Tlilli tlapalli

David Wright dcwright at
Sun Jun 3 00:17:11 UTC 2001

I've been digging around, and I'm more and more convinced that the traditional (20th century) translation of tlilli tlapalli as "the black, the red", in reference to codices, writing, wisdom and tradition, is imprecise, and that "the black, the colors" gives a much better idea of the appearance and technique of pre-Hispanic and early colonial central Mexican pictorial texts, and probably reflects more accurately the original concept. Tlapalli, in certain compound words, refers to redness, but both Molina and SahagĂșn make it quite clear that tlapalli is a generic term for colors that are used to paint or to dye.

Important 20th century nahuatlatos like Sullivan, Dibble and Anderson have translated tlilli tlapalli (or the phrase intlil intlapal from the Florentine Codex) as "the black, the red". My first posting on this subject asked why this is so, since it seems to contradict the basic meaning of tlapalli and the fact that red doesn't have an obviously predominant role in central Mexican codices. Before going with my first impulse and dismissing the concept of "red and black" as a firmly entrenched error, I was looking for evidence to support it. I haven't found any, but I did find a footnote in an article by Seler (Abhandlungen: II-3-13, 717-66; Labyrinthos English edition: III, 113, note 11) that could be what started the whole thing, back in 1904:

"Tlilli tlapalli, the black and red color, is therefore the painting, the writing. And Tlillan tlapallan, "land of black and red color,", is accordingly the land of writing. The words 'black and red color' characterize very well the appearance of the picture writings, the Maya manuscripts in particular [oops, wrong region and language -DW]. [...] It is of advantage to call attention to this, in view of the fantastic and arbitrary explanations of another kind which have been attempted in both earlier and recent years."

Are there any objections to throwing out "the black, the red" and using the more precise metaphorical phrase "the black, the colors"?

- David Wright
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <>

More information about the Nahuat-l mailing list