Reading Ancient Maya hieroglyphic books

Christian Prager
Universität Bonn,
Published under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license.
Abstract: Spanish priests burned hundreds of images of idols, cult objects, and manuscripts with Mayan hieroglyphs following the conquest of the Yucatan Peninsula, convinced that this would encourage the indigenous population to renounce their ancient beliefs and turn to the Christian God. In so doing they destroyed the memory of a written culture that had existed for over two thousand years. Only four Maya manuscripts—the so-called codices—survived this missionary zeal and the tropical climate of the Yucatan, and these are today kept in museums and libraries in Mexico City, Madrid, Paris, and Dresden. Unlike hieroglyphic texts on stone monuments they do not relay historical events, but instead are mainly divinatory and related to the 260-day Tzolk’in calendar, holding predictive information about the success or failure of everyday activities on favourable or unfavourable days. The author uses a farmers’ almanac from the Dresden Codex to explain the function of Maya calendars, to discuss the significance of time, and to reconstruct how Mayan calendar priests would read daily predictions in the correlated images and texts and apply them to daily practice.

Keywords: calendar, divination, Maya hieroglyphs, codices, Dresden Maya Codex, cognition of time and fate.

This article concerns the semi-deciphered script of the Classic Maya culture, in use ca. 300 BC–AD 1500, as depicted in divinatory texts from the so-called Dresden Maya Codex, which dates to the thirteenth century (Thompson 1972).Cognitive theories of time and fate presented for first time in this article were originally developed in the context of a project to publish a seventeenth century Maya calendar from Guatemala in collaboration with Frauke Sachse and John Weeks (Weeks, Sachse, and Prager 2009). This script is called semi-deciphered because some forty per cent of the 1000 or so syllabic signs and word signs still remain unreadable today. Even where individual signs are legible the texts themselves may still elude understanding, because Classic Mayan—the language of the hieroglyphs—has not survived. It can only be reconstructed through historical linguistic comparisons with the 30 Mayan languages that have been documented since the European conquest, many of which are still spoken (Wichmann 2004). But while the writing system is not fully deciphered, their contents can still be broadly interpreted, and remaining knowledge gaps may be filled after further study (Houston and Martin 2016).

Progress in the decipherment of Classic Mayan has thus reached a stage where the information contained in texts, how they were written by scribes, and how they were understood by their readers can be interpreted. Texts recorded in painted bark-paper books of the sort examined in this article differ from monumental texts from the Classic Period (250–900 AD), which mostly contain historical content, because codices contain short almanacs, divinatory and prophetic content, and descriptions of rituals performed during the course of the year. Such texts were generally written in delimited chapters with additional imagery and refer to the 260-day ritual calendar (also known as the Tzolk’in, meaning ‘order of days’).

Cultural context

Classic Mayan has survived as a visual language in thousands of hieroglyphic texts that were created in and around the palaces of kings, who ruled over independent city-states in present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras during the Classic Period (Martin and Grube 2008). Only scribes, painters, sculptors, and court officials could write; there is no reason to suppose widespread literacy (Houston and Stuart 1992). Most public and private inscriptions contain biographical information on political elites and provide written evidence for inter- and intra-dynastic connections between ruling families. Others attest to ceremonies and religious rituals carried out in the context of accessions to the throne, ancestor worship, calendrical anniversaries, inaugurations, processions, and other occasions that marked royal daily life (Stuart 1993). According to the texts from this period, rulers and vassals of petty states competed for regional and superregional supremacy and for control of resources, trade, and communication routes. Royal authority was based on religion, and rulers’ political power was attained through marriage and alliance policies, hegemonic strategies, resource control, and warfare (Martin 2020). Rulers regarded themselves as divine kings, and made their claims to power by means of writing and imagery and by creating imposing architecture in the centres of their city-states, which became a backdrop for public performances and an expression of their all-encompassing power (Stuart 1996). Written and pictorial records, especially those made on stone, wood, ceramics, bone, and fig-bark paper, served as vehicles for cultural memory in the past, and continue to provide the most important material basis for reconstructing Mayan history and culture today.

Maya writing, from its beginning in the pre-Classic period (ca. 500 BC), is a glottographic system—in which characters refer to linguistic units—comprising about 1000 figurative characters, most of which are signs for words and syllables. Signs were ‘squeezed and stacked’ into quadratic or rectangular blocks in order to create a hieroglyphic text, with the basic structural unit of a Classic Mayan text usually corresponding to the emic concept of a word. Blocks then were normally arranged in double columns, read from left to right and from top to bottom. The elements within a block were subdivided into main and small graphs, where the main graphs are large and approximately square in shape, and the small graphs were attached to the periphery of the main characters and oriented along their vertical or horizontal axes. These writing principles are consistent throughout the history of Maya writing, but individual texts and signs had a high degree of aesthetic complexity and palaeographic variation.

