Dresden Codex

Most of our knowledge of Maya writing comes from monumental inscriptions in stone—public pronouncements carved into the walls of buildings or on stelae that stand like sentinels by a particular temple-pyramid. Sometimes textual commentaries were associated with striking carved friezes and vivid painted murals. Classic-period inscriptions and murals typically describe key events in the lives of kings and gods, but the later ones are increasingly concerned with warfare, conquest, and the sacrifice of captives. Many inscriptions contain calendrical dates, and these helped researchers establish the nature of the Maya calendar long before the remaining parts of the inscriptions began to be deciphered.

That these texts contained true hieroglyphic writing was not generally accepted until the later part of the twentieth century but is now beyond dispute. As we now know, syllabic glyphs were combined to produce phonetic expressions of words in a language conforming to strict principles of grammar and syntax, principles that have passed down recognizably into modern Maya languages such as Yu-catec, spoken in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico and in parts of northern Guatemala and Belize.

Ancient Maya script was without doubt the most highly developed writing system in the whole of pre-Columbian America. Yet much of it doubtless existed on perishable media and has been permanently lost. Hundreds of "books" in the form of folded strips of bark paper were burned to a cinder by the Spanish priests. From the Maya region only four of these codices survive, but these give us tremendous insights into learning and ritual. They are known, after the places where they were eventually discovered, respectively as the Dresden Codex, Madrid Codex, Paris Codex, and Grolier Codex. It is the first—the Dresden Codex—that holds the most fascination regarding astronomy. The whole book appears to be an astronomical (or rather astrological) almanac stuffed full of information about different celestial bodies. A vast amount of careful

Page 20 of the Dresden Codex. It contains one complete almanac and parts of three others, featuring depictions of the Moon Goddess, Ix Chel. (Art Resource, NY)

scholarship has been concerned with the detailed analysis of the contents of the codex. Among many other things, this work suggests that the Dresden Codex was actually a copy, probably made between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries C.E., of an original document as much as three or four hundred years older.

The Dresden Codex contains a number of tables that relate to particular celestial bodies. One of the most famous is the Venus table, which was first identified as such from the repeated appearance of the number sequence 236, 90, 250, and 8. These numbers seem to correspond to the canonical lengths of the appearance and disappearance of Venus during each synodic cycle. Another table records intervals between "danger periods" when solar eclipses might occur. It is also clear from the Dresden Codex that the Maya were obsessed with interlocking time cycles: they were well aware that five Venus cycles equaled eight years and also (nearly) 99 lunations; 46 tzolkins (260-day cycles) equaled 405 lunations, and so on. We would see these as coincidences of nature but to the Maya they represented natural rhythms of the cosmos.

The motivation for their interest in celestial cycles was, as we would see it, primarily astrological. They needed to be able to predict the motions of Venus, for example, so that they could judge the time when the omens would be best for waging war and capturing warriors for sacrifice to the gods. In this sense, the Dresden Codex and other books like it might have functioned both as astronomical tables and as divinatory almanacs.

See also:

Maya Long Count; Mesoamerican Calendar Round; Venus in Mesoamerica.

Inferior Planets, Motions of.

References and further reading

Aveni, Anthony F. Stairways to the Stars: Skywatching in Three Great Ancient Cultures, 110-133. New York: Wiley, 1997.

-. Skywatchers, 169-207. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Coe, Michael D. Breaking the Maya Code (revised ed.). New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. London: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

Thompson, J. Eric S. A Commentary on the Dresden Codex: A Maya Hieroglyphic Book. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1972.

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