Mesoamerican literature

The traditions of indigenous Mesoamerican literature extend back to the oldest-attested forms of early writing in the Mesoamerican region, which date from around the mid-1st millennium BCE. Many of the pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica are known to have been literate societies, who produced a number of Mesoamerican writing systems of varying degrees of complexity and completeness. Mesoamerican writing systems arose independently from other writing systems in the world, and their development represents one of the very few such origins in the history of writing.

The literature and texts created by indigenous Mesoamericans are the earliest-known from the Americas for primarily two reasons: Firstly the fact that the native populations of Mesoamerica were the first to enter into intensive contact with Europeans, assuring that many samples of Mesoamerican literature have been documented in surviving and intelligible forms. Secondly, the long tradition of Mesoamerican writing which undoubtedly contributed to the native Mesoamericans readily embracing the Latin alphabet of the Spaniards and creating many literary works written in it during the first centuries after the Spanish conquest of Mexico. This article summarizes current knowledge about indigenous Mesoamerican literatures in its broadest sense and describe it categorized by its literary contents and social functions.

A reproduction of the original page 13 of the Codex Borbonicus, showing elements of an almanac associated with the 13th trecena of the tonalpohualli, the Aztec version of the 260-day Mesoamerican calendar.

Precolumbian literature

When defining literature in its broadest possible sense including all products of "literacy", what becomes primarily interesting about a literate community is the manner in which literacy and literature is used. Which topics are chosen to be written and spoken about? And why did they do it? Which genres of literature are found in Mesoamerica? The answer to this question is complex and is the topic of the rest of this article that will try to describe and resume what is known about the genres and functions of indigenous Mesoamerican literatures.

Three major subjects of Mesoamerican literatures can be identified:

Pictorial vs. linguistic literature

Geoffrey Sampson distinguishes between two kinds of writing. One kind of writing he calls Semasiographical, this covers kinds of pictorial or ideographic writing that is not necessarily connected to phonetic language but can be read in different languages, this kind of writing is for example used in roadsigns which can be read in any language. The other kind of writing is phonetic writing called by Sampson Glottographic writing and which represents the sounds and words of languages and allows accurate linguistic readings of a text that is the same at every reading.[1] In Mesoamerica the two types were not distinguished, and so writing, drawing, and making pictures were seen as closely related if not identical concepts. In both the Mayan and Aztec languages there is one word for writing and drawing ((tlàcuiloa in Nahuatl and tz'iib' in Classic Maya)) Pictures are sometimes read phonetically and texts meant to be read are sometimes very pictorial in nature. This makes it difficult for modern day scholars to distinguish between whether an inscription in a Mesoamerican script represents spoken language or is to be interpreted as a descriptive drawing. The only Mesoamerican people known without doubt to have developed a completely glottographic or phonetic script is the Maya, and even the Mayan script is largely pictorial and often shows fuzzy boundaries between images and text. Scholars disagree on the phoneticity of other Mesoamerican scripts and iconographic styles, but many show use of the Rebus principle and a highly conventionalised set of symbols.

Monumental Inscriptions

An Monumental inscription in Maya hieroglyphics from the site of Naranjo, relating to the reign of king Itzamnaaj K'awil

The monumental inscriptions were often historical records of the citystates: Famous examples include:

The function of these kinds of historical inscriptions also served to consoliate the power of the rulers who used them also as a kind of propaganda testimonies to their power. Most commonly monumental hieroglyphocal texts describe:

Renowned epigrapher David Stuart writes about the differences in content between the monumental hieroglyphical texts of Yaxchilan and those of Copan:

"The major themes of the known Yaxchilan monuments are war, dance, and bloodletting rituals, with several records of architectural dedicatory rites." Most of the records of wars and dances accompany scenes of the rulers, who are featured prominently in all of the texts. Copán's texts have a far lesser emphasis on historical narrative. The stelae of the great plaza, for example, are inscribed with dedicatory formulae that name the ruler as "owner" of the monument, but they seldom if ever record any ritual or historical activity. Birth dates at Copán are virtually nonexistent, as also are records of war and capture. The Copán rulers therefore lack some of the personalized history we read in the texts of newer centers in the western lowlands, such as Palenque, Yaxchilan, and Piedras Negras." (David Stuart )
A page of the Precolumbian Mayan Dresden Codex


See also Mayan codices and Aztec codices for fuller descriptions of the different codices.

