Skip to main content

Oracles of the Other World: Using Ethnography to Study Depictions of Human Remains in Mexican Precolonial Codices

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - EthnoCODICES (Oracles of the Other World: Using Ethnography to Study Depictions of Human Remains in Mexican Precolonial Codices)

Reporting period: 2018-09-01 to 2020-08-31

This project investigated the depictions of human remains on Mexican precolonial codices, in particular on Codex Laud, one of the pictorial manuscripts of the so-called Borgia Group. My aim was to explore a different reading of these images in relation to the oracular character of these books that were used by daykeepers and diviners as manuals in prognostications and ritual prescriptions. After a codicological analysis made on the original Codex Laud, housed in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK, it was revealed that this 500 year old manuscript was thoroughly planned in its manufacture and graphic contents. Moreover, the identification of different moments of color application helped to identify better its division of chapters in combination with unique cycles of the 260-day calendar which were arranged in particular layouts and arrangement of signs. In my analysis of the graphic contents of Codex Laud, still in progress, I make use of ethnographic data and insightful theories related to metaphors and metonyms. I suggest that the scenes of skulls, hearts, limbs, eyeballs, and other human remains in the codex refer to the “Other World”, the world of the dead, and its oracular capacities. The support of this idea comes mainly from the ethnographic data that I gathered from indigenous communities of the South of Mexico in which the worldview of death, festivities of the Days of the Dead and the ways of communication with ancestors is very active and strong. Here, the Other World is a partly-natural, non-human and oneiric world, inhabited by ancestors, divinities and other beings, to which people and calendar-diviner experts recur and mutually communicate. In that sense, the divinatory codices were a sort of oracular portal to access it, to find answers to difficult and anxious moments in life, such as diseases, dreams, bad fortune, and warnings of danger, as well as receiving solutions to revert or diminish adversity. I think Codex Laud worked as a concise and abbreviated manual of signs which concretely gave information on the prognostications and prescriptions of unique divisions of the 260-day calendar in close relation to the life on This and the Other Worlds. This view contrasts with other narratives that are often read from historical colonial sources which tend to connect literally the descriptions of bloodshed precolonial rites with scenes of dismembered bodies and human sacrifices of codices. This research offers other factual interpretative options for such images.
For this project, I developed a unique methodology which I have denominated “integral”. This methodology, like a bottom-up approach, entails the study of the material support, manufacture, painting process and biography of an original manuscript, in this case Codex Laud. To achieve this task, I undertook a training experience in which I learned the steps of a codicological analysis. This activity was guided by Dr. Mikulska and its results were compiled in a report.
To study the graphic contents of Codex Laud, I carried out two ethnographic campaigns in which I gathered empirical data on the notions and practices around death, ancestors, rituals and divinatory sessions. In my first ethnographic campaign, I visited a Mixe community in the South of Mexico in which the use of the 260-day calendar, divinatory practices, and strong worldview around ancestors, including festivities, rituals and communication with them, still prevails.
With all this empirical data at hand, proper visual analysis of the graphic contents of Codex Laud took place. For this, I nourished from the work developed by Dr. Mikulska on the graphic communication system of codices. I integrated myself to her regular courses and seminars at the Institute of Iberian and Iberoamerican Studies. I also took a Nahuatl course with Dr. Agnieszka Brylak. All these seminars, along with bibliographic research on the topic of metaphors, has, and still is, helped me to write a new interpretative-commentary of Codex Laud.
Derived from my research, I have published two articles in peer review Open Access journals. One other contribution is a chapter in an edited volume which corresponds to the catalogue for the exhibition of the Aztec culture, currently making a tour in Europe. I have written a fourth paper to appear soon in an edited Open Access book.
I presented also my project in four prestigious international venues. In one occasion, functioned as co-coordinator of a session specialized in the study of codices. Furthermore, I also got invited to give lectures in two eminent European learning centres in Paris and Madrid.
During my stay in the University of Warsaw I offered two semester courses to postgraduate students in which I taught thoroughly the so called “Leiden school” approach for the study of codices and complemented it with decolonial theories and methods. At the same time, I had the opportunity to share aims, goals, methods and findings of my project to students and colleagues in different seminars. I also participated in two different congresses in the fields of codices and graphic communication systems, in Mexico and Poland, respectively. Finally, I was interviewed and invited to a webinar by Euraxess organization of the European Commission.
This project has meant a solid contribution to the study of Mexican precolonial codices. It has brought forth an innovative methodology to study of this rare and ancient genre of pictorial manuscripts. It has offered new empirical data on the material support, manufacture, color palette and biography of one of these magnificent codices, Codex Laud. It has open up the opportunity of collaboration between the University of Warsaw and the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It has contributed to a better knowledge on the worldview related to the dead and ancestors, as well as the oracular communication associated, by recovering empirical data from indigenous communities in the south of Mexico. It has used this data to shed light on the meanings of intriguing scenes in Codex Laud which depict skulls, skeletons, and other human remains. By doing this, this project moves away form common interpretations of such images which take them as literal representations of bloodshed rituals as described by 16th century colonial chronicles. Instead, this project offers other possibilities of interpretation which are based on the persistence of culture, language and worldview of indigenous peoples in Mexico. This project makes a contribution not only to a better comprehension of the graphic contents of Codex Laud, but also in attempting a more dignified narrative to the sacred books now housed in European collections which are in fact heritage of Mexican indigenous peoples still in resilient strive against the onslaught of colonization. In this sense, this project aims to reach to indigenous audiences in Mexico, but also public in general, who ignore the meanings behind the images of codices, however paradoxically well known icons of Mexican folklore. It is still the commitment of this project to reach to the publication of a new commentary for Codex Laud but also to give a seminar to Mexican audiences, accessible to indigenous peoples.