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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Codex Nuttall: Hooked On Boustrophedonics!

Posted by John Holbo on 01/30/08 at 09:13 AM

I’ve been browsing - rereading would, I guess be too strong a word - my dear old Dover edition of the The Codex Nuttall. I mention this because I recently found a fine site. A German publisher that has brought out a line of facsimiles of ancient Mesoamerican ‘codices’ has made them available online. I would dearly love to have one (I’m sure they are rather expensive); because, if you don’t know, the originals aren’t really ‘books’. They are screenfolds - that is, very long, accordion-folding, two sided, illustrated ... picturebook, call them what you will: screenfolds. Courtesy of wikipedia, a picture of the Codex Nuttall (a.k.a. the Codex Zouche-Nuttall) in the British Museum.


The screenfold is 94 pages, folded. Over 11 meters, unfolded. The online images are ok for viewing (though one always wishes the file sizes were bigger). You read from right to left, boustrophedonically - that is, as the bull ploughs. The red dividing lines visible on most of the pages - this one, for example - are, indeed, panel dividers. Obviously I am attracted to this stuff because it’s comics. (At least I’m predictable. ) From the Introduction to the Dover edition I learn that the church authorities in Rome examined the codex and concluded: “the document was probably intended for the amusement of children but was so foolish that it could only bore them”. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, another anecdote. Sometimes comics-folk try to make out that the Bayeux Tapestry is an early, if not the earliest, example of the ‘comic’ form - what Scott McCloud calls ‘sequential visual art’. Obviously these codices fit into that media scheme, and they are older than the tapestry (but not as old as all the Egyptian stuff). Anyway, apparently John Constable - yes, the landscape painter - agreed. In 1833 he gave a lecture on the history of painting, in which he singled out the Bayeux Tapestry as the absolute nadir of visual art. Or rather, almost the worst. Apparently he had seen a reproduction of certain ‘Mexican codices’ and had to admit they were, indeed, worse than the tapestry.

Elsewhere on the FAMSI site (that hosts the codices) there is a fine and highly informative discussion by one John Pohl. I’ll quote his summary the narrative content of of one side of the screenfold:

Nuttall reverse begins on page 42 with an account of 8 Deer’s parentage, his early conquests, and his meetings with oracles and other powerful personages who were instrumental in his rise to power. The story continues with the tragic death of his brother, 12 Movement, and a resurgence of the conflict between Tilantongo, 8 Deer’s kingdom, and Red and White Bundle, an age-old rival. Ultimately on page 81, we see Lord 12 Movement being stabbed to death in a sweatbath. Offerings are then made to his mummified remains under the supervision of 8 Deer himself on page 82. War is declared and 8 Deer attacks Red and White Bundle on page 83. It is here that 8 Deer captures the young Prince 4 Wind, son of his rival Lady Six Monkey. Four Wind was either spared by 8 Deer or he escaped. His complete biography after this event appears in Codex Bodley, pages 34-28. Codex Nuttall concludes on page 83-84 with the execution of Lords 10 Dog and 6 House, 8 Deer’s two half-nephews. Lord 10 Dog is shown tied to a stone and performing a gladiatorial combat against two jaguar warriors, while Lord 6 House has been strapped to a scaffold and is being shot with arrows by a priest wearing the ritual dress of a death deity. Nuttall obverse pages 1-8 relates the saga of Lord Eight Wind, ancestor of the dynasties of Tilantongo and Jaltepec. The story then shifts to an account of Lady 3 Flint and her daughter, pages 14-20. Nuttall pages 22-35 describe genealogical relations between Tilantongo, Teozacoalco, and Zaachila.

You gotta love the names. Pohl provides some genuinely helpful introductory discussion of how to read these things. You actually start to appreciate what the hell you are looking at, which is rather satisfactory. But this made me chuckle:

The Mixtec Group codices portray the histories of divine gods and heroes together with over twenty-five generations of kings and queens who claimed to be descended from them. Despite the fact that hieroglyphic writing systems rooted in Maya, Zapotec, Mixe-Zoque, and other languages had been employed in Mesoamerica in earlier times, the Mixtecs as well as the Aztecs prefered to use pictographs, representational signs that could be understood at some basic level no matter what language the reader actually spoke. Some scholars even compare them to cartoons.

