The Maya Codices

Although scribes wrote in many different places, they spent most of their time writing in special books made of paper called codices. Within these books, scribes faithfully recorded centuries of Maya history, astronomical calculations, and religious practices. Some of the codices even recorded travel and hunting details. Others included tables for predicting when an eclipse of the sun would occur.

The Maya made their codices in varying lengths. When folded, the Dresden Codex is only 3½ inches (9 cm) wide. When its accordion-style pages are unfolded, it is nearly 12 feet long. This gave the scribes 74 folded pages to write on - or 2,268 inches.

Folded, the Madrid Codex is only about 5 inches wide, but its 112 pages gave the scribes about 5,000 inches of writing space!

The Four Mayan Codices

Of the thousands of codices created, only four remain today. That’s because during the Spanish conquest of the Maya, Spanish soldiers burned the codices. Why? Because the Spanish thought the pagan codices were the work of the devil.

Three of the codices eventually were found in European libraries. Experts believe they ended up in Europe when Spanish explorers sent them home as souvenirs.

Named after the cities where they are now located, these codices are known as the Dresden Codex, the Madrid Codex, and the Paris Codex.

Pages from the Dresden Codex
Pages from the Dresden Codex
Diego de Landa, the Spanish priest who ordered the burning of the Maya codices.
Diego de Landa, the Spanish priest who ordered the burning of the Maya codices.

Why did the Spanish burn the Maya codices?

Diego de Landa (1524–1579), the Spanish priest in charge of converting the Maya to Christianity, ordered the burning of the Maya codices.

As many of the writings were records of Maya religious ceremonies, de Landa considered them to be non-Christian and therefore evil. He burned thousands of the codices in huge bonfires. In his journal, de Landa wrote that the Maya were deeply upset that he had destroyed their written history.

De Landa had his Catholic priests torture and kill any Maya who resisted conversion to Christianity. The priests whipped the Maya for worshipping their gods, scalded them with boiling water, and even stretched their joints with ropes and pulleys.

More than 5,000 Maya were tortured and more than 150 died. De Landa also ordered the Maya temples torn down. Some Spanish priests were so upset at de Landa’s treatment of the Maya that they turned against Spain.

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The Paris codexThe Madrid codexThe Grolier codex
The Paris codex
The Paris codex
The Madrid codex
The Madrid codex
The Grolier codex
The Grolier codex

The Dresden Codex, The Madrid Codex, And The Paris Codex

The Dresden Codex, discovered in a private library in Vienna in 1739, discusses astronomy and includes tables for predicting solar eclipses. The Madrid Codex, found in Spain in the 1860s, includes horoscopes and prophesies. The Paris Codex, discovered in 1859 at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, highlights Maya rituals and ceremonies.

The Grolier Codex

A fourth codex, called the Grolier Codex (because it was first displayed at the Grolier Club in New York City), may be a forgery. It talks about how the planet Venus affected Maya religion and astrology. Though no one knows where it was discovered, the Grolier Codex is now housed in Mexico City, Mexico.

How the Maya codices were made

Scribes couldn’t buy paper from stores like we do today. They had to make their own from the bark of wild fig trees. It was a multistep process to turn the bark into paper. First, scribes stripped the inner bark from the wild fig trees and boiled it in lime water. The lime water softened the bark. After rinsing the bark in clean water, scribes pounded it with stone tools called muinto until it was very thin and wide.

Maya scribes working on their codices.
Maya scribes working on their codices.
Maya scribe kneeling before a ruler.
Maya scribe kneeling before a ruler.

They then layered sheets of this flattened bark on top of each other, alternately laying them horizontally and vertically, so the tree fibers crossed each other and made the paper strong and thick enough to be written on both sides. The paper was set to dry in the hot sun and then individual sheets were joined together, end to end, to make one long piece. The muinto would have made the beaten side of the paper rough, so scribes smoothed the paper with smooth, heated stones.

