Maya codices

Maya codices

Page 9 of the Dresden Codex (from the 1880 Förstemann edition)
plates 10 and 11 of the Dresden Maya Codex. Drawing by Lacambalam, 2001

Maya codices (singular codex) are folding books stemming from the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, written in Maya hieroglyphic script on Mesoamerican bark cloth, made from the inner bark of certain trees, the main being the wild fig tree or amate (Ficus glabrata). Paper of this sort, generally known by the Nahuatl word āmatl , was named by the Mayas huun. The folding books are the products of professional scribes working under the patronage of deities such as the Tonsured Maize God and the Howler Monkey Gods. The Maya developed their huun-paper around the 5th century,[1] which is roughly the same time that the codex became predominant over the scroll in the Roman world. However, Maya paper was more durable and a better writing surface than papyrus.[2] The codices have been named for the cities where they eventually settled. The Dresden codex is generally considered the most important of the few that survive.

Our knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture, for of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their learning and ritual was recorded, only four have survived to modern times (as though all that posterity knew of ourselves were to be based upon three prayer books and Pilgrim's Progress).
— Michael D. Coe[3]


  • Background 1
  • Dresden Codex 2
  • Madrid Codex 3
  • Paris Codex 4
  • Grolier Codex 5
  • Other Maya codices 6
  • Forgeries 7
  • See also 8
  • Notes 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11


There were many books in existence at the time of the Spanish conquest of Yucatán in the 16th century, however most were destroyed by the Conquistadors and Catholic priests. In particular, many in Yucatán were ordered destroyed by Bishop Diego de Landa in July of 1562. De Landa wrote: "We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction." Such codices were primary written records of Maya civilization, together with the many inscriptions on stone monuments and stelae that survived. However, their range of subject matter in all likelihood embraced more topics than those recorded in stone and buildings, and was 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 that "recorded their history for more than eight hundred years back, and that were interpreted for me by very ancient Indians" (Zorita 1963, 271-2). Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas lamented that when found, such books were destroyed: "These books were seen by our clergy, and even I saw part of those that 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 Nojpetén, Guatemala in 1697, the last city conquered in the Americas.[4] With their destruction, the opportunity for insight into some key areas of Maya life has been greatly diminished.

There are only three codices whose authenticity is beyond doubt. These are:

  • The Madrid Codex, also known as the Tro-Cortesianus Codex (112 pages, 6.82 metres (22.4 feet));
  • The Dresden Codex also known as the Codex Dresdensis (74 pages, 3.56 metres (11.7 feet));[5]
  • The Paris Codex, also known as the Peresianus Codex (22 pages, 1.45 metres (4.8 feet)).

The authenticity of the so-called Grolier Codex, also known as the Grolier Fragment, is disputed (see below).

Dresden Codex

The Dresden Codex (Codex Dresdensis) is held in the Sächsische Landesbibliothek (SLUB), the state library in Dresden, Germany. It is the most elaborate of the codices, and also a highly important specimen of Maya art. Many sections are ritualistic (including so-called 'almanacs'), others are of an astrological nature (eclipses, the Venus cycles). The codex is written on a long sheet of paper that is 'screen-folded' to make a book of 39 leaves, written on both sides. It was probably written just before the Spanish conquest. Somehow it made its way to Europe and was bought by the royal library of the court of Saxony in Dresden in 1739. The only exact replica, including the huun, made by a German artist is displayed at the Museo Nacional de Arqueología in Guatemala City, since October, 2007.

Between 1880 and 1900, Dresden librarian Ernst Förstemann succeeded in deciphering the Maya numerals and the Maya calendar and realized that the codex is an ephemeris.[6] Subsequent studies have decoded these astronomical almanacs, which include records of the cycles of the Sun and Moon, including eclipse tables, and all of the naked-eye planets.[7] The "Serpent Series", pp. 61–69, is an ephemeris of these phenomena that uses a base date of in the prior era (5,482,096 days).[8][9]

Madrid Codex

Rain-bringing snakes, Madrid Codex

The Codex was discovered in Spain in the 1860s; it was divided into two parts of differing sizes that were found in different locations.[10] The Codex receives its alternate name of the Tro-Cortesianus Codex after the two parts that were separately discovered.[11] Ownership of the Troano Codex passed to the Museo Arqueológico Nacional ("National Archaeological Museum") in 1888.[12] The Museo Arqueológico Nacional acquired the Cortesianus Codex from a book-collector in 1872, who claimed to have recently purchased the codex in Extremadura.[13] Extremadura is the province from which Francisco de Montejo and many of his conquistadors came,[10] as did Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of Mexico.[14] It is therefore possible that one of these conquistadors brought the codex back to Spain;[10] the director of the Museo Arqueológico Nacional named the Cortesianus Codex after Hernán Cortés, supposing that he himself had brought the codex back.[14]

