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Yucatan Before and After the Conquest

by Diego de Landa, tr. William Gates


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Among the many 'bad guys' in the history of sacred texts, the Friar Diego de Landa has to occupy a special circle in hell. In 1562, de Landa conducted an 'Auto de fé' in Maní where in addition to 5000 'idols,' he burned 27 books in Maya writing. This one act deprived future generations of a huge body of Mayan literature. He culturally impoverished the descendents of the Mayas, and left only four codices for scholars to puzzle over.

The document translated here is de Landa's apology, and one of the few remaining contemporary texts which describe pre-conquest Mayan society, science, and art in detail. As such it must be read in context. The translator and editor, the distinguished Americanist William Gates, provides plenty of background on de Landa, the decline of the Maya, and what is today known about their ancient culture.

Although the vast majority of the information here is solid and cross-documented, there is one notable lapse, de Landa's infamous Mayan alphabet, which bears no relation to the realities of the hieroglyphic Mayan writing system. This has often been mis-used to make points about the diffusion of letter forms, so it bears a close look in situ.

Title Page
I. Description of Yucatan. Variety of Seasons
II. Etymology of the Name of this Province. Its Situation
III. Captivity of Gerónimo De Aguilar. Expedition of Hernandez De Córdoba And Grijalva To Yucatan
IV. Expedition of Cortés to Cozumel. Letter to Aguilar and His Friends
V. Provinces of Yucatan. Its Principal Ancient Structures
VI. Cuculcán. Foundation of Mayapán
VII. Government, Priesthood, Sciences, Letters and Books in Yucatan
XIII. Arrival of the Tutul-xius and the Alliance They Made With the Lords of Mayapán. Tyranny of Cocom, The Ruin of His Power and of the City of Mayapán
IX. Chronological Monuments of Yucatan. Foundation of the Kingdom of Sotuta. Origin of the Chels. The Three Principal Kingdoms of Yucatan
X. Various Calamities Felt In Yucatan In the Period Before the Conquest By the Spaniards: Hurricane, Wars, etc.
XI. Prophecies of the Coming of the Spaniards. History of Francisco de Montejo, First Admiral of Yucatan
XII. Montejo Sails For Yucatan and Takes Possession of the Country. The Chels Cede To Him the Site of Chichén Itzá. The Indians Force Him to Leave
XIII. Montejo Leaves Yucatan With All His People and Returns to Mexico. His Son, Francisco De Montejo, Afterwards Pacifies Yucatan
XIV. State Of Yucatan After the Departure of the Spaniards. Don Francisco, Son of the Admiral Montejo, Re-Establishes the Spanish Rule in Yucatan
XV. Cruelties of the Spaniards Toward the Indians. How They Excused Themselves
XVI. State of the Country Before the Conquest. Royal Decree in Favor of the Indians. Health of the Admiral Montejo. His Descendants
XVII. Arrival of the Spanish Franciscan Friars in Yucatan. Protection They Gave to the Natives. Their Contests with the Spanish Military Element
XVIII. Vices of the Indians. Studies of the Friars in the Language of the Country. Their Teachings to the Indians. Conversions. Punishments of Apostates
XIX. Arrival of Bishop Toral and Release of the Imprisoned Indians. Voyage of the Provincial of San Francisco to Spain to Justify the Conduct of the Franciscans
XX. Construction of the Houses of Yucatan. Obedience and Respect of the Indians For Their Chiefs. Headgear and Wearing of Garments
XXI. Food and Drink of the Indians of Yucatan
XXII. Painting and Tattooing of the Indians. Their Orgies, Wines and Banquets. Their Comedies, Music and Dances
XXIII. Industry, Commerce and Money. Agriculture and Seeds. Justice and Hospitality
XXIV. Method of Counting of the Yucatecans. Genealogies. Inheritances and Tutelage of the Orphans. The Succession of the Chiefs
XXV. Divorces Frequent Among the Yucatecans. Nuptial Customs
XXVI. Method of Baptism in Yucatan; How it was Celebrated
XXVII. Kind of Confessions Among the Indians. Abstinences and Superstitions. Diversity and Abundance of Idols. Duties of the Priests
XXVIII. Sacrifices and Self-Mortifications, Both Cruel and Obscene, Among the Yucatecans. Human Victims Slain By Arrows, and Others
XXIX. Arms of the Yucatecans. Military Chieftains. Militia and Soldiers. Customs of War
XXX. Penalties and Punishments for Adulterers, Homicides and Thieves. Education of the Young Men. Custom of Flattening the Heads of Children
XXXI. Clothing and Ornaments of the Indian Women
XXXII. Chastity And Education of the Indian Women of Yucatan. Their Chief Qualities and Their Household Economy. Their Devotion and the Special Observances at the Time of Childbirth
XXXIII. Funerals. Burials of the Priests. Statues to Preserve the Ashes of the Chiefs, and the Honors They Paid to Them. Their Belief Regarding a Future Life, with Rewards and Punishments
XXXIV. Count of the Yucatecan Year. Characters of the Days. The Four Bacabs and Their Names. Gods of the 'Unlucky' Days
XXXV. Festivals of the 'Unlucky' Days. Sacrifices For the Beginning of the New Year Kan
XXXVI. Sacrifices for the New Year of the Character Muluc. Dances of the Stilt-Walkers. Dance of the Old Women With Terracotta Dogs
XXXVII. Sacrifices For the New Year With the Sign Ix. Sinister Prognostics, and Manner of Conjuring Their Effects
XXXVIII. Sacrifices of the New Year of the Letter Cauac. The Evils Prophesied and Their Remedy in the Dance of the Fire
XXXIX. The Author's Explanation as to Various Things in the Calendar. His Purpose in Giving These Things Notice
XL. Months and Festivals of the Yucatecan Calendar
XLI. Cycle of the Mayas. Their Writings
XLII. Multitude of Buildings in Yucatan. Those of Izamal, of Merida, and of Chichén Itzá
XLIII. For What Other Things the Indians Made Sacrifices
XLIV. The Soil and its Products
XLV. The Waters and the Fishes Found in Them
XLVI. How There Are Serpents and Other Poisonous Animals
XLVII. Of The Bees and Their Honey and Wax
XLVIII. Of the Plants, Flowers and Trees; of the Fruits and Other Edibles
XLIX. Of the Birds
L. Of the Larger Animals, and of the Smaller Ones
LI. The Author's Conclusion and Appeal
LII. Criticism and Correction of Certain Statements

Additional Documents

Letter in Maya to the King
Letter of Francisco de Montejo Xiu
Letter of Diego Rodríguez Bibanco
The Xiu Family Papers
The Map, and the Meeting at Maní
The 1685 page by Juan Xiu
Yucatan in 1579 Showing the Pre-Spanish Maya Chiefdoms
Yucatan in 1549 and 1579
The Ordinances of Tomás López
Proclamation Required to be Made by Every Chief of an Expedition to the Indians at the Moment of Disembarking
Identification of Plant Names mentioned in Landa's text