Heaven and Earth in Ancient Mexico: Astronomy and Seasonal Cycles in the Codex Borgia

Overview

The Codex Borgia, a masterpiece that predates the Spanish conquest of central Mexico, records almanacs used in divination and astronomy. Within its beautifully painted screenfold pages is a section (pages 29–46) that shows a sequence of enigmatic pictures that have been the subject of debate for more than a century. Bringing insights from ethnohistory, anthropology, art history, and archaeoastronomy to bear on this passage, Susan Milbrath presents a convincing new interpretation of Borgia 29–46 as a narrative of ...

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Heaven and Earth in Ancient Mexico: Astronomy and Seasonal Cycles in the Codex Borgia

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Overview

The Codex Borgia, a masterpiece that predates the Spanish conquest of central Mexico, records almanacs used in divination and astronomy. Within its beautifully painted screenfold pages is a section (pages 29–46) that shows a sequence of enigmatic pictures that have been the subject of debate for more than a century. Bringing insights from ethnohistory, anthropology, art history, and archaeoastronomy to bear on this passage, Susan Milbrath presents a convincing new interpretation of Borgia 29–46 as a narrative of noteworthy astronomical events that occurred over the course of the year AD 1495–1496, set in the context of the central Mexican festival calendar.

In contrast to scholars who have interpreted Borgia 29–46 as a mythic history of the heavens and the earth, Milbrath demonstrates that the narrative documents ancient Mesoamericans' understanding of real-time astronomy and natural history. Interpreting the screenfold's complex symbols in light of known astronomical events, she finds that Borgia 29–46 records such phenomena as a total solar eclipse in August 1496, a November meteor shower, a comet first sighted in February 1496, and the changing phases of Venus and Mercury. She also shows how the narrative is organized according to the eighteen-month festival calendar and how seasonal cycles in nature are represented in its imagery. This new understanding of the content and purpose of the Codex Borgia reveals this long-misunderstood narrative as the most important historical record of central Mexican astronomy on the eve of the Spanish conquest.

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What People Are Saying

Anne Cassidy
The Codex Borgia is one of the most important works of art to have survived the conquest of Mexico, and the enigmatic middle chapter that Milbrath is interpreting is the most beautiful and least understood part of the codex. There's very little published about this chapter in any language, much less English. . . . Her argument that the middle chapter combines a record of a particular solar year's astronomical events, human ritual events, and earthly natural history (weather, pests, crops) is a beautiful idea that might be correct. Even if it isn't correct, it is worth thinking about because it throws a new light from a new angle on some old hoary theory. It throws a lot of other assumptions about the Codex Borgia into question, which is always exciting. It's the synthesis and the overarching interpretation of that middle passage that make this book beautiful and valuable.
Anne Cassidy, Associate Professor of Art History, Carthage College
Anne Cassidy
The Codex Borgia is one of the most important works of art to have survived the conquest of Mexico, and the enigmatic middle chapter that Milbrath is interpreting is the most beautiful and least understood part of the codex. There’s very little published about this chapter in any language, much less English. . . . Her argument that the middle chapter combines a record of a particular solar year’s astronomical events, human ritual events, and earthly natural history (weather, pests, crops) is a beautiful idea that might be correct. Even if it isn’t correct, it is worth thinking about because it throws a new light from a new angle on some old hoary theory. It throws a lot of other assumptions about the Codex Borgia into question, which is always exciting. It’s the synthesis and the overarching interpretation of that middle passage that make this book beautiful and valuable.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Susan Milbrath is Curator of Latin American Art and Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History and Affiliate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida. She also authored Star Gods of the Maya: Astronomy in Art, Folklore, and Calendars.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Tables
Preface
1. Context and Calendars in the Codex Borgia
2. Seasonal Veintena Festivals in Central Mexico
3. The Sun, the Moon, and Eclipses in the Borgia Group
4. Planetary Events in the Codex Borgia
5. Astronomy and Natural History in the Codex Borgia
Notes
Glossary
Bibliography
Index
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