Middle Ages Technologies

Mayan Codex

by Mari Roulston

The codices show that the Mayans were advanced for their time. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What were the Mayan codices? How were they used? What did they look like? What was going on in the world as these books were being written, and who were the Maya?

The Maya were an ancient civilization that resided on the Yucatan peninsula. Though advanced in many fields these ancient people were highly religious and, to say the least, they weren’t exactly peaceful. If you admire their colorful calendar you will see a face with its tongue protruding out, signifying the need for blood and human sacrifice.

During the same time period, brutality reigned in many parts of the world. Powerful barbarians were surrounding China, and in order to keep the peace the current emperor had to pay the barbarians hefty sums of money. In Europe Innocent III authorized the founding of the Dominican order; whose sole purpose was to convert Muslims and Jews, and while some were murdering "heretics," the rest of Europe couldn’t read or write. In Iran, the Mongols invaded and beheaded everyone in Nishapur. While all this was happening, the Mayans were in many ways a rare example of advanced culture.

The year was 1214; the Mayan culture was flourishing, and as the people were living out their normal lives, priests were writing the Codices. These primitive books were made from fig tree bark, were roughly eight inches long, and were folded like accordions. These were written by different scribes using different variations of the complicated and dramatic Mayan glyphs. These ancient texts depicted the gods on many of their pages, though the book was practical in secular ways as well as religious. Residing in these now ancient books are vats of information, religious, medical, and agricultural all pertaining to the Maya way of life. These books were written mainly for the priests and for history in general. The priest would consult the Codices for answers to questions like how to cure a sickness, or what day to have a sacrifice on. In other words, this was their own personal library.

The priests would consult the Cidices to know when a certain ritual should happen, or when to have a proper sacrifice, or how to conduct a ritual for that matter. These amazing books were a huge part of the Mayan history, and are also one of the main sources of our knowledge. By finding these ancient texts we were able to look into the prolific knowledge of the Maya. These ancient people knew things other people never even dreamed of during that time, Astrological charts evaluated the course of Venus, the Moon, and other stars. The Maya knew when the rain would come, they knew when a volcano could erupt. Their knowledge was beyond the level of many other ancients.

If you opened these ancient books what would you see? One of the most well known Mayan accomplishments, was their amazing astrological power. We were able to see that through the Dresden Codex, one of the currently known codices that has been recovered. This codex is filled with astrological charts pertaining to Venus and the stars. These ancient people knew the distance of the sun from the Earth.

They were able to tell how the moving stars affected the season around them. Their whole Calendar was based on what they saw, and stored information on their holy days, planting days, seasons and their likely effects on crops. The Maya were able to create a reasonably accurate calendar that moved all the way up to the year 2012. Our calendar consists of the Twelve months not so big in comparison to a Calendar of years.

The Codices show us something else that truly defines the Mayan as an amazing culture, their math. How else would these primitive people find the distance from the Earth to the Sun? If you studied the Codices you would find glyphs that were simply bars and dots, these were their numbers. The Mayan had an amazing numeral system. The fact that they could even contemplate the year 2012 in their calendar is amazing. The Mayan math was superior to that of many of the astronomers of their time.

In the Codices the calendar, astronomy, and their sacrifices all were part of a bigger picture, that of religion. The codices depict many pictures of different gods, each pertaining to a different aspect of their culture. The main reason their religion was depicted in the codices was because their religion was a huge part of their entire society and history. Any of the emperors in the Mayan society were considered the closest to the gods, thus almost like a god themselves. Each of the Gods was incorporated into daily life and therefore very important to the Mayan.

The codices give us a picture of the complexity of Mayan culture, but do not show everything. One little documented advancement in the Mayan culture was medicine. Amazingly enough, many of the procedures used by the Maya are used today, such as sweat baths. The Maya would place their sick or tired in a sweat lodge to alleviate their illnesses. The Kings would also visit the sweat lodges to become rejuvenated and to be ready to face what ever might lie ahead. The king or priests might also partake in a sweat bath to ready themselves for a ritual. Well does this method ring a bell? It’s a Sauna, and they are still often used to rejuvenate and refresh.

Another Mayan form of medicine that is now a profession was the bonesetters, who today would be called massage therapists. The person who was in need of their assistance would seek out these “bone setters,” who would give the person a massage in the problem area. In severe cases, they might live up to their their name by breaking a portion of bone in the area and then re-aligning it.

Like most of ancient cultures, the Maya also used local herbs in a paste or a tea to help the person in need. Some of their medical knowledge was only passed down by word of mouth and was not documented in the Codices, but much of it was, giving us more insight into their medical procedures.

A few centuries after the Codices were written, the territory that had been Mayan was occupied by Cortez and his Spaniards, and many of the ancient books were burned as heretical. Although the Maya were advanced in many technologies and arts, Spain had guns, metal weapons, horses, willing Indian allies, and a committed leader. One of the priests Cortez was traveling with stated in his diary that the indigenous people seemed distraught when the Codices were burned. Hmmm, I wonder why. Because the priests thought it was devil's work we have now just a few books.

So now do you get it? Unlike most cultures of their time the Maya had a written language, a stable society and amazing architecture, which rivaled much of what was being done in Europe at the same time. They had medicine which actually worked, and they documented their history in the codices, something that many cultures hadn’t even thought of. The Maya were an amazing group of people, and will forever live on through the Codices.

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