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The Aztecs used glyphs and pictograms to draw what they wanted to say.

An Aztec manuscript is not read , but is   like a puzzle picture in which the glyphs provide clues to what is going on. The lower part of the picture shows the ground, while the upper part is the sky. Distance is shown by placing the furthest figures at the top of the page and the nearest at the bottom. Importance is shown by size: a victorious king may be drawn larger than his defeated enemy.


Death was shown by a corpse wrapped for burial, night by a black sky and a closed eye, war by a shield and a club, or speech by a little scroll issuing from the mouth of the person who is talking.

Aztec names could usually be written in glyphs. The name of the Emperor Acamapichtli means 'Handful of Reeds' and his glyph is a forearm with the hand grasping a bundle of stalks. Chimalpopoca, the name of the next ruler but one, means 'Smoking Shield', and his successor was Itzcoatl or 'Obsidian Snake'.

There were also sounds in Aztec writing. Every word in spoken language has a sound as well as a meaning. The symbol for teeth (tiantli in the Aztec language) sounds as 'tlan'; the glyph for tree or forest (quauill) sounds 'quauh', a stone (tell) for 'te', a mountain (tepeti) for 'tepe', and so on.

The sign for the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, was a stone (tell) from which sprouted a prickly pear cactus (nochili); Tochtepecan was indicated by a rabbit (tochtli) above a mountain (tepeti); quauhtitlan by a tree (quauitl) with teeth (tiantli), quauhnauac by a tree with a speech scroll issuing from it (nahuall -speech).

A priest is always shown with his face painted black, his hair long, and his ear-lobe stained red from blood-letting. An old person can be recognized by the lines which show the wrinkles on his face.

Color was also important. The signs for grass, canes, and rushes look very much the same in black and white, but in color there could be no mistake: in the Codex Mendoza grass is yellow, canes are blue, rushes green.

More Glyphs

It's fun trying to work out what Aztec pictures mean. Look at the evidence.