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Mayan Codex. Madrid

The Maya employed ideograms to create an incalculable number of books, or codices. Only three are known to have survived. Their documented history began with an act of barbarism, continued under risky circumstances, and the effort to decipher them has yet to end.

By Beatriz Martí

The theme of a codex (pik hu'un, in Maya), could be linked to religion, astronomy, the agricultural cycles, history or prophecies. However, in every case, much of the content and the design of the codex itself were related to the spiritual world. In order to write, one had to be in touch with the gods, and the products were considered sacred. This necessitated that the books be kept in special rooms inside of temples and important civic buildings.

    The ritualized process of codex production involved specialists. The codex, its contents and the finished book were all considered linked to the heavens. Priests had to undergo purification and renovation rites in preparation for readings that they gave the populace during festivals and special ceremonies. Each priest read and gave interpretations that varied in accordance with his specialty.


Just as with modern books, paper was the most common material out of which codices were made. The Maya made paper from the inner bark of fig trees (Ficus), called kopó in Maya and today commonly known as amate paper. Although they also used deer skin, cotton cloth and maguey paper, apparently the Maya preferred kopó.

    The paper measured several meters long and, as in the case of the three known Maya codices, measured about 20 centimeters wide. The large codices were folded like screens, covered with layer of starch, and then with a thin, white, calcium carbonate paste.

    Each page was separated by a thick, red frame and then horizontal and vertical lines were painted to further separate texts. The remaining page was divided into several squares, inside of each was an ideogram, which had some relation to those in other boxes. Glyphs relating to each other were drawn in the sections. Subjects varied from religion, astronomy, agricultural cycles and history to prophecies. One or more themes occupied each page and in all cases, the contents related to the spiritual world.

Mayan Codex. Jug


The Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Yucatán Peninsula (México) in the 16th century, long after the most important Maya ceremonial centers were abandoned and the civilization had seen its end. Nevertheless, despite general decline, most Maya continued to follow the same religion and to use their traditional language and social organizations. In addition, they still made and read codices.

    The Maya ideograms were strange to the European missionaries who, motivated by curiosity, undertook the task of gathering all the codices they could find and deciphering them with the help of interpreters. They then saw them as diabolical, and impelled by fear, undertook a systematic burning of all the codices they could find.

    One of the authors of the destruction was Friar Diego de Landa (1524-1579), the Bishop of Yucatán. Later in life he said that, "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 (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction".

    To preserve the remaining books, the Maya buried them or hid them in caves. Some have been found, but because of the humidity in the jungles covering the Mundo Maya, only fragments remain, and all their pictures have long since decayed. Luckily, three codices did survive, probably because they were already in Europe, although how they got there is a mystery. They lay forgotten for 250 years in three separate cities until, under very risky circumstances, they became known in Dresden, Germany; Paris, France; and Madrid, Spain.

Mayan Codex. Dresde


The first Maya codex to be recognized as such, the Dresden Codex is considered the most beautiful, complete and best made of the three. It was bought by the director of the Royal Library of Dresden, Germany, in 1739 from a collection in Vienna. How the codex got to Austria is unknown, but it was probably sent by the king of Spain, who was also the king of Austria during the Conquest.

    In 1740, this codex became part of the inventory in the Dresden library, yet it passed unnoticed for seventy years. In 1810 Alexander von Humboldt reproduced a part of it on pages 47-52 of his Vues des cordilleres et monuments des peuples indigenous de l'Amerique. However, not until 1829 did Constantine Rafinesque-Schmaltz (1783-1840) identify it as a Maya codex.

    During World War II, Dresden was severely bombed, and the library suffered serious damage. Twelve pages of the codex were harmed and all the glyphs in the upper left-hand corners of the pages were completely erased. Even so, it is still a "faithful representative of the precocity and elegance of the ancient Maya," according to Salvador Toscano (1912-1949), historian, archaeologist and critic of Mexican art.

    The Dresden Codex, written on kopó, is a folded-screen document divided into 39 sheets, each nine centimeters wide by 20.4 centimeters high and 3.5 meters long when opened. It totals 74 pages in length, painted with extraordinary care and clarity using a very fine brush. The artist used both sides of all but four of the pages of the codices. Its basic colors are red, black and the so-called Maya blue. The codex was written by eight different scribes, each with their own distinctive style, type of glyphs and subject matter. It is linked to the Yucatecan Maya in Chichén Itzá, the extraordinary ancient Maya city situated in the north of the Yucatán Peninsula.

    The Dresden Codex was made between A.D. 1000-1200, and was still possibly in use when the conquistadors arrived. The codex' basic subject matter is astronomy. There are almanacs and day counts for worship and prophecies; two astronomical and astrological tables, one dealing with eclipses and the other Venus; and katún (a 20-year period) prophecies. It contains references and predictions for time and agriculture, favorable days for predictions, as well as texts about sickness, medicine, and seemingly, conjunctions of constellations, planets and the Moon. It also contains a page about a flood, a prophecy or maybe a reference to the rainy seasons so vital to the Maya.

