Dresden Codex

Date: 1250
Owner: FAMSI
Source Type: Publications


The Dresden Codex was painted on amatl paper in the thirteenth century. As one of only three Mayan codices to survive the Spanish conquest and the ravages of time, the Dresden (named for where the original is housed) is an invaluable source on Mayan culture and civilization, but it is perhaps most well known as a work of astronomy and mathematics. The Dresden includes charts based on hundreds of years of observations and predictions both of eclipses (pages 51-58) and the cycles of Venus (pages 46-50).

(N.B. In this and all other editions of the Dresden, pages 46-74 are actually arranged on pages 25-53, thus the Venus tables appear on the pages numbered 25-29. The introduction to the Venus tables is found on page 24.)

The Venus tables contain a complicated series of numerals, glyphs, and gods that are interrelated but often evade accurate interpretation. Some aspects of it, though, are fairly certain. For example, the drawings on the right hand side of each of the five Venus tables are based on common themes. On each page, a regent deity holding an overturned jar (top of the page) observes a manifestation of the Morning Star, Venus (a different manifestation on each page), who is using an atlatl (a weapon to throw darts) to spear a victim (the victims are the bottom image on each page). Each spear-throwing Venus lords over about 1/5th of a given year (depending on celestial cycles) and the deities he is impaling might represent constellations, planets, or stars in retrograde motion during a particular Venus ascendancy. Each of the five pages notes Venus' cycles for a period of 584 days, and the total days covered in the five pages (2,920 days) are equal to the eight solar years and five synodic cycles of Venus. The glyphs and symbols throughout the pages relate both the "long count" time and the periods of particular movements.

Looking at these astronomical charts (and the rest of the Codex) exemplifies just how connected religion, math, space, and time were for Mayan mathematicians.  Scholars may never fully understand the significance of much of these writings; due to the god-like power of Time, which was rightly held in awe, much of the historical record has been lost, obliterating the full meaning of much Mesoamerican cosmology.

(There is far too little space here to do justice to the mathematic and iconographic intricacies of the astronomical tables in the Dresden Codex, especially those relating to Venus. 

Refernce: for an excellent and thorough summary of the Dresden, see: Susan Milbrath, Star Gods of the Maya: Astronomy in Art, Folklore, and Calendars (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), pp. 113-115 and 163-177.)

CITATION: Dresden Codex. Published by Ernst Forstemann, 1880. Courtesy of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.