8 junio, 2024

Pre-Hispanic literature: what it is, origin, characteristics, themes, works

What is pre-Hispanic literature?

The prehispanic literature It includes all the expressions of a literary nature typical of the American continent before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors that, for the most part, belong to the oral tradition. In pre-Columbian times, three cultures stood out for their literary legacy.

These three cultures were the Mexica (Valley of Anahuac, Mexico), the Maya (Yucatán Peninsula and Guatemala) and the Inca (Peru and Ecuador). Mesoamerica (Maya and Mexica region) has provided the oldest and best known indigenous literature in the Americas.

Part of this literature is recorded in pre-Columbian writing systems. It mostly reflects the themes of religion and astronomy, and dynastic stories and myth. This literature began to be known from the codices and the inscriptions on the monuments.

In contrast, pre-Hispanic Inca literature was oral. Quechua (language spoken by the Incas) lacked a writing system. This was passed down through generations and was subject to change. Subsequently, some of the early literature after European contact was recorded in Latin, in accordance with Spanish spelling conventions.

Origin of pre-Hispanic literature

It is difficult to trace the origins of pre-Hispanic literature since, after the Conquest, a large part of the cultural heritage of the native population was destroyed.

In general, given its eminently oral nature, it is assumed that this literature developed in parallel to the evolution of the great Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations.


The Mexicas arrived in central Mexico from the north in the 1200s. According to their legends, they came from a land called Aztlán; hence its name. They were various groups, including the Colhua-Mexica, the Mexica, and the Tenochca.

In the early 1300s these groups formed an alliance and founded a city-state called Tenochtitlán, today Mexico City. This people came to power and conquered a great empire during the 15th century.

The Mexica Empire had a writing system similar to that of the Mayans. The Mexicas wrote their literature in codices, books that folded like a fan, and the paper was made from agar vegetable fiber.


The Classic Maya period (AD 250-950) saw the consolidation of power in the great cities of the Yucatec Maya, such as Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. This period saw the incredible cultural breakthroughs for which they are famous.

In the seventh century, when English literature first appeared, the Maya had a long tradition of inscribing ornaments, ceramic vessels, monuments, and the walls of temples and palaces.

In addition, they had begun to write books. His system was a combination of phonetic symbols and ideograms, and fully represented spoken language to the same extent as the Old World writing system.


The Inca civilization flourished in ancient Peru between 1400 and 1533 AD. C. This empire extended through western South America, from Quito in the north to Santiago de Chile in the south.

Unlike the Maya and Mexica, they did not have a writing system. However, the Incas appear to have had a well-developed tradition of pre-Hispanic oral literature, as the few surviving fragments attest.

Characteristics of pre-Hispanic literature

Despite the fact that in Mesoamerica sacred texts, poetic and dramatic rituals had been transmitted in part through hieroglyphic and pictographic writing, all pre-Hispanic literature is considered oral.

This was transmitted above all by memory from generation to generation. It took its proper written form when the Spanish Conquest took place and the alphabetical system was introduced.

On the other hand, except in some cases —especially in Mexican territory—, the conserved texts are not attributed to any author. Thus, another common feature of pre-Hispanic literature is its anonymity.

Furthermore, the texts are not original, as they are reworkings carried out under the influence of the Catholic Church and the Spanish.


The purpose of Mexica pre-Hispanic literature was to preserve the knowledge accumulated through the generations; therefore it covered all aspects of life. Among these aspects included medicine, history, law, religion and rituals.

In terms of genres, poetry was the most important. All the poems had an esoteric background. The prose had a largely didactic purpose and the theater was carried out in the form of ritual dances and songs.


After the Conquest, part of the Mayan pre-Hispanic literature was transcribed using the Latin alphabet. Most of these works are prose texts that were intended to preserve the historical legacy of their culture.

Other than that, not much of Maya poetry was preserved, and theater was part of their religious rituals. Like the Mexica, the latter consisted of dances and songs of a ritual nature.