Mayan Codex. Paris


The second codex was found in a garbage basket by the French scholar Léon de Rosny (1837-1914) in 1859. It was wrapped in a piece of paper on which the Spanish "Peres" and the Nahuatl "tzeltal" words were written, and tossed in the rubbish of the Paris Imperial Library. It had been in the library at least since 1832, when it was catalogued number two in the Fonds Mexicain.

    After he rescued it from the trash, Rosny identified the document as a Maya codex and named it the Peresianus Codex (Paris Codex). Only a part of the original codex, it is in worse condition than the other two and is of inferior artistic quality.

    A finished codex is designed like a screen. Drawn on 45-centimeter long strips of amate paper, the codex contains eleven 24 x 13 centimeter pages painted on both sides. On two pages, the motifs have disappeared completely, as have the glyphs around the four margins on all other sheets, leaving only the central part of every page reasonably intact.

    The Peresianus Codex refers to questions of ritual. The front of each sheet is dedicated to katuns from A.D. 1224-1441, their corresponding gods and ceremonies. A katún is depicted flanked by a hieroglyph that details rituals and prophecies. The reverse pages are full of predictive almanacs, New Year ceremonies and a zodiac divided into 364 days.

    There are doubts about the origin and period in which this codex was written. It is thought to be from 13th-century Palenque, Chiapas, and to be older than the Dresden Codex. Today, the Paris Codex is located in the National Library of Paris.


The third Maya codex wound up in 1860 Spain in the hands of Juan de Tro y Ortolano, a paleography professor who had bought it because of his interest in ancient manuscripts. Six years later Abbé Brasseur de Bourboug (1814-74), a notable French-American, identified it as a Maya codex, naming it the Tro Codex in honor of Juan de Tro y Ortolano, who gave him permission to publish it.

    A few years later, a Spaniard named Juan Palacios offered what he thought was a fourth Maya codex to the Imperial Library in Paris and the British Museum in London. Neither institution purchased the document, so it remained unsold until 1872, when the Spanish collector José Ignacio Miró acquired it in Extremadura. In 1875, Miró sold the codex to Madrid's Archaeological Museum, which named it the Codex Cortesianus, thinking that it had once belonged to Hernán Cortés.

    The same year, Léon de Rosny traveled to Madrid to examine it. Concluding that it was part of the Tro Codex, he re-named both documents the Tro-Cortesianus Codex. The two manuscripts were not reunited until 1888, when Professor Tro y Ortolano's son sold his section to the Archaeological Museum of Madrid. Since then the fragments—now called the Madrid Codex— have not been separated, and today are housed in the Madrid Archaeological Museum.

    The Tro-Cortesianus Codex measures 6.7 meters; it is the longest and best preserved of the three codices. Its 56 sheets, folded like a screen, give it 112 pages, each 12 centimeters wide by 24 centimeters high.

    The text has auguries that helped priests make predictions. It is divided into 11 sections: the first (pages 1-9) includes rituals for the gods Kukulcán and Itzamná; the second refers to bad omens concerning crops and offerings that should be made to regularize rain; the third is devoted to a katún of 52 ritual years; and the final eight parts refer to hunting, calendars, death and purification, among other themes.

    The origin of the Madrid Codex is unclear. It has been provisionally sited in the west of the Yucatán Peninsula in Champotón, Mexico, and dated to the 13th and 15th centuries.


The people who made codices received the Maya titles ah ts'ib and ah woh, terms which mean scribes and painters, respectively.

    A basic condition for earning the title was that the person possessed a special talent for painting or drawing. When the priests discovered this ability in young people, the person was selected by the priests to become a scribe. Initiates prepared by absorbing a deep level of knowledge in areas like Maya language and the general culture of their time. Later they specialized in a specific topic: history, astronomy, medicine, etc.

    After an arduous apprenticeship that lasted several years, the designing scribe belonged to a superior class characterized by having obtained a great level of knowledge. Then, depending on their field of study, each was destined to reside in some of the centers that dealt with their specialty, for example in matters that were religious, economic or civic: temples, tribunals, palaces, markets or houses of tributes were used.

    From that moment, the scribe would have to be completely devoted to his activities. Anonymously, they toiled to make the codices in their specialized fields, and the product of each person would become a part of the collective patrimony.

    It is thought that it took several days to write each codex. Each of the figures was delineated with black ink made of a coal base. The initial drawing was done with an instrument made from the thorns of the maguey cactus or from bone splinters of small animals—mainly birds. Later, the details on the inside of the square were filled in with a thicker paintbrush made with animal hair.

    Using color to illustrate the codices was not done for ornamental purposes; on the contrary, tones and shades were highly symbolic, as the Maya gave a special meaning to each color, which they related with deities, nature and the cosmos.

    Once they finished the elaboration of a codex the illustrators stayed in special rooms inside the same civil or religious buildings. The scribes would leave their contemplative sites only for specific reasons, such as when they were required to study, interpret the divine or explain their material's content.

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