Yuta Tnoho Tree Glyph

A collaboration of Bill Pascoe / Kaspar Paseko and Lucia Garces Torres.

This site provides tools and information to help interpret ancient Mixtec codices, focusing on the tree glyph in the Codex Yuta Tnoho. The codex, formerly known as Vindobonensis, is so named because the codex and the central tree glyph refers to the place Yuta Tnoho (in Ñuu Dzaui), also known as Santiago Apoala (in Spanish-Aztec).

This image of the glyph is from a facsimile of the Codex Yuta Tnoho. The facsimile was made by Agostino Aglio in 1825-1831 and is held in the British Museum. The original Codex Yuta Tnoho, was scribed circa 1500. There are some minor differences but a high resolution copy of the original, held at the Austrian National Library in Vienna, is not available. A low resolution copy of the original is available from FAMSI: Codex Yuta Tnoho (Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus), p37.

Background

Before Hernan Cortes arrived in Mexico in 1519 the Aztec, Maya and Mixtec civilisations were flourishing. Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire was 10 times larger than any city in Europe at the time. These civilisations had libraries full of richly illuminated manuscripts and codices. Of this literature only about 8 to 20 codices remain. These are among the worlds most precious manuscripts, not only because of their antiquity, beauty and rarity. They are documents of civilisations that developed for thousands of years in isolation from the civilisations of Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. These codices are examples of an artform not possible in Western colonisers' language and artistic techniques. The Codex Yuta Tnoho, formerly known as the Codex Vindobonensis (because it is held at the Library of Vienna), of the Mixtec civilisation is one of the finest yet least studied of the codices and the tree glyph seems of central importance to it.

The term 'Mixtec' comes from a Nahuatl (Aztec) word meaning 'people of the clouds'. The term Mixtec people use to refer to themselves in their own language is Ñuu Dzaui, meaning 'people of the rain', though the spelling and pronunciation varies as the region includes many languages. The term 'Ñuu' doesn't correspond exactly to the English word 'people' but has a broader meaning including 'place' and 'community'.

Reading Mixtec Writing

Mixtec writing presents numerous problems for interpretation.

Mixtec writing is an art possible only in pictoglyphic media, different to phonetic writing and visual art and irreducible to a combination of the two. Just as poets play on the multiple meanings of words, so too these scribes/artists/priests/poets played on the multiple meanings of images - a visual poetry.

Variations across codices depicting the same scenes indicate that a scribe's work was not to reproduce exact copies but that some leeway was allowed to depict specific scenarios according to their own skill and interpretation. Scribes were lauded as talented and valorised within codices and where ever there is any mention of them, such as Batz and Chouen in the Mayan Popul Vuh and post colonial records such as the Florentine Codex. While we can suppose strict adherence to what was being referred to, whether a ritual calendar, genealogy or myth, the scribe was probably expected to display their talent in expressing it - hence the variation, the lush and exquisite aestheticism, the intense and clever multilayered wordplay in the codices.

Writing involves combining repeatable signs in different contexts to create meanings. Mayan writing was recognised as unique among Precolumbian civilisations because of the ability to write 'anything that can be said' [Christensen, 'Introduction' Popul Vuh]. The Mayan heiroglyphic writing system was phonetic, where distinct marks correspond to specific sounds, augmented, like Chinese, with signs that disambiguate the meaning. Phonetic writing is often assumed to be the most advanced form of writing on a path of progress, but phonetic writing was not entirely suitable for the Mixtec region because of the wide diversity of languages there. This language variation is one of the reasons a rich pictographic writing system developed, as a purely phonetic writing system would not have been useful across a multilingual region. Purely phonetic writing in one town would not be easily understood in another. Augmenting many meaning making techniques was the best way to communicate.

The Mixtec codices have a serial writing system starting from the right, winding up and down and side to side along a path marked by red lines. Although there is a sequential order, the glyphs are highly complex, containing many non-linear symbolic elements and numbers which have multiple meanings. For example a glyph for rain may appear as part of a larger glyph and may indicate a place name, or a person's name, or a calendar date, or both, given that people were named by their birth dates, or it may be used phonetically to form a word with sounds similar to the word for 'rain', and so on. The glyph for 'rain' also contains the glyph for 'star' which may indicate sky, or alternatively brightness and so lightning.

