Indigenous Natural History in the “Aztec Encyclopedia”

Friday, January 5, 2018: 9:30 AM
Diplomat Ballroom (Omni Shoreham)
Iris Montero Sobrevilla, Brown University
Why did the Mexica—or Aztecs—choose a hummingbird, the tiniest avian creature, as their main deity, the solar god Huitzilopochtli? This talk tackles this question through a close reading of an unlikely source, a sixteenth century “encyclopedia.” The highly mediated Colonial manuscript from Central Mexico, otherwise known as the Florentine Codex, is three books in one: a Nahuatl narration, its Spanish partial translation, and a visual record of Aztec life before the arrival of Europeans in the form of more than 2,000 images. Scientists, biologists and physicians primarily, have long emphasized the empirical and material impulse behind the Codex by comparing it to Pliny’s Naturalis Historia and, indeed, by labeling it an “encyclopedia.” Meanwhile, art historians and ethnohistorians have emphasized its qualities beyond representation and have seen it as a living text, an object where matter and meaning work together and have the potential of rendering it a subject. Focusing on the case of the deification of the hummingbird, I offer a third possibility: a reading that emphasizes both the empirical vein of the naturalist tradition of the Mexica and the preeminence of visual thinking for conveying those findings. I contend that through its rich triple discourse, the “Aztec encyclopedia” reveals the centrality of the hummingbird not in the book on deities, but in its cross-referencing with the books on nature.
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