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Mayan Codex: Codices (Paper Media) Were Destroyed By Conquistadors, Leaving Only Three (Or Four)

Ancient History | January 4, 2021

(Joern Haufe/Getty Images)

At the peak of its power, the Mayan Empire of Mesoamerica was a complex culture with sophisticated systems of mathematics, astronomy, architecture, writing, and religion. They built massive cities of stone, charted the stars, created beautiful works of art, and recorded their history, knowledge, and philosophies on tree bark paper that was folded into books called codices. Historians believe there were once thousands of these codices that would give us a complete understanding of the Mayan world, but only three (possibly four) of these documents remain.

The Mayan Empire

Based in what is now Guatemala, the Mayan Empire was founded around 1800 B.C.E. before spreading into Central America and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Around 250–700 C.E., the Mayan people, who were renowned scholars with advanced knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, built great stone structures and impressive cities. By 900 C.E., however, most had been abandoned, and the Mayan population declined drastically due to drought, overpopulation, and war. By the time the Spanish Conquistadors, led by Hernan Cortes, landed in the New World in 1525, the Mayans were few in number, living in small, primitive villages while their once-great cities languished in the jungle overgrowth.

The Conquistadors encountered the dwindling Mayan population, as well as the powerful Aztecs, and those who refused to convert to Christianity were systematically slaughtered. All vestiges of the indigenous religions were obliterated with no regard for their historic or cultural value, and as part of this cultural erasure, thousands of Mayan codices were burned.

(Simon Burchell/Wikimedia Commons)

The Only Surviving Codices

Fortunately, they missed a few, which have been preserved by archaeologists and historians. Three confirmed Mayan codices are known to have survived, each named for the city in which they are presently kept: the Dresden Codex, the Paris Codex, and the Madrid Codex. They describe, among other things, certain deities of the Mayan religion, astronomical predictions, the movements of planets, details of religious rituals, signs of bad omens, plants and animals, and agricultural tips. They were most likely written in the 12th century, but experts have pointed out that the books may have been copied from older works.

Since the 1700s, experts thought the Mayan codices were written on paper made from plant fiber, but a 1910 analysis revealed the pages were long strips of the inner bark of fig trees folded like accordions, making them easy to store and transport. Unfortunately, the organic material also made them fragile and easy to burn, as the Conquistadors proved, so their proper storage and preservation is a top priority for the institutes responsible for them.

(Bibliothèque Nacionale de France/Wikimedia Commons)

What's In The Codices?

According to legend, the Paris Codex was acquired by the national library of Paris in 1832 but sat collecting dust in a library office basket until it was rediscovered in 1859. Whatever the case, the Paris Codex is in rough shape, just a fragment of the book that once contained 11 double-sided pages. The text reveals information about Mayan history, religious ceremonies, deities, astronomical observations, lunar phases, and constellations. It is currently kept at the Bibliotheque Nationale. 

The most complete of the three surviving Mayan codices, the Dresden Codex, was purchased by the Royal Library of Dresden in 1739 from a private antiquities collector and has become the most studied of the three codices. Experts believe that at least eight different scribes had a hand in writing the Dresden Codex, which was likely penned between 1000 and 1200 C.E. and focuses on astrology, giving information about significant dates for religious celebrations. It also provides important dates for farmers to plant and harvest their crops and information on medicines for various illnesses. Unfortunately, during World War II, Dresden was famously the target of an intense, three-day bombing that heavily damaged the library and its collection, including the Dresden Codex. Fortunately, copies of the text were made prior to the war, so study of the codex can continue.

Prior to its arrival in Spain, the Madrid Codex was separated into two parts, which scholars have dubbed the Troano and the Cortesanius, that weren't combined until 1888. Like the Dresden Codex, experts believe this text was also written by as many as nine different individuals around 1400 C.E. Within its pages, which are housed at the Museo de America in Madrid, we find information about the Mayan New Year and the rituals surrounding it as well as the Mayan gods and the days on the calendar associated with the different deities alongside common, everyday information pertaining to farming, hunting, and pottery making.

(Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

The Fourth Codex?

A possible fourth codex exists, called the Grolier Codex, but many experts doubt its authenticity. It was discovered centuries later than the other three, allegedly given in 1965 in a box of artifacts that had been recently unearthed in a cave in Mexico to a Mexican collector, Dr. Jose Saenz, who presented the 11 pages of the codex to the Grolier Club of New York City in 1971 before it made its way to its current home at a museum in Mexico City. Like the confirmed codices, it offers astrological observations and predictions, but it's much less detailed and contains little information that can't be found in the others.

Tags: ancient history | literature | pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.