Mayan scribes employed a range of calligraphic principles according to which graphemes and even words in Classic Maya were realized in an astonishing variety of ways. The scribes aimed for maximum visual splendour and optical variation, possibly driven by horror repetitionis in conjunction with graphic and artistic horror vacui. The aesthetic quality of the overall work and the individual skills of the creator all aimed to catch the eye. Monotony, conformity and repetition, it seems, were intentionally avoided, so that calligraphic variation determined the work of a scribe and his workshop.

Books of time and fate: a cognitive rationale

The four surviving Maya codices are considered religious books that contain ritual and divination calendars (Thompson 1972). These documents, made of bark paper and folded in an accordion-pleat style (the so-called leporello folding), were used by calendar priests to determine the times and modes of religious worship, explain the causes of disasters, and provide guidance for daily life (Grube 2012). The information in the codices is organized in a matrix that connects time, space, and agency. The priests used divinatory tables with explanatory texts, images, and scenes to determine meaningful patterns and provide answers to life’s questions. Divination and the management of time are central to Maya culture and have been practiced since ancient times. Calendar priests, called ah k’in in Yucatan (Thompson 1970: 167) and ajq’iij in highland Guatemala (Orellana 1984: 103), calculated the days and interpreted their qualities to provide answers about mental and physical dispositions, causes of evil, and best days for essential activities like planting, harvesting, or marriage (Colby and Colby 1981; Tedlock 1982). The idea that events in human life and personalities can be predicted is based on the observation that humans act regularly and that many natural phenomena have a perceptible and meaningful regularity. Many cultures have independently developed practices to predict future events or determine human personalities by correlating time and fate (Goody 1968). The idea of causality between natural phenomena and human life and the belief that religious specialists can determine conditions affecting a person and predict the outcome of events has been widespread in pre-Hispanic America and other parts of the world. The divinatory tradition continues into the present (Grube 1998; Lincoln 1942; Thompson 1958; Weeks, Sachse, and Prager 2009); it provides strategies for social interactions and has the potential to influence events (Colby and Colby 1981; McGraw 2016; Nachtigall 1978; Tedlock 1982; Termer 1930). The notion of causality is manageable only by specialists. In pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, time units were not simply abstract concepts, but had unique proper names (Thompson 1950). The phenomenon of anthropomorphism (Guthrie 1993: 277) may explain why people believe that natural phenomena like stars or certain days can influence human destiny without direct contact.

Maya codices

Reports dating to just after the Spanish conquest show that a considerable number of codices must have been in existence at that time, though most of them fell victim to the religious fanaticism of the era (Thompson 1972: 3–5). All known Maya codices fit the descriptions related by Franciscan friars, who saw them in 1696: ‘… certain books of a quarter of a yard high and about five fingers broad, made of the bark of trees, folded from one side to the other like screens; each leaf of the thickness of a Mexican Real of eight. These are painted on both sides with a variety of figures and characters’ (Means 1917: 141). According to other colonial reports, the books were covered with a white coating that could easily hold writing. Chemical analyses have shown that the four surviving books were made from the bark fibres of a variety of wild fig. The fibres were made more homogeneous by the addition of a paste-like, starchy mass for the base, which consisted of lime and was normally white but occasionally somewhat red (Schwede 1912; Thompson 1972: 3–5).

Spanish clergy destroyed hundreds of native codices during the conquest, settlement, and missionary pursuit of the Yucatan Peninsula, in order to extinguish the fate and cultural memory of the people to which they belonged (Timmer 1997). Only four manuscripts from the north of Yucatan, dating between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries, were spared, and are now preserved in museums and libraries: the Codex Peresianus in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris (P);Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris: Manuscrit Mexicain 368 | Ancien n° 2. the Codex Tro-Cortesianus in the Museo de América in Madrid (M);Museo de América, Madrid: Códice trocortesiano o de Madrid, inventario: 70300. the Códice Maya de México in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City (MC);Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México: Códice Maya de México. and the so-called Codex Dresdensis or Dresden Maya Codex (D) preserved in the city by whose name it is called (Grube 2012). Other Maya codices that have occasionally surfaced have proved to be forgeries (Blom 1935; Kelker 2019).

