One of the most important and scarce legacies of the Mayan civilization are the 4 preserved Mayan codices. These codices are books written in pre-Hispanic times, a true treasure of Humanity.

The Mayan codices they were made on deer skin and in amate paper, made with the vegetable fibers of the tree. It is more a textile support than paper. They were made by hand and the dyes were vegetable. They have a rectangular shape, are folded like an accordion and are small in size. This gives us to understand that they were for individual use.


What do the Mayan codices tell us?

The writings collected mainly astronomical knowledge: numerical calendar, the gods and their ceremonies fixed in the calendar, prophecies, lunar calendars, sowing, astronomical ... authentic gems of Mayan knowledge. Writings that give us real support, a direct window to what the Mayan civilization was. The graphic representations are not wasted, what a beautiful thing full of information.

Dresden Codex. Source

How many Mayan codices are there?

We have only received 4 Mayan codices in acceptable conditions:

  • el Dresden Codex,
  • el Codex of Madrid,
  • el Codex of ParisThese 3 are named after the city where they are located,
  • and Grolier Codex, discovered in Mexico at 1965.

The codices, like most records of Mayan writing, takes place during the Classic Period, which includes from 250 BC to 900 AD. C. It was the period of maximum splendor of the Mayan civilization, of the great lineages, battles, art, advances, discoveries, developments.

At this time comes the heyday of Mayan knowledge. The knowledge base of what is transmitted in the codices is molded at this time.


Why are so few Mayan codices preserved?

The causes are several and all add up in this poor legacy. The Mayan civilization suffers a collapse at the end of the Classic Period, from 700 AD onwards. Some 150 years of prolonged crisis made this great civilization impoverished and faced its decline around 1500 AD Art, studies, refinements, science, pampering for beauty ... it was no longer the same, it is not he repeated living again under that cultural and intellectual splendor.

A thousand and infinite stories that will have passed the codices who survived, those who did not stay in abandoned cities, during those 650 years that passed until the arrival of the Spanish colonizer. The tropical climate of the Mayan lands did not help in the conservation of the codices, which are already of a material fragile and perishable.

Archaeological zone Yaxchilan, Chiapas
Dresden Codex. Source
Dresden Codex. Source

When the colonizer reaches the Yucatan Peninsula in 1547 a living Mayan culture was found derived from a civilization in ruins for a few decades. The Spanish evangelizer in his arduous race to save the gentile souls of the Mayans, annihilated much of the Mayan culture, plagued with heresies and diabolical acts. Throughout the entire Mayan territory, he destroyed what he considered diabolical, practically everything.

Few were the Codices saved. Only in the sadly known Auto of faith de Peanut they destroyed themselves "5.000 idols of different shapes and dimensions, 13 large stones used as altars, 22 small stones carved, 27 rolls with signs and hieroglyphics, tons of books and 197 vessels of all sizes ".

Codex of Madrid exhibited in the Museum of America of Madrid
Codex of Madrid exhibited in the Museum of America of Madrid. Source

Unfortunately the destruction was not only on this side of the pond. The Mayan Codices that were rescued and taken to Europe they suffered the disasters of the destruction of the Second World War, which devastated entire cities. The wars they cause too much irreparable damage.

Also the same tiempo that everything erodes and the little interest or knowledge of all those involved in the chain of preservation of the Mayan culture, from which we could have learned much more. The interest in Mayan civilization developed in the 19th century.

FAMSI (foundation for the advancement of Mesoamerican studies) has excellent links to each of the Mayan codices: Dresden Codex, Codex of Madrid, Codex of Paris y Grolier Codex.

A host of vicissitudes along the way have marked the fate of these 4 codices Maya. These have allowed to deepen the knowledge of the Maya, being the Mayan writings of greater intellectuality. They are of immeasurable value for the human being, to continue learning from our brief steps in this life.

Good way,

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Sandra Salvadó Training photographer, traveler by vocation and certified tourism guide by the Government of Mexico. We promote natural wonders and contemporary Mayan culture. Great fan of pre-Hispanic history. Author of the blog and co-founder of The Shortest Path Travel, agency that guides you through alternative paths in Mayan lands. Social and sustainable tourism in the Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapas.
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