Seeing Blindness

Stephen Houston (Brown University)

In 1560, a pictorial census was compiled for the province of Huexotzinco in what is now the Mexican state of Puebla (Aguilera 1996:529). Taxation – or its avoidance – was the aim. Known today as the Matrícula de Huexotzinco, this document arose from local complaints about burdens on Indigenous nobility (Prem 1974:708-9). The census seems to have done its job. Don Luis de Velasco y Ruiz de Alarcón, the second Viceroy of New Spain, cited it when turning down later attempts to tax native elites in the area.

Now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, where it is labeled Ms. Mex. 387, the Matrícula offers a large trove of Aztec glyphs. Tributaries are shown with heads to specify age and gender, wrinkles for the former, disinctive hair for the latter, along with small lines leading to individual names in Aztec writing (see Houston and Zender 2018). Among other graphs, the Matrícula even has a way of denoting blindness (Wood 2020-present). This occurs on fol. 546v, which declares, in Nahuatl, yzcate yn popoyome, “here are the blind people,” just above a column of at least five heads (Figure 1). Each head has two horizontal bands across the face, one above the eye, the other below. Similar devices appear on fol. 608r, which records blindness, not with bands, but lateral smudges and globs of black ink (Figure 2).

Figure 1. “Here are the blind people,” Matrícula de Huexotzinco, with sample of two male heads and their respective name glyphs, fol. 546v (Creative Commons, “Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License,” CC-BY-NC-SAq 3.0).


Figure 2. Blind individual, Matrícula de Huexotzinco, fol. 608r (Creative Commons, “Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License,” CC-BY-NC-SAq 3.0).


As noted by David Stuart and his colleagues (2017), Aztec script drew at times on earlier systems of writing, including that of the Maya. Examples include the Aztec sign for “writing,” evidently copying a Maya “sky band,” and two distinct glyphs for “day, sun, heat” that are dead-ringers for the “day” (k’in) and “Venus” (ek’) signs (Figure 3). All are celestial in nature, suggesting a certain esotericism to these appropriations.

Figure 3. Aztec signs likely to have originated in Maya writing (source images: Wood 2020-present).


The mark for “blindness” may be a borrowing too. One Maya supernatural, ‘Akan, a being associated in the Classic period with death imagery and inebriation, has among his attributes a dark band and a sign for “night” or “darkness” across his eyes and, in places, his forehead (Figure 4; for ‘Akan, see Grube and Nahm 1994:707-9). To judge from the eyeband, he is probably a god who cannot see.

Figure 4. ‘Akan, a death god: (a) K927 (photograph by Justin Kerr); (b) a patron god of El Perú, Guatemala, with eyes covered by cross-hatching to show the color black, Tikal area, Guatemala (La Fundación La Ruta Maya, No. de Registro IDAEH:, brought to my attention by David Stuart); and (c) the lordly title for Acanceh, Yucatan, ‘AKAN[KEH]-AJAW-wa (drawing by Simon Martin). Note the “percentage” sign that may indicate corruptive splits in flesh.

On the celebrated “Altar” vase, ‘Akan chops his own head off, but gropingly so, his eyes concealed (Figure 5).

Figure 5. CH’AK?-BAAH-‘AKAN-na, “Head-chopping ‘AKAN,” Altar de Sacrificios Vase, Guatemala, with concealed eyes and the “percentage” sign of death gods on his cheek (photograph copyright Inga Calvin).


‘Akan may embody recent death, the eyes open but unseeing, in contrast to skeletal beings stripped of flesh (on eye opening and loss of brain activity, see Laureys 2007). In a kind of taphonomic staging, he corresponds to the newly dead, not those long putrified and excarnated. Analogies may be found in the Kusōkan images of Japan, which contemplate “the nine stages of a decomposing corpse” (Kanda 2005).

For the Classic Maya, the disabling of sight is securely linked to those who have just died. This is attested in two phrases, one from a wooden box citing the death (or “road-entering”) of a lord from the kingdom of Tortuguero, Mexico; the other occurs on a panel from Lacanjá Tzeltal, also in Mexico (Figure 6). Rich in euphemism – both operate in complex cross-references to death – they categorically negate sight, reading: ma-‘a ‘i-‘ILA-ji, “not seeing.” That ‘Akan was also a creature of inebriation leads to another trope, that of being “blind-drunk,” a state in which the eyes coordinate poorly, if at all, with their ready cognition (Clifasefi et al. 2006; for ‘Akan as a drinking god, see Grube 2004).

Figure 6. Death as “not seeing”: (a) wooden box from area of Tortuguero, Mexico:C2-D2 (drawing by Diane Griffiths Peck [Coe 1974]); and (b) Lacanjá Tzeltal Panel 1:G2, Mexico (photograph by Omar Alcover, courtesy Charles Golden and Andrew Scherer [see also Golden et al. 2020]).

Blinding may not only have come from death. A captive with eyeband from Tikal Stela 39 could conceivably have received this torture at the hands of his captors (Figure 7; for the systematic blinding of captives, if in a Balkan context, see Holmes 2012). This was, to say the least, an immiseration that would hinder opponents and inflict broader psychological trauma.

Figure 7. A possible blinded captive on Tikal Stela 39, Guatemala (drawing by John Montgomery, FAMSI repository).


A captive who was likely blinded – his slit eye oozes with blood – occurs yet more clearly on a vase from the Ik’ kingdom of northern Guatemala (Figure 8).

Figure 8. Blinded captive, Ik’ kingdom, Guatemala, now in a private collection (photographer unknown).


That blindness was shown in Classic Maya text and imagery should not be surprising given the strong, positive emphasis on its opposite, the extromissive powers of sight (Houston et al. 2006:163-76). By comparison, there is, in recent literature on the senses, a latter-day deemphasis on sight, a dethroning of vision in favor of other senses (Jay 1993). To be “ocularcentric” is to miss larger worlds of perception and lend pernicious weight to “sensory normativity” (Petty 2021:297, 298). But the Maya might have disagreed: near-perfect humans were, according to mythic accounts from Highland Guatemala, capable of penetrative sight, to the extent of angering the gods of creation (Groark 2008:427-8). Removing that acuity, as the gods did, reduced the capacities of their hubristic creations. For most humans, death and sightlessness lay ahead in an inevitable future.

Acknowledgements  This essay benefited from comments by Charles Golden, Andrew Scherer, David Stuart, and Karl Taube.



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