According to Nikolai Grube (2012) the codices can be best characterized as compendia of cultural and religious knowledge and are divided into chapters of different lengths. The topics covered in these manuscripts, according to current knowledge, are: ritual and divination calendars or hemerologies for the determination of favourable and unfavourable days (D, M, P); marriage prognostics (D); calculations of the synodic period of the moon and the planets Venus (D, MC) and Mars (D); lunar and solar eclipses (D); ceremonies at the turn of the year (D, M); climate and weather tables (D); prophecies and history (D, P); cosmogonies (D, P); zodiacs (P); the works and whereabouts of the gods (D, M, P); instructions for making, dressing, and worshipping statues of the gods (M); Milpa economy (M); hunting and rituals (M); making fire (D, M); apiculture (M); and instructions for preparing food and offerings (D, M, P) (Grube 2012; Martínez del Campo Lanz 2018; Thompson 1972; V. R. Bricker and Vail 1997; Vail and Aveni 2004).

The Dresden Codex contains ritual and divination calendars, instructions for new-year ceremonies, calculations of the phases of Venus, solar and lunar eclipses, and almanacs about the locations and activities of the rain god Chahk (Förstemann 1901; Grube 2012; Thompson 1972). The codex is a leporello-folded book composed of 39 leaves, inscribed and painted with hieroglyphs and figurative scenes on both sides, with a length of 3.56m. Four of its pages are blank, and some are missing. In the early editions by Ernst Förstemann (1880), written pages were numbered continuously from 1 to 74, blank pages were not counted, and the original order of pages was not followed, creating confusion. As the codex was split into two sections, Förstemann thought that the document consisted of two separate parts. He first numbered the obverse and reverse of one part (pages 1 to 24 and 25 to 45), and then continued with the obverse and reverse of the second part (pages 46 to 74).

Figure 2: Reading order of the Dresden Codex by Linear77, licensed under CC BY 3.0.

Origin and history of the Dresden Codex

The exact place of origin of the manuscript is unknown, but it most likely came from north-eastern Yucatan, and according to palaeography and style it was painted by at least six different scribes (Grube 2012: 33). The codex is made of the outer bark of a fig tree (Ficus cotinifolia). This codex, as well as all others preserved from the Maya, were created in the centuries before the Spanish conquest; however, gaps and unfinished paintings in the Dresden Codex indicate that it was still in use at the time of the conquest and was, so to speak, torn from the hands of the priests. One can only speculate about the exact origin of individual books, and there are no records concerning how three of the four known codices found their way from the Yucatan Peninsula to Europe (Chuchiak IV 2006; Grube 2012; Thompson 1972). On the basis of some notes made by Spanish officials it is probable that the Dresden Codex was sent to the court of the Spanish king by Hernando Cortés in 1519, along with other valuable objects from the New World. The document then disappears from the record, but it eventually found its way to Vienna, where it was purchased by the Dresden court chaplain Johann Christian Götze for the city’s library in 1739 (Deckert 1975). The codex was published in the nineteenth century, first partially, then completely in the form of hand-coloured drawings and chromolithography. Förstemann’s facsimiles from 1880 and 1892 are the most important editions and are still used today: the manuscript was severely damaged by water at the end of the Second World War, and as a result many passages have become illegible, making his editions invaluable (Förstemann 1892, 1880). The colours have also faded since the nineteenth century. A facsimile showing the post-war state of the Dresden Codex was published in 1975 (Anders 1975), and a high-quality open access digital edition showing its current state of preservation was made available in 2012. The codex is now exhibited in the Saxon State and University Library Dresden.

Each page of a leporello codex is framed in a border of red paint and divided into sections. Full-page representations, either with or without text, are found only rarely in the four preserved Maya codices. Most pages are subdivided into sections by two, three, or four red horizontal lines. These registers are usually now identified by lower case letters (a, b, c, d) successively from top to bottom. A reference to ‘Dresden 5b’ would therefore mean the middle section of the three sections into which page 5 of the Dresden Codex is divided. Each section of a page is then usually further divided into two, three, or more compartments—also called frames or captions—which generally include a hieroglyphic text, numbers, and a picture. These captions are called t’ol, a Yucatec word for ‘book column’ according to colonial dictionaries (Thompson 1972: 19). While a bound book permits only two pages to be viewed at one time, an open leporello book allows the reader to consult multiple pages simultaneously.

According to Grube, the Dresden Codex contains chapters on sacrifices to, and how to clothe, the gods (pages 1–3), invocations and presentations to the gods and the required offerings (pages 4–15), the moon goddess, illness, and birth (pages 16–23), tables relating to Venus (pages 24, 46–50) and to eclipses (pages 51–58), history and prophecy (page 60), rainy seasons and torrential downpours, New Year ceremonies (pages 25–28), farmers’ almanacs on the locations and activities of the rain god Chahk (pages 29–45), and tables relating to Mars. A chapter generally extends over several pages and contains different sections or almanacs. An almanac is defined as a sacred period of 260 days, and its multiples (520 or 780 days) are called expanded almanacs. An almanac can occupy a part of or a whole page, or may continue on a second page. It can begin in one register of a page and extend over the same registers of the following pages, so that several pages would need to be opened in order to read the entire text.

