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The Dresden Maya Codex


1.   The History of the Dresden Codex


The Dresden Codex is one of the most valuable sources for understanding the Maya culture. This manuscript was one of the most important keys for the decipherment of the Mayan hieroglyphic writing. Furthermore, the most beautiful and famous figures of the Maya gods also arise from this codex. The Dresden Codex takes its name from the place where it is found today – in the Saxon Library of Dresden, Germany.

With some confidence, we can reconstruct the history of this unique manuscript, which by some historians is considered the most important prehispanic manuscript of the Americas. Most probably in 1519, the famous Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortéz sent it personally to Madrid, to the court of the then king Charles the fifth, together with other curiosity items. In addition to these, there were other more common items of treasure. Somehow the codex was brought from Madrid to Vienna, where the king had one of his residences. The codex remained there without being given any consideration until in 1739 it was discovered in a private collection by Johann Christian Götze, who at that time was the director of the Royal Saxon Library of Dresden. The codex was obviously given to Götze by its unknown owner, who must have considered it to be of no value, since he could not understand any of it. Götze, however, donated the codex to his library at the beginning of the year 1740.


2.    The Origin of the Dresden Codex


In 1519 Hernán Cortéz navigated along the Yucatán coast, between Cozumel and Zempoala. Therefore we can assume that the codex originally came from the Yucatán peninsula. This assumption is also based on several varying hieroglyphs found in the codex corresponding to languages which are spoken in Yucatán, and not in Chiapas or Guatemala. Furthermore, on the basis of the extensive astronomical information contained in the codex it is agreed by many experts that the codex originated in Chichén Itzá. We can place the codex in the postclassical Maya period, around the year 1250. There are some writing errors in the codex, however, which demonstrates that passages of the codex had been copied from ancient manuscripts. Dates shown in the codex go back to the classical period.


3.   The Production of the Maya Codices


Up to now, there are only three known Maya codices, those of Dresden, Paris and Madrid. All the known Maya codices are made of amate paper. The Maya and other Mesoamerican peoples obtained this paper from the bark of the wild fig tree (ficus cotinifolia). The bark was boiled in water until it became tender. Afterwards it was put in strips on a wooden board; each strip being laid next to the other. The strips were then stretched out, and pounded with a smooth stone. This process resulted in producing a type of paper because the fibers became joined together, like in felt material. Finally, the piece was left simply to dry in the sun. A lime coating was added to the piece. In this way the smallest details could be drawn on the finished product. Once finished, the amate paper was folded in the shape of an accordion. Likewise the strips were joined together with a special glue, made from orchids and other plants, to form a longer codex. The longest Maya codex is the Madrid Codex with 115 pages, measuring 6.80 meters. The Dresden Codex is made up of 39 pages, each one measuring 9 x 22 cms, and containing drawings on both sides, excepting 4 pages, which have been left blank. This way the codex contains drawings on 74 pages in total. The codex measures 3.56 meters in length, making it the second longest Maya codex.


4.    The Content of the Dresden Codex


The majority of the Maya codices are about religious topics, but they also contain some pages that describe historical and astronomical events. The Dresden Codex can be divided into several chapters. It contains a ceremonial calendar for the different gods, the famous tables of solar and lunar eclipses and tables for calculating the movements of the planets Venus and Mars. Also described are ceremonies for the beginning of the year, a big flood, and a prophecy of a Katun (a 20-year-period in the Maya calendar).


5.     The Present Reconstructed Version


This new Dresden Codex is a reconstruction. Those who know the different editions of the codex are aware that the original, regrettably, is badly damaged. Above all, the thin stucco coating in the corners has worn off. Therefore it is clear that a complete reconstruction of the codex is not possible. It must also be mentioned that the images of the god figures have faded during the last 800 years. For the purpose of this edition, the pages 4 to 15 of the original codex have been redrawn. All the original positions of the figures have been retained. The numbers and hieroglyphs of the days were newly calculated where they had been erased, according to the logic of the Maya calendar.



