The Borgia Codex

Codex Borgia
Codex Borgia. Artist Unknown

The Borgia Codex:

The Borgia Codex is an ancient book, created in Mexico in the age before the arrival of the Spanish. It consists of 39 double-sided pages, each of which contains pictures and drawings. It was most likely used by native priests to predict cycles of time and fate. The Borgia Codex is considered one of the most important surviving pre-Hispanic documents, both historically and artistically.

The Creators of the Codex:

The Borgia Codex was created by one of many pre-Hispanic cultures of Central Mexico, likely in the region of southern Puebla or northeastern Oaxaca. These cultures would eventually become vassal states of what we know as the Aztec Empire. Like the Maya far to the south, they had a writing system based on images: an image would represent a longer history, which was known to the "reader," generally a member of the priest class.

History of the Borgia Codex:

The codex was created sometime between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. Although the codex is partly a calendar, it contains no exact date of creation. The first known documentation of it is in Italy: how it arrived there from Mexico is unknown. It was acquired by Cardinal Stefano Borgia (1731-1804) who left it, along with many other possessions, to the church. The codex bears his name to this day. The original is currently in the Vatican Library in Rome.

Characteristics of the Codex:

The Borgia Codex, like many other Mesoamerican codices, is not actually a “book” as we know it, where pages are flipped as they are read. Rather, it is one long piece folded up accordion-style. When completely opened, the Borgia Codex is about 10.34 meters long (34 feet).

It is folded into 39 sections which are roughly square (27x26.5cm or 10.6 inches square). All of the sections are painted on both sides, with the exception of the two end pages: there are therefore a total of 76 separate “pages.” The codex is painted onto a deer skin that was carefully tanned and prepared, then covered with a thin layer of stucco which better holds the paint. The codex is in pretty good shape: only the first and lest section have any major damage.

Studies of the Borgia Codex:

The content of the codex was a baffling mystery for many years. Serious study began in the late 1700’s, but it wasn’t until the exhaustive work of Eduard Seler in the early 1900’s that any real progress was made. Many others have since contributed to our limited knowledge of the meaning behind the vivid images. Today, good facsimile copies are easy to find, and all of the images are online, providing access for modern researchers.

Content of the Borgia Codex:

Experts who have studied the codex believe it to be a tonalámatl, or "almanac of destiny." It is a book of predictions and auguries, used to search for good or bad omens and precedents for a variety of human activities. For example, the codex might be used by priests to predict good and bad times for agricultural activities such as planting or harvesting.

It is based around the tonalpohualli, or 260-day religious calendar. It also contains the cycles of the planet Venus, medical prescriptions and information about sacred places and the nine Lords of the Night.

Importance of the Borgia Codex:

Most of the ancient Mesoamerican books were burned by zealous priests during the colonial era: very few survive today. All of these ancient codices are greatly prized by historians, and the Borgia Codex is particularly valuable because of its content, artwork and the fact that it’s in relatively good shape. The Borgia Codex has allowed modern historians a rare insight into lost Mesoamerican cultures. The Borgia Codex is also greatly valued because of its beautiful artwork.


Noguez, Xavier. Códice Borgia. Arqueología Mexicana Edición Especial: Códices prehispánicas y coloniales tempranos.

August, 2009.