07) Scrolls: Air & Sound

An otherwise simple round shape found in the Matrícula de Huexotzinco would not be obvious as a "bell" if it were not for the gloss, "oyoval" (493 verso), from oyohualli, Nahuatl for leg bells worn by warriors. But what is fascinating is that this round shape has many small dots around it. That these dots may be a visualization of sound is extremely intriguing. How do glyphs convey sound visually?

The much more common shape known as a "speech scroll" (a term borrowed from European iconography) appears as a regular vehicle for helping readers visualize air movement and the passage of sound through the air, which could otherwise be invisible (with the exception of speech on a icy morning). Such glyphs and iconographic representations, when studied in detail, provide insights into glyphic writing that might facilitate future decipherment.

One can trace this dimension of visualizing sound back to pre-Classic times. For example, a rolling stamp or "cylinder seal" from Olmec times shows a bird tweeting a message. Scholars, who have published an article referencing this seal in "Olmec Origins of Mesoamerican Writing," have determined that the content of the tweet is an actual word ("3 Ajaw") and not just iconography. This expression is not exactly scrolling or spiraling from the bird's beak. Instead, the symbols emerge straight out.

In other Eastern Mesoamerican examples, but from the Classic Period, we see two stelae from the Guatemalan Maya site of Seibal (#13 and #19), which show leaders standing and presumably speaking. These speech scrolls have small circles, perhaps balls, attached to the exterior of their spirals.

In a Classic-period central Mexican context we find an athlete expressing words while hitting a ball with a stick, a scene painted on a mural in Teotihuacan. His single speech scroll has three pairs of points attached to it, probably adding meaning to the type of speech he is uttering. Esther Pasztory has also shared an example from a Teotihuacan mural of a man in anguish, crying and howling, with five scrolls emanating from his mouth. Interestingly, two groups of three dots appear as embellishments on each of these howl-spirals. [See: Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997), 207-208.]

Further examples from Teotihuacan worthy of consideration can be found in Pierre Robert Colas's article, "Writing in Space: Glottographic and Semi-Asiographic Notation at Teotihuacan," Ancient Mesoamerica 22:1 (Spring 2011), 13-25, and in material published about Teotihuacan by FAMSI. In one of the Techinantitla murals, a figure emits two speech scrolls, one rather large and green, the other turquoise and red, and both have interesting patterns. The turquoise one has red scrolls within the larger scroll. Another detail of a Teotihuacan mural in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, called the Tassel Headdress Mural Fragment, has a number of flowers on the outside of the scroll, a point on the scroll, and many objects inside, such as shells, some of which may be glyphs or proto-glyphs. In a mural detail of two turkey vultures sitting on conch shells (Room 22 of the Tetitla apartment compound in Teotihuacan), the shells emit scrolls, presumably the sounds they would make when blown. [See: Images Take Flight, 2015, p. 217.]

Colors associated with speech scrolls are not unique to Teotihuacan. A mural in tomb #105 in Classic-period Monte Albán, shows two people in succession, each one with a speech scroll that has two colors, red on the inside and turquoise on the outside. These scrolls also have multicolored decorations attached to them on the outside of the spiral.

Turning to post-Classic scrolls, we see flames and smoke curling out from underneath more than two hundred palaces or temples that tip over in the conquests carried out by the Aztecs that are documented in the Codex Mendoza. One figure in the Codex Borbonicus appears to breathe smoke, or at least his speech scrolls are brown and white. The figure speaking back has a speech scroll embedded in what appears to be a conch shell (echoing, to some extent, the Classic-period conch shell scrolls).

Speaking of breath, the early Nahuatl verb ihiotia included breathing and passing gas. To my knowledge, we have yet to see the latter presented visually, but both are types of human emissions that could be made visible using graphic media. The Matrícula de Huexotzinco uses visuals to show breath coming out of human mouths, and in these cases the hat glosses indicate that ecatl (air, breath) is what is being indicated. Ehecatl, being ecatl reduplicated, means wind.

Curling smoke also arises from the shield in the name for Chimalpopoca (Smoking Shield), and a scroll emerges from his mouth, indicating that he was a tlahtoani, the "speaker," i.e. the ruler. In the Codex Osuna, the names of the Aztec Triple Alliance cities are pictured next to symbols showing that they were the home of tlahtoqueh (plural of tlahtoani), with their crowns and speech scrolls. These are two-color scrolls, starting out red and switching to white, a similar combination as found on the sacrificial blades called tecpatl. Although this could be a coincidence, color coding deserves our attention.

Significantly, women regularly held the power of the word, too, as we see in many, many examples such as this one in the Florentine Codex . Much rarer are images of women occupied with writing, such as that found in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis. The interpreter for Hernando Cortés, doña Marina (Malintzin, Malinche), had a significant role using her speech. Various codices show her with speech scrolls, but also gesturing and sometimes leading the Spanish invaders and their Tlaxcalteca companion warriors. She had to speak for Cortés ("her captain") so much that in some cases she became the captain herself in the eyes of the Nahuas, and he became Malintzin. In a biography of Malintzin, Frances Karttunen describes the high speech she used that was appropriate for speaking with Indigenous dignitaries. [See her contribution in the volume Indian Women of Early Mexico (1997).]

The flowery speech of nobles is represented in great detail in the Codex Borbonicus. This elaborate scroll has repeating images of writing/painting contained within it, perhaps an indication that speech and writing went hand in hand for the Nahuas. [See the Codex Mendoza folio 70 recto for a tlacuilo painting and writing, and the symbol on the paper at his hands that represented writing.] What is not shown in the detail of the elaborate, flowery speech of nobles, is the presence of a drummer pounding a war drum nearby, with additional scrolls emerging from the drummer's mouth.

The Florentine Codex provides an example of scrolls coming from the mouth of a singer, as does the Codex Mendoza. A deity could call out to people, as we see in the example of Huitzilopochtli and the Aztlan migration (in this reproduction from the Codex Boturini). Ian Mursell of the online publication Mexicolore has brought many of these examples to our attention, along with this flowery speech scroll in the setting where men play the game of patolli in the Codex Magliabecchiano in a date associated with Five Flower (Macuilxochitl). Mursell also notes the sharp tongues (speech scrolls with pointed tecpatl, flint knives, attached) in the Mixtec Codex Selden.

Animal sounds also continued to be represented in post-Classic glyphs. In the Codex Mendoza we see the name Cuauhtlahtoa, Eagle Speaks, in more than one example. Jeanette Favrot Peterson has redrawn a bee's probable humming or buzzing in a mural in Malinalco, in her publication "Synthesis and Survival: The Native Presences in Sixteenth-Century Murals of New Spain," Native Artists and Patrons in Colonial Latin America, ed. Emily Umberger and Tom Cummins, Phoebus (Tempe: Arizona State University, 1995), 16. The Florentine Codex, Book II, Appendix, folio 143 verso, shows rabbits singing, spewing very elaborately decorated scrolls in multiple colors.

[Stephanie Wood, ©2022; more forthcoming about scrolls as this database expands.]