came to rule. So it’s actually kind of interesting that it’s a story about Itzcoatl burning books, but it is linked to another situation where books were recreated.

I guess I’ve always been a little bit skeptical that there was a kind of widespread, universal burning of books just because of this one passage. I think it’s important when we consider that passage to understand the context of it and to understand the whole story in which it fits. So it may be that the history of the pre-Aztecs was lost with Itzcoatl because he was more concerned with migration histories or something like that.

There were different accounts within the Valley of Mexico. Most of the manuscripts that have come down to us speak about Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. Now there is also a little manuscript, one of my favorites, the Tira de Tepexpan, and it’s an annals history for a small town called Tepexpan in the northeast valley. It has Tepexpan events on the top and Tenochtitlan events on the bottom. And it presents its history and lineage as equally grand as those at Tenochtitlan. Well, we know this wasn’t true.