Maya codices

From New World Encyclopedia
Page 9 of the Dresden Codex (from the 1880 Förstermann edition)

Maya codices (singular codex) are folding books stemming from the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. These codices were written in Mayan hieroglyphic script on Mesoamerican paper, made from the inner bark of certain trees, the main being the wild fig tree or Amate (Ficus glabrata). Paper, generally known by the Nahuatl word amatl, was named by the Mayas huun. The folding books are the products of professional scribes working under the patronage of the Howler Monkey Gods. The Maya developed their huun-paper around the fifth century,[1] the same era that the Romans did, but their bark paper was more durable and a better writing surface than papyrus.[2] The codices have been named for the cities in which they eventually settled. The Dresden codex is generally considered the most important of the few that survive.


There were many codices in existence at the time of the Spanish conquest of Yucatán in the sixteenth century, but they were destroyed in bulk by the Conquistadors and Catholic priests soon after. In particular, all those in Yucatán were ordered to be destroyed by Bishop Diego de Landa in July of 1562. Such codices were primary written records of Maya civilization, together with the many inscriptions on stone monuments and stelae which survive to the present day. However, their range of subject matter in all likelihood embraced more topics than those recorded in stone and buildings, and were more like what is found on painted ceramics (the so-called 'ceramic codex'). Alonso de Zorita wrote that in 1540 he saw numerous such books in the Guatemalan highlands which “recorded their history for more than eight hundred years back, and which were interpreted for me by very ancient Indians”[3] Bartolomé de las Casas, a sixteenth century Spanish Dominican priest, lamented that when found, such books were destroyed: "These books were seen by our clergy, and even I saw part of those which were burned by the monks, apparently because they thought [they] might harm the Indians in matters concerning religion, since at that time they were at the beginning of their conversion." The last codices destroyed were those of Tayasal, Guatemala in 1697, the last city conquered in America. With their destruction, the opportunity for insight into some key areas of Maya life has been greatly diminished.

Only three codices and possibly a fragment of a fourth survived to modern times. The names of the four codices indicate cities where they were settled.[4] These are:

  • The Dresden Codex, also known as the Codex Dresdensis;
  • The Madrid Codex, also known as the Tro-Cortesianus Codex;
  • The Paris Codex, also known as the Peresianus Codex;
  • The Grolier Codex, also known as the Grolier Fragment.

Dresden Codex

Maya glyph representation for the numeral 0 (zero), horizontal layout. This version typical of the (more elaborate) renderings of this glyph as they appear in the Maya codex inscriptions. The glyph is a stylized shell, & hence often referred to as the "shell glyph".

The Dresden Codex (a.k.a. Codex Dresdensis) is considered to be a codex of the eleventh or twelfth century of the Yucatecan Maya in Chichén Itzá[5] It is believed to be a copy of an original text of some three or four hundred years earlier[6] and the earliest known book written in the Americas.[7]


Johann Christian Götze, Director of the Royal Library at Dresden, purchased the codex from a private owner in Vienna in 1739. How it got to Vienna is unknown. It is speculated that it was sent by Hernán Cortés as a tribute to King Charles I of Spain in 1519. Charles had appointed Cortés governor and captain general of the newly conquered Mexican territory. It has been in Europe ever since. Götze gave it to the state library of Saxony, the Royal Library in Dresden, in 1744. The library first published the codex in 1848.[8]

The library that held the codex was bombed and suffered serious damage during World War II. The Dresden Codex was heavily water damaged during the Dresden Fire Storms; 12 pages of the codex were harmed and other parts of the codex were destroyed. The codex was meticulously restored after this damage.[8] In spite of this according to historian Salvador Toscano it is still a faithful representation of the precocity and elegance of the ancient Maya.


The Dresden Codex is considered the most complete of the four remaining American codices. The Dresden Codex is made from Amatl paper ("kopó," fig-bark that has been flattened and covered with a lime paste), doubled in folds in an accordion-like form of folding-screen texts. The codex of bark paper is coated with fine stucco or gesso and is eight inches high by eleven feet long.[4]

The Dresden Codex was written by eight different scribes using both sides. They all had their own particular writing style, glyphs, and subject matter. The codex totals 74 pages in length. Its images were painted with extraordinary clarity using very fine brushes. The basic colors used from vegetable dyes for the codex were red, black and the so-called Mayan blue.

