The Pre-Columbian literature: Aztecs, Mayans, Incas

Before the arrival of the Spanish medieval culture from 1492 on, the peoples of America had their own literature. This can be affirmed by accepting the concept of literature as including all written expression.

Unfortunately, that Pre-Columbian literature was almost totally destroyed, as part of the effort to impose the invading culture. There remains very little, of those Aztec, Mayan and Inca writings that we can read and analyze, both in their original language and in translations into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French and English.

Aztec literature: Codex Yoalli Ehēcatl (Borgia)

Codex Yoalli Ehēcatl is made of animal skins folded into 39 sheets. Each sheet is a 27cm by 27cm square. All but the final pages are painted on both sides, that is, there are 76 pages that read from right to left.

It is one of the few codices that survive from before the Spanish conquest of Mexico. It was found southwest of Puebla. It is arranged in a screen fold, the sheets of skin of which are joined together as one long strip, and then folded back and forth.

The images were painted on both sides, toughened leather is used as the final pieces by gluing the first and last strips together to create a cover.

It is named after the Italian Cardinal Stefano Borgia, who owned it before it was acquired by the Vatican Library.

Codex Xolotl

Created before 1542, shortly after the conquest and written in Nahuatl, Codex Xolotl details the history prior to the conquest of the Valley of Mexico and Texcoco in particular, from the arrival of the Chichimecas under King Xolotl in 1224, to the Tepanec War. in 1427.

pre-Columbian literature

It describes the migration of Xolotl and Chichimeca to the valley inhabited by the Toltecs. It consists of six tables of 42 cm x 48 cm, with ten pages and three fragments of one or more pages. It was first brought to Europe in 1840, by the French scientist Joseph Marius Alexis Aubin. It is currently in the National Library of France in Paris.

Romances and poems of Nezahualcóyotl

Also called Cantares Mexicanos, the name is given to a collection of manuscripts in Nahuatl, with 91 poems written in the 16th century. The songs form the largest known collection of Nahuatl songs.

pre-Columbian literature

It is currently in the National Library of Mexico in Mexico City. First, the Mexican scholar Ángel María Garibay Kintana translated a large part of the Songs into Spanish, then Miguel León-Portilla completed the translation in two volumes, published by the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1965. Twenty years later John Bierhorst published an English translation, titled Songs of the Aztecs.

Mayan literature: Codex Dresden

Codex Dresden was written by the indigenous peoples of the Yucatan Peninsula in southeastern Mexico, around 1200 AD.. It played a key role in the decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphics, as it contains precise astronomical tables, which correlate with lunar eclipses and the movements of the planet Venus.

It shows a ritual calendar of 260 days, and religious references to the tradition of the Mayan New Year ceremony.

The codex was sent to King Carlos V by Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of Mexico. From there it went to Vienna, to be rediscovered in the city of Dresden, hence his name. It is currently in the museum of the State Library of Saxony, Germany.

Paris Codex

The Paris Codex was painted in western Yucatán, probably in Mayapán. It is very poorly preserved and has suffered considerable damage to the edges of the page, which has caused the loss of some of the text.

pre-Columbian literature

It relates largely to a 20-year cycle of thirteen k’atuns and includes details of Maya astronomical signs, which date it to between AD 731 and AD 987.

It is currently in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, in the Département des Manuscrits.

Madrid or Tro-Cortesianus Codex

The Tro-Cortesianus Codex is owned by the Museo de América in Madrid and is considered the most important piece in its collection.

It is the most extensive of those listed, and its content consists mainly of almanacs and horoscopes used to assist Mayan priests in the performance of their divinatory ceremonies and rituals.

pre-Columbian literature

It has images that represent rituals, such as human sacrifice and the invocation of rain, as well as daily activities such as beekeeping, hunting, war and weaving.

It also contains astronomical tables, although fewer than those found in the other two surviving Maya codices.

The Annals of the Cakchiquels (Xahil, Tecpán-Atitlán, or Sololá)

It is a manuscript written in Kaqchikel by Francisco Hernández Arana Xajilá in 1571, and completed by his grandson, Francisco Rojas, in 1604.

It is a compilation of the legends of the Kaqchikel nation, including its history and mythology, which must have been preserved orally for centuries.

The narrative recounts the exploits of kings and warriors and their various conquests, the founding of villages, and the succession of rulers up to the time of the Spanish conquest. It is considered an important historical document on the post-classic Mayan civilization in the highlands of Guatemala.

Books of Chilam Balam

These texts were written by hand in the Yucatec Mayan language, but using the Latin alphabet of the 17th and 18th centuries.

