The Ñudzavui Screenfolds
FIGURE 6. Lord 9 Lizard in battle, from page 13 of the Codex Selden.
FIGURE 7. The marriage of Lord 9 Lizard and Lady 12 Deer: Codex Selden page 12.
FIGURE 8. Lady 6 Monkey meets with Lady 9 Grass, from page 7 of the Codex Selden.
FIGURE 9. Sacrificial scene, from page 12 of the Codex Selden.
FIGURE 10. Lord 9 Lizard’s birth, from page 11 of the Codex Selden.
FIGURE 11. Detail from page 13 of the Codex Selden: a) Lord 2 Jaguar and Lady 1 Serpent are married; b) Lady 1 Serpent’s parents are Lord 9 House and Lady 3 Rabbit, rulers of Place of Flowers and of Tilantongo; c) The son of Lord 2 Jaguar and Lady 1 Serpent, Lord 5 Water, is born; d) Lord 6 Jaguar and Lady 8 Flower (the daughter of Lord 2 Jaguar and Lady 1 Serpent) are married at Temple of the Beans, Stone of the Eagle; e) Lady 7 Rain and Lord 5 Water are married.
FIGURE 12. Detail from pages 7-8 of the Codex Selden: a) Lady 6 Monkey confers with an oracle, Lady 9 Grass… b) at Temple of the Skull or Chalcatongo; c) Temple warriors are armed for battle; d) Lady 6 Monkey captures two rival elites; e) Hill of the Moon, Hill of the Insect is conquered; f) One of Lady 6 Monkey’s captives is sacrificed at the temple of Jaltepec.
FIGURE 13. The nose-piercing of Lord 8 Deer “Jaguar Claw,” from page 52 of the Codex Nuttall.
FIGURE 14. Lord 2 Motion and Lord 8 Grass dancing: song scrolls emerge from their feet. From page 14 of the Codex Bodley.
The images in the Ñudzavui screenfolds recount the political and religious past of the Ñudzavui people. In 1670, a Dominican friar living in Oaxaca (Fray Francisco de Burgoa) published an account of indigenous screenfold books. He concisely described their form, their content, how they were made, and how they were interpreted and used:
…there were many books in their style, made of sheets or cloths of certain tree barks, which were found in hot lands, and they tanned them and seasoned them in the style of parchments, more or less a third in width, and one after another they sewed them and attached them to make as large a piece as they needed, and there they wrote all their histories with characters so abbreviated that a single page expressed the place, site, province, year, month and date, along everything else: the names of the gods, ceremonies and sacrifices, or victories which they had celebrated. And they had for this the sons of the nobles and those who were chosen for their priesthood, who they taught and instructed from their childhood, making them draw these characters and memorize the histories, and I have had these said documents in my hands, and heard some old men explain them, with much admiration. And they used to put these papers or tables of cosmography hung fully extended in the halls of the nobles, for greatness and vanity, priding themselves in the discussion of these matters at their meetings and visits, as the Catholics would do with their lives of the saints…7
Although surviving Ñudzavui books are made from deerskin, not bark paper, Burgoa’s account describes their subject matter quite accurately. A small sample of the types of events these documents record includes
- battles (Figure 6),
- marriages (Figure 7),
- meetings with oracles (Figure 8),
- sacrifices (Figure 9), and
- births (Figure 10).
These images of the past record not only the events which took place, but also the names of the people who participated in the event, the location where the event took place, and the date on which that action occurred.
This who-what-when-where information is generally presented in one of two narrative genres. The first is the genealogy. Its images focus on birth and marriage, recording who was married, where the marriage took place, where the bride and groom came from, when they were married, and who their children were. The detail in Figure 11 (read from bottom to top) depicts two generations of the rulers of the site of Añute or Jaltepec (the red “boustrophedon” lines you see dividing the page into horizontal tiers help to guide the reader; they form a maze-like space in which codical images are painted).
