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Yucatan Before and After the Conquest, by Diego de Landa, tr. William Gates, [1937], at


Baptism is not found anywhere in the Indies save here in Yucatan, and even with a word meaning to be born anew or a second time, the same as the Latin renascer. Thus in the language of Yucatan sihil means 'to be born anew,' or a second time, but only however in composition; thus caput-sihil means to be reborn. * Its origin we have been unable to learn, but it is something

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they have always used and for which they have had such devotion that no one fails to receive it; they had such reverence for it that those guilty of sins, or who knew they were about to sin, were obliged to confess to the priest, in order to receive it; and they had such faith in it that in no manner did they ever take it a second time. They believed that in receiving it they acquired a predisposition to good conduct and habits, protection against being harmed by the devils in their earthly affairs, and that through it and living a good life they would attain a beatitude hereafter which, like that of Mahomet, consisted in eating and drinking.

Their custom of preparing for baptism was as follows: the Indian women raised the children to the age of three, placing for the boys a small white plaquet, fastened to the head in the hair of the tonsure; the girls wore a thin cord tied very low about the waist, to which was attached a small shell over the private parts; to remove these two things was regarded among them as a sin and disgraceful, until the time of the baptism, which was given between the ages of three and twelve; until this ceremony was received they did not marry.

Whenever one desired to have his child baptised, he went to the priest and made his wish known to him, who then published this in the town, with the day chosen, which they took care should be of good omen. This being done, the solicitant, being thus charged with giving the fiesta, selected at his discretion some leading man of the town to assist him in the matter. Afterwards they chose four other old and honored men to assist the priest on the day of the ceremony, these being chosen with the priest's cooperation. In these elections the fathers of all the eligible children took part, for the fiesta was a concern of all; those so chosen were called Chacs. For the three days before the ceremony the parents of the children, as well as the officials, fasted and abstained from their wives.

On the day, all assembled at the house of the one giving the fiesta, and
brought all the children who were to be baptized, and placed them in the patio or court of the house, all clean and scattered with fresh leaves; the boys together in a line, and the girls the same, with an aged woman as matron for the girls, and a man in charge of the boys. *

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When this was done the priest proceeded to the purification of the house, expelling the demon. To do this they placed four benches in the four corners of the patio, on which the four chacs seated themselves, with a long cord tied from one to the other, in such fashion as that the children were corralled in the middle, after which those parents who had fasted stepped over the cord, into the circuit. Afterwards, or previously, they placed in the middle another bench on which the priest seated himself, with a brazier and a little ground maize and incense. Then the boys and girls came to him in order, and he put a little of the ground maize and incense into the hand of each, and they threw it into the brazier. When all had done this, they took up the brazier and the cord held by the chacs; they also threw a little wine in a vase and then gave it all to an Indian to carry away from the village, enjoining him not to drink the wine or to look behind him on his return; and in this manner they said that the demon had been exorcised. *

After this they swept the patio and took away the leaves that were scattered at the beginning, which were of a tree called sihom, and scattered others of a tree called copó, laying down mats while the priest changed his vestures. He next entered wearing a tunic of red feathers, worked with other varicolored feathers, and with other long feathers pendant from the ends; on his head he wore a sort of miter of the same feathers, while beneath the tunic there hung to the ground strips of cotton like tails. He carried a hyssop made of a short, finely decorated stick, and the tails of certain serpents like rattlesnakes;  all this with neither more nor less gravity than that of a pope crowning an emperor, and a serenity that was a marvel to behold. The chacs then went to the children and placed on the heads of all white cloths which their mothers had brought for the purpose.  They asked of the largest ones whether they had done any bad thing, or obscene conduct, and if any had done so, they confessed them and separated them from the others.

When this was done the priest called on all to be silent and seated, and began to bless the children, with tong prayers, and to sanctify them with the hyssop, all with great serenity. After this benediction he seated himself, and the one elected by the parents as director of the fiesta took a bone given him by the priest, went to the children and menaced each one with the bone on the forehead, nine times. After this he wet the bone in a jar of water he carried, and with it anointed them on the forehead, the face, and between the fingers of their hands and the bones of their feet, without saying a word. This liquor was confected out of certain flowers and ground cacao, dissolved

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in virgin water, as they call it, taken from the hollows of trees or of rocks in the forest.

After this unction the priest rose, removed the white cloths from their heads, as well as others they wore suspended from the shoulders containing a few feathers of very beautiful birds and some grains of cacao, all of which were collected by one of the chacs. Then with a stone knife the priest cut away the small bead or counter each had worn fastened to his head. After this the other assistants of the priest brought a bunch of flowers and a pipe such as the Indians smoked; with these they menaced each child nine times, and then gave him the bouquet to smell and the pipe to smoke. After this they gathered the presents brought by the mothers, which were things to cat, and gave these to each child to eat there. Then they brought a fine chalice of wine and quickly offered it to the gods, invoking them with devout prayers to receive this small gift from the children; this chalice they then gave to another officiant called cayom, that he might empty it at a single draught; for him to stop to take breath in this was regarded as something sinful.

When this was over the girls took their leave first, their mothers removing the cord and shell they had worn about the girdle in sign of their chastity; this gave license for them to be married, when such might seem best to their parents. Then the boys took their leave, and the fathers came bearing the heap of mantles they had brought, and gave them with their own hands to the assistants and the officiants. The fiesta then ended with long eating and drinking; and this fiesta was called em-ku, which means 'the descent of the god.' The one then who had instituted and borne the cost of the ceremony, in addition to his three previous days of abstinence and fast, was obliged to continue this for yet other nine days; this they did inviolably.


42:* Sihil means 'to be born' simply; caput-sihil 'to be born a second time,' and is the specific term in Maya for baptism, being distinct from caput-cuxtal,' to come to life a second time.'

43:* The marginal illustration is from the Madrid Codex, in a clause where the act is repeated in like style in four illustrations, and obviously refers to child baptism, the only place in tither codex where the ceremony seems to be referred to. Clearly the actual ceremony was far more elaborate and impressive, this being one of the many cases where the scanty details related by Landa, and the isolated references we have so far been able to identify in the codices and the few post-Conquest Maya manuscripts, like the Chumayel, just barely supplement and touch each other enough to show how much existed, and how full the civilization was, and how little we yet know of it—as it actually was, and how it was lived.

44:* There is a confusion in this section, between child and adult baptism, which latter having necessarily been of a different ceremonial nature, is not given by Landa.

44:† See illustration of this aspersarium on page 79.

44:‡ Suhuy nok, or 'virgin cloth,' as still known in Yucatan.

Next: XXVII. Kind of Confessions Among the Indians. Abstinences and Superstitions. Diversity and Abundance of Idols. Duties of the Priests