In them knowledge is preserved, where the traditions of the indigenous Mayans and the ancient Spaniards come together.

Nine books are known; the most important of them are those by Chumayel, Mani and Tizimin, which mention Chilam Balam as their first author. Some contain prophecies about the arrival of the Spanish in Yucatán, but others are quite practical medical texts.

Rabinal Achi

This is a play written in the k’iche’ Mayan language and performed annually in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, Guatemala.

It is one of the few pieces of theater written before colonization, being a combination of movement, song, and instrumentation, with colorful costumes and wooden masks to differentiate the characters as they play their roles.

In 2005, it was declared by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Popol Vuh

The Popol Vuh narrates the mythology and history of the K’iche, who lived before the Spanish arrival in the Guatemalan highlands northwest of the current city.

The text was originally preserved through oral tradition until the year 1550, when the original was written, which was lost or destroyed. But thanks to the Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez, who made a copy in 1714 of the original text translated into Spanish, the work reached our days.

The Popol Vuh includes the Mayan creation myth of the hero twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, who defeat the Beings of the Underworld in a ball game.

Currently the Father Ximénez manuscript is in the Newberry Library, located in Washington Square in Chicago, Illinois.

Inca Literature

The Inca civilization occupied, between the 13th and 16th centuries, the Tahuantinsuyo. Currently, these are the territories of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.

Unlike the Aztecs and aayas, the Incas did not develop a writing system. This has made it difficult to recover the historical memory prior to the arrival of the Spanish. For this reason, the work of chroniclers or writers was necessary, who compiled more than a century of pre-Hispanic Inca history, since in that pre-Columbian era there was a rich oral tradition.

The chroniclers had the task of listening to stories in the original languages, mostly Quechua, Aymara and Chanka, to later transcribe them into Spanish. Thanks to them, many stories, religious poetry and Inca legends have reached the current generations.

For this reason, Inca literature is made up of chronicles written by European authors, who must have interpreted a vision of the world totally different from the one they knew, including the oral nature of the information.

We must take into account that the time elapsed between the fact and its registration has created many contradictions in the stories.

Over the years, and as colonization progressed, mestizo and indigenous chroniclers appeared who continued the work of historical documentation, in addition to describing their vicissitudes as a conquered people, reflecting nostalgia for a glorious past and anguish for an uncertain present.

The Inca peoples had, like the Spanish, their own minstrels or troubadours, called haravicus and amautas. They were orators and storytellers who toured the towns interpreting legends, myths and religious songs.

The haravicus were poets who sang songs where they told their stories, and the amautas were prose writers, who composed plays (comedies and tragedies).

In both cases, at the request of their audiences, they narrated the supposed feats of kings and queens, in their official or courtly and also popular versions, with prayers, hymns, narrative poems, plays and songs, for and against the rulers.

For this reason, oral Pre-Columbian literature was anonymous, and the names of its authors disappeared over time from the minds of the reporters.

Agrarian themes were common, since the social activity of the town revolved around agriculture, dedicating many songs to praise their agricultural gods.

On the other hand, the haravicus and amautas transmitted knowledge about astronomy, religious rituals, philosophy and natural sciences. They mixed elements of nature, such as the earth and the stars, with divinities without making any distinction, including the personification of Mother Earth in the figure of Pachamama.

The most prominent chroniclers and narrators were:

The Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616)

This mestizo Peruvian writer was the son of the Spanish captain Sebastián Garcilaso de la Vega y Vargas and the Indian princess Isabel Chimpu Ocllo. She was the granddaughter of Túpac Yupanqui, one of the last Inca emperors. In his work “Royal Commentaries” (1608), he recounts the history of the Inca civilization from its origins to the arrival of the first conquerors.

Titu Cusi Yupanqui (1529-1570)

His Spanish name was Diego de Castro. He wrote the “Relation of the conquest of Peru”, a direct and impassioned defense of the original peoples, inspired by the abusive treatment of the natives by the Spanish ruler.

Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala (?-1615)

He wrote “Nueva Crónica y Buen Gobierno”, which describes the Inca culture from the beginning to the conquest, where he recounts the suffering and privations of the Incas, his people, traveling through the Viceroyalty of Peru recording their experiences.



  • Cesar Leo Marcus

    Cesar Leo Marcus was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Doctor (PhD) in International Logistics and Foreign Trade, and Master (MBA) in Economic Sociology, he was professor of both chairs at the Universities of Madrid (Spain) and Cordoba (Argentina). A journalist, he publishes in newspapers in California, Miami, and New York. He is a writer, he published twelve books, and a literary editor, director of Windmills Editions. He currently resides in California.

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