Writing and Materiality
FIGURE 15. One of the palaces in the Church group at Mitla in the Valley of Oaxaca. On the flat indented panel above the doorways you can see the remains of red and white mural paintings. These long narrow bands of flowing images have much in common with the visual layout of an unfolded screenfold book. Photograph by Byron Hamann, June 2011.
FIGURE 16. The same two folds of the Codex Nuttall, seen from the front (pages 19a-19b) and back (pages 60-62), demonstrating their very different styles.
FIGURE 17. Backstrap loom in use, as depicted on a shop sign from San Juan Colorado in the Mixteca de la Costa. Photo by Thomas F. Aleto.
FIGURE 18. Loop ended guideline bands, from page 6 of the Codex Selden.
The previous paragraphs on the differences between Ñudzavui writing and “history” as we often think about it today have centered on content and use. A third series of contrasts can be found in issues of form and structure. In the contemporary West (especially in an academic setting), the form in which an alphabetic text is presented in is of secondary importance. The same alphabetic text (a newspaper article, a chapter from a book) might be presented in a bound volume, as a photocopy, on microfilm, as a sound recording, or online. In contrast, the white surfaces on which Ñudzavui narratives were painted were not simply neutral backdrops. The material structure of these documents as screenfolded, gessoed deerskins had important implications for their use and re-use, and their folded format had metaphoric and symbolic meanings. Although the electronic nature of Mesolore makes it difficult to present these material features of Ñudzavui books, we end this tutorial by discussing some of the physical, tangible features of the screenfolds. You should keep these in mind as you gaze at disembodied screenfold pages shimmering on your computer screen.
As material objects, the screenfolds were physically manipulated in a number of ways. One obvious mode of physical manipulation would have been during the process of reading. As mentioned above, the screenfolds were displayed by hanging them on the walls of palaces (Figure 15). However, some screenfold layouts (such as in the Codex Bodley and Codex Colombino-Becker) seem to privilege pairs of pages, suggesting they were also designed with intimate hand-held reading in mind.11 The mid-sixteenth-century Codex Selden—as discussed in Mesolore’s introductory tutorial on this document—is unique in the Ñudzavui corpus for being painted vertically, not horizontally. Mary Elizabeth Smith argues this is because it was created for a colonial courtroom setting, to be unfolded and viewed on a long European table.12 There were a number of different ways, then, to physically interact with these folded texts.
A second way to think about the physical manipulation of the screenfolds is to consider the “biography” of a screenfold after it was initially created and painted. Several screenfold are painted on both front and back. In at least three cases (the Codex Nuttall, the Codex Selden, and the Codex Vienna) the two different sides were painted in different styles and formats. For example, Figure 16 contrasts the styles (and figural scales) used on the front and back sides of the same folds of deerskin in the Codex Nuttall (pages 18-19b/pages 60-62). Such differences in style (and narrative content) between front and back suggest that the two sides of these books were painted at different times by different scribes, the latter authors reusing an old document’s blank side for writing a new narrative. As discussed further in the “Introduction to the Codex Selden” tutorial, the Codex Selden was not simply added to when it was re-used, painted on a hitherto blank side (as was the case with the Codex Nuttall). Rather, its old images were actually scraped off, erased, before the new text was painted. Another type of colonial transformation involved adding alphabetic captions to the surfaces of screenfolds. These new inscriptions (re)interpreted screenfold images for use as evidence in courts of law.13
Third, the material structure of the screenfolds had a number of symbolic and metaphoric qualities, as suggested by both lexical and formal information. The sacred nature of screenfold pages is revealed by one of the Alvarado Vocabulario entries for “book”: ñee ñuhu, “sacred skin.”14 After being painted, the surfaces of the screenfolds were sometimes covered with a coat of clear, reflective varnish.15 Shining, reflective objects were sacred throughout Mesoamerica, and were often used for divination.16 A coat of varnish thus made Mesoamerican books visually analogous to mirrors, bowls of water and mercury, and polished jades—and just as one might gaze into a mirror to see into the realm of the divinities or into the past or future, so too could one look at the shining pages of a screenfold and see the gods and goddesses and the ancient actions of the ancestors.
If screenfolds were like mirrors, they were also like cloth. The long, narrow proportions of an unfolded Mesoamerican screenfold are analogous to the long, narrow proportions of cloth produced on the traditional Mesoamerican backstrap loom (Figure 17). And like cloth, the screenfolds could be folded and unfolded. A number of Mesoamerican languages—including Dzaha Dzavui—use parallel words to describe both written documents and woven objects.17 It may not be accidental that the red dividing lines that structure the narrative of the Codex Selden end in loops: they visually echo the redoubling of a weft thread passing back and forth in a loom (Figure 18).
Multiple Readings >
11 Johnson 2005.
12 Smith 1994.
13 Smith 1966, 2005; Monaghan 1997; Hermann Lejarazu 2003.
fn14. Alvarado 1593: 138r; see also Jansen and Pérez Jiménez 2004: 268; Jansen and Pérez Jiménez 2011: 12.
15 C. A. Burland describes the traces of varnish still surviving on many of the pages of the Mixtec Codex Egerton and the Borgia group Codices Fejérváry-Mayer and Laud. See Burland 1965: 6, 8,9-15,19; Burland 1966, 10, 17,20; Burland 1971, 21, 23, 25. Textual references to the varnishing of painted surfaces also appear in Fray Francisco de Alvarado’s Spanish to Mixtec vocabulary and Alonso de Molina’s 1571 Spanish/Nahuatl vocabulary (Alvarado 1593, 32v, 140r; Molina 1571, 18v.
16 See also Saunders 1998; Hamann 2008, 58-68; Hamann 2013; and the Introduction to the Lienzo de Tlaxcala Nahua tutorial.
17 In sixteenth century Dzaha Dzavui (Rain Speech, the language of the Ñudzavui), the verb for “to write” was taa; the verb for “to weave or braid” was tãã. See Mark King (1994, 108). Similarly, Barbara and Dennis Tedlock (1985) note a number of fascinating intertextual parallels between speaking, writing, and weaving among the Quiché Maya.