Aztec: Writing

Aztec Writing

Writing as ideograph mnemonic: the Teotihuacan form copied by the Mexica. But one of numerous examples of complex civilization in pre-Columbus Americas.

Ideographic scripts (in which graphemes are ideograms representing concepts or ideas, rather than a specific word in a language), and pictographic scripts (in which the graphemes are iconic pictures) are not thought to be able to express all that can be communicated by language. Essentially, no full writing system can be completely pictographic or ideographic; it must be able to refer directly to a language in order to have the full expressive capacity of a language.

Although a few pictographic or ideographic scripts exist today, there is no single way to read them, because there is no one-to-one correspondence between symbol and language. Hieroglyphs were commonly thought to be ideographic before they were translated, and to this day Chinese is often erroneously said to be ideographic. In some cases of ideographic scripts, only the author of a text can read it with any certainty, and it may be said that they are interpreted rather than read. Such scripts often work best as mnemonic aids for oral texts, or as outlines that will be fleshed out in speech.

Codex Telleriano-Remensis

Codex Telleriano-Remensis

The Mexica (Aztec) books were virtually all burned.  One Spanish witness of the destruction wrote that people were distraught to see their books – and their history – burn, anguished “to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction”, an act all too common in history.  

One of the survivors is the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, a page from which is displayed here with explanatory notes made by the Spaniards. The death of Chimalpopoca and the election of his successor, Itzcouatl, is recorded, as well as the capture of Atzcapotzalco, all in a mnemonic system.  




The Aztec writing system used symbols, stylised human figures and colours to recount centuries of history and beliefs, including religious practice, wars, the founding of cities and the genealogy of noble families, virtually all of which has been lost to us.  As an example of how this mnemonic system worked a possible interpretation of the images to the right is the following:

  • 1 the year Two Reed, 1507;
  • 2 eclipse of the sun;
  • 3 earthquake;
  • at place pictured at 4;
  • 5 the town of Huixachtitlan
  • In the temple (6)
  • was held (7) the new-fire ceremony at the beginning of a 52-year period
  • In this year were also drowned in the River Tuzac (8) two thousand warriors (10)
  • which the vultures devoured (9).

Today fewer than 20 Codices dating from before or just after the colonisation survived, saved by scholars who realised the importance this witness to a lost culture. 


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