Breaking The Maya Code

Dresden Codex

Franciscan monk Diego de Landa arrived in the Yucatan in the year 1541.  He wrote up a description of the Mayan people he found there.  He says:

These people also used certain characters or letters, with which they wrote in their books about the antiquities and their sciences; with these, and with figures, and certain signs in the figures, they understood their matter, made them know, and taught them.  We found a great number of books in these letters.

So: what did he do next?

Do you guess made put together a fantastic collection for posterity?

The answer is:

Since they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods of the devil we burned them all, which they took most grievously, and which gave them great pain.

What kind of jackass shows up in a place and the first thing he does is burn all the books?  Even fellow missionaries thought de Landa was a little much.


To look at it from his perspective though?  Just for one second?  In his mind he was in a jungle where every single person was worshipping idols or demons or maybe even the Devil himself and bound for fiery Hell unless by a miracle their souls could be saved.

Supposedly — who knows if this is true, but this is a story — on like his first day in the Yucatan he was walking out in the sticks when he interrupted a human sacrifice, and the whole thing freaked him out.

Anyway: the total number of Mayan books that survived – codices is the more accurate word, I’m told, because they’re not bound like books exactly — the total number of Mayan codices is three.  Maybe four.  Dresden, Madrid, Paris, named for the city that had the dusty library where they were found.  Maybe Grolier is authentic too, I refuse to weigh in, Grolier is named for a private club of book-collectors in Manhattan where it was exhibited after it was, allegedly, found in a cave in the 1970s.

grolier codex

The Grolier Codex. Suspicious.

Each of the codices has some amazing backstory.  The Dresden Codex was underwater for awhile.

The story of how they figured out how to read Mayan is great.  A bunch of wacky geniuses take on the world’s hardest crossword puzzle, where new clues are hidden in the jungle  might be the logline.


The story is well told in this book.

Virtually everybody involved was some kind of lunatic:IMG_7727 IMG_7728

Now that’s the way to go!

IMG_7720 IMG_7721

How about Cyrus Thomas?


Or amateur linguist Benjamin Whorf?:


(Don’t think for one second, by the way, that Whorf was letting all this distracting from his insurance work.  From wiki:

He was particularly good at the job and was highly commended by his employers. His job required him to travel to production facilities throughout New England to be inspected. In one anecdote his arrival at a chemical plant is described in which he was denied access by the director because he would not allow anyone to see the production procedure which was a trade secret. Having been told what the plant produced, Whorf wrote a chemical formula on a piece of paper, saying to the director: “I think this is what you’re doing”. The surprised director asked Whorf how he knew about the secret procedure, and he simply answered: “You couldn’t do it in any other way.” 

Another famous anecdote from his job was used by Whorf to argue that language use affects habitual behavior. Whorf described a workplace in which full gasoline drums were stored in one room and empty ones in another; he said that because of flammable vapor the “empty” drums were more dangerous than those that were full, although workers handled them less carefully to the point that they smoked in the room with “empty” drums, but not in the room with full ones. Whorf explained that by habitually speaking of the vapor-filled drums as empty and by extension as inert, the workers were oblivious to the risk posed by smoking near the “empty drums”

Whorf got himself mixed up in the Hopi Time Controversy, a dispute about whether the Hopi language suggests a whole other way of conceiving/perceiving time, whether the Hopi walked around in some tripped-out timeless cognitive condition.


As I know many Helytimes readers are quite tired of that subject let’s just agree it’s pretty badass to have your own law in Uto-Aztecan linguistics and go back to Coe.

How about another enthusiastic amateur, John Teeple, who used to work out the Mayan calendar on his commute?


And what do we learn from all this reading?  That the Mayans were deeply wack:

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