Logo Universität Heidelberg Logo Institut für Religionswissenschaft

Aztec Sacred Scripture?
A Search for Their Sense of Reality

Research Results

The highly developed civilization of the Aztecs in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica (Central Mexico, 13th-16th centuries) used a writing system based on pictograms and ideograms. Commonly, European writing theorists have devalued this writing system as presenting an evolutionary primitive and preliminary stage of writing, owing to its non-phonographic nature. Taking off from recent alternative approaches to acknowledge Aztec writing as a highly efficient system of visual communication, the project set out to examine the modus operandi and semiotic theory of Aztec scribal art more closely.

For this, the study first expanded common representations of Aztec 'culture,' 'religion,' or 'cosmovision' by turning more abstractly to the Aztecs' 'sense of reality,' in other words, to basic Aztec ideas about reality and about the significance of sensory experience for understanding this reality. Attempting to comprehend basic principles of Aztec being-in-the-world, the study analyzed concepts of the body, of the person, and of identity, as much as Aztec ontology, epistemology, pragmatism and aesthetics, theory of language, and semiotics. In doing so, central issues discussed controversially in the academic literature were reexamined; among them the internal diversity of Aztec culture and religion, the indigenous concept of 'divinity,' the ontological dualism vs. monism and transcendence vs. immanence of Aztec cosmovision, and indigenous concepts of ultimate reality. Furthermore, the study discussed the supposed fatalism of the Aztecs in contrast to their belief in their cosmic agency, the application of ritual theories on Aztec performances, the problems of authenticity, poetical aestheticism, and ephemerality regarding Nahua songs (in the Cantares Mexicanos), and the interpretation of Nahua linguistic imagery as metaphorical. Finally, the project analyzed Aztec social text practices and the materiality of their writing, problematic projections of theories from the orality-literacy debate, and indigenous concepts of representation and semiotics.

Based on these discussions, the study first proposed an interpretation of the indigenous semiotic theory. According to this interpretation, Aztec writing did not use arbitrarily chosen, abstract conventional symbols to represent linguistic thoughts. Rather, it used signs regarded as natural indexes of the depicted aspects of reality to communicate embodied knowledge about the underlying structures of reality (as the Aztec perceived them). In a second step, the project reflected recurring discursive patterns in the European history of (d)evaluating the Aztec writing system. Dominant European language and writing ideologies often declared rationality as the supreme human faculty to understand reality and, derivatively, alphabetical writing as the best expression of ultimate truth, owing to its capability to represent linguistic thoughts understood as mirroring the rational categories of external reality. Searching for an alternative approach to acknowledge Aztec pictography positively as an elaborate semiotic system, the study drew on the theory of embodied meaning developed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Examining the modus operandi of Aztec pictography closely, the study argues that Aztec painted texts are efficient means to communicate embodied conceptual metaphors, experiential knowledge, and body knowledge about the reality the Aztecs lived in.