Reading the codex: divination almanacs and astronomical tables

Spanish sources from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries report that hieroglyphic books were consulted by Maya calendar priests in order to plan rituals, to predict dangerous constellations of celestial bodies, or to determine causes of diseases (Sánchez de Aguilar 1639). This was done on the basis of a 260-day ritual and divination calendar that was contained in almost all chapters in Maya codices. Favourable and unfavourable days were determined so as to accomplish rituals or enterprises. The favour of the gods was won, and disaster warded off, by food and blood sacrifices that were offered on certain days.

An example of such practice can be found in a long chapter devoted to the rain god Chahk, who is still called by this name and worshipped as a rain bringer in Yucatan (Taube 1992). Chahk is the most frequently mentioned deity in the Dresden Maya manuscript (Zimmermann 1956), perhaps because Yucatan is an area characterized by tropical jungles and seasonal drought. Despite the rainforest it is an extremely barren landscape, and there are no rivers in the northern part of the peninsula. In places where there are lakes and swamps, the water is muddy and not drinkable, but it rests atop a dense layer with groundwater. There are thousands of limestone holes throughout the region, called cenotes, that provide access to this groundwater, and these are still the source of much of the drinking water for modern Maya communities. Water is a precious commodity which, along with corn as a staple food, was at the centre of the religious cult of the pre-Hispanic Maya (Winemiller 2003).

The rain god is recognizable in Classic and post-Classic Maya by his characteristic long reptilian nose. He may be depicted in the forms of turtles, snakes, or toads, although normally as an anthropomorphic figure with a reptilian face (Taube 1992). In the texts his name is often associated with positive attributes, such as ‘good’ and ‘fertility’. The Classic rain god was believed to be the physical manifestation of various atmospheric phenomena, notably rain, but also hail or storms, and was believed to be responsible for dryness and heat: the behaviour of deer, dogs, or macaws in hot periods was considered symbolically related to the rain god by the Classic Maya (Taube 1980).

The longest chapter dedicated to the rain god in the Dresden Codex extends from pages 29 to 44 on three registers or sections, and is now generally known as Almanac 67. It describes places where the rain god Chahk stays throughout the year, where he travels, and the offerings or food that he demands in return for rain, fertility, and protection. Among the many places that the rain god visits or resides in are the firmament, trees, waters, caves, fountains, hollows, wetlands, and mangrove forests, along with temples, shrines, and buildings in which his portraits were worshipped (Barthel 1953). Like other Maya codices, the Dresden Codex associates religious ideas and practices with the perception and interpretation of the environment. The pictorial representations and texts refer to a landscape inhabited by supernatural actors with whom believers interacted. Then, as now, these places were regarded as seats and working places of supernatural actors and constituted the space for ritual and action conducted as part of the religious interaction between humanity and the world of gods. The function of this farmer’s chapter of the Dresden Codex was to correlate climatic phenomena with the 260-day Tzolk’in calendar, in order to determine the quality of rain, dry seasons, floods, storms, and other climatic phenomena. Chahk’s iconographic attribute is the axe, and today many Mayan peoples still imagine thunder as a stone axe thrown by the rain gods (Taube 1992). In many Mayan languages, the word for axe also confers the meaning of both ‘thunder’ and ‘hail’. The earliest colonial sources from the sixteenth century show that Chahk was described as a giant who once instructed people in agriculture, and whom they regarded as the god of food, water, thunder, and lightning (Ciudad Real 1984). The Dresden Mayan manuscript deals with these connections in many of its almanac pages.

An almanac constitutes a section within a chapter defined by the 260-day-count or its multiples. A vertical column of four, five, or ten day signs with a coefficient on the left edge of the almanac marks its entry points. Each almanac is then subdivided into one or more t’ol or columns that comprise hieroglyphic captions describing an action or event which is depicted in the picture beneath. In the given example (Fig. 1), each t’ol is visually separated by a red vertical line and is read from left to right. Between the scene and its caption is a zone containing a black and a red number, in bar-and-dot notation. The reader of the Dresden Codex would proceed horizontally from the red t’ol number to a black distance number which indicates the interval of days that separate each t’ol from its neighbours. The red numbers are coefficients of Tzolk’in day names, which do not appear in the record in order to economize space, and the black numbers represent the number of days contained in a single run across the almanac. A full cycle of 260 days (or its multiple) is terminated by the last distance number in the last line, which carries the reader back to the entry point. Each hieroglyphic caption commonly comprises at least four hieroglyphic blocks that usually contain a verbal expression of the action depicted in the image, objects involved in the action, the place of the action, the name of the supernatural agent, and, usually at the final position in the text, attributive hieroglyphs (stative verbs representing qualities of the supernatural agents depicted in the image). Günter Zimmermann (1956) was the first to notice that attributive hieroglyphs represent negative or positive qualities of supernatural agents whose culturally-defined characters seem to mirror the augural character of a specific day. The blocks thus show the result, beneficial or malicious, of actions taken by the god who presides over activities carried out on a specific day.