The Dresden Codex contains astronomical tables of outstanding accuracy. Contained in the codex are almanacs, astronomical and astrological tables, and religious references.[6] The specific god references have to do with a 260 day ritual count divided up in several ways.[4] The Dresden Codex contains predictions for agriculture favorable timing. It has information on rainy seasons, floods, illness and medicine. It also seems to show conjunctions of constellations, planets and the Moon. It is most famous for its Venus table.[6]

Venus Cycle

The Venus cycle was an important calendar for the Maya, and much information in regard to this is found in the Dresden codex. The Maya courts seems to have employed skilled astronomers, who could calculate the Venus cycle. There are six pages in the Dresden Codex devoted to the accurate calculation of the location of Venus. The Maya were able to achieve such accuracy by careful observation over many centuries. The Venus cycle was especially important because the Maya believed it was associated with war and used it to divine appropriate times (electional astrology) for coronations and war. Maya rulers planned for wars to begin when Venus rose. The Maya may have also tracked the movements of other planets, including Mars, Mercury, and Jupiter.

Madrid Codex

Although of inferior workmanship, the Madrid Codex (a.k.a. Codex Tro-Cortesianus) is even more varied than the Dresden Codex and is the product of eight different scribes. It is in the Museo de América in Madrid, Spain, where it may have been sent back to the Royal Court by Hernán Cortés. There are 112 pages, which got split up into two separate sections, known as the Troano Codex and the Cortesianus Codex. These were re-united in 1888. This Codex provenance is from Tayasal, the last Maya city to be conquered in 1697.

Paris Codex

The Paris Codex (a.k.a. Codex Peresianus) contains prophecies for tuns and katuns (see Maya Calendar), as well as a Maya zodiac, and is thus, in both respects, akin to the Books of Chilam Balam. The codex first appears in 1832 as an acquisition of France's Bibliothèque Impériale (later the Bibliothèque Nationale, or National Library) in Paris. Three years later the first reproduction drawing of it was prepared for Lord Kingsborough, by his Lombardian artist Agostino Aglio. The original drawing is now lost, but a copy survives among some of Kingsborough's unpublished proof sheets, held in collection at the Newberry Library, Chicago.[9]

Although occasionally referred to over the next quarter-century, its permanent "rediscovery" is attributed to the French orientalist León de Rosny, who in 1859 recovered the codex from a basket of old papers sequestered in a chimney corner at the Bibliothèque Nationale, where it had lain discarded and apparently forgotten.[10][11] As a result, it is in very poor condition. It was found wrapped in a paper with the word Pérez written on it, possibly a reference to the Jose Pérez who had published two brief descriptions of the then-anonymous codex in 1859.[12] De Rosny initially gave it the name Codex Peresianus ("Codex Pérez") after its identifying wrapper, but in due course the codex would be more generally known as the Paris Codex.[12]

De Rosny published a facsimile edition of the codex in 1864.[10] It remains in the possession of the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Grolier Codex

While the other three codices were known to scholars since the nineteenth century, the Grolier Codex (a.k.a. Grolier Fragment) only surfaced in the 1970s. This fourth Maya codex was said to have been found in a cave, but the question of its authenticity has still not been resolved to everybody's satisfaction. Dr. José Saenz, a Mexican collector bought the codex fragment and let Michael Coe show at the Grolier Club, New York, from which the name of the fragment was taken. The codex was later donated to the Mexican government.

The codex is really a fragment of 11 pages. It is currently in a museum in Mexico, but is not on display to the public. Scanned photos of it are available on the web.[13] The pages are much less detailed than any of the other codices. Each page shows a hero or god, facing to the left. At the top of each page is a number. Down the left of each page are what appears to be a list of dates.

Other Maya codices

Given the rarity and importance of these books, rumors of finding new ones often develop interest. Archaeological excavations of Maya sites have turned up a number of rectangular lumps of plaster and paint flakes, most commonly in elite tombs. These lumps are the remains of codices where all the organic material has rotted away. A few of the more coherent of these lumps have been preserved, with the slim hope that some technique to be developed by future generations of archaeologists may be able to recover some information from these remains of ancient pages. The oldest Maya codices known have been found by archaeologists as mortuary offerings with burials in excavations in Uaxactun, Guaytán in San Agustín Acasaguastlán, and Nebaj in Quiché, Guatemala, at Altun Ha in Belize and at Copán in Honduras. The six examples of Maya books discovered in excavations date to the Early Classic (Uaxactún and Altun Ha), Late Classic (Nebaj, Copán), and Early Postclassic (Guaytán) periods and, unfortunately, all have been changed by the pressure and humidity during their many years in the ground, eliminating the organic backing and reducing all into unopenable masses or collections of very small flakes and bits of the original lime sizing and multicolor painting. The result being, unfortunately, more old books which will probably never be read.