Inca pre-Hispanic literature privileged poetry. Most of them were narrative poems dealing with religion, mythology, and history. These were to be memorized word for word, and were to be repeated in public meetings.

This poetry was not very elegant, but it expressed its message in a short and direct way. The Inca poets did not use poetic structures, such as rhyme, specific rhythmic sequences, or meter.

Another type of Inca literature consisted of prayers and hymns, dramatic pieces, and songs. The prayers and hymns gave elegant praise to the Inca deities, very similar to the hymns of the Old Testament.

Likewise, the dramatic pieces were presented as part of the public dances and were performed by one or two actors; then a chorus responded. These and the myths probably emphasized religious themes.

Themes of pre-Hispanic literature

The religious theme is a constant in pre-Hispanic literature. These civilizations were polytheistic and pantheistic. That is, they believed in many gods and equated them with the universe and nature.

The Mexica, Maya, and Incas shared many common beliefs, deities, and rituals. Their religion was rooted in both the earth and the sky, the rhythms of the seasons and the movements of the Sun, Moon and stars. Therefore, there were also similarities in the topics covered in their literary works.


In Mexica pre-Hispanic literature, the theme of the fierce and violent struggle of the gods predominates. The poets showed their respect to the divinities through their art; with this they sought to appease their fury.

Other common topics were the creation of the universe, the exaltation of heroes, friendship, love, life and death.


One of the themes dealt with in Mayan pre-Hispanic literature was the creation of the world. An example of this is his most representative work, the Popol Vuh either Sacred Book of the Maya-k’iche’.

In addition, many of his works speak of cosmic eras, the cultural hero Quetzalcóatl and the origin of corn.


Apart from the religious theme, much of the Inca poetry dealt with agricultural activities: planting, harvesting, fertility of the fields and others. The imperial poets were especially in charge of this type of poetry.

On the other hand, popular poets wrote about more individual themes, such as the loss of a love. The military theme, of battles and victories, was also very popular.

Notable authors and works



Known as the poet king of Texcoco, Nezahualcóyotl stands out as a representative of Mexica literature. 36 of his poetic compositions are preserved in various collections of manuscripts of pre-Hispanic songs.

Scholars affirm that the beauty of the Nahuatl language is highlighted in the composition. They also ensure that the contents are full of philosophical depth.

Nezahualcóyotl’s poetry sings of spring, flowers and the arrival of the rainy season. It also contains historical references and autobiographical elements, especially regarding his career as a warrior.


Popol Vuh

One of the great literary pieces of Mayan pre-Hispanic literature is the Popol Vuh. This anonymous work tries to explain the ideas about the formation of the world, the myths and thoughts of the Maya-k’iche’ people.

Its content has a mythical intention in trying to respond to the origin of the universe and of man, but it also shows a historical intention that seeks to preserve the tradition of the great families of the K’iche’ people.

Rabinal Achi

Another notable work is the Rabinal Achi; It is the most important work of pre-Columbian theater. This represents the sacrifice and death of the man from Cavek Queché.

Other no less important productions of Mayan literature are the Books by Chilam Balamthe Annals of the Cakchiquels and the Title of the lords of Totonicapán.



The best known work of Inca literature is the drama entitled Ollantay. It was transcribed into Quechua during the Colony and then José Sebastián Barranca (Peruvian naturalist, philologist and teacher) translated it in 1868.

His transcription was in charge of Spanish priests; for this reason, historians doubt its purity. The Christian and European themes contained in some of its parts contribute to this perception.

In the 16th century Garcilaso de la Vega recorded part of the pre-Hispanic poetry in the work real comments. For his part, Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala did the same with the legends and songs in his New chronicle and good government.


IGER (2001). Literature 1. Guatemala City: Guatemalan Institute of Radiophonic Education.
Velasco, S. (s/f). History and anthology of Spanish American literature. Taken from linguasport.com.

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