Computation of time and reading fate

The indigenous people of Mesoamerica have relied on a number of cyclical calendrical systems since antiquity, some of which are still in use. The Maya observed and measured various natural cycles, particularly those related to the astronomical movements of the sun, moon, Venus, and other celestial bodies (Lounsbury 1978). They were particularly interested in commensuration, or the permutations of independent cycles of different lengths. The observed movements of celestial bodies produced several time cycles. The lunar calendar and the Venus cycle were principally employed for astronomical purposes, and the two basic cycles that governed daily life and religious activities were the Tzolk’in divination calendar and the solar calendar (known as the ‘Haab calendar’) (Thompson 1950: 66, 121). The solar calendar of 365 days comprised 18 months of 20 days each, with an additional five days added at the end. This calendar answered the needs of an agricultural population and established the monthly feasts to their gods and ancestors. An exclusively Classic Maya calendrical achievement from the central and southern lowlands was the so-called ‘Long Count’, which permitted an infinite computation of days backward or forward from an established mythical starting point. The 260-day divinatory calendar and the 365-day solar calendar constituted a 18,980-day cycle called the ‘Calendar Round’ by modern scholars, which aligned with the Long Count calendar and comprised approximately 52 solar years. The cycle of the Calendar Round was relevant to daily life and ritual, but was not used to calculate longer time spans, for which an exact day count was determined during the pre-Classic period (ca. 500 BC). The calendar has partially survived as a living instrument in the Maya highlands of western Guatemala, remembered and handled without the aid of writing.

Figure 3: The 20 day signs of the Tzolk’in calendar in the Maya codices  (Morley 1915: 39).

The 260-day cycle of the Tzolk’in calendar results from the combination of two independent and smaller cycles: one that consists of twenty day names (Fig. 3), and another that comprises the coefficients 1 to 13. Numerous hemerological texts, narrative paintings, and lists of days and their qualities are known from pre-Hispanic and post-conquest codices of the Aztec and Mixtec traditions that contain lists of propitious or fateful days in the 260-day cycle. These also show that divinatory practices influenced and regulated the performance of ritual activity and daily life, such as marriage, pregnancy, birth, infancy, travel, warfare, or agriculture. It is common knowledge that this cycle of days has pre-Hispanic roots and is still in use by religious specialists in the Maya highlands to regulate personal and public affairs (Weeks, Sachse, and Prager 2009).

Figure 4: Section of the 260-day cycle of Tzolk’in  (image citation from Thompson 1950: 67).

Each day name in the Tzolk’in cycle is given a coefficient. The starting point of the cycle pairs the first coefficient 1 with the first day name Imix. At each step, the cycle moves forward by one coefficient and one day name. Since there are only 13 coefficients for 20 day names, the fourteenth day again takes the coefficient 1, the fifteenth day gets the coefficient 2, and so on, producing such combinations as 1 Imix, 2 Ik’, … 13 Ben, 1 Ix. After twenty days the same day name reappears, only with a coefficient increased by seven, such as 8 Imix, 9 Ik … After 260 days the same combinations of coefficients and day sign reoccur, as 260 is the lowest common multiple of 13 and 20.

