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The Story of The Maya: Recording The Mysteries

In the late 1560s Fray Diego de Landa wrote of how Maya books, or codices, of “ancient matters and sciences” had been burned because they contained “superstition”. A more four codices survived, only one of which, the Grolier Codex, has remained in the Americas.

The Story of the Maya: Recording the Mysteries

By Mr Ghaz, December 14, 2010

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The Story of the Maya: Recording the Mysteries

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Maya codices are not books in the sense of having many leaves bound together along one edge. Instead, they consist of long strips of paper made from the bark of the fig tree, and are several feet long. Codices are folded in concertina fashion, much like a modern map, allowing a much of the book to be viewed at any one time as required. The paper was prepared with a layer of limewash on which the scribe painted.

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Judging by those few that have survived, it seems that the codices were used predominantly by priests for prognostication and divination. They contain tables devised for regulating the times of rituals and agricultural tasks, and for keeping track of astronomical cycles. The reasons why Landa, bishop of Yucatan, was so keen to destroy these texts are complex, but he would probably have been most offended by the many images depicting Maya deities, including the voluptuous, bare-breasted, young moon goddess.

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Each codex displays variety of pictures, hieroglyphs, and numbers. Every page is made up of individual tables, or “chapters,” and is read from left to right; each chapter is specific to a particular topic, such as war or marriage. If a priest wanted to predict, say, the best days on which to plant crops, he would first look up the appropriate chapter for this subject. Stretching down the left-hand side of the table was a column of day-signs from the sacred 260-day calendar, and horizontal rows of numbers were arranged across the page. The priest would use these tables to make detailed calculations by which he would arrive at a selection of day-signs. The auguries for each day are indicated by the picture and text associated with it. The image shows which deity has an influence on that day, and the hieroglyphs tell if the day is auspicious.

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Other activities regulated by the codices included beekeeping, traveling, hunting, the times at which to make offering to the deities, and when rainmaking ceremonies should take place. There are also tables for monitoring seasonal changes and, most importantly, for predicting the appearances of Venus and eclipses of the sun and moon. (Eclipses were viewed with foreboding because celestial objects appeared to be swallowed up by an invisible force). The codices demonstrate the Maya belief that all thing have their preordained place in time, and that the divinities retain ultimate control of destiny.

Glyph and Symbol

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Maya hieroglyphic writing has only recently become understood. It was thought that the script was a combination of rebus, or pictorial representation, and logograms, symbols representing a single word or concept. It was recognized in the nineteenth century that many Maya texts included information about the calendar and astronomy, leading scholars to believe that the Maya were a peaceful nation of astronomer-priests. The inability to read the Maya glyphs correctly meant that this misconception persisted for decades, despite the evidence of warfare and sacrifice in much Maya art.

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It is now generally recognized, thanks to the theory of Yuri Knorosov, that the hieroglyphs were largely a phonetic writing system (there were some logograms) and that the different signs stood for individual sounds, whole words or concepts, numbers, days, and months. The shape of the glyphs demonstrates a fascination with the interplay between naturalism and abstraction, drawing upon a variety of animate and inanimate forms.  

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  1. webseowriters

    On December 15, 2010 at 4:00 pm


    Thanks for sharing

  2. Christine Ramsay

    On December 15, 2010 at 4:39 pm


    It sounds a very complicated system. A good piece.

    Christine

  3. cardy

    On December 15, 2010 at 5:03 pm


    Wow a fascinating read thanks for the share.

  4. Jenny Heart

    On December 15, 2010 at 7:38 pm


    Excellent as always!

  5. OhSugar

    On December 15, 2010 at 7:40 pm


    I like it. This is a very fascinating history lesson, pictures tell their own stories. Thanks for sharing this interesting information about the Maya’s recording history.

  6. Uma Shankari

    On December 15, 2010 at 9:49 pm


    Lovely. Enjoyed reading about Mayan writing. Hope you also write about the Southeast asian Hindu-buddhist influences found in Mayan civilization.

  7. Yovita Siswati

    On December 15, 2010 at 11:12 pm


    fascinating. your articles are getting more and more interesting. thanks for sharing.

  8. mahesh golani

    On December 15, 2010 at 11:39 pm


    Yes! very good piece, besides informative too!

  9. strategy03

    On December 16, 2010 at 12:43 am


    Weldon article

  10. Rehoboth

    On December 16, 2010 at 2:44 am


    nice post

  11. papaleng

    On December 16, 2010 at 6:38 am


    learned a lot from this read.

  12. The Quail 1957

    On December 16, 2010 at 11:14 am


    This was a very interesting as well as facinating read. Well done!

  13. BC Doan

    On December 16, 2010 at 1:07 pm


    Another fascinating and interesting read, Mr. G. You really found many wonderful subjects!

  14. Ruby Hawk

    On December 16, 2010 at 9:06 pm


    An educational and interesting article.

  15. martinrojas

    On December 17, 2010 at 11:47 pm


    This is outstanding work.

  16. revivor

    On January 4, 2011 at 6:17 am


    anything in these writings about 2012?!

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