FIGURE 12. Carved stone in the Dominican monastery of Cuilapan in the Valley of Oaxaca, with the Year 10 Reed (the number 10 is written as two bars above the AO year sign--a similar use of bar numbers can be seen on page 3 of the Codex Selden) juxtaposed with the date 1555. Photo by Byron Hamann.

FIGURE 12. Carved stone in the Dominican monastery of Cuilapan in the Valley of Oaxaca, with the Year 10 Reed (the number 10 is written as two bars above the AO year sign—a similar use of bar numbers can be seen on page 3 of the Codex Selden) juxtaposed with the date 1555. Photo by Byron Hamann.

By recognizing that Ñudzavui dates probably had symbolic associations, we can now consider the possible meanings of dates in the screenfolds. As early as 1902, in Zelia Nuttall’s commentary on the screenfold which bears her name, scholars have attempted to correlate the Ñudzavui calendar with the Gregorian calendar.17 This correlation is made possible due to the existence of several colonial-period documents in which both Ñudzavui and Gregorian dates are recorded side by side, such as those found in a carved stone in the Dominican monastery of Cuilapan in the Valley of Oaxaca (Figure 12). These paired dates are used as a starting point for counting backwards through the years, one 52 year cycle at a time—remember that the Ñudzavui calendar had no zero point.

However, this process of counting backwards is complicated by two factors. First, dates are recorded in screenfold narratives that are totally out of cyclical order compared with the dates appearing before and after them. Second, if the dates in the screenfolds are all truly “historical,” then all should appear with the same frequency; date distribution should be evenly spaced across the calendar. This does not occur. Certain dates appear too frequently in the screenfolds for their appearance to have been governed solely by the vicissitudes of historical chance.

These two phenomena are explained by suggesting that some dates might just be included for their symbolic meaning, and not for their chronological value. If, as suggested above, Ñudzavui dates had symbolic values comparable to those in other Mesoamerican cultures, and if the combinations of numbers and day signs could be read as a syllabary, then these “symbolic” dates might be included in a screenfold text to provide the performer with additional information from which to enrich his/her performance of the book’s imagery.

As an example, consider the Year 1 Reed, Day 1 Alligator. The most commonly appearing date in the screenfolds, it often appears at the beginnings of stories, In 1978, Jill Furst proposed that since this date was the first day in the calendrical cycle, its appearance might serve as a metaphor for “creation” and “origins.”18

Mark King, interpreting the day’s meaning using the ritual syllabary introduced above, corroborated this theory. The syllabic value for 1 is ca; that for Reed is huiyu; that for Alligator is quivui. By combining these syllables into words, he produced a “translation” of the day’s meaning that reads:

Thus begins the counting (cahui-yu) of days (ca-quivi);
Thus begins the reading (cahui-yu) of names (ca-cuivui).
Thus the fields (huiyu) are consumed (cayu) and sown anew (caqui);
Thus the fields (huiyu) are anointed (caqui) with rain.19

The Year 1 Reed, Day 1 Alligator may not merely be a symbol of origins, but may be read as an actual “litany” of creation and renewal. Note that while the readings of the symbolic values of dates are termed “captions,” their interpretation does not produce full fledged texts. Rather, they yield a series of poetically-related words that create a symbolic “map” of conceptual meanings for the performer to interpret—just as the Quiché daykeeper produces not a fixed statement but a series of words that map the outlines of the day’s meaning.

If at least some screenfold dates are symbolic, then what factors influenced the choice of dates recorded in the screenfolds? Three scenarios can be proposed. In the first, most dates were used as chronological markers, recording the dates on which events actually took place. Added to this framework of real time were a few symbolic dates, inserted by the scribe only when the meaning of the text would be made clearer by doing so.

In another scenario, it is possible that the artist of the screenfold could have assigned dates at will to all of historical events that were being painted, choosing and inserting dates based on their symbolic appropriateness for the events occurring. Such a theory would assume that the creation of a rich symbolic framework in which to record the events of the past was more important for the Ñudzavui elite than the creation of an accurate chronological framework for those same actions. However, since some important events are dated in the same way in different screenfolds, this possibility seems problematic. The scribes involved in painting a single screenfold were working within a regionally-shared historical tradition, in which certain key events were known to have taken place on particular dates.

But it is also possible that it was the symbolic properties of dates in the first place that determined when events took place in the past. Thus when an elite man or woman planned a marriage or an act of war, they may have first consulted a calendric specialist for advice on the most auspicious date on which to hold such an event. This is entirely comparable to the use of calendrics by the contemporary Quiché. This possibility suggests that many if not all dates in the screenfolds may have symbolic meanings; dates may be both chronological and symbolic at the same time.

The nature of Ñudzavui chronology is a complex topic, and the interested reader is referred to the following articles. Jill Furst’s “Year One Reed, Day One Alligator: A Mixtec Metaphor” and Maarten Jansen’s “Dates, Deities, and Dynasties: Non-Duational Time in the Mixtec Codices” outline non-linguistic theories of date symbolism. Mark King’s “Poetics and Metaphor in Mixtec Writing” and “Hearing the Echoes of Verbal Art in Mixtec Writing” present his controversial theory of syllabically-based date captioning. Chapter 11 of Bryan Dennis’ dissertation, Hypertext and The Mixtec Codices, summarizes the debate surrounding the validity of captioning theory. Maarten Jansen critiques captioning theories in his 1998 “Introduction” to In the Shadow of Monte Albán.

Text by Byron Hamann

17 Early attempts to correlate Ñudzavui and Gregorian calendars include Nuttall 1902; 11-15; Spinden 1935, 445-449; Jiménez-Moreno and Mateos Higuera 1940, 69-75; and Caso 1951, 49-66. Recent corrections of these correlations have been proposed by Emily Rabin (1974, 1976, 2004) and Byland and Pohl 1994, 234-264.

18 Furst 1978.

19 King 1990, 146.