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Religious Aztec Codices: Codex Borbonicus & Codex Magliabechiano

Instructor: Harley Davidson

Harley has taught university-level History classes and has a Ph.D. in History

The preservation of several important Aztec documents has saved Aztec culture from being lost to time. This lesson examines the contents and origins of the Codex Borbonicus and Codex Magliabechiano.

Windows into Aztec Culture

When Europeans arrived in the Americas in 1492, the indigenous societies there faced utter devastation. The most populous and advanced indigenous society, the Aztec Empire, quickly collapsed as Spanish attacks and European diseases took their toll. The Spanish sought to eliminate most traces of Aztec culture and religion and replace them with their own. Most pre-Columbian documents that discussed the pre-Columbian past were heavily controlled by the Spanish colonial authorities. How do we know anything about Aztec culture if so many Aztecs perished and the Spanish wanted to bury the Aztec past? This is where documents like the Codex Borbonicus and the Codex Magliabechiano come into play.

Page 28 of the Codex Borbonicus, seen here, shows an Aztec ritual in action.
Codex Borbonicus

Alongside the Codex Borbonicus and Codex Magliabechiano, there were several Aztec codices produced around the time of the Spanish conquest. Some were written by Aztec priests before the Spanish conquest and managed to survive into the modern day, while others were produced by Spanish priests with indigenous help. There are hundreds of colonial-era codices, like the Codex Magliabechiano, that are still in existence. Thanks to the Codex Borbonicus, Codex Magliabechiano, and other Aztec codices, we have an excellent window into Aztec religious beliefs and cosmology.

The Codex Borbonicus

It is unclear whether the Codex Borbonicus was produced before or after Hernán Cortés's arrival in Mexico in 1519, but what we do know is that the document slipped out of public knowledge for centuries after the Spanish conquest. Eventually, the deputy-curator of the library of France's National Assembly, Pierre-Paul Druon, purchased the Codex Borbonicus at an auction for 1,300 gold francs in 1826. The details are murky over how the document became available for auction. But Druon thought the purchase was worthwhile, and the Codex now resides in (and draws its name from) the Palais Bourbon, where the part of French parliament that holds the document is located.

This page of the Codex Borbonicus depicts the 13th period (of 20) of the year, with the goddess Tlazolteotl giving birth to Cinteotl.
Codex Borbonicus

The Codex Borbonicus is a massive document, spanning 14 meters in length and consisting of 36 sheets that are 39 square centimeters each. The Codex contains two Aztec calendars, one being divinatory and the other being solar. Whereas a solar calendar relies on the movement of the sun to divide up time, a divinatory calendar attempts to predict future events by associating deities with certain time periods.

The Aztecs, like many Mesoamerican cultures before 1492, followed a 52-solar-year calendar cycle. Using pictorial glyphs (similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics) and beautifully colored drawings, the Codex shows the dates of the first days of each solar year and the deities who represent each of the 20 13-day weeks making up a year. It also details the rituals and ceremonies at the end of the 52-year cycle, when the first man and woman on Earth, Cipactonal and Oxomoco, come together to light the ''new fire''. The Codex Borbonicus lays out an entirely alien worldview and conception of time, but thanks to its preservation, we have a better idea of how the Aztecs imagined their place in the world.

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