The Codex Mendoza
fol. 070r: Advice on Respectable Careers for Young Men, Contrasted With Examples of Wasted Lives
Aztec Manuscript Created under Colonial (Spanish) Supervision (1541)
What you are looking at is a section of the Codex Mendoza that is meant to depict the “daily lives” of the Mexica/Aztec people. The majority of Aztec books were purposely destroyed by the Spanish, and “approved” re-creations or copies were created by indigenous artists and writers, under Spanish supervision and pending their approval of the contents.
Even those these copies are obviously adulterated, many academics seem content to extrapolate on manuscripts like these as a completely accurate portrayal of pre-colonial peoples in the Americas. The ideas pervasive in pop culture about the indigenous people of Central America is shaped by these works, meant to glorify the colonial objectives of conversion to Christianity, ‘civilizing’ native peoples, and presenting themselves and their actions in a positive or justified light.
The images above read very much like a “Goofus and Gallant" style etiquette manual from the 1950s, and you could wonder whether such a binary system of valuation and morality was inherent to Mexica/Aztec culture, or if it was imposed on traditional beliefs by the colonizers.
Description of the images and actions above:
(1) (upper) At the centre, a ‘Father who counsels his son to be virtuous and not roam about as a vagabond’. On either side, the honorable careers of messenger (left) and singer-musician (right).
(2) (upper middle) On the left, in the ‘house where they assemble for public works’, sits the majordomo, who asks the two seated youths to perform services with digging-sticks and baskets: they weep at the prospect.
Bad examples for the youths are depicted on the right: (clockwise) a vagabond with twisted feet and hands, a ball player who bounces a rubber ball from his hip, a ‘player of patolli, which is like dice’ (gambling perhaps with his clothes), and a thief.
(3) (lower half). On the left, five scenes of artisans teaching their trades to their sons: a carpenter shaping wood with an axe; a lapidary polishing a green stone with a cane tool; a codex-painter (tlacuilo) illustrating a document in red and black; a metalworker blowing to raise the temperature in his brazier for melting gold; and a featherworker preparing coloured feathers for application, his son helping with needle and thread.
On the right, by contrast, are two further bad examples: the large standing figure, with a glyph of two snakes’ heads above his head, is marked in Spanish ‘person with a vicious tongue, and a gossiper’. Below, ‘the vice of drunkenness leads to thieving’: a man and woman sit on either side of a looted coffer drinking pulque, its potency to be enhanced by the rope-like quapatli root on the right.
Further context and history of the manuscript:
A picture-book of European paper and format, with images painted by a native artist and annotated in Spanish, probably for Don Antonio de Mendoza, first Viceroy of New Spain (1535-50), and most likely in the early 1540s. Acquired no later than 1553 by the French cosmographer André Thevet (d. 1592).
The manuscript is arranged in three parts: I A pictorial history of the Aztec emperors and their conquests from 1325 to 1521 (fols. 1r-16v). Between Parts I and II is an intermediate section (fols. 17v-18r), not belonging clearly to either. II An illustrated catalogue of the annual tribute paid by the towns of the empire to the last emperor, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, also known as Montezuma II (fols. 18v-55r). III An illustrated account of Aztec life-cycles, male and female, from birth to death (fols. 56v-71v).