A number of Precolumbian codices written on amate paper with gesso coating remain today.

Historical narratives
Astronomical, calendrical and ritual texts

Of disputed authenticity:

Other texts

Some common household objects of ceramics or bone and adornments of jade have been found with inscriptions. For example, drinking vessels with the inscription saying "The Cacao drinking cup of X" or similar.

Postconquest literatures written in Latin script

Page of the Florentine Codex (ca 1580)showing Nahuatl written with Latin script

The largest part of the Mesoamerican literature today known has been fixed in writing after the Spanish conquest. Both Europeans and Mayans began writing down local oral tradition using the Latin alphabet to write in indigenous languages shortly after the conquest. Many of those Europeans were monks and priests who in trying to convert the natives to Christianity and translate holy scriptures acquired a good grasp of the indigenous languages and often even composed grammars and dictionaries of the indigenous languages. These early grammars of native languages systematized the reading and writing of indigenous languages in their own time and help us understand them today. The most widely known early grammars and dictionaries are of the Aztec language, Nahuatl. Famous examples are the works written by Alonso de Molina and Andrés de Olmos. But also Mayan and other Mesoamerican languages have early grammars and dictionaries, some of very high quality. The introduction of the Latin alphabet and the elaboration of conventions for writing indigenous languages allowed for the subsequent creation of a wide range of texts. And indigenous writers took advantage of the new techniques to document their own history and tradition in the new writing, while monks kept on extending literacy in the indigenous population. This tradition lasted only a few centuries however and due to royal decrees about Spanish being the only language of the Spanish empire by the mid-1700s most indigenous languages were left without a living tradition for writing. Oral literatures however kept being transmitted to this day in many indigenous languages and began to be collected by ethnologists in the beginnings of the 20th century, however without promoting native language literacy in the communities in which they worked. It is an important and extremely difficult job in the Mesoamerica of today, and what that is only beginning to be undertaken, to return native language literacy to the indigenous peoples.

But during the first post-conquest centuries a large number of texts in indigenous Mesoamerican languages were generated.

Historic accounts

Many of the postconquest texts are historical accounts, either in the form of annals recounting year by year the events of a people or citystate often based on pictorial documents or oral accounts of aged community members. But also sometimes personalized literary accounts of the life of a people or state and almost always incorporating both mythical material and actual history. There was no formal distinction between the two in Mesoamerica. Sometimes as in the case of the Mayan Chilam Balam books historical accounts also incorporated prophetical material, a kind of history in advance.



Administrative documents

The postconquest situation of the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica also required them to learn to navigate in a complex new administrative system. In order to obtain any kinds of favourable positions pleas and petitions had to be made to the new authorities and land possessions and heritages had to be proven. This resulted in a large corpus of administrative literature in indigenous languages, because documents were often written in the native language first and later translated into Spanish. These administrative documents include a large number of:

Mythological narratives

The most extensively researched Mesoamerican indigenous literature is the literature containing mythological and legendary narratives. The styles of these books is often very poetic and appealing to modern aesthetic senses both because of the poetic language and its "mystical", exotic contents. It is also of interest to establish intertextuality between cultures. While many do include actual historic events the mythological texts can often be distinguished by focusing on claiming a mythical source to power by tracing the lineage of a people to some ancient source of power. (Pedro Carrasco)


Some famous collections of Aztec poetry have been conserved. Although written in the late 16th century they are believed to be fairly representative of the actual style of poetry used in precolumbian times. Many of the poems are attributed to named Aztec rulers such as Nezahualcoyotl. Because the poems were transcribed at a later date, scholars dispute whether these are the actual authors. Many of the mythical and historical texts also have poetic qualities.

Aztec poetry

Mayan poetry


Ethnographic accounts

Florentine Codex (Bernardino de Sahagúns masterpiece of an Ethnographic account contained in 12 volumes) Coloquios y doctrina Christiana (also known as the Bancroft dialogues. Describing the first dialogues between Aztecs and monks preaching Christianity)

Collections of disparate treatises

Not all specimina of native literature can be readily classified. A prime example of this are the Yucatec Mayan Books of Chilam Balam, mentioned above for their historical content, but also containing treatises on medical lore, astrology, etc. Although clearly belonging to Maya literature, they are profoundly syncretic in nature.

Oral literatures


Jokes and riddles


Nahuatl songs by

Ritual speech


  1. Sampson


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