 6.     The Description of the Codex


In this codex we see some of the most beautiful and well-known Maya gods, just as they are represented in the Dresden Codex. The pages of the codex act as an almanac that describes the days of the Sacred Calendar on which the gods carried out their rituals. Each table began with a column of 5 hieroglyphs that represented some of the 20 days of the Sacred Calendar of 260 days. Above this column we find a number in red. To the right of this, there are numbers in red and in black. The numbers in red are always ciphers. Only 13 are found. The red numbers are coefficients of the 20 Sacred Days, while the numbers in black represent the number of days elapsed between two dates.


0 1 5 20


Above the representations of the gods there are hieroglyphs found that form short texts which describe the corresponding scenes.



7.     The Description of the Maya Gods


The reader will next encounter a small description of the Maya gods. The hieroglyphs shown here correspond to the names of the gods. The numbers behind the names of the gods indicate where this god can be found in the codex. For example, in this codex the jaguar has the position 5A2, which means: page 5, top part, second figure. The letter B indicates the middle part, the letter C the bottom part.


Itzamná  (1B, 3B1, 6B)



“Itzamná” – “the wise shaman or magician” – is the highest-ranking Maya god. For many Maya he is known as the father of the gods. He is represented with a hooknose and volute-shaped tears. Itzamná is the creator god and god of medicine. The god Itzamná is an old and wise god that resides in heaven. The shamans and calendar priests, who predict the days of fortune or bad luck, receive their wisdom from Itzamná. Itzamná is not only the inventor of the complicated Maya calendar, but also of the hieroglyphic writing. On the first page of the codex, Itzamná is emerging from the jaws of the celestial dragon.


Zak Kolel  (11C2)


Zak Kolel means “maiden”. She is the goddess of love. She is recognized by her long, untied hair that curls over her naked body. Maya artists frequently show her in love scenes with other Maya gods in the Dresden Codex. She also represents the waxing moon. As the moon is growing, so is the stomach of a pregnant woman. The young goddess of the moon is also the goddess of medicine. In the Dresden Codex, she appears many times with different birds, which are omen for illnesses.


K’in Ahau  (1C1, 9C3, 12A1)



Kin Ahau means “lord of the sun". The hieroglyph k’in is also seen on his arm. The sun god is the only Maya god shown with a beard. In the classical inscriptions he is also recognized by his filed tooth. His head replaces the number 4 in the inscriptions that contain dates. The god of the sun is also called K'inich Ahau, which means “the sun-faced god”.


Naal  (6A3, 8B2, 9A1)



The maize god is one of the most worshiped Maya gods. The wellbeing of the people depends on his mercy. Maize is the most important plant for the Maya. The Popol Vuh, the Mayan bible, relates how the Maya people were created from maize. The name of the maize god was Naal and Hunal-Yeh, which mean “maize sprout” and “reincarnation of the first maize sprout”. The maize god is sometimes erroneously shown as Yuum K'aax. Nevertheless, this name was never used to designate the maize god (or any other god). The expression yumil k’axob – “lords of the wooded mountains” refers to the spirit protectors of the mountains, and has nothing to do with the maize god. The confusion began with Sylvanus Morley, who did not know the name of the maize god. In his book “The Ancient Maya” he mentioned for the first time a “Yum Kax”. Since that time the error has been copied over and over again. The maize god is easily to recognize with his head decoration in the form of a maize sprout. As a numeral god, he represents the number 8.


K’uk’ulkan  (3A2, 4C3, 9B2)



K'ukulkan, or Kukulcan in traditional writing, is a foreign god that does not appear within the Maya until the postclassical period. In his name glyph we see a sign in front of his head that represents a plum of feathers - in Maya: k'uk'ul. In the head we see an element represented with small circles, which is also seen in the hieroglyph of the day Chic-chan, which means “snake” or “serpent”. (In the Yucatec Maya of today it would be kan instead of chan). These two elements together: k’uk’ul kan – “feathered serpent”. Among the Aztecs this god is known as Quetzalcoatl. K’uk’ulkan is a Venus god. As an opponent of the Aztec god Mictlantecuhtli he is also called the “god of life”.


