Maya codices (singular codex) are folding books stemming from the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, written in Maya hieroglyphic script on Mesoamerican paper, made from the inner bark of certain trees, the main being the wild fig tree or Amate (Ficus Glabrata), this paper was named by the Mayas Huun, and contained many Glyph and paintings. They are the products of professional scribes working under the patronage of the Howler Monkey Gods. The Maya developed their huun around the V century AD, in the same era that the Romans did, but their paper was more durable and a better writing surface than the papyrus. The codices have been named for the cities in which they eventually settled. The Dresden codex is generally considered the most important of the few that survive.
There were many such books in existence at the time of the Spanish conquest of Yucatán in the 16th century, but they were destroyed in bulk by the Conquistadors and priests soon after. In particular, all those in Yucatán were ordered destroyed by Bishop Diego de Landa in July of 1562. Such codices were primary written records of Maya civilization, together with the many inscriptions on stone monuments and stelae which survive to the present day. However, their range of subject matter in all likelihood embraced more topics than those recorded in stone and buildings, and was more like what we find on painted ceramics (the so-called 'ceramic codex').
Alonso de Zorita wrote that in 1540 he saw numerous such books in the Guatemalan highlands which ³recorded their history for more than eight hundred years back, and which were interpreted for me by very ancient Indians² (Zorita 1963, 271-2). Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas lamented that when found, such books were destroyed: "These books were seen by our clergy, and even I saw part of those which were burned by the monks, apparently because they thought [they] might harm the Indians in matters concerning religion, since at that time they were at the beginning of their conversion". The last codices destroyed were those of Tayasal, Guatemala in 1697, the last city conquered in America (source: Maya writing]. With their destruction, the opportunity for insight into some key areas of Maya life has been greatly diminished.
Only three codices and possibly a fragment of a fourth survived to modern times. These are:
- The Madrid Codex, also known as the Tro-Cortesianus Codex;
- Although of inferior workmanship, the Madrid Codex is even more varied than the Dresden Codex and is the product of eight different scribes. It is in the Museo de América in Madrid, Spain, where it may have been sent back to the Royal Court by Hernán Cortés. There are 112 pages, which got split up into two separate sections, known as the Troano Codex and the Cortesianus Codex. These were re-united in 1888.
- The Paris Codex, also known as the Peresianus Codex;
- The Paris Codex contains prophecies for tuns and katuns (see Maya Calendar), and is thus, in this respect, akin to the Books of Chilan Balam. It was found in a trashcan in a Paris library. As a result, it is in very poor condition. It is currently held in the Bibliothèque Nationale (National Library), Paris, France.
- The Grolier Codex, also known as the Grolier Fragment.
- While the other three codices were known to scholars since the 19th century, the Grolier Codex only surfaced in the 1970s. This fourth Maya codex was said to have been found in a cave, but the question of its authenticity has still not been resolved to everybody's satisfaction. The codex is really a fragment of 11 pages. It is currently in a museum in Mexico, but is not on display to the public. Scanned photos of it are available on the web. The pages are much less detailed than any of the other codices. Each page shows a hero or god, facing to the left. At the top of each page is a number. Down the left of each page are what appears to be a list of dates.
- The Dresden Codex;
- The Dresden Codex is held in the Sachsische Landesbibliothek (SLUB), the state library in Dresden, Germany. It is the most elaborate of the codices, and also a highly important work of art. Many sections are ritualistic (including so-called 'almanacs'), others are of an astrological nature (eclipses, the Venus cycles). The codex is written on a long sheet of paper which is 'fanfolded' to make a book of 39 leaves, written on both sides. It was probably written just before the Spanish conquest. Somehow it made its way to Europe and was bought by the royal library of the court of Saxony in Dresden in 1739.
The Venus cycle was an important calendar for the Maya, and much information in regard to this is found in the Dresden codex. The Maya were skilled astronomers, and could calculate the Venus cycle with extreme accuracy. There are six pages in the Dresden Codex devoted to the accurate calculation of the location of Venus. The Maya were able to achieve such accuracy by careful observation over many centuries. The Venus cycle was especially important because the Maya believed it was associated with war and used it to divine appropriate times (called electional astrology) for coronations and war. Maya rulers planned for wars to begin when Venus rose. The Maya may have also tracked the movements of other planets, including Mars, Mercury, and Jupiter.
Given the rarity and importance of these books, rumors of finding new ones often develop interest. Archaeological excavations of Maya sites have turned up a number of rectangular lumps of plaster and paint flakes, most commonly in elite tombs. These lumps are the remains of codices where all the organic material has rotted away. A few of the more coherent of these lumps have been preserved, with the slim hope that some technique to be developed by future generations of archaeologists may be able to recover some information from these remains of ancient pages. The oldest Maya codices known, have been found by archaeologists as mortuary offerings with burials in excavations in Uaxactun, Guaytán in San Agustín Acasaguastlán, and Nebaj in Quiché, Guatemala, at Altun Ha in Belize and at Copán in Honduras. The six examples of Maya books discovered in excavations date to the Early Classic (Uaxactún and Altun Ha), Late Classic (Nebaj, Copán), and Early Postclassic (Guaytán) periods and, unfortunately, all have been changed by the pressure and humidity during their many years in the ground, eliminating the organic backing and reducing all into unopenable masses or collections of very small flakes and bits of the original lime sizing and multicolor painting. The result being, unfortunately, more old books which will probably never be read. (Whiting 207-208)