The Madrid Codex is the longest of the surviving Maya codices.[12] The content of the Madrid Codex mainly consists of almanacs and horoscopes that were used to help Maya priests in the performance of their ceremonies and divinatory rituals. The codex also contains astronomical tables, although less than are found in the other two generally accepted surviving Maya codices.[10] A close analysis of glyphic elements suggests that a number of scribes were involved in its production, perhaps as many as eight or nine, who produced consecutive sections of the manuscript; the scribes were likely to have been members of the priesthood.[15]

Some scholars, such as Michael Coe and Justin Kerr,[16] have suggested that the Madrid Codex dates to after the Spanish conquest but the evidence overwhelmingly favours a pre-conquest date for the document. It is likely that the codex was produced in Yucatán.[10] J. Eric Thompson was of the opinion that the Madrid Codex came from western Yucatán and dated to between 1250 and 1450 AD. Other scholars have expressed a differing opinion, noting that the codex is similar in style to murals found at Chichen Itza, Mayapan and sites on the east coast such as Santa Rita, Tancah and Tulum.[17] Two paper fragments incorporated into the front and last pages of the codex contain Spanish writing, which led Thompson to suggest that a Spanish priest acquired the document at Tayasal in Petén.[18]

Paris Codex

The Paris Codex (also or formerly the 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 appeared 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.[19]

Although occasionally referred to over the next quarter-century, its permanent "rediscovery" is attributed to the French orientalist

  • The Construction of the Codex In Classic- and Postclassic-Period Maya Civilization Maya Codex and Paper Making
  • Maya Codices
  • Complete Dresden codex as JPG,
  • Complete Dresden codex as PDF (WARNING: File size is very large. Downloads using a dial-up connection are not recommended.)
  • Complete Madrid Codex as PDF (WARNING: File size is very large. Downloads using a dial-up connection are not recommended.)
  • Complete Paris Codex as PDF (Moderate size PDF)
  • Complete Grolier Codex as JPG
  • Codex and Maya Writing
  • The Maya Codex and the Maya Astronomy
  • Dresden Codex and the Mayan Calendar
  • The Dresden Codex Lunar Series and Sidereal Astronomy

External links

Baudez, Claude (2002). "Venus y el Códice Grolier". Arqueología Mexicana 10 (55): 70–79, 98–102. 
Ciudad Ruiz, Andrés; Alfonso Lacadena (1999).  
FAMSI. "Maya Hieroglyphic Writing – The Ancient Maya Codices: The Madrid Codex". FAMSI (Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies). Retrieved 2012-07-24. 
Kelker, Nancy L.; Karen O. Bruhns (2010). Faking Ancient Mesoamerica.  
Marhenke, Randa (2003). "The Ancient Maya Codices". Maya Hieroglyphic Writing. Mesoweb.  
Milbrath, Susan (2002). "New Questions Concerning the Authenticity of the Grolier Codex". Latin American Indian Literatures Journal 18 (1): 50–83. 
Noguez, Xavier; Manuel Hermann Lejarazu; Merideth Paxton; Henrique Vela (August 2009). "Códices Mayas" [Maya codices]. Arqueología Mexicana: Códices prehispánicos y coloniales tempranos – Catálogo (in Español) (Editorial Raíces). Special Edition (31): 10–23. 
Stuart, George E. (1992). "Quest for Decipherment:A Historical and Biographical Survey of Maya Hieroglyphic Decipherment". In Elin C. Danien and  
Thompson, J.E.S. (1975). "The Codex Grolier". Contributions of the University of California 27 (1): 1–9. 
Thompson, J.E.S. (1976). "The Grolier Codex". The Book Collector 25 (1): 64–75. 
Wiedemann, Hans G.; Klaus-Werner Brzezinka; Klaus Witke & Ingolf Lamprecht (2007). "Thermal and Raman-spectroscopic analysis of Maya Blue carrying artefacts, especially fragment IV of the Codex Huamantla". Thermochimica Acta 456 (1): 56–63.  
Whiting, Thomas A. L. (1998). "The Maya Codices". In Peter Schmidt, Mercedes de la Garza, Enrique Nalda. Maya. New York City: Rizzoli.  


