Published On: Mon, Jul 14th, 2014

Diego’s Bonfire

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[“Surprising History in Yucatán” —Introduction to the Series]

“We found a great number of books in these letters, and 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.”

It was Wednesday, July 12, 1562, and Franciscan provincial Diego de Landa Calderón had assembled the citizens of Maní to witness his great bonfire.  Of the books whose burning caused the people such “great pain” there were at least forty, along with some 20,000 images and other religious objects.  In a single fire, centuries of Maya culture perished forever.

Landa’s condescending term “these letters” referred to the Maya writing, one of only five systems ever invented independently in human history.  Their “letters” made the Maya the only literate Americans, able to read and write the sounds of their language.  The treasured writing system was an intensely important part of their culture, and it was stolen from them.

Although today Maní is a small and obscure town in the impoverished south of Yucatán state, in the sixteenth century it was the capital of the Xiu dynasty, which had controlled the western part of the peninsula.  It was also important to the Franciscans as the site of one of their earliest and greatest successes in converting the Maya to Christianity.  In the Franciscan mission at Izamal, Landa heard rumors that supposedly converted citizens in Maní were practicing “idolatry.”  He went on the attack.

Landa seems to have developed an insatiable obsession with extirpating idolatry, which he understood to be any trace of indigenous religion.  Far exceeding his authority, he brought in the full force of the Inquisition to identify and punish idolaters.  These were people who had only heard of Christianity within the generation and were now to be punished for observing any of the practices of their ancient tradition, even paying minor respect to the local protectors of cornfield and hearth.  Landa obtained, under severe torture, admissions of anything he wanted to hear — idols, debauchery, cannibalism, concubinage, sacrifices, witchcraft.  He flogged people to death and burned them.  Contemporary reports say the plaza in Maní was covered with blood.  Some 4,500 Maya were “questioned,” 158 died in the process, and about thirty committed suicide to avoid Landa.  Many fled south to seek refuge in the forests.  The book-burning auto de fe was part of the festivities.

Landa’s methods were so extreme that authorities ordered him to Spain for an inquiry.  The Council of the Indies condemned his actions, but the Franciscan provincial of Castile acquitted him of wrongdoing, mostly as a gesture to demonstrate his order’s independent authority versus the state and secular clergy.  The Franciscans even gave him a promotion, and in 1573 he sailed into Campeche as the newly appointed and second residing Bishop of Yucatán.  His anti-idolatry zeal continued to burn brightly.

Now in command of Franciscan reinforcements, Landa caused a wave of terror to sweep through some two dozen towns, from Campeche north to Motul and east to villages around Valladolid.  Maní received special attention.  This campaign, which went on for six years, surpassed the inquisition of 1562 in scope, violence, and destruction.  Under Landa’s orders, Franciscans scoured the villages and countryside of the region, searching through the brush and in caves and cenotes to find hidden idols and accomplices to the crime of idolatry.

Franciscan commissary judges kept few if any records of their trials, which they carried out with almost total disregard to legal and ecclesiastical procedures.  Torture was routine, as were burning and public humiliation.  Within a few years, Landa’s minions had imprisoned or punished several thousand Maya convicted of committing idolatry.  There can be no doubt that they discovered and destroyed many more Maya books.

In actuality, although Landa’s story is best known, he and his Franciscans were only some among many despoilers of the era.  In just one example, Lieutenant Governor Juan de Garzón mounted a pacification entrada out of Salamanca de Bacalar in 1568.  The remote outpost at Bacalar consisted of a small Spanish population, poverty-stricken and neglected, surrounded by a sea of rebellious Maya.  Heading far eastward into what is now southern Campeche state, Garzón reported that he burned “many books of figures from their ancient days.”  Returning and moving south, up the Belize and Mopan Rivers and across the Maya Mountains into Guatemala, he noted that books were “everywhere to be found,” and he burned them all.

We can get some hints of what Landa and his ilk stole from us.  In 1590, the reputable historian and naturalist José de Acosta wrote, “In the province of Yucatán, … there were various books … in which the learned Indians kept the accounts of their times and the knowledge of plants, animals, and other things of nature, and their ancient customs, in a way of great interest and diligence.”  The books contained many “secrets of that land” and with their destruction “they had lost many memories of ancient things.”

