Mayan, Aztec, and Mixtec Codices - Books of Magic and Witchcraft

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Mayan, Aztec, and Mixtec Codices
Books of Magic and Witchcraft

Most of the cultures encountered by the first European explorers of the Western Hemisphere were non-literate, but there were exceptions. The organized, highly structured and urban civilizations of what is now Mexico were highly literate. The Aztecs (centered in what is now Mexico City) and Mixtecs (centered near Oaxaca) recorded their spiritual, magical, historical, and astrological knowledge as well as prophecies in a type of hand-written book now known as a “codex” (plural codices). These would eventually be systematically destroyed by the Conquistadors and the Inquisition. Less than 20 Mixtec codices survive and precious few Aztec ones as well, notably the Borgia Codex currently housed in the Vatican.

The Mayans were beheld with awe both by their contemporary neighbors and by later observers for their mystical and astrological systems. They had an incredibly complex calendar. Most cultures base their calendars on either the lunar or solar cycles. The Mayans studied cycles of the sun, moon, and Venus and computed a calendar that coordinated all three.

Mayan codices were made from flattened fig tree bark, covered with lime paste (calcium carbonate, not the citrus fruit) and then folded like an accordion. They were written using an exceptionally sophisticated hieroglyphic system, which has yet to be completely deciphered and understood, and vividly illustrated on both sides. This type of paper survives and is known as amaté paper and is a staple of Mayan crafts designed for tourist consumption.

As far as the vast storehouse of Mayan codices goes, only three pre-Columbian Mayan texts and a fragment of a fourth remain. The sixteenth-century Spanish conquerors appreciated immediately that the Mayans had a great, literate, developed civilization. The Mayan hieroglyphic system frustrated and puzzled them. Initially, all texts were gathered together in an attempt to make sense of them but it was quickly decided that the codices were pagan and diabolical and so they were burned.

Father Diego de Landa, second Bishop of Yucatan (November 12, 1524—April 29, 1579) is responsible for the destruction of Mayan texts. Although some books had already been destroyed, when it was brought to his attention that some Mayans, believed to have converted to Christianity, were still practicing their indigenous traditions, Father de Landa ordered an Inquisition followed by an auto-da-fé in which all the Mayan texts (and also some five thousand Mayans) were burned on July 12, 1562. Father de Landa writes:

We found a large number of books in these characters [the hieroglyphics] and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they [the Mayans] regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.

Not all books were destroyed. The Mayans rescued some, burying them or hiding them in caves. Unlike hidden manuscripts buried in the arid deserts of Western Asia and Egypt, however, the Yucatan climate isn’t conducive to hiding forbidden books. Most were destroyed by humidity, the surviving pieces now impossible to read. Three codices survived in Europe, although how they got there remains mysterious as is much of their history (one codex was ultimately recovered from a garbage can). They are named after the cities in which they were found: the Dresden Codex, Paris Codex, and Madrid Codex. A fourth, fragmentary one is known as the Grolier Codex.