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Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate.

Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate. By Elizabeth Hill Boone. (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 2007. Pp. 320. $55.00.)

With the publication of the author's previous book on the pictorial histories of ancient central Mexico, Stories in Red and Black, students of Mesoamerican civilization have anticipated a similarly synthetic, yet ethnographically rich, account of the other major genre from this tradition. These are the divinatory almanacs, sometimes combined with protocols for ritual or cosmogonies that soothsayers used to maintain the vital links between men and the gods. Cycles of Time fulfils this promise, providing a guide to the twelve surviving manuscripts in this tradition. Whereas previous scholars--particularly Eduard Seler and Karl Anton Nowotny--offered detailed iconographic and structural analyses of individual manuscripts, the author explores the fundamental organizational and interpretive structures that determine how the almanacs were used.

Adapting the highly effective outline of her previous study, the author organizes this book much like a grammar, interpreting the manuscripts through a series of increasing levels of complexity. She begins at the most fundamental level, with an explanation of the nature and sociological significance of the calendrical systems used in the manuscripts (chapter two). This is followed by a detailed explanation of the graphic elements of which the almanacs are composed (chapter three). Not only are these images designed to communicate concrete meaning, but also to explore esoteric associations based on a system of metaphoric and metonymic correspondences. The following chapter (four) explains the presentational format by which these elements are organized, either as lists, tables, or diagrams.

Chapter five constitutes the core of the study, which explains at length the functions of the almanacs, categorizing them as multipurpose, directional (focusing on the prophetic qualities of the directions), or topical (relating to a single domain, such as childbirth or Venus). In accordance with recent scholarship, Elizabeth Hill Boone utilizes both iconographic and structural analysis as well as interpretations derived from early chronicles. Chapter six describes the ritual protocols contained in several manuscripts, while chapter seven explores the unusual narrative segment of the Codex Borgia, previously interpreted as either an explication of the movement of Venus or as a series of separate rituals. Departing from these views, Boone sees this section as a cosmogony, beginning with a sort of "big bang" and ending with the kindling of primordial fires in association with calendrical rites. Chapter eight discusses the provenience of the manuscripts, while the final chapter (nine) summarizes the manuscripts as an expression of a widely shared religious and divinatory system.

Boone offers many new interpretations of interest to the specialist. However, the book will be most appreciated for the way in which it makes a complex artistic and intellectual system intelligible to the nonspecialist. This is accomplished partly through its methodical, precisely focused discussion of the components and structure of the almanacs and also through its multipage layouts of the manuscripts and reading-order diagrams, which help the reader understand the almanac structures. A useful appendix also summarizes the content of the almanacs of each manuscript included in the study.

Matthew G. Looper

California State University, Chico
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Author:Looper, Matthew G.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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