Mayan Codices

Mayan Codices

Mayan codices (singular codex) are books written by the Mayans in the ancient Mayan hieroglyphic writing system. There were many such books in existence, but they were destroyed in bulk by the Conquistadors and priests after the Spanish conquest, famously all those in Yucatan were ordered destroyed by Bishop Diego de Landa in July of 1562.

Only three codices and a fragment of a fourth survived to modern times. These are:

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

The Madrid Codex deals with horoscopes and astrological tables and is the product of eight different scribes. It was separated into two parts very early on in its European [journey], and thus traveled different paths in Europe until 1888. In 1880, the Frenchman Léon de Rosny figured out that the two parts were a single codex, now commonly called the “Madrid”, or the “Tro-Cortesianus”. (Pages 77 and 78 were for some reason always upside-down within the codex.)  Both parts were re-united in 1888, and the Madrid Codex is now in the Museo de América, in Madrid, Spain.

The Dresden Codex is held in the Sächsische Landesbibliothek, a museum in Dresden, Germany. It is an important work, as it explains to us the details of the Mayan calendar and number system. The codex is written on a long sheet of paper which is ‘fanfolded’ to make a book of about 39 leaves, written on both sides. It was probably written by Mayan scribes 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. In 1744, Johann Christian Götze, Director of the Royal Library at Dresden, gave it to the Royal Library, where it still resides. (The library’s current name is the Sächsische Landesbibliothek). But not all has been “smooth sailing” for the Dresden; it sustained heavy water damage during the Dresden Fire Storms of WWII. Because the Dresden had fallen apart in previous years, later Europeans assigned to it page numbers that, upon further study of the codex, have been thought to be incorrect. The order of the pages within the codex was probably 1-24, 46-74, and 25-45.

The Paris Codex is said to have been acquired by the Bibliothèque royale (later renamed the Bibliothèque nationale) of Paris in 1832.  The set of drawings are now lost, but lithographic prints of them, some of which were hand-painted, are preserved as extra pages with the set of Kingsborough’s “Antiquities of México” now housed in the Newberry Library of Chicago. An article written by José Pérez, and published in 1859, may have been the instigating influence in introducing the Paris Codex to some of the public. Though the codex has sometimes been referred to as the “Pérez Codex” and the “Maya-Tzental Codex”, the preferred names are the “Paris Codex” and “Codex Peresianus.
Color renditions of the codices are of importance in understanding more about the Maya through their art, and their mathematical calculations. Note that red numbers and black numbers generally have different significance: the red giving the dates, the black giving differences between dates. Nearly all zeros are written in red.

The fourth known surviving Maya book, the Grolier Codex, is a fragment a few pages long. In 1965, the Grolier Codex was “discovered” in México. The story of its discovery is well-told in Michael Coe’s “Breaking the Maya Code” (Thames and Hudson, 1992). Dr. Saenz eventually bought the codex fragment, let it be shown by Michael Coe at the Grolier Club in New York City (1971), and donated it to the Mexican government, where, as Coe says, “it presently languishes in a Mexico City vault”–instead of being displayed in a museum. Fortunately, complete photographs of the Grolier Codex have been published.


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