While the semantic components of large glyphs, like the tree glyph in codex Yuta Tnoho, are presented non-linearly, this glyph is situated in the codex as part of a clear linear sequence. Because the glyph is pictographic it is easy to get a vague idea of what it is about - the emergence of someone from a tree - but because there isn't a clear one to one correspondence between symbol and word, sound or concept, we cannot decode or decipher it to obtain a complete and precise reading. To read it clearly, a prior knowledge of the myth represented would be necessary, with the glyph having a mnemonic function. At present we can only have a partial understanding of what the myth might have been, making inferences from other Precolumbian texts, from the codices, archaeology and what Ñuu Dzaui people know.

Interpreting Mixtec glyphs requires gaining some understanding of the local landscape, wildlife, food, conceptualisation of time, ritual, language and culture. Ñuu Dzaui people today have the best access to this kind of information. Some information in the codices is clear to anyone, such as when we see someone conducting a ritual, or fighting, but in other cases local knowledge is essential. A local might immediately recognise the hill of sand for example, because it's near their uncle's house, and offer some insight into the ritual, because they go to a contemporary ritual there every year [Workshop 3, Bodleian Conference]. Jansen and Jimenez point out the case of a disagreement over whether an insect is a fly or cicada because in some cases it is drawn like a fly, and in other case has shining wings like a cicada, but a local sees no contradiction because a certain fly with shining wings is well known in the region [Workshop 3, Bodleian Conference]. For this reason this website focuses on representing interpretations and providing tools and resources for reading and interpretation which we hope are as useful for Ñuu Dzaui people as the rest of the world.

None the less, making variant interpretations available is important not only because of the multiple layers of meaning in the texts, but also to avoid other pitfalls in interpretation. It might happen that one reader hazards a guess which is repeated in other literature as it is the only available interpretation, and simply because of it's prevalence, future readers may misapprehend that it's generally acknowledged as correct. Across such distances of time and space, we can never be sure if the interpretation is correct, so we hope to take advantage of the digital platform to allow for speculation and alternatives, even while presenting the most likely meaning.

The Yuta Tnoho Tree Glyph And The Popul Vuh

It's reasonable to think the stories of the various cultures of Mesoamerica may have had similarities or variations. We see many of the same Gods in artefacts. Jansen and Jiménez, for example write that, "At the same time Lady 1 Eagle seems to be the Mixtec equivalent of the Grandmother Ixmucané in the Popol Vuh and the primordial midwife Oxomoco of the Mexica." in The Mixtec Pictorial Manuscripts. While inferences may be drawn from one of these cultures to another, as they were contiguous across time and space, there are as many differences - just as there are similarities and differences among European countries from ancient to modern.

While the Popul Vuh is a Mayan myth, Mixtec and Mayan civilisations were geographically contiguous and contemporaneous. Many Mesoamerican writing systems have similar conventions, such as calendrical name tags. There is no reason to think these cultures, valuing literacy so highly did not share texts from their vast libraries. Soon after the conquest, the Aztecs are known to have presented codices from conquered regions to the Spaniards. A reader of the Popul Vuh can easily see the tree glyph in the Yuta Tnoho as a version of the central story in the Popul Vuh (What remains to us of the Popul Vuh myth, in which the game of Batey plays a central role, is from Francisco Ximenez' 1714 translation into Spanish of a Quiche Maya text.) This Mixtec heiroglyph appears to illustrate many episodes in the Popul Vuh so can be read as a version of it. That is the reason I personally first became interested in this particular glyph - when pouring over these strange and beautiful writings, struggling to understand anything beyond the name glyphs and arrows of conquest, I saw this glyph and felt the sudden revelatory experience that I could read the obscure meaning of this ancient text and was drawn on to read as much of it as I could - here, it seemed to me, in one elaborate glyph was the scene where Hunahpu and Xbalanque resurrect their father's head hanging in a tree. But this reading of the glyph also illustrates the pitfalls of reading what we wish to see, or reading what we are familiar with into a text when it may not be there. There are many ways in which the glyph can be misinterpreted as an episode from Popul Vuh.