Yeah. And some people even compare Harry Potter novels to books. OK, that’s unfair. But the distancing implied by the ‘even’ risks confusion that is worth clearing away. Pohl is at risk of committing an error I’ve talked about before - which Scott McCloud points out, and Douglas Wolk points out as well. It is necessary to distinguish ‘comics’ as a name for a medium from ‘comics’ (or ‘cartoons’) as a name for some or other genre. There is no question at all that these codices - narratives told through sequential images - are, formally, comics. Everything fits and nothing doesn’t fit. Genre is another matter. Resistance to identifying the genre of these works with, say, the Sunday comics, leads to a needless hesitancy to just come out and say it - these works are comics: an utterly familiar medium. This failure to come out and say how familiar the medium is, right down to the panel dividers, causes little errors to crop up. For example, the Arthur G. Miller introduction to the Dover edition of the Nuttall. Various formal elements are puzzled over and tentatively put down to Mesoamerican metaphysics or thought-ways. “Clearly, the screenfold format was devised as a solution to the need of non-Western, nonlineal paterns of thought.” Because you can view large segments all at once - that is, you can take it in as one whole - or else read it. But obviously lots of comics work that way. Also, always with the big heads. And the taste for busy panels. And the insistence that every character should have some distinctive ornament associated with him or her. These are tentatively attributed to a Mixtec sense for this or that. But Charles Schulz drew some big heads. Lots of people don’t like too much white space. And giving every character some distinctive ornament - an S on the chest, say - is not necessarily a peculiarly Mixtec sensibility.

I’m probably reaching to find minor slips. But it seems so simple to say: these are works in a familiar genre - semi-mythic dynastic history; in a familiar medium - comics. But we aren’t used to seeing this genre in this medium. And, picking up my copy of Understanding Comics, I see that McCloud has not just made this point before. He’s made exactly this point before.


The Dover edition of the Nuttall [amazon] - which is actually a reproduction of a 1902 facsimile - is quite nice and, of course, inexpensive; like all Dover books.

Since this is the Valve, I’ll close with some images of mysterious sea creatures - including some of an apparently valvular nature - generally swimming about:


(Over at J&B I posted a picture of my favorite Nuttall character, who really belongs in a Simpsons episode.)


L.A. has part of the Codes Nuttall done in tiles as a mural on a health center.  The imagery is widespread, and turns up in various modified forms. Here’s a version that has at the bottom the same sea creatures that you posted a picture of.

By on 01/30/08 at 12:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As cheap as $57 for the Codex Borbonicus.

“Boustrophedonic” means starting in one direction and then reversing at the end of the furrow, R L R L etc.

Ethiopians also have comic strip Bible stories.

By John Emerson on 01/30/08 at 03:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

An accordion-folded codex is a book, isn’t it?

By on 01/30/08 at 07:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"An accordion-folded codex is a book, isn’t it?”

Well, yes and no. I just think it would be cool to be able to unfold the whole 11 meters and gaze at it.

By John Holbo on 01/30/08 at 10:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ethiopians also have comic strip Bible stories

So do Americans

By on 01/31/08 at 07:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The best undergraduate course I ever had was focused on the general methodological problems of dealing with the history of non-Western and colonized peoples--one of the things we read was the Codex Nuttall, in the first run without any accompanying commentary--just the question, “What can you or should you make of this if you don’t have any other information?”

By Timothy Burke on 01/31/08 at 09:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s funny, Tim. Because that’s also the best undergraduate course I ever TA’ed. It was a sprawling “World Civilizations” survey, but I had the bright idea of giving my kids some Mesoamerican pictographs and told them to deduce away and see what they came up with. Teaching that course is what got me interested in Nuttall.

By John Holbo on 01/31/08 at 10:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, guys, and this is a true story, I met a young guy once on a bus in Montana who belonged to Garner Ted Armstrong’s Church of God International or a spinoff. (Note: Garner Ted Armstrong, a sex criminal of sorts, grew up in Eugene, Oregon. There are no coincidences.) His local COGI church made extensive use of Egyptian hieroglyphics in its teaching, which seemed to be near-occult. The kid was as wacked as any hippy I ever met. Totally amazing. So let’s hear it for hieroglyphics!

By John Emerson on 01/31/08 at 11:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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