Aztec: the Relaciones and their Authors

Aztec: the Relaciones and their Authors

Our knowledge of the mythology of the Mexicans is overwhelmingly based on the the relaciones of those Spaniards, lay and cleric, who entered the country along with or immediately subsequent to the Spanish Conquistadores. The Mexica books were burned, and today we are left with the silence of stone and the voices of the Spaniards, the main voices being the ones listed below.


Father Benardino Sahagun

Bernardino de Sahagún was a Franciscan friar, missionary priest and pioneering ethnographer who participated in the Catholic evangelization of colonial New Spain. Born in Sahagún, Spain, in 1499, he journeyed to New Spain in 1529.  He learned Nahuatl and spent more than 50 years in the study of Aztec beliefs, culture and history.  His tome A General History of the Affairs of New Spain was at once illuminating and subversive.

Bernardino de Sahagún arrived in Mexico eight years after the country had been reduced by the Spaniards to a condition of slavery. He obtained a thorough mastery of the Nahuatl tongue, and developed and admiration for the native mind and a deep interest in the antiquities of the conquered people. His method of collecting facts concerning their mythology and history was as effective as it was ingenious. He held daily conferences with reliable Indians, and placed questions before them, to which they replied by symbolical paintings detailing the answers which he required. These he submitted to scholars who had been trained under his own supervision, and who, after consultation among themselves, rendered him a criticism in Nahuatl of the hieroglyphical paintings he had placed at their disposal. Not content with this process, he subjected these replies to the criticism of a third body, after which the matter was included in his work. But ecclesiastical intolerance was destined to keep the work from publication for a couple of centuries. Afraid that such a volume would be successful in keeping alight the fires of paganism in Mexico, Sahagun’s brethren refused him the assistance he required for its publication. But on his appealing to the Council of the Indies in Spain he was met with encouragement, and was ordered to translate his great work into Spanish, a task he undertook when over eighty years of age. He transmitted the work to Spain, and for three hundred years nothing more was heard of it.

For generations antiquarians interested in the lore of ancient Mexico bemoaned its loss, until Juan Bautista Muñoz, through sheer persistence found a copy in the ancient convent of Tolosi, in Navarre, which he kept  until his death in 1799.   Some decades later the work was copied and printed in Mexico in 1830.  The work is commonly  called the Florentine Codex originally titled it: La Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva España (in English: the Universal History of the Things of New Spain). After a translation mistake, it was given the name "Historia general de las Cosas de Nueva España".  The best-preserved manuscript is commonly referred to as "The Florentine Codex", as it is held in the Laurentian Library of Florence, Italy.  A copy of this work is available in the World Digital Library.


Juan de Torquemada

Juan de Torquemada (c. 1562 – 1624) was a Franciscan friar, active as missionary in Spanish colonial Mexico and considered the "leading Franciscan chronicler of his generation."  Administrator, engineer, architect and ethnographer, he is most famous for his monumental work commonly known as Monarquía indiana ("Indian Monarchy"), a survey of the history and culture of the indigenous peoples of New Spain together with an account of their conversion to Christianity, first published in Spain in 1615 and republished in 1723. Monarquia Indiana was the "prime text of Mexican history, and was destined to influence all subsequent chronicles until the twentieth century." It was used by later historians, the Franciscan Augustin de Vetancurt and most importantly by eighteenth-century Jesuit Francisco Javier Clavijero. No English translation of this work has ever been published.  The Spanish version is available online.


Abbé Clavigero

In his Storia Antica del Messico the Abbé Clavigero, who published his work in 1780, provided in Italian an exhaustive look at the source. The clarity of his style and the exactness of his information render his work exceedingly useful.  The book is available online at




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