Here was my (incorrect) reading:

Larger and more elaborate than many other glyphs and appearing at the center of the codex it seems to be of central importance, as an origin or turning point, in the middle of the codex, just as the scene in the Popul Vuh is in the middle, in each marking a turning point between mythical time and historic time. It doesn't denote a single thing or concept but is comprised of many interrelated elements. On the left is 7 Eagle and on the right is 7 Rain, as indicated by the numeric dots (Mixtec did not use a line for 5 as Mayans did) and calendar naming glyphs above their heads. Other readable elements are the feathers of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, that forms the floor of the underworld. The yokes the two figures wear show that they are players of the ball game Batey. The arrows on the right side of the tree represent conquest or vanquishing. When arrows are in a place name it indicates the place has been conquered. The decapitated head is typically related to rebirth in pre-Columbian mythology, and from the tree that grows from it, a being is born of ambiguous gender. Being red and emerging from a tree in the underworld, accompanied by a decapitated head and two batey players, it is difficult not to read this figure as 'Lady Blood', and the Batey players as either the brothers Hunahpu1 and Hunahpu7 or the hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque from the Popul Vuh. Other forms of significance are the colours yellow and red, which indicate the living matter of blood and flesh, and black and white for the ashes and bones of death. Some features of the glyph don't correspond to the Popul Vuh but this could be explained away as a local variant of the same myth.

The Yuta Tnoho just as clearly has very little to do with Popul Vuh except in the most general terms. Jansen and Jimenez point out that arrows are another word for 'rays' of light. The figure is clearly male and so not 'Lady Blood'. The head is not hanging in the tree like a Calabash half coated in flesh. The two characters are holding scribal implements, so are more likely scribes than Batey players, and this relates more to the meaning of the place Apoala, according to colonial sources, a place of 'recounting' or 'telling', than to anything else. The texture of the ground is comparable to other textures signifying cities and mountains, sand, and seems to Jansen and Jimenez, when related to other ground textures indicating mountains, rivers and cities, to be grassy plains, not the feathers of Quetzalcoatl forming the floor of the underworld.

...and yet, in other cases figures walk on the sky and the Precolumbian world is widely recognised as comprising 4 cardinal points across 3 layers, the earth, the sky and the underworld, and figures in the sky are certainly also depicted in the codices. Also, central to the Popul Vuh, and inferentially to Precolumbian literary theory and ritual, is the point that by reciting their father's words on their own breath, the hero twins resurrect him. It seems reasonable to think that there remains at least some connection between the Popul Vuh and this tree from which ancestors emerge naked at the place named for its scribes.

Aims and Purpose

In the middle of Codex Yuta Tnoho (formerly 'Codex Vindobonensis') is a glyph depicting a tree with a decapitated head, flanked by two main figures and with a couple emerging from it, apparently marking the juncture between mythic and historic time. What does it mean?

Answering this requires understanding something of the codex it appears in, the story it tells, the information it provides, the way the writing system works, ancient Mesoamerican civilisation, archaeology and history, early colonial sources, the environment the codex was made in and that it depicts, the language and the culture of the people that wrote it and the culture of their descendants, Ñuu Dzaui people today. A deep reading of this glyph helps understand not only the glyph itself but much else about the codices, language, art forms and culture it is part of and about ourselves in relation to.

This question will never be answered with finality. All things remain open to re-interpretation. The intention of this site and the IT tools available on it is not to provide a final and conclusive judgment of the meaning of this glyph. Our focus is on providing tools for interpretation and to remain always open to improvement and correction. An advantage of our digital humanities practice is that unlike a book, a digital or web publication can easily be changed. It can involve an ongoing process of experiment and improvement, changed and updated as new information becomes available, rather than needing to arrive at a final conclusion before publication.

We are greatly indebted to interpretative work of others, in particular Jansen & Jimenez, and others listed in the sources. Almost all the interpretation presented here is thanks to them, and we don't wish to misrepresent it as our own. We hope that this will help academic experts, Ñuu Dzaui people, and all of us to interpret, explain, understand and appreciate these codices.

For example, as well as the Scriptopict annotation of the tree glyph we aim to produce a dictionary of morphographemes (the smallest meaningful parts of pictoglyphs) in Mixtec codices, to aid in their reading. Such a dictionary was noted as lacking by leading Mixtec academic, Maarten Jansen at the Bodleian Library's 2016 conference, Mesoamerican manuscripts: new scientific approaches and interpretations. We hope this will be useful in reviving the writing system, enabling the production of new work in this unique artform, an activity that would most appropriately be lead by Ñuu Dzaui people.

This is an independent project not funded through any existing grant, nor as part of anyone's employment. We are doing it because it is worth doing. Any funding would be much appreciated to pay for artists to work on the dictionary and other tasks.

William Pascoe / Kaspar Paseko, 2017


Bibliography