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p. 182



Prophecy played an important part in the lives of the Maya and occupied a prominent position in their literature. Nor was the Maya prophet without honor in his own country. Foretelling the future was the profession of a special branch of the priesthood, the members of which were called chilans. The word means mouthpiece, spokesman or interpreter, and it was the chilans who delivered to the people the responses of the gods. They were held in such high esteem that they were carried on men's shoulders when they went abroad. 1 In the Tizimin manuscript we find an account 2 of the manner in which Chilam Balam. gave his prophecy, and it is likely that it was the customary method with this class of priests. He retired to a room in his home where he lay prostrate 3 in a trance while the god or spirit, perched on the ridgepole of the house, spoke to the unconscious chilan below. Then the other priests assembled, probably in the reception hall of the house, and listened to the revelation with their faces bowed down to the floor.

Broadly speaking, Maya prophecies fall into four classes: day-prophecies, year-prophecies, katun-prophecies and special prophecies of the return of Quetzalcoatl, or Kukulcan as he was called by the Maya.

What we have termed the day-prophecy is more properly a prognostic, probably the business of the ah-kinyah, or diviner, rather than that of the chilan. Every one of the 260 days of the tzolkin, or tonalamatl, is specified as being lucky or unlucky, and many of them are followed by further prognostications telling whether the day is suitable for certain undertakings, lucky for certain professions and trades, auspicious for sowing certain crops, etc. These divinations are probably the scanty remnant of an extensive hieroglyphic literature exemplified by the numerous tzolkin series found in the Maya picture manuscripts. Although these almanacs are perhaps the most constant feature of the various Books of Chilam Balam, no series of this sort occurs in the Chumayel.

The predictions for the years, however, fall definitely in the field of genuine prophecy. Two versions of the series of prophecies for the twenty years of a certain Katun 5 Ahau have come down to us in the books of Tizimin and Mani. The one in the latter manuscript is entitled "Cuceb," which means squirrel, for some unknown reason. It seems likely that these were originally the predictions corresponding to the twenty tuns of this katun, but the versions

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which we have, ascribed them to the Maya year, or haab, of 365 days, giving the name of the first day of each such year. As in the words of the minor Hebrew prophets, a surprisingly large proportion of the predictions are unfavorable. Drought, famine, pestilence are freely foretold, to say nothing of war, political upheavals, the sacking of towns and the captivity of the inhabitants. Many misfortunes are symbolized by the name of the deity which


Click to view

FIG. 46--Typical Itzá sorcerer. Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itzá. Drawing by Ann Axtell Morris.

Taken from the colored fresco reproduced in Morris, Charlot and Morris 193T, Plate 156 c. This personage undoubtedly belongs to the highest priestly class, as he wears not only the hat with green plumes, but also the white robe of the priests of Kukulcan mentioned in the prophecies. For these reasons we are inclined to identify him with the chilan.


brought them, and there are valuable references to religious ceremonies. The latter, coming as they do from a purely native source, are of especial importance, since practically all our knowledge of the Maya religion comes from the accounts of the Spanish missionaries who were obviously prejudiced.

Of all the prophecies, those of the katuns possess the greatest historical interest. As the Maya commentator himself tells us on page 78 of the Chumayel, they are essentially historical in character. This appears to be because whatever has occurred in the past during a certain katun is expected to recur

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in the future during another katun of the same name. The katun was named for the day Ahau with its numerical coefficient on which the period ended. A katun of the same name recurred after approximately 256 years, consequently at the end of that time history was expected to repeat itself. The events recounted in the Maya Chronicles found in the Mani, Tizimin and Chumayel manuscripts offer excellent grounds for believing that this belief was so strong at times as to actually influence the course of history. A surprisingly large proportion of the important upheavals in Maya history appear to have occurred in some katun named either 4 Ahau or 8 Ahau.

That the katun-prophecies written in European script in the Books of Chilam Balam correspond closely to their original form, is confirmed by the account of Father Avendaño who drew his information from the actual hieroglyphic manuscripts of the independent Itzá. The missionary's familiarity with such books and his ability to read and expound them to the Indians indicate that similar hieroglyphic manuscripts were still available for study in northern Yucatan during the last part of the Seventeenth Century, for the few days he spent at Tayasal certainly did not allow sufficient time to acquire the knowledge.

