Cause the Book to Cackle!

FIGURE 1.  Sonic scrolls in the Matrícula de Tributos: Quauhtlatoa (left; folio 2r), Quauhnahuac (center; folio 3v) and Cuicatlan (right; folio 12r).

FIGURE 1. Sonic scrolls in the Matrícula de Tributos: Quauhtlatoa (left; folio 2r), Quauhnahuac (center; folio 3v) and Cuicatlan (right; folio 12r).

An eagle, a tree, a human, all with open mouths: the three details in Figure 1 come from the Matrí­cula de Tributos.1 Out of all of these mouths emerges a sinuous glyph. These curving signs are tiny details, but they reveal the connections linking speech, song, and the visual arts in sixteenth-century Central Mexico.

The first detail, from folio 2r of the Matrícula, represents the personal name of a fifteenth-century ruler of Tlaltelolco: Quauhtlatoa, “Speaking Eagle.” The word for eagle in Nahuatl was quauhtli, and the word for “to speak” was tlatoa. (This is one reason Nahua rulers were called tlatoani: they were Speakers).2 In this personal name, the curved sign coming from out of the eagle’s mouth represents speech.3

The second detail, from folio 3v, represents the name of a town: Quauhnahuac, “Beside the Trees.” The sign is damaged, but the trunk of a tree with leafy branches above and to the right can still be seen. The word for tree in Nahuatl was quahuitl, and the word for beside was -nahuac. But the concept of “beside” is difficult to represent with a picture. A word that sounded very close to -nahuac was nahuatl, meaning “good sound.” (This is where the word for the language of Nahuatl comes from). If you look carefully, you can see an open, toothy mouth drawn into the left side of the tree trunk. Out of that mouth emerges a curved glyph. In this place name, that curved sign represents a good sound.4

The final detail, from folio 12r, is also a place name. It represents a town in Oaxaca: Cuicatlan, “Place of Song.” The word for song in Nahuatl was cuicatl, and so here the elaborate red and black scroll emerging from an open-mouthed face stands for song.5

In these three examples, the same basic sign is used to represent speech, good sound, and song. For fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Nahuas, these three types of sonority were closely connected—more closely than they are for English and Spanish speakers today. This is why Nahua scribes used the same basic sign to represent three different types of sound. The connections linking speech and song and pleasant sonority were very important for Central Mexicans. “No culture ever took more joy in words,” writes historian James Lockhart. “Metaphor, order, elaboration, were everywhere in practically every utterance.”6 In this tutorial, we will consider verbal art in Central Mexico, and look at the different poetic structures used in gracious speech and song alike.

We will also see how the poetic forms used in speech and song are used in visual art. Look again at the place glyph for Cuicatlan. The song scroll there is painted in two colors, black and red. In sixteenth-century Nahuatl, the phrase “the black, the red” was a metaphor for writing.7 We know that the contents of Mesoamerican books were read and performed aloud, so the connection between song and writing suggested by the Cuicatlan place sign is significant.8 Indeed, one Nahuatl text from around 1564 described how Aztec rulers “continually cause the book to cackle. The black, the red is in the paintings they continually carry.”9 Books, in other words, were objects that made good sound. For this reason, the painted compositions of images reflected the oral compositions of speeches and songs.

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1 The subtitle to this tutorial (“Flowers and Song”) is a translation of the Nahuatl metaphor (in) xochitl (in) cuicatl, referring to “a finer, more artificial and highly organized type of song” (Lockhart 1992, 394).
fn2. Karttunen 1992: 266.

3 Berdan and Anawalt 1992, 234.

4 Berdan and Anawalt 1992, 201.

5 Berdan and Anawalt 1992, 183.

6 Lockhart 1992, 375.

7 Boone 2000, 35.

8 King 1990; Monaghan 1990.

9 The quotation is slightly adjusted from Klor de Alva 1980, 109. Klor de Alva’s original translation is “these continually cause the book to cackle. The black, the color is in the paintings they continually carry.” The original Nahuatl is “in qujtlatlazticate in amoxtlj, in tlilli, in tlapalli, in tlacujlolli quitqujticate.” The world “tlapalli” literally meant red, but metaphorically indicated color in general. The “cackling” of the book refers to the sound of moving pages: “The dried pages of the books crackled noisily when turned” (Klor de Alva 1980, 190). Miguel León-Portilla’s translation of the same passage is “Those who noisily turn the pages of illustrated manuscripts. Those who have possession of the black and red ink and that which is pictured” (León-Portilla 1963, 21)