Indigenous Hieroglyphic Language Traditions : Mayan

Colonial Counterpoint: New World Texts as Sites of Encounter, 1492-1800

The Codex Madrid

The Codex Madrid (known also as the Tro-Cortesiano) is the longest of the three (recently determined to now be four) surviving Maya divinatory screenfold “books.”  It is named for the city where the original is currently housed.  The paper base of the original screenfold is made from a single length of beaten amate or fig bark paper folded accordion style.  The front and back sides of the folded pages were coated with lime, polished, and polychrome painted.  The facsmile faithfully recreates the fact that at some point in its post-contact history, the screenfold was torn into two pieces.  Its existence was made known to the world in the late 19th century.  One half of the screenfold was owned by Don Juan de Tro y Ortolano and named by Brasseur de Bourbourg, Manuscrit Troano.  The second half was purchased by the Museo Arqueológico de Madrid in 1875 from an unidentified owner in Extremadura, Spain.  Because Hernán Cortés was also from Extremadura, the second part came to be known as the Codex Cortesianus.  In the early 1880s, Léon de Rosny recognized that the Troano and the Cortesianus were two pieces of the same screenfold.  The Museo acquired the Troano in 1888 and the two halves were thus reunited.


Madrid Codex facsimile


The “Paper Patch”

“Patch” of European paper adhered to the end folio of the Madrid Codex

A close-up of the back page of the Codex Madrid showing the attached “paper patch” with Latin writing.  The attachment is actually a papal bull, and the story of how this holy decree from the Catholic Church wound up pasted into a Maya codex is telling of native Mesoamerican conceptions of European writing.   The bull was copied by a notary, Gregorio de Aguilar, between the years 1598 and 1603.  Gregorio’s cousin, Pedro Sánchez de Aguilar, was a local commissary who directed the sale of such bulls to Maya residents in northern Yucatán at this time.  The Maya likely did not fully understand the intended meaning of the papal bull as a Catholic dictate, but as objects containing writing, they interpreted them as they did their own books, as powerful, sacred artifacts.  The placement of the bull at the end of the Madrid screenfold may well have been an act of “blessing” an already revered possession.



One of the more recognizable almanacs in the Codex Madrid is the one on pages 75 and 76, shown below, which depicts a cosmogram that relates the four world directions (East, North, West, and South) to a fifth center direction via nine pairs of footprints at the inter-cardinal points.  The solid black dots and day signs (round glyphs with a red painted bar-and-dot number) represent the 260 individual days in the Maya ritual calendar called tzolk’in.  In this context, the footprints liken the passage of time to the journey paced out by nine underworld deities in the ancient Maya pantheon at the time of the Universe’s creation.  We will see footprints used again by highland Mexican scribes in colonial period documents for both European and Amerindian readers.

Madrid 75-76