Avendaño's account explains so well the prophecies in the Books of Chilam Balam that it deserves to be given in full. It is as follows:

"I told them that I wished to speak to them of the old manner of reckoning which they use, both of days, months and years and of the ages, and to find out what age the present one might be (since for them one age consists only of twenty years) and what prophecy there was about the said year and age; for it is all recorded in certain books of a quarter of a yard high and about five fingers broad, made of the bark of trees, folded from one side to the other like screens; each leaf of the thickness of a Mexican Real of eight. These are painted on both sides with a variety of figures and characters (of the same kind as the Mexican Indians also used in their old times), which shows not only the count of the said days, months and years, but also the ages and prophecies which their idols and images announced to them, or, to speak more accurately, the devil by means of the worship which they pay to him in the form of some stones. These ages are thirteen in number; each age has its separate idol and its priest, with a separate prophecy of its events. These thirteen ages are divided into thirteen parts, which divide this kingdom of Yucathan and each age, with its idol, priest and prophecy, rules in one of these thirteen parts of this land, according as they have divided it; I do not give the names of the idols, priests or parts of the land, so as not to cause trouble, although I have made a treatise 1 on these old counts with all their differences and explanations, so that they may be evident to all, and the curious may learn them, for if we do not know them, I affirm that the Indians can betray us face to face." 2

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We could hardly ask for a more accurate description of the katun-prophecies as we find them in the Books of Chilam Balam. About the only difference is that they are not written in hieroglyphics. All of them give the name of the katun, the place where it is "established" and a deity who is called "the face of the katun." The last named, however, is not described as an idol, but is said to be in the sky, or heavens. In the Chumayel and Tizimin manuscripts the prophecy is not accompanied by the name of its corresponding priest, but we find the names of these priests in the Books of Chilam Balam of Mani and Kaua. Of the prophecies themselves, more of them are unfavorable than favorable, but we do not find the complete pessimism which prevails in the year-prophecies.

In the Books of Chilam Balam we find two different series of katun-prophecies, both covering the thirteen katuns which make up the "u kahlay katunob," i.e. the record of the katuns. They begin with Katun 11 Ahau, which is called the first katun because it commences with the day 1 Imix, the first day of the tzol-kin, or tonalamatl, and ends with Katun 13 Ahau. This period of thirteen katuns is the least common denominator of the 260 day tzol-kin and the katun which consists of 7200 days.

The first of these two series is evidently the older, as it takes little account of the events which occurred after the Spanish Conquest, although it does mention the actual conquest. Also its language is somewhat more symbolic than that of the other. The second series of prophecies was probably compiled at some time later than the second decade of the Seventeenth Century, judging from some of the historical allusions which it contains. Most of these allusions, however, date from before the discovery of America.

The second and later series of prophecies is completely recorded in the Chumayel, but of the first, only abbreviated versions of the prophecies for Katuns 11, 4, 2 and 13 Ahau occur. The second series is complete in the Tizimin manuscript, which also contains the prophecies of the first series. In the Books of Chilam Balam of Mani, Oxcutzcab and Kaua only the thirteen prophecies of the first series are to be found.

In both of these series of katun-prophecies the more ancient allusions are to the history of the Itzá, so far as we are able to identify them.

If Avendaño was the only Spanish writer to concern himself with the katun-prophecies, such was not the case with the special prophecies which deal with the return of Quetzalcoatl. These aroused the interest of most of the early missionaries, since they were believed to foretell the coming of the Spaniards and the conversion of the Maya to Christianity. Lizana, Cogolludo and Villagutierre all published Spanish translations of five of these, and Lizana even went so far as to quote the Maya text. To anyone who knew them only through these Spanish translations, they would appear to be inspired by missionary propaganda; but an examination of the Maya text leads to a conviction

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of their genuine character, in spite of the fact that any mention of the name of Quetzalcoatl has been carefully deleted. This personage is, however, mentioned in the most obscure and guarded terms in a sixth prophecy by Chilam Balam found in the Chumayel, Tizimin and Mani manuscripts. 1 A seventh prophecy, also ascribed to Chilam Balam, is thoroughly pagan in character, but confines its statements to predicting misfortunes of a general character in Katun 13 Ahau. Its language is archaic, and it approaches more closely the European idea of poetry than anything else found in Maya literature. 2 Only in an eighth prophecy, ascribed to Ah Xupan Nauat, do we find a statement obviously inspired by the event itself. Here the arrival of the white men is foretold as occurring in the eighth year of Katun 13 Ahau. If Katun 13 Ahau began in 1519, this is altogether too accurate a prediction of Montejo's landing on the east coast of Yucatan in 1527 to be credited to a man said to have lived under Hun Uitzil Chac at Uxmal about the Eleventh Century A.D. 3

