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The Paris Codex

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The Paris Codex

Images from the Paris Codex

Artist Unknown

The Paris Codex:

The ancient Maya, whose civilization flourished and fell centuries before the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas, were literate and had an advanced writing system which they used in books, paintings and stonecarvings. When the descendants of this mighty civilization were conquered by the Spanish in the early 16th century, they still had thousands of books, elaborately painted with symbols and images. Unfortunately, only four of these books survived the bonfires of the zealous priests. One of the surviving codices (a Maya book is called a codex) is the Paris Codex, which deals with astronomy and rituals.

The Codex:

The Paris Codex is believed to be a fragment of a larger document, broken at some unknown point in the distant past. Only eleven pages remain: they are painted on both sides. The thick “paper” is the inner bark of a fig tree. The pages are approximately 23.5 cm. high and 12.5 cm. wide. When folded out, the codex is 1.4 meters long. The pages contain a series of colorful glyphs and images: it is obvious at a glance that different scribe/artists worked on the Paris codex. The codex is in bad shape, badly battered, stained and faded: whole sections have unfortunately been erased by time and wear.

Origins of the Paris Codex:

The document is in such bad shape that researchers have been unable to use part of it for carbon dating, leaving only clues within the text itself for determining its place and date of origin. Sylvanus Morley, one of the top Maya scholars, associated the text with the Maya city of Mayapan based on similarities between the document and a certain stela at Mayapan. The date associated with these glyphs can be interpreted as a number of dates from 928 to 1697 A.D., but evidence seems to indicate it was written around 1450 A.D. This would seem to be supported by part of the text, which describes certain cycles between 1244 and 1500 A.D. Some recent researchers believe the text was created earlier than 1450 A.D., perhaps as early as 1185 A.D.

History of the Paris Codex:

The Paris Codex was acquired by the Paris library in 1832: its movements before that date are a complete mystery. There are some notes written in Latin in the margins of some of the pages, but no one knows who wrote them and they do not shed any light on the origins or history of the codex. The Codex made a narrow escape at one point: apparently it was found in a bin next to a fireplace in the library in 1859. The original is still at the Paris Library.

Content of the Paris Codex:

One part of the Paris Codex consists of a series of scenes where one figure is on foot, on the left-hand side, and another is on a throne on the right-hand side. The figures are surrounded by glyphs. Some of the glyphs refer to days and numbers. This series of images is a calendar of sorts: the seated figures represent the katuns, periods of 20 years. Certain prophecies were associated with each time period: as the Maya believed that time was cyclical, what had happened in the past could be used to predict the figure. The flip side of the Paris Codex covers a variety of topics. There is a cyclical calendar dedicated to Chaac, God of Rain, and another calendar that marks the beginning of 365-day solar years for a 52 year period. Two battered pages at the end show some animals: it may be a sort of Maya zodiac.

Importance of the Paris Codex:

Bruce Love, Director of Archaeological Research at the University of California Riverside, has done an exhaustive study of the Paris Codex. He believes it was a “handbook” for Maya priests, helping them interpret the interactions between celestial objects, gods, mankind and the calendar. The Paris Codex is therefore a priceless tool for understanding Maya culture and religion.

Sources:

McKillop, Heather. The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives. New York: Norton, 2004.

Paxton, Merideth (trans.Elisa Ramirez). Códice Paris. Arqueología Mexicana Edición Especial: Códices prehispánicas y coloniales tempranos. August, 2009.

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