The Dresden Codex

The Dresden Codex
The Dresden Codex. Artist Unknown

The Dresden Codex:

The Dresden Codex is one of four remaining "books" attributed to the Maya culture, which flourished in the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala and Belize centuries before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. The Dresden Codex is one of the most important original sources of information about Maya culture. Translations of the Maya glyphs in the document reveal that it was mostly about astronomy, religion and rituals.

It is one of only four surviving Maya codices in existence.

The Codex:

The Dresden Codex, like other Mesoamerican texts, does not have leaves like a standard book: instead, it opens up like an accordion. There are 39 “pages,” each double-sided. It is about 20 cm high and 9 cm wide. When completely folded out, the codex is approximately 3.5 meters long. Like other codices preserved from the time, it was drawn on the prepared inner bark of a fig tree, which was then covered in a very fine layer of stucco to ensure a smooth surface. The drawings on the pages were done by no fewer than eight scribes over an unknown period of time. The text consists of glyphs alongside pictures: sometime red lines sub-divide a page.

Origin of the Dresden Codex:

The content of the codex may have been copied from earlier documents which no longer exist: researchers believe this because there is some data on the movements of Venus which appears to be corrections of accumulated errors in previous Venus calendars (probably due to lack of fraction in Maya mathematics).

Venus was a very important planet to Maya astronomers. The most recent date in the document, given in the Maya long count calendar system, is, which was in 1210 A.D. The translation of the glyphs reveals a language which is closest to Yucatecan Mayan: therefore it is assumed the codex originated there, perhaps in Chichen Itza or the eastern coast of the Yucatan.

History of the Codex:

The Dresden Codex was used in the Maya world for a long time until the arrival of the Spanish in the early sixteenth century. It then somehow miraculously survived the zealous priests, who burned thousands of similar books. It is not known how or when the codex came to Europe, but it was purchased by the Royal Dresden Library in 1739 as part of a collection of ancient books from a private collector in Vienna. Some suspect that it may have been among the gifts sent by Hernan Cortes to Spanish King Charles V, who was in Vienna when Cortes' gifts arrived. The codex needed another miracle to endure World War Two: the Dresden Library was seriously damaged in the war but the codex survived.

Content of the Dresden Codex:

For years, the content of the Dresden Codex was a mystery: all of the men and women who could read it died long ago. As dedicated researchers diligently studied the glyphs in the codexes, stonecarvings and pottery of the ancient Maya, the meaning of the codex began to become clear. It deals with the calendar, astronomy and rituals, particularly those rituals involved in the Maya New Year, which was an important event in Maya religion. The cycles of Venus, the Sun and Moon are included, as are prophecies for coming days and years.

There is a section on good days for agriculture and a multiplication table. Much of the information was sound: the charts in the codex could have accurately predicted the movements until the end of the fifteenth century: some 200 years after the last date noted in the text.

Importance of the Dresden Codex:

The Dresden Codex is the most complete and best-preserved of the four surviving Maya codices (the others are the Madrid Codex, the Paris Codex and the Grolier Codex). As such, it is a priceless resource for understanding Maya history and culture. Correlations between the codex and Bishop Diego de Landa's Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan helped decipher the glyphs in the book and elsewhere. As the Maya stonecarvings tended to be about politics and war, the codices and their information about religion and prophecy are that much more priceless to Mayanists.


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

Paxton, Merideth (trans.Xavier Noguez). Códice de Dresde. Arqueología Mexicana Edición Especial: Códices prehispánicas y coloniales tempranos. August, 2009.