The Maya Used Glyphs for Writing

pages from the Dresden Codex

Joern Haufe / Getty Images

The Maya, a mighty civilization that peaked around 600-900 A.D. and was centered in present-day southern Mexico, Yucatan, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras, had an advanced, complex writing system. Their “alphabet” consisted of several hundred characters, most of which indicated a syllable or a single word. The Maya had books, but most of them were destroyed: only four Maya books, or “codices,” remain. There are also Maya glyphs on stone carvings, temples, pottery, and some other ancient artifacts. Great strides have been made in the last fifty years in terms of deciphering and understanding this lost language.

A Lost Language

By the time the Spanish conquered the Maya in the sixteenth century, Maya civilization had been in decline for some time. The conquest-era Maya were literate and had kept thousands of books, but zealous priests burned the books, destroyed temples, and stone carvings where they found them and did all they could to repress Maya culture and language. A few books remained, and many glyphs on temples and pottery lost deep in the rainforests survived. For centuries, there was little interest in ancient Maya culture, and any ability to translate the hieroglyphs was lost. By the time historical ethnographers became interested in the Maya civilization in the nineteenth century, the Maya hieroglyphs were meaningless, forcing these historians to start from scratch.

Maya Glyphs

Mayan glyphs are a combination of logograms (symbols that represent a word) and syllabograms (symbols that represent a phonetic sound or syllable). Any given word can be expressed by a lone logogram or a combination of syllabograms. Sentences were composed of both of these types of glyphs. A Mayan text was read from top to bottom, left to right. The glyphs are generally in pairs: in other words, you start at the top left, read two glyphs, then go down to the next pair. Often the glyphs were accompanied by a larger image, such as kings, priests or gods. The glyphs would elaborate on what the person in the image was doing.

History of Deciphering of the Maya Glyphs

The glyphs were once thought of as an alphabet, with different glyphs corresponding to letters: this is because Bishop Diego de Landa, a sixteenth century priest with extensive experience with Maya texts (he burned thousands of them) said so and it took centuries for researchers to learn that Landa’s observations were close but not exactly right. Great steps were taken when the Maya and modern calendars were correlated (Joseph Goodman, Juan Martíñez Hernandez and J Eric S. Thompson, 1927) and when glyphs were identified as syllables, (Yuri Knorozov, 1958) and when “Emblem Glyphs,” or glyphs that represent a single city, were identified. Most of the known Maya glyphs have been deciphered, thanks to countless hours of diligent work by many researchers.

The Maya Codices

Pedro de Alvarado was sent by Hernán Cortés in 1523 to conquer the Maya region: at the time, there were thousands of Maya books or "codices" which were still used and read by the descendants of the mighty civilization. It's one of the great cultural tragedies of history that nearly all of these books were burned by zealous priests during the colonial era. Only four badly battered Maya books remain (and the authenticity of one is sometimes questioned). The four remaining Maya codices are, of course, written in a hieroglyphic language and mostly deal with astronomy, the movements of Venus, religion, rituals, calendars and other information kept by the Maya priest class.

Glyphs on Temples and Stelae

The Maya were accomplished stonemasons and frequently carved glyphs onto their temples and buildings. They also erected “stelae,” large, stylized statues of their kings and rulers. Along the temples and on the stelae are found many glyphs which explain the significance of the kings, rulers or deeds depicted. The glyphs usually contain a date and a brief description, such as “penance of the king.” Names are often included, and particularly skilled artists (or workshops) would also add their stone “signature.”

Understanding Maya Glyphs and Language

For centuries, the meaning of the Maya writings, be they in stone on temples, painted onto pottery or drawn into one of the Maya codices, was lost to humanity. Diligent researchers, however, have deciphered nearly all of these writings and understand pretty much every book or stone carving that is associated with the Maya.

With the ability to read the glyphs has come a much greater understanding of Maya culture. For example, the first Mayanists believed the Maya to be a peaceful culture, dedicated to farming, astronomy, and religion. This image of the Maya as a peaceful people was destroyed when the stone carvings on temples and stelae were translated: it turns out the Maya were quite warlike, often raiding neighboring city-states for pillage and victims to sacrifice to their Gods.

Other translations helped shed light on different aspects of Maya culture. The Dresden Codex offers much information about Maya religion, rituals, calendars, and cosmology. The Madrid Codex has information prophecy as well as daily activities such as agriculture, hunting, weaving, etc. Translations of the glyphs on stelae reveal much about the Maya Kings and their lives and accomplishments. It seems every text translated sheds some new light on the mysteries of the ancient Maya civilization.


  • Arqueología Mexicana Edición Especial: Códices prehispánicas y coloniales tempranos. August, 2009.
  • Gardner, Joseph L. (editor). Mysteries of the Ancient Americas. Reader's Digest Association, 1986.
  • McKillop, Heather. "The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives." Reprint edition, W. W. Norton & Company, July 17, 2006.
  • Recinos, Adrian (translator). Popol Vuh: the Sacred Text of the Ancient Quiché Maya. Norman: the University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.
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Minster, Christopher. "The Maya Used Glyphs for Writing." ThoughtCo, Oct. 23, 2020, Minster, Christopher. (2020, October 23). The Maya Used Glyphs for Writing. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "The Maya Used Glyphs for Writing." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 7, 2023).