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The Maya Civilization- Astronomy, Stars and Moon, Venus Cycle, and the Dresden Codex

Updated on June 8, 2019
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A close-up of the Dresden Codex
A close-up of the Dresden Codex
The Extension of Maya Civilization
The Extension of Maya Civilization

The Maya civilization

As early as 200 A.D. the Maya had developed a sophisticated civilization that spread across modern Mexico, Guatemala, and northern Belize. They built complex stone palaces, temples, and pyramids, and developed hieroglyphic writing and precise astronomical methods.

Most of their work in astronomy focused on cycles, as they viewed the heavens as a repetitive machine that could offer them knowledge on their future.

The Dresden Codex, pg. 49
The Dresden Codex, pg. 49

The Maya Almanac

Much of their astronomical knowledge was recorded in the Dresden Codex, one of three surviving hieroglyphic books brought to Europe during the Spanish conquest. The Dresden codex is nearly four yards long, with 39 painted ficus leaves. It is basically an almanac that chronicles and predicts astronomical events such as solar and lunar eclipses.

The hieroglyphs depict the Mayan deities, such as the god of maize, the sun god, the merchant god, the moon goddess, and several who are associated with death. As a mix of astronomical and astrological information, the Dresden Codex was used to help farmers predict doughts, storms, or abundant crop yields.

A System for Measuring Time

The Maya had units for counting time that were comparable to months, years, decades and centuries, but that operated on an entirely different system.

The uinal consisted of 20 days, and is similar to a month, though sometimes 5 extra days were added.

A tun had 360 days, like a year, with twenty tuns making up a katun, and twenty katuns making a baktun.

They also had a designated year zero, after which these blocks of time were listed in their calendar.

A Maya representation of Venus, shown spearing the throne.
A Maya representation of Venus, shown spearing the throne.

Venus was more important to the Maya than the sun.

Venus was meticulously tracked. Its cycle started when it passed between Earth and the Sun. During this time, it cannot be seen for 8 days. Then, for 263 days it is visible in the morning until it passes behind the sun and disappears. Fifty days later it comes back as the “evening star”, and remains visible in the sky for another 263 days.

The Venus tables on six pages o the Dresden Codex tell the reader when Venus will appear and disappear in the morning and evening skies. Amazingly, the Maya recognized that this cycle was not a full 584 days, but 583.92 days, and they adjusted their calender for this minuscule difference. The Venus tables in the Dresden Codex use a different system than the previously mentioned one for counting months, years, decades, and centuries. Instead, each day is represented by a set of numbers and names. Five of the tables cover a period of 2,920 days, over which five of Venus’ cycles equal eight Earth years.

Venus, the Morning Star, next to the Moon. Venus is very bright just before sunrise.
Venus, the Morning Star, next to the Moon. Venus is very bright just before sunrise.

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