The Maya mourned their loss and put as much as they could remember in a series of manuscripts, held in secret in various towns, and collectively known as the Books of Chilam Balam.  Written in Yucatec Mayan using the Latin alphabet, nine books are known, although more existed, or may still exist.  Language and content show they date from the sixteenth century, recopied in later times.  Their subjects range widely:  Chronicles, migration legends, and historical texts, placed in the framework of the Maya calendar.  Agricultural almanacs.  Medical recipes.  Practical calendars correlating human characteristics and activities.  Prognostications and prophecy.  Mythological and ritualistic texts.  Treatises on astrology and meteorology.  Collections of riddles and metaphors.  The fullness of a literary heritage.

Page 4, Dresden Codex Sächsische Landesbibliothek, Dresden, Germany

Page 4, Dresden Codex
Sächsische Landesbibliothek, Dresden, Germany

Only three — maybe four — original preconquest Maya books survive, of probably thousands that once existed.  They are in a form called codices, written on long strips of paper, accordion-folded into pages about nine inches high and four wide.  The paper is made from the inner bark of a type of wild fig tree and coated with lime gesso, which proves a smooth and durable writing surface, better than papyrus.  Artist-scribes brush-painted the codices with inks, predominately black and red, usually adding brilliant colors.  The paltry examples that we have are essentially almanacs or astronomical tables, describing ceremonies and prophecies related to periods in the complex Maya calendar.  The texts are usually short and cryptic.  In contrast with the inscriptions on Maya monuments, which are essentially political propaganda, the surviving codices are handbooks for Maya priests.

The authentic survivors are known by the archives where they now reside.  The Dresden Codex of 74 pages is the most artistically elaborate and contains extraordinarily accurate astronomical information, especially regarding the Venus cycle.  It is the work of six different scribes, written in about the eleventh century in the Yucatec dialect of Chichén Itzá.  The Madrid Codex, 112 pages, is even more varied.  It is the product of a single scribe, likely written hastily after the Spanish arrival in an effort to preserve imagery and text from several sources.  It may have been written in Tayasal, on Lake Petén Itzá, Guatemala.  The Paris Codex, only 22 surviving pages and in very poor condition, contains prophecies and a Maya zodiac.  It was rescued from a basket of discarded papers at the Bibliothèque Nationale in 1859, and its provenance is unknown.  A fourth one, known as the Grolier Codex and now preserved at the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, surfaced only in the 1970s, exhibited at the Grolier Club in New York.  Scholars dispute its authenticity.  Some who believe it is authentic see Toltec influence and think it may be from Xicalango, the great trading port at the entrance to the Laguna de Términos.

The most violent aspects of the campaign against idolatry ended with Landa’s death in 1579, at the age of 54, in Mérida.  Even into the eighteenth century, though, reports of the Franciscans’ use of torture and summary corporal punishments remained common.  Maya books continued to be destroyed wherever they were found.  As for the reputation of Fray Diego de Landa, historians value his famous manuscript, Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, for the ethnographic information it contains.  However, it is fundamentally sentimental and self-serving and reflects Landa’s acquaintance with the Maya elite, ignoring the lives of women and commoners.  Ironically, it is valuable because Landa himself destroyed the original Maya sources.  Beginning soon after his death and continuing up to our time, his actions have inspired feelings of disgust and horror.

Now, thanks to two generations of scholars, we and the Maya people can again read much of the Maya texts, on monuments, on ceramics, and in the few surviving books.

By Robert D. Temple


Complete images of the surviving Maya codices are available on the Web site of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies (FAMSI).  These museums hold and display the originals:  the Sächsische Landesbibliothek in Dresden; the Museo de América in Madrid; the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris; and the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City.

Mérida’s Gran Museo del Mundo Maya displays a fine reproduction of the Madrid codex.

Explorers can find a statue of Diego de Landa in a public square in Izamal, Yucatán.  The plaque has the good taste at least to name him a “fanatical destroyer.”

Landa appears in one of the murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco illustrating the struggles of the people of Yucatán.  It is in the second-floor salon in the Government Palace on Mérida’s main plaza.

Landa was buried in Mérida at the Convento Grande de San Francisco (where the large Lucas de Gálvez market is now located), but one cannot visit his gave there – or anywhere.  His bones were removed to a family tomb in Cifuentes, Guadalajara, Spain, and that was destroyed in 1936 during the civil war.

Maní has a Franciscan monastery dating from 1549, the Parroquia y Exconvento de San Miguel Arcángel, where Landa must have carried out some of his work.  The large building was constructed using cut stones looted from pre-Columbian structures.


The author thanks Professor George H. Ashley for his helpful contributions to this article.

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