Logo Universität Heidelberg Logo Institut für Religionswissenschaft

Aztec Sacred Scripture?
A Search for the Nahua Sense of Reality

Research Results

  Laack, Isabel: Aztec Religion and Art of Writing.
  Investigating Embodied Meaning, Indigenous Semiotics,
  and the Nahua Sense of Reality
(Numen Book Series 161),
  Leiden: Brill 2019.

The highly developed Aztec civilization 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 evolutionarily primitive and preliminary stage of writing, owing to its nonphonographic nature. Taking off from recent alternative approaches to acknowledge Aztec writing as a highly efficient system of visual communication, the project set out to more closely examine the modus operandi and semiotic theory of Aztec scribal art.

For this, the study first expanded common representations of Aztec "culture," "religion," and "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, the person, and identity as well as Aztec ontology, epistemology, pragmatism, aesthetics, semiotics, and theory of language. In doing so, the study reexamined crucial and controversial issues discussed in the academic literature, among them the internal diversity of Aztec culture and religion, the Indigenous concept of divinity, the ontological dualism versus monism and transcendence versus immanence in the 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 own 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, the Aztec did not write with arbitrarily chosen, conventional abstract symbols to represent linguistic thoughts. Rather, they used signs regarded as natural indexes of the depicted aspects of reality to communicate embodied knowledge about the underlying structures of reality (as the Aztecs perceived them). In a second step, the project reflected on 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 for understanding reality and, derivatively, alphabetical writing as the best expression of ultimate truth, owing to its ability 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 an efficient means for communicating embodied conceptual metaphors and experiential and body knowledge about the reality the Aztecs lived in.


Boone, Elizabeth H.: Stories in Red and Black. Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and Mixtecs, Austin, TX, 2000.
Boone, Elizabeth H.: Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate, Austin, TX, 2007.
Boone, Elizabeth H., and Walter D. Mignolo (eds.): Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica & the Andes, Durham, NC, 1994.
Boone, Elizabeth H., and Gary Urton (eds.): Their Way of Writing: Scripts, Signs, and Pictographies in Pre-Columbian America, Washington, D.C., 2011.
Carrasco, Davíd, and Scott Sessions (ed.): Cave, City, and Eagle's Nest: An Interpretive Journey through the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan No. 2, Albuquerque, NM, 2007.
Johnson, Mark: The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, Chicago, 2007.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson: Metaphors We Live By, Chicago (1980) 2003.