The Four Surviving Maya Codices

The Dresden Codex
The Dresden Codex. Artist Unknown

The Maya - a powerful pre-Colombian civilization who reached their cultural zenith around 600-800 A.D. before falling into steep decline - were literate and had books, written in a complex language including pictograms, glyphs, and phonetic representations. A Maya book is referred to as a codex (plural: codices). The codices were painted onto a paper made of bark from the fig tree and folded out like an accordion.

Unfortunately, zealous Spanish priests destroyed most of these codices during the conquest and colonial era and today only four examples survive. The four surviving Maya codices mostly contain information about Maya astronomy, astrology, religion, rituals, and Gods. All four of the Maya books were created after the downfall of the Maya civilization, proving that some vestiges of culture remained after the great city-states of the Maya Classic Period were abandoned.

The Dresden Codex

The most complete of the surviving Maya codices, the Dresden Codex came to the Royal Library in Dresden in 1739 after being purchased from a private collector in Vienna. It was drawn by no fewer than eight different scribes and it is believed that it was created sometime between 1000 and 1200 A.D. during the Postclassic Maya period. This codex deals primarily with astronomy: days, calendars, good days for rituals, planting, prophecies, etc.

There is also a part which deals with sickness and medicine. There are also some astronomical charts plotting the movements of the Sun and Venus.

The Paris Codex

The Paris Codex, discovered in 1859 in a dusty corner of the Paris library, is not a complete codex, but fragments of eleven double-sided pages.

It is believed to date from the late Classic or Postclassic era of Maya history. There is much information in the codex: it is about Maya ceremonies, astronomy (including constellations), dates, historical information and descriptions of Maya Gods and spirits.

The Madrid Codex

For some reason, the Madrid Codex was separated into two parts after it reached Europe, and for a while was considered two different codices: it was put back together in 1888. Relatively poorly drawn, the codex is probably from the late Postclassic Period (circa 1400 A.D.) but may be from even later. As many as nine different scribes worked on the document. It is mostly about astronomy, astrology, and divination. It is of great interest to historians, as it contains information on Maya Gods and the rituals associated with the Maya New Year. There is some information about the different days of the year and the Gods associated with each. There is also a section on basic Maya activities such as hunting and making pottery.

The Grolier Codex

Not discovered until 1965, the Grolier Codex consists of eleven battered pages of what was likely once a larger book. Like the others, it deals with astrology, specifically Venus and its movements.

Its authenticity has been questioned, but most experts seem to think it’s genuine.

Sources Redating the Madrid Codex, by Angela M.H. Schuster, 1999.

McKillop, Heather. The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives. New York: Norton, 2004.