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p. 201



According to the early Spanish writers a considerable proportion of the Maya of northern Yucatan embraced Christianity quite willingly after the Spanish occupation of the country. Whether or not this was true, the Books of Chilam Balam convince us that their faith was genuine, once they were converted. Even in those books which were frowned upon by the missionaries, we note an unmistakable spontaneity in the pious phrases with which the Spanish Dios, the Trinity and the Holy Virgin are frequently invoked. At first sight it is difficult to reconcile this apparently sincere belief in the new religion with the lapses into idolatry which continued to recur during a large part of the colonial period.

The fact of the matter was that their Christianity, however sincere it may have been, was something quite different from that of their European conquerors. They simply superimposed it upon their old religion, just as they had previously superimposed the Quetzalcoatl cult of the Nahua invaders upon the original Maya faith. 1 They sometimes called their old deities perishable gods (hauay kuob), 2 but they continued to worship them surreptitiously.

Even in their Christian worship we find among the Maya an unconscious tendency to adapt the new religion to their own psychology, as we have seen in Chapters XI and XII of the present work. There is further evidence of this in the katun prophecies, where the Spanish God is cited as authority f or prognostications made by their own prophets before the coming of the white man.

The Spanish missionaries did their best to prevent this Americanization of Christianity. The historian Cogolludo bitterly deplores the lapses of the Indians into idolatry, but he appears to be still more horrified at their attempts to combine the new religion with the old. Probably this tendency was already anticipated by the statutes of Tomás López little more than a decade after the country was pacified. In one of these we find the Indians forbidden to found or conduct schools for the teaching of Christian doctrine except by the express authority of the prelate of the province. 3

We do not know just when the Indians of Yucatan began to combine some form of Christian worship with their old idolatrous practises, but we learn of an Indian of rank at Zotuta by the name of Don Andres Cocom who, about the year 1585, was "convicted, not only of idolatry, but also as a perverse dogmatizer

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and the inventor of new abominations among the Indians." 1 Condemned to exile and imprisonment, he escaped and attempted to instigate a native rebellion before he was finally captured and punished.

In 1597 Andres Chi, also of Zotuta, "incited the Indians of that territory to go into the forests to practise idolatry. Falsely pretending and saying that he was another Moses 2 he deceived the people of his town, persuading them that what he did was revealed to him by the Holy Spirit. For this purpose he hid a boy in his house to speak to him at night and say what he wished him to. When the Indians heard this, as they were ignorant of the fraud, they blindly allowed themselves to be deceived." 3 Chi was convicted and condemned to death for this offense.

A similar case occurred in 1610. "There were two Indians, one named Alonso Chablé and the other Francisco Canul. The former pretended to be the Pope and supreme pontiff and the latter, a bishop, and they announced themselves to be such among the Indians. Also they caused themselves to be venerated, deceiving the wretched Catholic Indians with their infernal doctrine. They said mass at night dressed in the sacred vestments of the church which no doubt the sacristans had given them. They profaned the holy chalices and consecrated oils, baptized boys, confessed adults and gave them communion, while they worshipped the idols which they placed on the altar. They ordained priests for service, anointing their hands with the oil and the holy chrism, and when they ordained them they put on a miter and took a crozier in their hands. They commanded the Indians to give them offerings and openly taught other deadly heresies." 4

In addition to all this they were said to have practised witchcraft.

In the year 1636 there was a general uprising of the Indians in the district of Bacalar in southeastern Yucatan. They relapsed into idolatry, and many of them fled to Tipu, 5 the southernmost of the towns which had been christianized up to this time. This place continued to be the center of the insurrection, and finally in 1641 Fr. Bartolomé Fuensalida 6 and Fr. Juan de Estrada determined to go there and try to conciliate the inhabitants. The expedition was a failure and they did not quite reach Tipu. At the neighboring village of Hubelná the Indian companions of the priests witnessed a religious ceremony performed by the rebels in which "one of those apostates was the idolatrous priest of the others. He said mass to them, and with the mass his

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food was tortillas and his drink, maize gruel. The other idolatrous Indians said to them: 'This is indeed a mass which your companion (one of the two Spanish priests) does not say.' " 1 It was years before these Indians were again reconciled with the Church, and during this period the people of the district doubtless had an excellent opportunity to develop a form of Christianity suited to their own psychology.

We find the tendencies already outlined cropping out in every part of the Maya-speaking area where the Spanish authorities and missionaries were not in a position to exercise strict control over the natives. In 1646 two monks were sent from Yucatan to the Usumacinta region to take charge of the spiritual welfare of some Maya-speaking Indians at a town called Nohaa situated on the shore of a large lake in the forests beyond Tenosique. A church had been built and the people somewhat perfunctorily converted by a Dominican friar who had gone away. The founder of the town, Don Diego de Vera Ordoñez, had left the place in charge of a mestizo captain named Juan de Bilbao. When they arrived, the friars found that this man was not only exploiting the Indians, but also that he had a wooden idol which he, his native wife and the villagers worshipped together. "They became drunk in front of it with a drink called balché. Also they said that on Ash Wednesday he put on a stole, blessed it and gave it to the Indians. On Palm Sunday he blessed palms and distributed them. During Holy Week he made a monumento 2 and placed on it the idol of his Indian woman; and on Holy Saturday he blessed the baptismal font. All these things and others which are unspeakable were done by this insolent fellow, who possessed an entire set of sacred vestments and a chalice. He only refrained from saying mass." 3

The incidents related here are sufficient to account for the mixture of Christianity and paganism which we find in the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel. This tendency has continued to be effective down to the present time and its modern manifestations would fill an entire volume. Not only have the names of saints replaced in many cases those of the Maya deities in the old native ceremonies which survive, but in parts of Yucatan, particularly in the Territory of Quintana Roo, many nominal Catholics are at heart polytheists. "The Christian god is the Zeus of the Pantheon. The Virgin Mary, the Saints of the Catholic Church, and such of the old gods as have survived, form a less powerful, but more friendly group of divinities." 4 The present psychology of the Maya Indian is the result of centuries of conflict between European and native religious concepts. During this time each reacted upon the other unceasingly, and the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel is perhaps one of the most illuminating documents we have to illustrate the history of the process.


201:1 "It is said that the first founders of Chichen Itzá were not idolaters until Kukulcan, a Mexican captain, entered these provinces. He it was who taught them idolatry" (Relaciones de Yucatan, I, p. 270). Kukulcan is the Maya equivalent of the Nahuatl name, Quetzalcoatl. Although we may doubt the statement that the original inhabitants did not worship idols, there is considerable evidence that a new religion was introduced.

201:2 Cf. p. 98.

201:3 Cogolludo 1868, Book 5, chap. 17.

202:1 Cogolludo 1868, Book 7, chap. 11.

202:2 We have already noted that Moses was identified with the Yellow Pauahtun on page 113.

202:3 Cogolludo 1868, Book 7, chap. 15.

202:4 Cogolludo 1868, Book 9, chap. 1.

202:5 Tipu is believed to have been located on Booths River in what is now British Honduras. See Means 1917, map.

202:6 This was the same Fr. Fuensalida who went to Tayasal in 1618 to attempt to convert the Itzá. Means 1917, pp. 59-74.

203:1 Cogolludo 1868, Book 11, chap. 14.

203:2 An altar raised in churches on Holy Thursday to resemble a sepulcher.

203:3 Cogolludo 1868, Book 12, chap. 5.

203:4 J. E. Thompson 1930, p. 106. See also Tozzer 1907 and Gann 1918.

Next: Appendix H: Chronological Summary