The Poetics of Counting
FIGURE 6. The escape from Tenochtitlan on the Noche Triste: the first part of Cell 18 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
FIGURE 7. Three pages from the Codex Borgia, a divinatory almanac.
FIGURE 8. Overview of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
FIGURE 9. The flight from Tenochtitlan to Tlaxcala during the first week of July 1520: Row 4 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
By now it should be clear that counting was essential to Central Mexican poetics. The aesthetics of counting was an important part of other areas of life as well. The calendar used in Central Mexico (discussed in the Counting: Tomorrow, The Day After Tomorrow Nahua tutorial) was a complex system of interlocking, numbered cycles. People skilled in the arts of timekeeping could use these cycles to understand the past and the future. Special books were created in the areas surrounding Tenochtitlan and Tlaxcala to aid in calendrical divination. At least two of these seem to have been created in or near Tlaxcala itself: the Codex Borgia and the Codex Cospi (Figure 7). Many of the pages of these books are divided by horizontal and vertical lines. These created charts in which calendric information was organized.
Visually, the Lienzo de Tlaxcala has much in common with the pages of these screenfold books—although the Lienzo, of course, is much larger. The layout of the Lienzo’s grid is clearly inspired by the poetics of counting (Figure 8). The grid is seven cells wide and thirteen cells long. Seven times thirteen equals 91, which is the sum of all of the numbers from one to thirteen (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 8 + 9 + 10 + 11 + 12 + 13 = 91). The numbers seven and thirteen were themselves highly symbolic. Thirteen was a cosmologically significant number in Mesoamerica (in contrast to the European emphasis on twelve). The glyphs for days and years were numbered from one to thirteen. The days of the 260-day calendar were divided into twenty thirteen-day periods. Similarly, seven was a cosmologically significant number in Europe (the seven days of the week, the seven deadly sins, etcetera). This seven by thirteen grid, then, may combine Mesoamerican and European ideas about sacred numbers.
The poetic use of numbers in the composition of the Lienzo goes even further. In at least one instance, the seven-cell-wide format of the Lienzo was used to enhance the meaning of the images it contained. The final cells of Row 3 chronicled how, on the night of 30 June 1520, the joint Tlaxcalan and European army fled in defeat from Tenochtitlan, suffering heavy casualties (Figure 6). Row 4 then chronicled the tattered army’s return to Tlaxcala. According to the day-by-day account recorded in a letter written by Hernán Cortés to Emperor Charles V, this journey took seven days, a European week. These seven days seem to have been mapped onto the seven cells of Row 4 (Figure 9). For example, according to Cortés the retreating army rested for all of the fourth day (July 4), which turned out to have been the half-way point in their journey to Tlaxcala. Appropriately, the fourth (middle) cell of the Lienzo’s Row 4 depicts the army at rest, its soldiers not fighting but sleeping. Details in the subsequent cells of Row 4 show events which (according to Cortés) took place between July 5 and 7: the butchering of a horse for food (the fifth cell in Row 4); an unexpected victory brought about by the capture of an enemy battle standard (the sixth cell). On Sunday July 8, the fleeing army at last reached Tlaxcalan territory. This arrival is shown in the first cell of Row 5. In other words, the seven cells of Row 4 seem to represent the first seven days in July 1520. Tlaxcalan artists merged the chronological structure of the European week, the formal structure of the Lienzo’s grid, and the narrative structure of the events which took place after the Tlaxcalan-European army fled from Tenochtitlan. This dense symbolic interweaving was no accident. The reason the Lienzo’s artists chose to put emphasis on this week—and the many battles and hardships it involved—was probably to stress the many opportunities that the Tlaxcalans had to betray their weakened European allies. But they did not. The Tlaxcalans were not traitors. In the Lienzo, the depiction of this difficult week serves to set up the events in Row 5, whose central image (discussed in the Counting and Introduction to the Lienzo de Tlaxcala Nahua tutorials) concerned promises Cortés made to the Tlaxcalans as a reward for their loyalty. Row 4, in other words, was a complex meditation on history and the structure of time. Its carefully counted, poetic composition served—in couplet fashion—to underscore the events in the row immediately beneath it.
Text by Byron Hamann
26 Adapted from Reyes García 1976, 51.
27 For other studies of the connections linking Mesoamerican verbal and visual art, see Tedlock and Tedlock 1985; Monaghan 1990; Tedlock 1992; as well as Mesolore’s Colored Lyrics Ñudzavui tutorial.
28 Boone 2007, 227-228.
29 Brotherston and Gallegos 1990, 122.
30 Cortés 1986, 139-142.