8 junio, 2024

Pre-Columbian literature: what it is, origin, characteristics, types, works

We teach you what pre-Columbian literature is, its origin, characteristics and outstanding works.

What is pre-Columbian literature?

The pre-columbian literature It is the set of literary texts that were created in the American continent before the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the other European conquerors, with the consequent colonization. All these creations come from the oral tradition and the collective memory of the original peoples and civilizations of America.

With the passage of time, and during the colonial era, inscriptions, codes and various texts were recovered, generating a phonetic writing of native languages and taking up legends, myths, narratives and rituals.

With the clash of cultures and the need to recover traditions and legacies, on the part of the indigenous people, as well as to evangelize and impose a new culture, on the part of the friars and missionaries, was building the concept of pre-Columbian literatureto group cultural expressions of different peoples.

Origin and historical context of pre-Columbian literature

Pre-Columbian literature is not based on a strict literary production, but rather recovers texts or writings of pre-colonial civilizations that embodied codices, drawings and thoughts, using various writing systems. With these texts, religious, ritual and social purposes were pursued, which are not entirely related to the objectives that literature pursues in modern times.

With the arrival of the Spanish, much of the knowledge and knowledge of the original peoples was hidden, but there were also cultures that sought a way to continue with their traditions and rites. Each of the ancient civilizations had its own manifestations and interests.

Among the cultures that are rescued to form pre-Columbian literature is that of the incaswho produced abundant religious literature and poemsas well as plays. For their part, the mexicas or aztecs they were interested in cosmological, religious and divinatory works.

The Mayan culture At the same time, it is one of the most outstanding in the literary question, since this civilization is the famous book Popol Vuh, which explains the origin of the world. Despite the fact that gathering all this literature and classifying it as pre-Columbian implies a colonizing perspective, it has also served as a tool to learn a little more about the original cultures of the American continent.

General characteristics of pre-Columbian literature

– Religious texts predominate: Most of the pre-Columbian writings that went down in history are related to stories of their religions, rituals, and narrations that speak of the gods. Both magical and spiritual issues can be found in them.

– War issues are addressed: War was a very important topic in pre-Columbian cultures, which is why texts about warriors also stand out, as well as stories of triumphs in battles.

– The recovery of these stories it originated after the efforts of the religious who were in America, who sought to evangelize and strip the survivors of the Conquest of their culture; for this reason, much of the collection was lost and a small part could be transcribed, coming to light.

– Repetition of themes and emotions: sadness, the sacred, the metaphor and the didactic intention are four qualities that are present in a large part of the texts grouped around pre-Columbian literature.

– Emphasis and repetition of phrases: Through the reiteration of phrases and words, the aim was to make certain things stand out and pay much more attention to them.

– They sought to share a path of rectitude: As a large part of the writings had didactic intentions, it was intended that children and young people find role models and moral values ​​that would guide their conduct and allow them to lead an honest life, focused on good deeds.

– Religion as a tool for social cohesion: In the religious stories, an attempt was made to strengthen social ties and community life, establishing the pillars that should govern human behavior and defining sacred symbols that united peoples.

Characteristics of Mexican literature

– The texts that could be recovered from this culture they were embodied in codiceswhich are composed of poems and religious songs.

– What was recorded in writing it was not meant to be readbut was used to recite.

– The works that are known use various literary devicesas in the case of the metaphor.

– Literary creation is associated with noble classesespecially poetry.

– The main themes are warlike and religioustopics in which the privileged classes were exclusively involved.

– The songs and poems called teocuícatl they formed a type of lyric that could only be interpreted by members of the clergy and that were accompanied by dance.

– Sometimesand included words with no precise meaning in the poems, which served to mark a rhythm.

Characteristics of Mayan literature

– Relates to nature: Mayan literature has a direct relationship with nature and the environment; the environment was understood as an entity that deserved respect for having given life to everything that is known.

– Lyrical and epic: both genera were cultivated; in the case of the lyric, it was linked to dance and topics about life and death predominated. The epic focused on the explanation of the world and the universe, as well as historical narratives.

– Religious texts: Much of the literature is related to religion, with the presence of multiple gods to whom sacrifices were owed.

