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The Dresden Codex, the great Maya book of the stars

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
The Dresden Codex has provided scholars a treasure trove of information on the Maya’s knowledge of the cosmos. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Unlike other great civilizations of old such as the ancient Greeks, Romans, or Egyptians, surprisingly few Maya texts survive to the present day. 

This is, of course, not because the Maya did not produce a great many written sources, but rather because of the zeal with which the invading European Conquistadors destroyed all Mesoamerican texts they could get their hands on, accusing them of being heretical.

Artwork by Fernando Castro Pacheco depicting Fray Diego de Landa, who was responsible for the destruction of innumerable Maya texts and artifacts. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

But despite their best efforts, a handful of ancient Maya texts did manage to survive, though mostly through imperfect copies. The most famous of these surviving works is the Popul Vuh, also known as the Sacred Book of the Maya. But the surviving version of the Popul Vuh exists only as a translation using Latin script, not the original hieroglyphic Mayan. 

Maya script, also known as Mayan glyphs, is historically the native writing system of the Maya civilization of Mesoamerica and is the only Mesoamerican writing system that has been substantially deciphered.

Note the use of the Mayan numeral system which uses the number 20 as its base, instead of 10. Any number, save zero can be represented using only two symbols — these being dots and dashes. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The Dresden Codex is a Mayan book believed to be the oldest surviving book written in the Americas, dating to the 11th or 12th century. It is believed to be a copy of a text dating to the 7th or 8th centuries. Its rediscovery was key in the deciphering of the hieroglyphic Mayan system and is to this day considered one of the most important documents of its kind.

The original name of the codex is not known, but for centuries it had been known as the Grolier Codex until it was lost and rediscovered in the city of Dresden Germany, hence its current name. 

The Dresden Codex remains in Germany to this day, despite repeated calls for its repatriation. Photo: Courtesy

How exactly this priceless artifact ended up in Germany is an open question, but it was likely transported to Europe by scholars in much the same way as another famous ancient Maya text known as the Madrid Codex. 

The Dresden Codex is made of a material made from tree bark known as amate. Its pages measure roughly 8 by 20 inches and can be folded accordion-style. When unfolded the text measures 3.7 meters long, or 12 feet. 

Aside from its historical and cultural importance, the Dresden Codex is also considered a great work of art and one of the finest surviving examples of Maya art. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In all, the codex contains 78 pages with writing on both sides, as well as decorative front and back covers. The codex was first published in 1810 by Alexander von Humboldt.

Another noteworthy aspect of the Dresden Codex is its ample use of blue. Across the ancient world, the use of blue was rare because of the difficulties involved in producing this color. The color known as Maya Blue was made from a small-leaved plant known as anil that when combined with a special type of clay found in Mesoamerica allowed for the creation of a stable pigment.

Note the use of Maya Blue behind the figure on the far right, the Lord of the Underworld himself, Ah Puch. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Within the pages of the Dresden Codex is information relating to the ritual Tzolk’in 260-day calendar which takes its cues from the movements of several stars and planets, chief among them Venus and Mars. Interestingly, this calendar matches nine cycles of the Moon and the gestational period of humans.

The goddess Ixhcel, the Maya moon deity was also closely associated with fertility but also suicide. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Besides the ritualistic Tzolk’in calendar, other Mayan calendars include the 365 Haab calendar and the long count calendar, which is divided into units of times called Baktunes which last 394.25 years each — a long count indeed. 

Knowledge developed by Mesoamerican cultures such as the Olmec and the Maya was later adopted by later civilizations such as the Aztec. Pictured is the famous Sun Stone which contains calendar elements but despite popular belief is not a complete calendar itself. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Being the sophisticated astronomers that they were, within the pages of the Dresden Codex we find several accurate astronomical tables tracking the position of several celestial bodies and information about eclipses.

The pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichén Itzá represents the 365 day Mayan Haab calendar by way of its 364 steps, 91 on each side plus the temple atop. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

For the Maya, science, and religion were deeply intertwined and in some ways, indistinguishable. For this reason, it should come as no surprise that the Dresden Codex includes a great many representations and depictions of gods in the Mayan pantheon. 

Some of the deities represented include the goddess of the moon and childbirth Ixchel, the god of corn Yum Kaax, and of course the rain god Chaak, who is depicted a whopping 134 times. 

The mighty Chaac downpouring rain on to a grateful world. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

To view the entire Dresden Codex in its correct reading sequence, click here. The file is quite large, so it may take some time to load, but it’s well worth it. 

For more on the fascinating legacy of the Maya, make sure to check out our weekly feature, Archaeology Monday, in which we cover a fascinating Maya archaeological site every week. 

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