Aztec Religion and Art of Writing

Investigating Embodied Meaning, Indigenous Semiotics, and the Nahua Sense of Reality


Winner of the 2020 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion: Historical Studies

In her groundbreaking investigation from the perspective of the aesthetics of religion, Isabel Laack explores the religion and art of writing of the pre-Hispanic Aztecs of Mexico. Inspired by postcolonial approaches, she reveals Eurocentric biases in academic representations of Aztec cosmovision, ontology, epistemology, ritual, aesthetics, and the writing system to provide a powerful interpretation of the Nahua sense of reality.
Laack transcends the concept of “sacred scripture” traditionally employed in religions studies in order to reconstruct the Indigenous semiotic theory and to reveal how Aztec pictography can express complex aspects of embodied meaning. Her study offers an innovative approach to nonphonographic semiotic systems, as created in many world cultures, and expands our understanding of human recorded visual communication.
This book will be essential reading for scholars and readers interested in the history of religions, Mesoamerican studies, and the ancient civilizations of the Americas.

"This excellent book, written with intellectual courage and critical self-awareness, is a brilliant, multilayered thought experiment into the images and stories that made up the Nahua sense of reality as woven into their sensational ritual performances and colorful symbolic writing system." - Davíd Carrasco, Harvard University

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Dr. Isabel Laack, Privatdozentin at the Institute for the Study of Religion, Heidelberg University, Germany, is the author of Religion und Musik in Glastonbury (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011) as well as numerous articles in the field of the aesthetics of religion.
Isabel Laack’s Aztec Religion and Art of Writing makes an important departure from the way aesthetics, semiotics, and studies of religion have been applied to our understanding of Aztec civilization and culture. Furthermore, by relocating the epicenter of scholarly “gaze,” to religion and regions beyond Christianity and Anglo-American or European contexts, Laack offers an innovative postcolonial aesthetic approach to religion. Laack’s bold methodological departure from her own graduate training provides encouragement for scholars of all stages to chart similar pathways for themselves.
- Jury of the AAR 2020 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion: Historical Studies.

List of Illustrations

 1 Introducing the Subject
 2 Indicating Sociopolitical Relevance
 3 Realizing the Aesthetics of Religion
 4 Outlining the Chapters
1 Methodology
 1 Doing Research in a Postcolonial World
 2 Writing History
 3 Clarifying Perspectives and Objectives
 4 Summary
2 Living in Cultural Diversity
 1 Drawing on History
 2 Living in the Central Highlands
 3 Living in Religious Diversity
 4 Conclusion: Diversity within the Nahua Tradition
3 Living in Relation: Being Human in Tenochtitlan
 1 How the World Came to Be
 2 How the Human World Came to Be
 3 How the Cosmic Dynamics Unfold
 4 Living in Cosmic Relations
 5 Living in Social Relations
 6 Living Properly—Living in Balance
4 A World in Motion: Nahua Ontology
 1 Aztec Notions of “Divinity”
 2 The Nature of Teotl
 3 Teotl’s Realization: Nahualli and the Layers of Reality
 4 A World in Motion: The Fifth Era
 5 The Problem of Ephemerality: What Is Really Real?
5 Understanding a World in Motion: Nahua Epistemology
 1 Epistemology
 2 Knowledge Experts: Wise (Wo)Men and Scribes
 2 People with Special Insights
 3 The Inspiration of Knowledge and Its Expression
6 Interacting with a World in Motion: Nahua Pragmatism and Aesthetics
 1 Human Agency: Seeking Balance
 2 Human Duties
 3 Interacting with Rituals
 4 Involving the Senses and Aesthetic Media
 5 The Concept of the Teixiptla
7 Expressing Reality in Language: Nahua Linguistic Theory
 1 Nahua Oral Tradition
 2 Reconstructing Nahua Songs
 3 Thinking in Nahuatl
 4 Nahua Imagery
 5 The Relationship between the Spoken Sign and Reality in Nahuatl
 6 Nahua Imagery and the Problem of Rationality
8 Materializing Reality in Writing: Nahua Pictography
 1 The History of Writing Systems in Mesoamerica
 2 The Writing System of the Nahuas
 3 Social Text Practice
 4 Books and Authors
 5 Nahua Culture between Orality and Literacy
9 Understanding Pictography: Interpreting Nahua Semiotics
 1 The History of Evaluating Aztec Writing
 2 Different Kinds of Meaning and Knowledge
 3 Seeing Reality: Nahua Semiotic Theory
 4 Interpreting Nahua Pictography
10 Interpretative Results: Nahua Religion, Scripture, and Sense of Reality
 1 From Religion to Being-in-the-World
 2 From Scripture to Semiotics
 3 Interrelationships: Semiotic Theory and Embodied Meaning

Scholars, teachers, and readers interested in the history and aesthetics of religion, Mesoamerican studies, anthropology, art history, semiotics, writing theories, embodiment, and the ancient civilizations of the Americas.
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