The five Maya prophets quoted by Lizana, Cogolludo and Villagutierre were Ah Kauil Chel, Napuctun, Natzin Yabun Chan, Nahau Pech and Chilam Balam It is possible that the first two were contemporaries of Ah Xupan Nauat, as the three names appear to be associated. Nothing is known of Natzin Yabun Chan to the translator. Nahau Pech is believed to have lived about four katuns, or eighty years, before the coming of the whites, which would be about the time of the fall of Mayapan. He was probably a member of the powerful Pech family which governed the Province of Ceh Pech at the time of the Conquest. The last and greatest of the Maya prophets was Chilam Balam. Balam in this case was probably the man's family name, and as among ourselves the name of his profession was prefixed to it as a title.

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Chilam Balam lived at Mani during the reign of Mochan Xiu. 1 In Katun 2 Ahau 2 he predicted that in the Katun 13 Ahau following, bearded men would come from the east and introduce a new religion. His prophecy was somewhat more definite than those of his predecessors, except for the suspicious case already mentioned. This can be accounted for by rumors of the arrival of the Spaniards in the West Indies, for we know that fishing canoes were occasionally driven across to Yucatan by storms. 3 What Chilam Balam had in mind was the return of Quetzalcoatl and his white-robed priests, but after the Spaniards landed in Yucatan in Katun 13 Ahau according to schedule, he never ceased to be regarded as the most famous of the Maya prophets.

We have associated five of these six prophets with the provinces governed by the Xiu, Pech and Chel families. It is worthy of note that Montejo and his soldiers received a more friendly reception in these three provinces than in any other part of Yucatan.

The following table will be useful to the student who wishes to make a comparison of the various versions of the prophecies found in the Books of Chilam Balam. 4


Chumayel reproduction

Mani (in Codex Perez)

Oxkutzcab (in Codex Perez)












Katun-prophecies, 1st series

13, 72-74



20, 23-29, 36

Katun-prophecies, 2d series





Special prophecies of the return of Kukulcan and of a new religion





Special prophecy of Chilam Balam in which the Antonio Martinez story is interpolated







182:1 Landa 1928, p. 192. The content of their prophecies indicates that they continued to carry on the Mexican traditions of the Itzá.

182:2 Chilam Balam of Tizimin, pp. 13, 14.

182:3 This is a Maya pun; chil-cabal means stretched out prostrate on the ground.

184:1 Entitled "Explicación de varios vaticinios de los antiguos Indios de Yucatan." MS. Listed in Eguiara's Biblioteca Mexicana. This interesting work by Avendaño has disappeared.

184:2 Means 1917, p. 141.

186:1 Chumayel p. 64; Tizimin p. 14; Mani p. 109 of B.L.C. No. 43.

186:2 Tizimin p. 19. This is the prophecy translated in part by Brinton (1882, p. 126) as follows:

"Eat, eat, thou hast bread;
Drink, drink, thou hast water;
On that day, dust possesses the earth,
On that day, a blight is on the face of the earth,
On that day, a cloud rises,
On that day, a mountain rises,
On that day, a strong man seizes the land,
On that day, things fall to ruin,
On that day, the tender leaf is destroyed,
On that day, the dying eyes are closed,
On that day, three signs are on the tree,
On that day, three generations hang there,
On that day, the battle flag is raised,
And they are scattered afar in the forests."

186:3 Mani apud B.L.C. No. 43, p. 116. The prophet is identified in Tizimin, p. 13.

187:1 Relaciones de Yucatan, 1, p. 45.

187:2 Chilam Balam of Tizimin, page 36. Katun 2 Ahau- covered approximately the first two decades of the Sixteenth Century.

187:3 Herrera 1725, 11, p. 121. Dec. 2, Book 4, Chap. 4.

187:4 The prognostics for the days are not really prophecies in the same sense as the above and are not listed in this table.

Next: Appendix E: Traditions of Caste and Chieftainship Among the Maya