Xaman Ek’  (2A2, 10B3)


Xaman Ek’ is the god of travelers. Xaman Ek’ means “north star”, like the polar star that guides the traveler at night. He is recognized by his monkey face. He surely represents the howler monkey the Maya considered sacred. For this reason the glyph also reads k'ul, which means “sacred” or “divine”. In texts, his name glyph is used many times as an adjective for the names of other gods. Xaman Ek’ is a celestial god. In the Maya codices he is always shown in the sky, and never on the earth. The howler monkey likewise stays in the canopy of the jungle and rarely descends to the ground.


Chaak  (7B1, 8B3, 12B1)



The god of rain Chaak is easily recognized by his long hooked nose. His name means “rain” and also “giant”. This is the god most often depicted in the Maya codices. As with other Maya gods, this one can be subdivided into several gods. So it is that he is sometimes seen as a quadruple god representing the four cardinal points. The red Chaak is sitting in the east, the yellow Chaak in the south, the black Chaak in the west, and the white Chaak in the north. The god of rain is usually seen with an ax in his hand, which he uses to cut the clouds to liberate the rain. With his torch he creates lightnings.


Chaak Balam  (5A2)



The Maya have several zoomorphic gods. The most important animal god was the jaguar. Chaak Balam means “big jaguar”. Sometimes it is decorated with a water lily, since jaguars usually like to be around water. The jaguar is both feared and venerated, and its strength and elegance has served as a symbol of power since primitive times. This powerful and elegant animal has been a symbol of power since early times. The Maya king is often seen on a two-headed Jaguar throne. The Maya also associated the jaguar with the sun of the underworld. The Olmecs believed its people to have originated from the union of a human woman with a jaguar.


Bolon Tz’akab K’awil  (9A2)



Bolon Tz'akab K’awil is one of the most important gods of Maya origin. In the classic period this god appeared as the god of the scepter. He is recognized by the fact that one of his feet transforms into a snake. Also his forehead is represented as a mirror on which a smoking ax is buried. K’awil means “personification”. Bolon Tz'akab means “9 generations”. The god K’awil personifies the union of the elite Maya with the power of ancestry. The most famous representation of K’awil can be found on the lintels of Yaxchilán. The god K’awil of the late classic period is recognized by his big nose. He is also regarded as the god of fertility.


Kuy  (4C2, 7A1)



The owl Kuy is a symbol of war. Her shout announces an imminent battle. The name Kuy was used as a second name by several Maya kings when they considered themselves as triumphant warriors. See the famous ruler Pakal of Palenque.


Kimi  (7C1, 10A2, 10B1)



The god of death Kimi is easily recognized by his skeleton. In the highlands of Chiapas this god is also known as Ah Puch. In Yucatán, however, this name has never been evidenced.


Lahun P’et  (3B2, 5C2, 7B2)


Lahun P’et means “ten sacrifices”. He is the god of human sacrifices. The decoration in his ear is a jaguar tail. The dots pictured on his body represent the skin of a prisoner that has been removed and which he has put on. He is the counterpart of the Aztec god Xipe Totec.


Buluk Ch’abtan  (2B2)



Buluk Ch’abtan means “Eleven fastings”. He is the god of hunger and deprivation. He is also represented in the production of the New Fire.


H’obnil  (4A1, 11C2)



H’obnil is the ruler of the underworld. His name means “sudden death”. He is recognized by his black body painting and his elaborate headdress that features the owl Muan.



8.  Examples of Hieroglyphic Texts




[u] nuch hol kimi oxlahun kuy


“They are conversing, the god of death Kimi and the owl of the 13 heavens”.




ochiy u kakaw chaak ox ok wah


“The god of rain Chaak is rattling the cocoa seeds. Abundance of food [is the prophecy].”




     u mak’ wah xaman ek’ ox ok wah


“The god of the polar star Xaman Ek’ is receiving food in the form of maize. Abundance of food [is the prophecy].”





k’uch  yatanil  tzul ...


“The vulture woman is marrying the dog man....” The meaning of this strange marriage is unknown to us. Possibly, there exists some astronomical constellation.




u pak’ah tzen chaak ahaulel


“Our ruler Chaak, the god of rain, is planting the nourishment.”




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