The second narrative genre is the biography, which focuses on the events in the life of a single individual. The Codex Selden, although primarily a genealogical document, does contain three biographies. Figure 12 is taken from a biography of a woman named Lady 6 Monkey. In the bottom register, we see her consulting with an oracle on the subject of warfare. Reading up the page, the top register shows Lady 6 Monkey in battle, capturing two male rulers.
At one level of decipherment, then, the screenfolds record information that we generally think of as “history”—the who, what, when, and where of the past. However, thinking of the screenfolds as analogous to history books in the West is problematic, and for at least three reasons. First, at the same time that codical pictures record what elite men and women did in the past, they also show how those men and women may have dressed, how they styled their hair, what jewelry they wore, how they painted their faces, what objects they carried in their hands.
These “minor” aspects of peoples’ lives are usually left unchronicled in the annals of our own (often illustration-free) history books. In the imagery of the screenfolds, however, these details (of clothing, of jewelry, of makeup) are difficult to ignore, and indeed are essential to a full understanding of the text. The conquest of a rival community is not necessarily more important than the nose ornament worn by the conqueror. Indeed, that nose ornament (or its absence) may provide information as to why the conquest is taking place at all (Figure 13).8
The second problem with drawing an analogy between a codex and a book of Western history has to do with the way the screenfolds were used. When we read a history book, we read it silently, passively seated. The screenfolds, however, were written to be performed. Their contents were sung (cata, “to sing”) and danced (cata tie’e: “to dance,” literally “to sing with the feet”; Figure 14).9 From architectural and alphabetic sources we know that the screenfolds were hung on the walls of palaces, their contents enacted before an audience.10 A Ñudzavui screenfold is thus more like a theatrical script or a musical score, more like Shakespeare’s Henry V or Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, than Hugh Thomas’ The Conquest of Mexico. The performative nature of the screenfolds is reflected in the composition of images on the page. Pictorial composition follows the poetic structures of Ñudzavui verbal art, and thus codical images can be used to help us reconstruct the outlines of ancient Ñudzavui poetry.
Writing and Materiality >
7 “se hallaron muchos libros a su modo, en hojas o telas de especiales cortezas de árboles que se hallaban en tierras calientes y las curtían y aderezaban a modo de pergaminos de una tercia, poco más o menos de ancho y unas tras otras las surcían y pegaban en una pieza tan larga como la habían menester donde todas sus historias escribían con unos caracteres tan abreviados, que una sola plana exresaban el lugar, sitio, provincia, año, mes y día con todos los demás nombres de dioses, ceremonias y sacrificios, o victorias que habían celebrado, y tenido y para esto a los hijos de los señores, y a los que escogían para su sacerdocio enseñaban, e instruían desde su niñez haciéndoles decorar aquellos caracters y tomar de memoria las historias y de estos mesmos instrumentos he tenido en mis manos, y oídolos explicar algunos viejos con bastante admiración y solían poner estos papeles, o como tablas de cosmografía pegados a lo largo en las salas de los señores, por grandeza y vanidad, preciándose de tratar en sus juntas y vistas de aquellas materias, así lo hicieran los católicos de las vidas de los santos…” (Burgoa 1989 : 210). English translation by Byron Hamann.
8 For an excellent treatment of the importance of nose ornaments and other costume elements in understanding Mixtec codical narratives, see Pohl 1994—the nose-piercing ritual is discussed on pages 83-93.
9 On the performance of screenfolds, singing, and singing with the feet, see Monaghan 1994.
10 The prehispanic wall paintings in the palaces in Mitla resemble screenfolds frescoed directly on long architectural panels. As quoted above, in the seventeenth century the Dominican chronicler Burgoa claimed that indigenous histories were hung on the walls of palaces and performed. Furthermore, the visual contents of these documents strongly support the argument that they were meant to be viewed unfolded: visual patterns emerge by looking at a whole series of pages at once that are hidden when only one or two pages at a time. See Pohl 1999, Hamann 2004, Bakewell and Hamann 2011, as well as the “Introduction to the Codex Nuttall” Ñudzavui tutorial.