The Painted Books Of The Maya: Surviving By A Hair

Sometimes the precious things of this world survive by just a hair.  Just a hair.  The difference between victory and defeat, between survival and ruin, between conquest and destruction, between glory and despair:  these are not differences of tremendous magnitude.  They are fine-line distinctions.  And when I say fine-line, I mean very fine.  Fortune loves to play games with us, and when she casts her dice to predict our fate, the outcome often hangs by a hair.  By such threads does the fate of man so perilously hang.

Consider the case of the ancient codices of the Maya.  The books of the Maya suffered an even more tragic fate than the painted books of the Aztec or Mixtec peoples.  Fire, neglect, apathy, and deliberate destruction were their fate; even after the 1500s, they were not considered important enough for serious study, and thus were scattered to various libraries or private collections in Europe, where they sat untouched for generations.  Today there are only three known original Mayan manuscripts.  They are named the Codex Dresden, the Codex Tro-Cortesianus, and the Codex Paris.  This is all that remains of a literate civilization that recorded its astronomical observations, prophecies, calendar lore, and lineages of kings.

To show just how fragile the literary heritage of man is, let us consider the fate of one of these codices, the Codex Paris.  This incalculably rare book was fished out of a wastebasket in the National Library of Paris in 1859 by a scholar named Leon de Rosny.  De Rosny was a botanist by trade; he knew nothing about Mexico and its rich history.  But we do know that he accomplished something that could be called a miracle:  he saved a Mayan codex from oblivion just by happening to notice something odd lying in a wastebasket.  Who put it there, we do not know.  The Codex Paris is small–it contains just eleven pages, and measures 1.45 meters by 22 centimeters wide.  But it was found, and it survived.

Consider also the career of the Codex Dresden.  The name “Dresden” is affixed to this codex because it came into the possession of the King of Saxony, whose library was located in the German city of Dresden.  But we do not know how it got there.  We have no record of how it it was removed from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, how it found its way to Europe, and exactly how the royal family of Saxony acquired it.  Perhaps it was smuggled out of New Spain by an enterprising priest, who knew that a fair price could be had for such antiquities in Europe.  This may be so; but we do not know with certainty.  We do know that an unknown collector sold it to the rector of the king’s library, Johann Christian Goetze, in 1739.

Goetze knew what he had.  He had spent his life around rare books and manuscripts, and knew gold when he saw it.  When he recorded the codex in the royal archives, under book no. 300, he wrote, “An extremely valuable Mexican books with hieroglyphic figures.”  Goetze was so impressed with the manuscript that in 1774, when he published his Peculiarities of the Library of Dresden, he gave the codex honorary mention:

[It is] a Mexican book with unknown characters and hieroglyphic figures written on both sides and painted in various colors…Our Royal Library has an advantage over others:  that of possessing such a treasure…which was found some years ago in a private library in Vienna; it was acquired easily and without cost because it was something unknown…

The book, a painted manuscript of 39 pages, was publicly displayed in 1834.  According to the estimates of modern scholarship, the codex was composed sometime between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries A.D.  Its subject matter is religious:  it contains astronomical observations, describes various ceremonies, and illustrates scenes from the mythology of the god Itzamna.  The first serious study of the codex was undertaken by the librarian Ernest Forstemann (1822-1906).  Forstemann was a true scholar.  Remarkably, he was a specialist in the German language, and had no background in Mexican antiquities.  Yet his enthusiasm, diligence, and creative thinking enabled him to make insights into the codex that made his lack of formal training irrelevant.  He published the first copy of the codex in 1880, although the Italian engraver Agostino Aglio had been the first to produce a hand-drawn facsimile in 1826.  Forstemann knew how languages worked, and he brought his knowledge of German to bear on his task.  Using deductive logic, he was able to decipher many of the numeric signs appearing in the codex (1, 20, 360, 7200, etc.).

Anyone who thinks that amateur scholars cannot make significant contributions to a field need only look at this history of the Maya codices.  About 50 years after Forstemann made his discoveries, another amateur named John Teeple (a chemical engineer by trade) began to study the Codex Dresden in his spare time.  His work resulted in more contributions to the field.  After him came other amateur scholars, Martin Meinshausen and Paul Schellhaus, who did additional work.

The Codex Dresden again escaped oblivion by the skin of its teeth during the Second World War.  During the war it had been housed in the wine cellar of the Japanese Palace in Dresden, along with other artistic treasures.  When the city of Dresden was targeted by Allied firebombing in 1945, countless objects of historical value were lost forever.  By some miracle of fate–similar to the Codex Paris‘s discovery in a wastebasket–the book survived the firestorm intact.  But it was nearly ruined when water seeped into the wine cellar in the recovery efforts after the attack.  The codex was saved by diligent rescuers, and was secreted away for safe-keeping during the occupation period.  It is now kept by the Dresden Museum.

There it lies in repose to this day, having cheated both time and Fate.


Read Thirty-Seven today, and ignite the fire within you.