Overview of the Dresden Codex

The Dresden Codex is the most complete example of pre-Conquest Maya books that the world has today. This codex was "produced in northern Yucatan about the eleventh century and uprooted in a German library eight centuries later, [and] is probably a copy of another folded-screen document produced a few centuries earlier" (Aveni, Skywatchers, 173). Although the Maya were prolific authors, only four of their masterful codices remain. Most were destroyed by the Spaniards during the conquest and conversion of Mesoamerica, and others dicovered in tombs by later archaeologists had not survived the damp jungle climate. The codices are accordion-folded books, made of the beaten bark of ficus trees, and covered with a thin layer of shiny plaster. Although extant codices are primarily "calendar almanacs for the timing of ritual, ...we may deduce from other Mesoamerican texts we have in our possession that the Maya also recorded all the details of their lives in their books: genealogy, history, learning, prescriptions for ritual, tribute, trade, mythology, views of the world and history, and perhaps poetry and personal thoughts, ambitions and dreams" (Schele, Forest, 50).

These four codices "record, in pictures and writing, information about which gods and what acts were associated with each day in the calendar cycles. Astronomical tables for anticipating favorable cycles of Venus and eclipses of the sun are also included as books of learning and prognostication for priests specializing in the use of the calendar (Freidel, Cosmos, 44-45)." Thus, they allow us to delve into the world of the Maya astronomers. In their culture, astronomy and religion were intermarried, and the practice of astronomy seems at once precise and ritualized. Although frustrated scholars have complained that the Maya astronomy is pervaded by astrology and divination, " the Maya intellectual achievements evinced in these manuscripts are nevertheless impressive. ... The Dresden Codex...displays a series of 260-day almanacs in addition to several astronomical calculations. In particular, it contains rather precise information about the motion of the planet Venus and the occurrence of eclipses (Aveni, Skywatchers, 173)." The majority of the Dresden is "two kinds of hieroglyphic texts, which we call tables and almanacs" (Aveni, Literature, 43).

Sources for Overview: Aveni, Skywatchers, 173. Schele, Forest, 50. Aveni, Literature, 43. Freidel, Cosmos, 44-45.


Aveni, Anthony, ed. The Sky in Mayan Literature. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Aveni, Anthony. Skywatchers of Ancient Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980.

Friedel, David, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker. Maya Cosmos. New York: Morrow, 1993.

Schele, Linda, and David Freidel. A Forest of Kings. New York: Morrow, 1990.

The images of the Dresden Codex appearing on these pages are from a full-size color replica of the original. This replica was made around 1830 by Edward King, the Viscount of Kingsborough, who dedicated his life to hand painting copies of Maya and Aztec texts. It currently resides in the Special Collections of Honnold Library in Claremont, Calif., and the version you see here was produced using their digital archiving equipment.

Much thanks to Jean and James at Special Collections for their technology and gracious assistance. Professor Sheila Pinkel allowed us the use of her multimedia computer lab, and Jeff (or was it Joe?) gave us much-needed advice on its use. Our work on this page was our final project in Professor Penprase's Astronomy 6 course. We are Casey Carruth-Hinchey '01 and Peter Wermuth '99, students at Pomona College.

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