Since the start of the twentieth century, various forgeries of varying quality have been produced; these seldom have fooled serious scholars but art collectors have often generated profits for the forgers (in the early twentieth century, two elaborately forged codices were in the collection of William Randolph Hearst). When the Grolier first surfaced a number of prominent Mayanists thought it was likely an unusually clever forgery; and although more detailed examination convinced many of its authenticity, serious doubts still remain.


  1. Marna Burns, The Complete Book of Handcrafted Paper (Mineola, NY: Courier Dover Publications, 2004, ISBN 048643544X), 199.
  2. Hans G. Wiedemann, with Klaus-Werner Brzezinka, Klaus Witke, and Ingolf Lamprecht, "Thermal and Raman-spectroscopic analysis of Maya Blue carrying artefacts, especially fragment IV of the Codex Huamantla." Thermochimica Acta 456(1) (2007): 56-63.
  3. Alonso De Zorita, Life and Labor in Ancient Mexico: The Brief and Summary Relation of the Lords of New Spain (University of Oklahoma Press, 1994, ISBN 0806126795)1963, 271-272.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Dick Teresi, Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science—from the Babylonians to the Maya (Simon and Schuster, 2002, ISBN 0684837188), 96.
  5. Anthony F. Aveni, Empires of Time (London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2000, ISBN 1860646026), 221.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Clive L. N. Ruggles, Ancient Astronomy (ABC-CLIO, 2005, ISBN 1851094776), 133-134.
  7. Anthony F. Anzovin and Janet Podell, Famous First Facts International Edition (Bronx, NY: H. W. Wilson Company, 2000, ISBN 0824209583), 197.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Robert J. Sharer, et al. The Ancient Maya (Stanford University Press, 2006, ISBN 0804748179), 127.
  9. Randa Marhenke, "The Paris Codex" FAMSI. Retrieved September 27, 2022.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Michael D. Coe, Breaking the Maya Code (London: Thames & Hudson, 1992, ISBN 0500050619), 101.
  11. Robert J. Sharerand Loa P. Traxler, The Ancient Maya, 6th edition (fully revised) (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006, ISBN 0804748160), 127.
  12. 12.0 12.1 George E. Stuart, "Quest for Decipherment: A Historical and Biographical Survey of Maya Hieroglyphic Decipherment," in Elin C. Danien and Robert J. Sharer (eds.) ,New Theories on the Ancient Maya Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 1992, ISBN 0924171138), 1–64.
  13. H. Calvo del Castilloa, et al. The Grolier Codex: A PIXE & RBS Study of the Possible Maya Document, Proceedings of the XI International Conference on PIXE and its Analytical Applications, Puebla, Mexico, May 25-29, 2007. Retrieved September 27, 2022.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Anzovin, Steven, and Janet Podell. Famous First Facts International Edition. Bronx, NY: H. W. Wilson Company, 2000. ISBN 0824209583
  • Aveni, Anthony F. Empires of Time. London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2000. ISBN 1860646026
  • Burns, Marna. The Complete Book of Handcrafted Paper. Mineola, NY: Courier Dover Publications, 2004. ISBN 048643544X.
  • Coe, Michael D. Breaking the Maya Code. London: Thames & Hudson, 1992. ISBN 0500050619
  • Danien, Elin C., and Robert J. Sharer (eds.). New Theories on the Ancient Maya. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 1992. ISBN 0924171138
  • Ruggles, Clive L. N. Ancient Astronomy. ABC-CLIO, 2005. ISBN 1851094776
  • Sharer, Robert J. et al, The Ancient Maya. Stanford University Press, 2006. ISBN 0804748179
  • Sharer, Robert J. and Loa P. Traxler. The Ancient Maya, 6th edition (fully revised). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006. ISBN 0804748160
  • Teresi, Dick. Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science—from the Babylonians to the Maya. Simon and Schuster, 2002. ISBN 0684837188
  • Thompson, J. Eric. A Commentary on the Dresden Codex: A Maya Hieroglyphic Book. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1972. ISBN 978-0871690937
  • De Zorita, Alonso. Life and Labor in Ancient Mexico: The Brief and Summary Relation of the Lords of New Spain, Translated by Benjamin Keen. (original 1963) reprint University of Oklahoma Press, 1994. ISBN 0806126795
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

All links retrieved November 8, 2022.


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