Table 1: The complete 260-day cycle: 1 Imix is the first and 13 Ajaw the last day in the order of days.
10  11  12  13 
Imix 41  81  121  161  201  241  21  61  101  141  181  221 
Ik’   222  42  82  122  162  202  242  22  62  102  142  182 
Ak’b’al   183  223  43  83  123  163  203  243  23  63  103  143 
Kan  144  184  224  44  84  124  164  204  244  24  64  104 
Chicchan  105  145  185  225  45  85  125  165  205  245  25  65 
Kimi  66  106  146  186  226  46  86  126  166  206  246  26 
Manik’  27  67  107  147  187  227  47  87  127  167  207  247 
Lamat  248  28  68  108  148  188  228  48  88  128  168  208 
Muluk  209  249  29  69  109  149  189  229  49  89  129  169 
Ok  170  210  250  30  70  110  150  190  230  10  50  90  130 
Chuen  131  171  211  251  31  71  111  151  191  231  11  51  91 
Eb  92  132  172  212  252  32  72  112  152  192  232  12  52 
Ben  53  93  133  173  213  253  33  73  113  153  193  233  13 
Ix  14  54  94  134  174  214  254  34  74  114  154  194  234 
Men  235  15  55  95  135  175  215  255  35  75  115  155  195 
Kib  196  236  16  56  96  136  176  216  256  36  76  116  156 
Kaban  157  197  237  17  57  97  137  177  217  257  37  77  117 
Etz’nab   118  158  198  238  18  58  98  138  178  218  258  38  78 
Kawak  79  119  159  199  239  19  59  99  139  179  219  259  39 
Ajaw  40  80  120  160  200  240  20  60  100  140  180  220  260 

Diviners establish causal relationships between an event and its time, and infer the quality of an event according to the properties of the supernatural agent associated with that time. Mesoamerican day-keeping practices regarded, and in some instances still regard, the individual days of the 260-day-count as agents representing specific qualities that might influence the outcome of an action. The close relationship between a day and a person is perhaps most notably expressed in the Mesoamerican cultural practice of naming children after the day on which they were born. Written hemerologies from pre-Hispanic codices can therefore be seen as the remains of past divination practice, whose performative aspect and context of use is now lost. Thus, the study of pre-Hispanic hemerology as expressed in Maya almanacs yields only an incomplete picture of the divinatory complex in Mesoamerican societies, yet a critical study of present-day divinatory practices in Mesoamerica may help to establish the underlying mechanisms and meanings of past hemerological traditions, such as those in the four surviving codices.

There is much evidence for the survival of the ancient Maya calendar in contemporary communities (Weeks, Sachse, and Prager 2009: 5–7). Ethnographic evidence indicates that the basic tenets of the calendar were common knowledge, at least in the highlands of Guatemala. Samuel Lothrop (1930) reports that the K’iche divinatory calendar was so vigorously in use that a storekeeper added native dates to his calendar for reference when dealing with the Indians. Although the calendar is no longer in use in Zinacantan (the Mexican state of Chiapas), there is data on the solar year calendar that was used there in 1688, albeit not for the divinatory calendar (V. R. Bricker 1982). Among the K’iche communities in the Mexican states of Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Chiapas, as well as the highland region of Guatemala, the original calendrical system or parts thereof was still in use during the late nineteenth century and even until as late as the middle of the twentieth century (Lamb 2017). Days and numbers were regarded as agents, and days were related to anthropomorphic figures called ‘Lords of the Days’. Suzanna Miles explains: ‘Through individual consultation of the shamans, the auspices and authority of the lords of the days and numbers direct economic enterprise, designate the days of agricultural labour, and control life-crises. According to the favour of the days, land is purchased, sales are made in the market and profit is accrued. The day lords designate the times for planting and harvest. The lords of the days can maintain health and foretell illness or death; betrothal and marriage are guided by the disposition of the days; and obligations to the dead are fulfilled on days affiliated with the souls of the ancestors. Each town has one or more day lords with special powers, and it is known that such a lord, with his number, will determine the character or occupation of the child born within his day’ (Miles 1952: 282). Miles also observed that although there were areas of highland Guatemala where the thirteen numbers of the Tzolk’in had been lost, the twenty named days survived as a cycle, and assumed the divinatory functions of the Tzolk’in as a whole. Thus, the twenty days of the Tzolk’in were the last surviving form of the Maya calendar count, and represent the core—the ultimate reduction—of their calendrical structure.

Hemerological sources comparable to the chapters of Maya codices have also come down in the colonial literary tradition of Yucatan. The so-called Books of Chilam Balam from the eighteenth century (documents written in Yucatec Maya with Latin characters containing myth, prophecy, medical lore, calendrical information, and historical chronicles) contain lists of days, with each day annotated according to its specific properties and prognostications (Barrera Vásquez 1939). Comparisons with similar passages in the Dresden Codex show that they almost certainly had their origin in pre-Hispanic hieroglyphic books: ‘The lists of the Chilam Balam books consist of the names of the twenty days of the Tzolk’in and the specific properties, which these days have, in shaping the destinies, the qualities, the basic behaviour, and the future occupations of men and women who were born under their powers’ (Weeks, Sachse, and Prager 2009: 7).

The Dresden Codex contains one almanac that is particularly well suited to a detailed study of these features, as it deals with the activities and whereabouts of the rain god Chahk (Taube 1992: 17–26). The remainder of this article shall examine the almanac’s structure, explain the connections between image and text, and discuss their associations with the 260-day calendar.