  1. ^ Burns (2004, p. 199).
  2. ^ Wiedemann (2007), .
  3. ^ Coe, Michael D. The Maya, London: Thames and Hudson, 4th ed., 1987, p. 161
  4. ^ Maya writing
  5. ^ "O Códice de Dresden".  
  6. ^ Ernst Förstemann, Commentary on the Maya Manuscript in the Royal Public Library of Dresden, Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University Vol. IV — No.2, Cambridge Mass. 1902
  7. ^ John Eric Sidney Thompson, A commentary on the Dresden Codex: A Maya Hieroglyphic Book, Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, 1972.
  8. ^ Beyer, Hermann 1933 Emendations of the 'Serpent Numbers' of the Dresden Maya Codex. Anthropos (St. Gabriel Mödling bei Wien) 28: pp.1–7. 1943 The Long Count Position of the Serpent Number Dates. Proc. 27th Int. Cong. Of Amer., Mexico, 1939 (Mexico) I: pp. 401–405.
  9. ^ Grofe, Michael John 2007 The Serpent Series: Precession in the Maya Dresden Codex
  10. ^ a b c d e Sharer and Traxler 2006, p. 127.
  11. ^ FAMSI.
  12. ^ a b Noguez et al. 2009, p. 20.
  13. ^ Noguez et al. 2009, pp. 20–21.
  14. ^ a b Noguez et al. 2009, p.21.
  15. ^ Ciudad et al. 1999, pp. 877, 879.
  16. ^ Miller 1999, p. 187.
  17. ^ Sharer and Traxler 2006, p. 129.
  18. ^ Coe 1999, p. 200. Ciudad et al. 1999, p. 880.
  19. ^ See "The Paris Codex", in Marhenke (2003), .
  20. ^ Coe (1992, p.101), Sharer & Traxler (2006, p.127)
  21. ^ a b Stuart (1992, p.20)
  22. ^ Coe (1992, p.101)
  23. ^ Vail, Gabrielle. 2006. Maya Codices. Annual Review of Anthropology. 35:497–519
  24. ^ Whiting 1998: 207–208
  25. ^ Thompson 1975: 1-9; 1976: 64-75
  26. ^ Baudez 2002: 70-79, 98-102
  27. ^ Milbrath 2002: 50-83
  28. ^ For a succinct account, see Kelker & Bruhns 2010: 95-104


See also

Since the start of the 20th century, William Randolph Hearst. Although fake codices have seldom fooled serious scholars, the Grolier Codex may be a major exception. Its paper seems to be ancient, and the influential Mayanist Michael D. Coe believed the artifact to be genuine, followed in this by Stephen Houston and Karl Taube (all three scholars stemming from Yale); but other eminent Mayanists such as J.E.S. Thompson,[25] Claude Baudez,[26] and Susan Milbrath[27] concluded that its pictures and glyphs are falsifications. They pointed out a long series of inconsistencies and errors in the alleged codex, and drew attention to its arthistorical improbability and its uselessness for astrological and divinatory purposes.[28] Although their arguments were never effectively countered, no scholarly unanimity has been reached up to now (2015).


Given the rarity and importance of these books, rumors of finding new ones often develop interest. Uaxactun, Guaytán in San Agustín Acasaguastlán, and Nebaj in El 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. Unfortunately, all of them have degraded into unopenable masses or collections of very small flakes and bits of the original texts. Thus it may never be possible to read them.[24]

Other Maya codices

While the three codices above were known to scholars since the 19th century, the Grolier Codex only surfaced in the 1970s. The codex, said to have been found in a cave, 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). Each page shows a hero or god, facing to the left. At the top of each page is a number, and down the left of each page is what appears to be a list of dates. The pages are much less detailed than in the other codices, and hardly provide any information that is not already in the Dresden Codex. Mayanists continue to debate its authenticity (see below, 'Forgeries').[23]

Grolier Codex

. Bibliothèque Nationale It remains in the possession of the [22] De Rosny published a facsimile edition of the codex in 1864.[21] ("Codex Pérez") after its identifying wrapper, but in due course the codex would be more generally known as the Paris Codex.Codex Peresianus De Rosny initially gave it the name [21] written on it, possibly a reference to the Jose Pérez who had published two brief descriptions of the then-anonymous codex in 1859.Pérez As a result, it is in very poor condition. It was found wrapped in a paper with the word [20]