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Mesoamerican epic poetry and saga: Universal elements Ronald A. Barnett ©

An Aztec musician poet from the Codex Borbonicus
The Aztecs formed a highly civilized society with poet-kings busily engaged in learned philosophical discussions. Unfortunately, the general public hears mostly about the Aztec practice of tearing out human hearts.

Prior to the Conquest, written documents in Roman transcription did not exist. The Aztecs handed down history and customs through an oral tradition backed up by codices — the "painted books" of ancient Mexico. It is true that the Aztecs did have a form of writing based on a combination of commonly recognized symbols (the Maya had an even more advanced form of phonetic symbolism). Nevertheless, written documents do imply a post-Conquest period of composition. This, in turn, raises the question of Spanish missionary influence on these apparently "native" compositions... read more

Nahuatl Song-Poems Ronald A. Barnett ©

Diorama of a Tenochtitlan market
© Anthony Wright, 2013
The Nahuatl language and culture of the Aztecs of central Mexico are among the best-documented sources of information we have for understanding the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Aztec society was abruptly interrupted and brought to an untimely end by the Spanish invasion and conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlan in 1521. Nevertheless, it is from this very early stage of the Spanish Colonial Period that we have some of the most intriguing and yet controversial and difficult documents in Nahuatl — the language of Tenochtitlan at the time of the Conquest. read more

The codices of ancient and colonial Mexico Ronald A. Barnett ©

Extract of page 2 of the Codex Colombino, depicting a Mesoamerican ballgame
How do we really know what happened in ancient Mexico before the arrival of the Spaniards and the introduction of writing? To get an idea how the Indians actually viewed these events we must turn to the pictorial and "written" manuscripts or codices produced by the people themselves. The codices themselves were generally in the form of long strips of native paper (amatl) or sized deerskin folded up into the shape of a moderate sized book, hence the name codex. Others were originally produced in book format. read more

Mesoamerican epic poetry and saga: A survey Ronald A. Barnett ©

Tonatiuh from the Codex Borgia
Public Domain
Mexican scholar A. Garibay believed that the ancient Aztecs too had a form of epic poetry, traces of which survived the Spanish Conquest of Mexico.

Much Aztec history and traditional lore were preserved in the Calmecac and other schools of learning in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Using the hieroglyphic codices as "prompt" books, priests and scribes were no doubt able to recount long epic-type narratives.

Although no long sustained metrical epics have survived the Conquest, numerous fragments remain of what Garibay believed must once have been an extensive body of epic poetry and saga in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs... read more

Mesoamerican epic poetry and saga: What is epic? Ronald A. Barnett ©

Coba in Yucatan, an ancient Maya city
© Roger Cunningham, 2013
Heroic type epics focus on a main hero, and epic themes may also include shamanism where the hero relies as much on magic as on personal resources.

To what extent Nahuatl epic corresponds to this type of epic literature remains to be seen. read more

An ancient Aztec betrayal Biblical style Ronald A. Barnett ©

Our knowledge of ancient Aztec civilization comes from many different sources: archaeology, codices or painted books, comparative ethnological studies and the like. But it is not until the advent of writing that a clear picture of past history begins to emerge.

That is not to say that historical accounts did not exist before the Conquest. read more

Aztec poets or ghost riders? Ronald A. Barnett ©

The Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards under Cortes in the sixteenth century brought to an abrupt end the developing civilization of the ancient Aztecs. With the destruction of their capital of Tenochtitlan (now modern Mexico City) much of Aztec religion and culture was destroyed in a catastrophic cultural holocaust. However, within a few decades of the Conquest, Franciscan friars had established a school for survivors or their offspring at Tlatelolco, not far from present day Mexico City. read more

Translation, evangelism and Mexico's classical Aztec literature Ronald A. Barnett ©

Aztec temples were brightly colored.
The Nahuatl (Aztec) song-poems are contained in three collections: the Cantares Mexicanos (Mexico City), the Romances de los señores de Nueva España (University of Texas), and a third fragmentary collection in Paris. read more

Was the Aztec's Nahuatl literature a Spanish invention? Translation and evangelism Ronald A. Barnett ©

In ancient Mexico, the spoken word or the oral tradition was greatly reinforced by the use of painted books in which native history and religion were preserved and handed down through successive generations. The Maya had the most advanced system of writing in the Americas at the time Europeans began to arrive, but the Mixtec and Aztec peoples also had a very efficient system of written communication. read more

Did you know? Mexico's first tourists Tony Burton

Father Alonso Ponce and Friar Antonio de Ciudad Real were probably Mexico's first ever tourists. Father Alonso Ponce de León arrived in Veracruz in September 1584 and spent the next five years travel... read more

The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes Reviewed by Allan Cogan

The story is based on the mysterious death/disappearance of the American writer Ambrose Bierce who, at age 71, went into Mexico in 1913 during the Revolution and vanished. Bierce is the author of such works as "The Devil's Dictionary" and "Incident at Owl's Creek Bridge." He was a contemporary of writers like Bret Harte and Mark Twain. He was also a newspaper reporter, employed at the time of his death by the San Francisco Chronicle, which was part of the William Randolph Hearst empire. Bierce had also seen distinguished service in the Civil War. read more

Bobby Vaughn's Black Mexico - further reading Bobby Vaughn

This is a list of 17 sources in Spanish and English dealing with black Mexicans from a variety of perspectives. I chose these few sources from a large bibliography that I have been compiling sinc... read more

The Underdogs (Los de Abajo): A Novel of the Mexican Revolution by Mariano Azuela Reviewed by Allan Cogan

This novel is described in several places as a classic of modern Hispanic literature and it really is a powerful book. Novelist Mariano Azuela knew what he was writing about, having served as a doctor in Pancho Villa's army and having participated in several key engagements in that conflict. read more

Mariano Azuela Jim Tuck

Where does one draw the line between iconoclastic satire and cynicism? It is commonly said that the purpose of satire is correction and this seems as useful an explanation as any. No matter how brutall... read more

The few, the proud, the work of Juan Rulfo (1917-1986) Jim Tuck

In the darkest days of the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill said of the RAF that "never has so much been owed by so many to so few." To paraphrase the great statesman, it could be said of the Juan ... read more

Mexico's Voltaire: Jose Joaquin Fernandez de Lizardi (1776-1827) Jim Tuck

Because of the many fables he wrote, there are those who may wish to compare José Joaquin Fernández de Lizardi to La Fontaine. Such a comparison fails to do justice to both writers. Apart from the Co... read more

Octavio Paz: Nobel winner and noble man (1914-1998) Jim Tuck

1998 witnessed the passing of such diverse figures as Frank Sinatra, legendary boxer Archie Moore, two-term Florida Governor Lawton Chiles, cowboy star and entrepreneur Gene Autry, and Clayton ("Peg Le... read more

Rebel, internationalist, establishmentarian: Carlos Fuentes Jim Tuck

Carlos Fuentes was an internationalist from birth. Though one of Mexico's best-known citizens, he was born on November 11, 1928, in Panama, where his father represented the Mexican government. Mexico p... read more

Zapata Reviewed by Allan Cogan

In 1952, John Steinbeck won an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay of the movie, Viva Zapata! Many years later, however, a manuscript was found in UCLA Library in which it was discovered he had... read more
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