Almanac 67 of the Dresden Codex

Almanac 67, the name having been assigned by Eric Thompson (1972: 105), starts on page 40c and runs to page 41c of the Dresden Codex. It has been studied by various scholars over the past century (Barthel 1953; H. M. Bricker and Bricker 2011; Förstemann 1901; Grube 2012; Schele and Grube 1997).

Almanac 67 begins with a column of day signs, followed on the right by a sequence of 6 t’ol, each consisting of scenes accompanied by explanatory texts. In the upper part of each t’ol are four hieroglyphic blocks, to be read in double columns from left to right and from top to bottom. Below the text field is a row of coefficients written in black and red. The bottom of each t’ol contains figurative scenes that show the rain god Chahk in various regions performing various actions. The texts and images are related. Comparing the individual hieroglyphic blocks reveals that the first and third are identical. The introductory hieroglyphic block contains the verbal expression ach’abaw ‘you create from nothing’. The name of Chahk is always in the third hieroglyphic block of each text. The second block contains a hieroglyph that represents a toponym of a setting, which is expressed both hieroglyphically and iconographically in the image. The fourth hieroglyph of each text field names food that the rain god consumes on his journey through a region—or offerings that must be given to him.

Almanac 67, t’ol 1

The first t’ol consists of the expected column of day signs and an image of Chahk, who is shown rowing on a blue-painted body of water. The reading direction as normal is left to right. The column of day names lists Ajaw, Eb, Kan, Kib, and Lamat, above which appears the coefficient 1. The calendar matrix therefore signifies the days 1 Ajaw, 1 Eb, 1 Kan, 1 Kib, and 1 Lamat of the 260-day Tzolk’in calendar, which are therefore associated with the following statement and graphical information. The first t’ol contains a text with four hieroglyphic blocks and the picture shows the rain god Chahk kneeling on a canoe and rowing over a body of water, as the picture is painted wavy and blue. Together with the preceding calendrical information in the column of day signs, the text above the picture explains that the rain god is on the sea (ta ha’) on day 1 Ajaw to carry out an act of creation (ch’ab). According to the text sequence, he returns after 52 days and repeats the action on 1 Eb, 1 Kan, 1 Kib, and 1 Lamat (read from top to bottom). The column therefore both introduces the almanac and represents a shortened, or tabular, summary of the days within the 260-day cycle on which the rain god crosses the sea in a canoe. The third hieroglyph spells the god’s name phonetically as ‘cha-ki’. Maya gods also felt hunger and needed to eat and rest, so the food mentioned here represents the offerings required in order to be given divine consideration, which for Chahk are shown in the fourth hieroglyph with the word sign kay, for fish. This t’ol therefore has the meaning ‘On day 1 Ajaw Chahk creates on the sea, (there are) fish’, indicating that whoever makes a journey over water on 1 Ajaw, 1 Eb, 1 Kan, 1 Kib, or 1 Lamat ought to know that Chahk is also travelling on those days, and should take fish as an offering. The number 26 is depicted within the water, a multiple of 13 which hints that the statements are valid for both for a 260-day cycle and another cycle of 260 days. The first t’ol is connected to the second by a so-called distance number, painted in black, which states the number of days between two Tzolk’in dates. For the first t’ol this number is ten, indicating that the second t’ol will begin ten days after 1 Ajaw, on 11 Ok.

Almanac 67, t’ol 2

The transition between the first and second t’ol is signified by the red coefficient 11 (highlighted in red in the overlay image of the first t’ol). The pattern from the first t’ol to the second and the day name 11 Ok is not stated, and so must be read implicitly. The scene in the second t’ol depicts the rain god sitting on the hieroglyph for kab ch’en ‘land and city’ (a metaphor for cultivated land with buildings). Before him is an incense burner upon which is the hieroglyph pom ‘incense resin’. These two glyphs do not function as linguistic signs, but rather are part of the scene and thus serve as pictorial references to indicate that Chahk is in the cultivated land around a city where resin is being burned. Rabbits (chan t’ulwinkil) are noted as the associated foodstuff, and so the text in the second t’ol says that ‘On 11 Ok Chahk creates in the city area, there are rabbits’. Text and image are again complementary and inform the calendar priest that the rain god is in the area around the city on 11 Ok, 11 Ik’, 11 Ix, 11 Kimi, and 11 Etz’nab. As long as he stays there, people should offer smoking resin and sacrifice rabbits to gain his favour. The focus of the second t’ol is probably to secure sufficient rainwater to grow basic crops such as corn, pumpkins, or beans.

