Discovery and Content

The Maya codices are screenfold books painted on paper made from the bark of the fig tree. They were produced by coating the paper with a stucco wash and then painting it with glyphs and pictures. The Madrid Codex is the longest, measuring approximately 22 feet in length. It consists of 56 leaves painted on both sides, or 112 pages. The Dresden Codex contains 74 pages, whereas the Paris and Grolier codices are much smaller (24 and 10 pages, respectively). They are believed to be fragments of what were once longer screenfolds.

The hieroglyphic texts recorded in the codices are written in the script used throughout the lowland Maya area from the 2nd century A.D. to the 15th century. This area was occupied by Yucatec and Ch’olan-speaking populations at the time of Spanish contact in the early 16th century.

Map showing distribution of Mayan languages. After V. Bricker (1986:Fig. 1).

Today the Yucatecan languages (including Yucatec, Lacandón, Mopán, and Itzaj) are spoken throughout the Yucatán Peninsula, as well as in lowland Chiapas, Petén, and Belize. Two of the Ch’olan languages (Ch’ol and Chontal) are found in the Tabasco lowlands, whereas a third (Ch’orti’) is spoken in the vicinity of the archaeological site of Copán in Honduras. A fourth Ch’olan language, Ch’olti’, was documented during the Colonial period, but its last remaining speakers died in the 18th century. Although Spanish Colonial sources describe a thriving manuscript tradition in the early 16th century, the Dresden, Paris, Madrid, and Grolier codices represent the only surviving Maya hieroglyphic screenfolds discovered to date. (Note: There are various other manuscripts that have been claimed as prehispanic Maya codices, but none of these claims have been substantiated.  Additionally, as we will see below, a number of scholars call the authenticity of the Grolier Codex into question.)

The Madrid Codex was discovered in Spain during the 19th century, having presumably been sent to Europe during the Spanish Colonial period and subsequently forgotten. It was found in two parts, which had become separated at some unknown point in the past. One section (the Troano) came to public attention in 1866 and the second (the Cortesianus) several years later. The two were first recognized as belonging to the same manuscript by the Americanist scholar Léon de Rosny in the early 1880s. A detailed discussion of the early history of the Codex "Tro-Cortesianus" may be found in Paz Cabello C. (1986).

The Dresden and Paris codices, also named after the cities where they are housed, were discovered in European collections in the 18th and 19th centuries. A fourth codex (the Grolier) was found by looters in a dry cave in Chiapas, Mexico in the 1960s. The status of the manuscript remained controversial for years, with scholars debating its authenticity. In an effort to settle the debate during the 1970s, Michael Coe submitted a fragment of unstuccoed bark paper found in association with the codex for radiocarbon testing; it yielded a date of A.D. 1230 +/- 130 years. Eric Thompson, who believed the codex to be a forgery, pointed out that although this date corresponds to the age of the paper, it has no bearing on when the manuscript was actually painted. In the 1980s, an analysis of the codex by John Carlson convinced many Mayanists of its authenticity, although recent studies by Claude Baudez and Susan Milbrath have again raised some doubts about when and by whom it was produced.

The surviving Maya hieroglyphic codices are primarily concerned with ritual and astronomical matters. This information is presented in one of two formats—tables containing dates in the Maya Long Count calendar, which places events in absolute time, and almanacs organized in terms of the 260-day ritual calendar used throughout Mesoamerica for divination and prophecy. Both types of instruments combine hieroglyphic captions with pictures that refer to specific days, either within the ritual calendar or the Long Count.

The rain god Cháak and the female deity Chak Chel producing rain from clay jars (Madrid 30a). Drawing after Villacorta C. and Villacorta (1976:284).

The Madrid Codex contains approximately 250 almanacs that are grouped thematically into sections concerned with the deity Chaak and rain ceremonies (see illustration above); planting and agriculture; ceremonies marking the end of one year and the start of the next (measured in terms of a 365-day period known as the haab'); deer hunting and trapping; the capture and sacrifice of prisoners and other events associated with the five nameless days (Wayeb’) at the end of the year; carving deity images; and beekeeping (see figure below). The focus of the manuscript, therefore, seems to be concerned with a series of activities that constitute the yearly round, as well as the rituals accompanying these events. Although some almanacs were probably used for divination within the 260-day ritual calendar, recent research by Victoria and Harvey Bricker, Gabrielle Vail, and others suggests that many almanacs referred to events that encompassed much longer periods of time, including a 52-year period known as the Calendar Round.

A ceremony performed when bees are moved to new hives (Madrid 111b). Drawing after Villacorta C. and Villacorta (1976:446).

Like the Madrid Codex, the Dresden and Paris codices also contain a number of almanacs structured according to the 260-day tzolk'in calendar. Almanacs represent only one component of the Dresden Codex, however, which is unique in terms of the Maya codices in having astronomical tables that include Long Count dates. (The Long Count system of dating is commonly used on Classic period monuments to anchor historical events that are centered around the lives of the ruling family in time.) These tables were designed to track solar and lunar eclipses; the appearance and disappearance of Venus in the night sky; and the positioning of Mars against the constellations. Astronomical instruments occur in both the Paris and Grolier codices as well. A series of thirteen constellations representing the Maya “zodiac” appears on pages 23-24 of the Paris Codex (illustrated below), and the Grolier Codex contains an incomplete almanac that has many similarities to the Dresden Venus table.

The Maya “zodiac” on pages 23-24 of the Paris Codex. Most of the constellations are represented by animals, including birds, a scorpion, a turtle, and a rattlesnake. Drawing after Villacorta C. and Villacorta (1976:220, 222).

Although the Madrid Codex lacks astronomical tables with Long Count dates, it has a number of almanacs that reference astronomical events, including the movement of Mars; solar and lunar eclipses; and seasonal phenomena such as the summer solstice and the spring equinox. These astronomical references occur within the context of almanacs that are structured according to the 260-day tzolk'in. Research by the Brickers and their colleagues suggests that many of these events can be placed into real or absolute time. A detailed discussion of the calendrical structure of Maya almanacs may be found in the sections Maya Dates and Calendars and Maya Almanacs.

Sources consulted:

  • Baudez 2002
  • H. Bricker et al. 1997
  • V. Bricker and H. Bricker 1988
  • V. Bricker and Vail 1997
  • Cabello C. 1986
  • Carlson 1983
  • Coe 1973:150
  • Glass and Robertson 1975:153
  • Milbrath 2002
  • de Rosny 1881
  • Thompson 1975
  • Vail 2002
  • Vail 2004

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