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The Codex Borgia


1.   The Origin of the Codex Borgia


The Codex Borgia is one of the most beautiful of the few surviving pre-Columbian painted manuscripts. The exact place of origin of this codex is not known, however there is no doubt, that it originates from the central Mexican highlands (possibly near Puebla or the Tehuacán Valley), an area which was under Aztec rule at the time of the conquest. Obviously, this codex was originally painted before the arrival of the Spanish, since it does not show any European influence. It probably dates to the late 15th century. In the 16th century it was sent from Mexico to Spain, and from there to Italy. The great German scholar Alexander von Humboldt saw it in Rome in 1805 among the possessions of Cardinal Stefano Borgia, who had died the previous year. Today the Codex Borgia is housed in the Apostolic Library of the Vatican.



2.    The Purpose of the Codex Borgia


The Codex Borgia is, like most pre-columbian manuscripts, a religious book, made by highly specialized scribal priests. They are not books in the traditional sense, of course, neither from their way of production nor from their way of usage. There was not any type of impression-making device, therefore no mass production was possible. Nor was this intended, since those manuscripts are not made for just storing information or reading stories for amusement. Stories were transmitted in an oral tradition. The purpose of the mesoamerican books is rather to take hold of time and the realm of history and religion. As it seems, images were more important than words, especially with the Aztecs and other central mexican peoples. Also, those books were not intended for reading them just individually in a quiet chamber, but rather they were used in an active manner as part of religious ceremonies when priests would make public readings, making prophecies, or use them during consultations in order to give prognostications of the lives of those who are about to marry or who inquire about the future of their child, and so on.



3.   The Production of the Codex Borgia


From the unfortunately very small sample size of mesoamerican manuscripts, which religious zealousy and ignorance of 16th century Spanish catholic culture has left posterity, we can suppose that each manuscript had been handmade as a single, unique piece of art, although sequences of older manuscripts had been copied frequently. Mesoamerican codices are screenfold books: long strips of animal skin or amate paper, which are folded in an accordion-like fashion. Afterwards the codices were covered with a white lime-plaster coating, to enable the scribal priest to paint the manuscript, using both mineral and organic pigments. All Mayan codices are made of amate-paper which is obtained from the bark of the wild fig tree (ficus cotinifolia). The Mayan codices read from left to right. The original of the Codex Borgia is made of folded animal skin. The strips of skin were attached end to end, folded into a screenfold, each page measuring 27 x 27 cm. This codex is made of 39 leaves, with 37 of them painted on both sides. Two leaves are painted on just one side, the back side being used to affix them to end pieces, probably made of wood. This gives a total of 76 painted pages and a length of more than 11 meters. The book is read from right to left.



4.    The Content of the Codex Borgia


Of course, there is nobody alive anymore, who could read and interpret this codex the way it was done by ancient Aztec priests. So there is a lot of speculation as to the exact content of this manuscript. However, we know for certain that it was a ritual book. The original codex begins with a tonalpohualli, which is a “book of the days“. It covers the famous ritual calendar period of 260 days, which is the result of the combination of 13 numbers with 20 days. The next plates depict the 20 deities which represent those 20 days. There follows a plate with the 9 deities of the night, next one finds an association of the day signs with the cardinal directions. There are more pages about astronomical planetary observations. Other pages refer to the solar year of 365 days, which in the Maya and Aztec calendar is made up of 18 cycles of 20 days plus 5 extra days, called the unlucky days. The combination of the 365-day and 260 day-calendar results in the well-known calendar round of 52 years. There are pages giving prognostications for each quarter (13 years) of this 52-year-period, when either abundance of food, or diseases and hunger, or scarce or excessive rain are to be expected.

The longest sequence of the Codex Borgia is also the most enigmatic one. It shows a narrative, or a story, and is therefore unique. It is probably an account of historical events, probably refering to Tula and Teotihuacan. Those are linked to many rituals like sacrifices and ball games.

Finally, the codex contains plates which were used as prognostication tools for the success of marriages. One of the last pages shows a beautiful image of the sun god in company of 12 birds and a butterfly, which together symbolize the 13 levels of heaven.



5.    The Description of the Aztec Gods and Day Signs


The reader will next encounter a list of the 20 days signs and their corresponding Aztec gods.



1  alligator                     Tonacatecuhtli                 Supreme Male Deity


2  wind                         Quetzalcóatl                     Feathered Serpent, Wind Deity


3  house                       Tepeyóllotl                      Heart of the Mountain


4  lizard                        Huehuecóyotl                   Old Coyote


5  serpent                     Chalchiuhtlicue                 Goddess of Running Water


6  death                        Tecciztécatl                     Goddess of the Moon


7  deer                          Tláloc                              Rain and Storm


8  rabbit                         Mayáhuel                       Goddess of Maguey


9  water                        Xiuhtecuhtli                      God of Fire


10  dog                         Mictlantecuhtli                  God of the Underworld


11  monkey                   Xochipilli                         Prince of Flowers


12  grass                     Patécatl                              God of Pulque


13  reed                      Tezcatlipoca-Ixquimilli       Smoking Mirror with Bandaged Eyes


14  jaguar                    Tlazoltéotl                          Goddess of Filth and the Earth


15  eagle                     Tlatlauhqui Tezcatlipoca     Red Smoking Mirror


16  vulture                  Itzpapálotl                          Obsidian Butterfly


17  movement             Xólotl                                God of twins


18  flint                       Chalchiuh- Totolin             Turkey of the Precious Stone


19  rain                       Tonatiuh                            Sun God


20  flower                   Xochiquétzal                      Flower-Quetzalfeather




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