Almanac 67, t’ol 3

The text of the second t’ol is linked to the third by the distance number 10, indicating that 11 Ok, 11 Ik’, 11 Ix, 11 Kimi, and 11 Etz’nab (highlighted in blue in the overlay image of the second t’ol) lead to 8 Ajaw, 8 Eb, 8 K’an, 8 Kib, and 8 Lamat (the column of day signs again indicated in blue in the overlay image of the third t’ol). In his right hand Chahk holds a snake, which represents lightning, and he is shown sitting cross-legged on platform decorated with astronomical symbols for the sun and darkness, among others. The third t’ol thus indicates that on these days Chahk is in the sky, though the word used, chan, is also the word for heaven—the land of gods and ancestors. To appease Chahk on these days, the calendar priest advises believers to offer food represented by two signs for tamales with spines, the characteristic feature of an iguana.

Almanac 67, t’ol 4

Those who set off on a journey, tread paths, and traverse crossroads must also be prepared for dangerous supernatural influences. The fourth t’ol of Almanac 67 is found on page 41c and shows the Chahk falling headlong from the sky to settle among paths and crossings ten days after he hurled his lightning. The associated image shows two intersecting paths marked with footprints, and the text says that someone who is travelling on the days 5 Ok, 5 Ik’, 5 Ix, 5 Kimi, or 5 Etz’nab, or who is planning a journey must seek to protect themselves from the destructive influence of the rain god. Sudden storms, showers, and thunderstorms are common during the rainy season on the Yucatan Peninsula, so travellers must be propitiatory. The text above the picture describes the rain god resting on paths and crossings and causing damage there: ach’abaw ta bih Chahk kutz waaj, which literally translates as ‘Rain god, you create on the path, turkey tamale’, indicating that the rain god demands corn dough filled with turkey meat, suitable for longer journeys, on 5 Ok, 5 Ik’, 5 Ix, 5 Kimi, and 5 Etz’nab.

Almanac 67, t’ol 5

The image of this t’ol shows a blue-painted Chahk seated cross-legged on the roof of a house or temple with a palm roof. Chahk, as the deity of wind, rain, and thunderstorms, can damage buildings, and to prevent this the almanac advises an offering of red tamale, or chak waaj, on 2 Ajaw, 2 Eb, 2 K’an, 2 Kib, and 2 Lamat to satisfy his hunger and make him more lenient. The number 39 in t’ol 5 explains that these propitiations are valid for three further rounds of the 260-day calendar (780 days).

Almanac 67, t’ol 6

The distance number 3 and the coefficient 5 link the text and image of the fifth t’ol with the sixth or last t’ol, indicating that it is valid for the days of 5 Ak’b’al, 5 Men, 5 Manik’, 5 Kawak, and 5 Chuwen. The text in this t’ol closes with the black distance number 9 and the red day coefficient 1, leading the reader back to the beginning of the almanac. The image shows Chahk walking and holding an axe, the sign for thunder, in his hand. The text above explains that he is creating at a place of innumerable thunderclaps called bolon pek. According to Classic Maya belief, the rain god wanders through the cosmos, creating thunder and lightning from nothing as he travels back and forth. In order to protect oneself from this danger, the codex advises making a food offering of the hind legs of a deer tied together. This food sacrifice is supposed to make Chahk mild and protect the offerer from the consequences of a thunderstorm. The total run of the almanac comprises 52 days (the sum of the distance numbers), and after five runs the end is reached and the almanac starts again from the beginning. Altogether it contains forecasts and statements about places and the actions of the rain god for 30 days of the 260 day ritual cycle.

Almanac 67 appears to have been compiled with the intention of guiding people safely through everyday life by providing them with advice to avert disaster when travelling over land and water. To this end, it was necessary to know on which days the rain god was active, and where, in order to select the appropriate offerings to ensure his benevolence. The four Maya codices that survived the European conquest and the humid tropical climate all show a remarkably consistent structure, which suggests a centuries-old and extensive book tradition. The hieroglyphic texts and accompanying explanatory images and scenes were complementary, and formed a coherent unit. Calendrical information was central to this as it allowed the correct offerings to be made on the correct days, and provided a thematic and visual structure to the text.


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Figure 1. Pages 40 and 41 from the Dresden Maya Codex.
Large image: current state. Source: Sächsische Landesbibliothek–Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, SLUB (page 40, page 41).
Smaller overlay image in the bottom: 19-century facsimile of sections 40c and 41c (Almanac 67). Source: Förstemann 1880.
Contents of the six columns (t'ol) of Almanac 67:
1. First t'ol (+ reading order)
2. Second t'ol
3. Third t'ol
4. Fourth t'ol
5. Fifth t'ol
6. Sixth t'ol