– Hieroglyphics: the use of hieroglyphics is an important quality of Mayan culture and writing, a situation that influenced the development of literary texts.

– Authorship in the creations: Unlike other Mesoamerican cultures, the names of those who created the works have been found in Mayan texts, who left their signatures on inscriptions and engravings.

– Before the arrival of the Spanishthe Mayans poured into their literature their daily activities, their relationship with the divinities and their rituals.

– Variety of languages: literary production was recorded in at least twenty linguistic variants, endowing artistic creations with profound richness.

Characteristics of Inca literature

– Themes and characters linked to the field: The relationship with agricultural activities and the connection with nature stand out as one of the Inca topics.

– Authors unknown: the Inca culture did not highlight the creators of artistic works, so the authorship of their literary texts is not known.

– Fusion of music, poetry and dance: these three activities were inseparable for the Incas, so that the musicality around the three areas was conceived as a single activity that could not be separated.

– Oral tradition as an essential component: myths, songs and legends were transmitted from generation to generation, as a way of keeping exploits, battles and defeats alive in the collective memory. This tradition later turned to literature.

– Mix of elements: In the Inca creations there is a combination of religious and natural elements, so that the presence of divine figures is integrated into elements such as the stars.

– Way of transmitting knowledge: Literature was used to transmit astronomical and philosophical information, among other types of knowledge.

– It can be divided into courtly and popular literature: the courtesan is the so-called official literature, while the popular was available to all people.

Main pre-Columbian authors and works

Mexican literature

Bourbon Codex: pre-Columbian document completed after the conquest.
Nezahualcoyotl: He was a soldier, politician and poet, whose poems are still kept in the Old Library of Texcoco.
cacamatzin: he was a tlatoani from Texcoco who composed poems focused on themes of war and peace.
Axayacatl: warrior who dedicated himself to writing poems about suffering and death.
Macuilxochitzin: She stands out for being one of the few female figures that shone in the world of Mexica poetry. She was a member of a noble family and composed poems about the battles in which her father had participated.

mayan literature

Popol Vuh: It is one of the best known texts of pre-Columbian literature; it is a transcription of oral stories into alphabetic writing, so that they could be preserved against the massacres carried out by the Spanish.
Chilam Balam: series of eighteen books that were written by Mayan priests in the area that is today Yucatan. They deal with historical, mythological and prophetic facts, with a great symbolic content.
Rabinal Achi: dramaturgy that narrates the fight between two warriors, giving details of their confrontation and who is the winner.
Songs of Dzitbalché: Literary expression of the Puuc area that reflects religious beliefs distributed in fifteen songs that involve a cosmogonic vision of the Mayan people.
Calkiní Codex: manuscripts belonging to the Ac Canul lineage, which inhabited the northeast region of what is now Yucatán; It does not correspond to a single author, but to a series of authors who lived in different times and composed a collective narrative.

inca literature

Aranway: fable-type humorous composition that refers to satirical songs, currently it is presented as a song or story.
Myth of the Aya brothersr: tells how the city of Cusco was founded, which is considered the navel of the world.
Wiracocha myth: It speaks of the main Inca deity, who is considered the creator of everything that exists and is related to the sea.
Legend of Manco Cápac and Macama Ocllo: history that was transmitted orally in the Cusco community; It goes back to the beginnings of human life, when there were no rules or laws.
Kon’s Myth: story that talks about how the god Kon created the world, with immortal humans who soon forgot their creator and stopped bringing him offerings, before which the god became enraged, causing different calamities to humanity.

Purpose of pre-Columbian literature

Pre-Columbian literature did not only pursue aesthetic ends, but rather fulfilled religious, historical, organizational, prophetic and ceremonial functions. In addition, it had the goal of preserve traditions and customsas well as to demonstrate knowledge and serve as teaching.

In this literature there was a close relationship with nature, as an indispensable element in human life. All the natural elements were integrated into the construction of deities, myths and legends that accompanied the stories of the original peoples, serving as a common point for collective memory and learning.


Pre-Columbian Literature: between the ancestral and colonial. Taken from scielo.org.co
Pre-Columbian literatures | Coherence. Taken from publications.eafit.edu.co

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