Scribes then used a wooden tool with a straight edge to crisply fold the paper back and forth on itself, like a fan or an accordion. The folded pages made it easy for scribes to open or close a book to the pages they wanted to see. But before they could write in the books, they needed to complete one more step: prepare the paper to absorb ink. To give the paper a smooth writing texture, scribes painted both sides of the pages with a layer of gesso, a thin plaster made from ground white limestone and water.

When the gesso was dry, the pages were refolded and the books covered in protective binders made from wood and jaguar pelts. Experts believe the protective covers were detachable. The covers were probably held in place with ties, not glue, and were placed on the codices when they were being read or written on, but removed when the codices were stored. This belief is backed up by the fact that none of the four surviving codices have covers, and that archaeologists have uncovered many clay pots decorated with images of scribes writing in codices protected by covers made from jaguar pelts.

Just as the scribes used a grid when carving glyphs on other surfaces, they also used grid lines in their codices to plan the layout, as the books were too important (as well as time consuming to make) to mess up.

As they worked, scribes used brush pens (very thin brushes) and quills to apply ink to the book pages. Their brushes were made from different thicknesses of animal hair. Conch shells, cut lengthwise, served as ink pots! Black ink was made from soot and red ink from a mineral called hematite. Because Maya scribes used mostly black and red inks, the Aztec named the Maya lowlands the Land of Black and Red.

Experts believe scribes made black ink for their codices by adding water to the soot scraped from the bottom of cooking pots. This soot is called carbon ink, and it is permanent, which is why epigraphers are still able to read the glyphs of the four Maya codices that survive today.

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Comments 8 comments

Xenonlit profile image

Xenonlit 5 years ago

This is a well done article. I appreciate having more information about Mayan history in a clearly written form!


Ardie profile image

Ardie 5 years ago from Neverland

How horrible that deLanda burned the history of such fascinating people all for the sake of religion... Thank goodness for the surviving codices! I found it very interesting how the scribes created the codices. It gives me a whole new appreciation for written history - no pens, no computers, no pre-fab paper.


Haunty profile image

Haunty 5 years ago from Hungary Author

Thanks Xenonlit!

Hey Ardie :) The interesting thing about deLanda is that at first he had an appreciation for the culture. He wrote a book in which he recorded the letters of the Maya alphabet and their corresponding sounds in Spanish. But when he learned that the Maya still practiced their rituals after the Christian priests had arrived to instruct them, he was infuriated and that was when he ordered the burning of all written documents and the killing of the priests. Ironically, the man who wanted to 'destroy the work of the devil' is in big part responsible for the cracking of the Maya code by researchers of later centuries. His book survived and because of it we now know almost everything about the Maya.


yusefblack profile image

yusefblack 5 years ago

Nice work Haunty. It is interesting how far we go to record and calculate, and then how bad we mat feel when it is "erased"... it's as if the existence itself is erased


Haunty profile image

Haunty 5 years ago from Hungary Author

Yusef, that's a good point that's worth contemplating. Thanks for chipping in!


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States

This is just making me think of all the knowledge that has been destroyed in our past - the people in power attempting to shut out voices other than their own. What a loss to the world!


yusefblack profile image

yusefblack 5 years ago

Sometime ago, I read about a study of mice, a few in US separated from others and sent to UK. In the US, the mice were allowed to go through a maze to find some cheese, it took them x trials before they leaned the right path. Later on, the ones in the UK were set in the same maze, same circumstances... these mice learned to get through the maze after many fewer trials. The experiment was testing whether knowledge is passed between individuals of a species... idea being, even if it appears that we don't know or that knowledge is lost, possible that whatever we learn is actually never lost, remains in us, i.e. instincts?


Haunty profile image

Haunty 5 years ago from Hungary Author

Hi guys! Thanks for stopping by and reading. I like the idea of a collective consciousness that will retain all the accumulated knowledge of mankind even if the physical agents that used to carry it are lost.

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