Diego de Landa Calderón was a Spanish bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yucatán. He is known to be the first and one of the best chroniclers of pre-Columbian Maya civilization. Born on November 12, 1524, in Cifuentes de l’Alcarria, Guadalajara, Spain, he died on April 29, 1579, in Mérida (Yucatan), Mexico. As the second bishop of Merida he is both a central actor in the destruction of the Maya books and records, and the source of what is today known of their society at the time of the conquest.
Diego de Landa’s seminal work is “Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan” which ironically makes him the chief authority for the facts presented in the following discussion of the manners and customs of the Maya. The Relacion was written about 1565, but was not printed until three centuries later, after its discovery by Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg in the library of the Royal Academy of History at Madrid, and subsequently published by him in 1864. The Relacion is the standard authority for the customs prevalent in Yucatan at the time of the Conquest. What follows is a summary by Sylvanus Griswold Morley, in a Smithsonian publication (Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 57: “An Introduction to the Study of the Maya Hieroglyphs”).
According to Bishop Landa, who wrote his remarkable history of Yucatan in 1565, the Maya of that day were a tall race, active and strong. In childhood the forehead was artificially flattened and the ears and nose were pierced for the insertion of earrings and nose-ornaments, of which the people were very fond. Squint-eye was considered a mark of beauty, and mothers strove to disfigure their children in this way by suspending pellets of wax between their eyes in order to make them squint, thus securing the desired effect. The faces of the younger boys were scalded by the application of hot cloths, to prevent the growth of the beard, which was not popular. Both men and women wore their hair long. The former had a large spot burned on the back of the head, where the hair always remained short. With the exception of a small queue, which hung down behind, the hair was gathered around the head in a braid. The women wore a more beautiful coiffure divided into two braids. The faces of both sexes were much disfigured as a result of their religious beliefs, which led to the practice of scarification. Tattooing also was common to both sexes, and there were persons in almost every community who were especially proficient in this art. Both men and women painted themselves red, the former decorating their entire bodies, and the latter all except their faces, which modesty decreed should be left unpainted. The women also anointed themselves very freely with fragrant gums and perfumes. They filed their teeth to sharp points, a practice which was thought to enhance their beauty.
The clothing of the men was simple. They wore a breechclout wrapped several times around the loins and tied in such a way that one end fell in front between the legs and the other in the corresponding position behind. These breechclouts were carefully embroidered by the women and decorated with featherwork. A large square cape hung from the shoulders, and sandals of hemp or leather completed the costume. For persons of high rank the apparel was much more elaborate, the humble breechclout and cape of the laboring man giving place to panaches of gorgeously colored feathers hanging from wooden helmets, rich mantles of tiger skins, and finely wrought ornaments of gold and jade.
The women sometimes wore a simple petticoat, and a cloth covering the breasts and passing under the arms. More often their costume consisted of a single loose sacklike garment called the hipil, which reached to the feet and had slits for the arms. This garment, with the addition of a cloth or scarf wrapped around the shoulders, constituted the women’s clothing a thousand years ago, just as it does to-day.
In ancient times the women were very chaste and modest. When they passed men on the road, they stepped to one side, turning their backs and hiding their faces. The age of marriage was about 20, although children were frequently affianced when very young. When boys arrived at a marriageable age their fathers consulted the professional matchmakers of the community, to whom arrangements for marriage were ordinarily intrusted, it being considered vulgar for parents or their sons to take an active part in arranging these affairs. Having sought out the girl’s parents, the matchmaker arranged with them the matter of the dowry, which the young man’s father paid, his wife at the same time giving the necessary clothing for her son and prospective daughter-in-law. On the day of the wedding the relatives and guests assembled at the house of the young man’s parents, where a great feast had been prepared. Having satisfied himself that the young couple had sufficiently considered the grave step they were about to take, the priest gave the bride to her husband. The ceremony closed with a feast in which all participated. Immediately after the wedding the young husband went to the home of his wife’s parents, where he was obliged to work five or six years for his board. If he refused to comply with this custom he was driven from the house, and the marriage presumably was annulled. This step seems rarely to have been necessary, however, and the mother-in-law on her part saw to it that her daughter fed the young husband regularly, a practice which betokened their recognition of the marriage rite.
Widowers and widows married without ceremony, it being considered sufficient for a widower to call on his prospective wife and eat in her house. Marriage between people of the same name was considered an evil practice, possibly in deference to some former exogamic law. It was thought improper to marry a mother-in-law or an aunt by marriage, or a sister-in-law; otherwise a man could marry whom he would, even his first cousin.
The Maya were of a very jealous nature and divorces were frequent. These were effected merely by the desertion of the husband or wife, as the case might be. The parents tried to bring the couple together and effect a reconciliation, but if their efforts proved unsuccessful both parties were at liberty to remarry. If there were young children the mother kept them; if the children were of age the sons followed the father, the daughters remaining with their mother. Although divorce was of common occurrence, it was condemned by the more respectable members of the community. It is interesting to note that polygamy was unknown among the Maya.
Agriculture was the chief pursuit, corn and other grains being extensively cultivated, and stored against time of need in well-appointed granaries. Labor was largely communal; all hands joined to do one another’s work. Bands of twenty or more each, passing from field to field throughout the community, quickly finished sowing or harvesting. This communal idea was carried to the chase, fifty or more men frequently going out together to hunt. At the conclusion of these expeditions the meat was roasted and then carried back to town. First, the lord of the district was given his share, after which the remainder was distributed among the hunters and their friends. Communal fishing parties are also mentioned.
Another occupation in high favor was that of trade or commerce. Salt, cloth, and slaves were the chief articles of barter; these were carried as far as Tabasco. Cocoa, stone counters, and highly prized red shells of a peculiar kind were the media of exchange. These were accepted in return for all the products of the country, even including the finely worked stones, jades possibly, with which the chiefs adorned themselves at their fetes. Credit was asked and given, all debts were honestly paid, and no usury was exacted.
The sense of justice among the Maya was highly developed. If a man committed an offense against one of another village, the former’s lord caused satisfaction to be rendered, otherwise the communities would come to blows. Troubles between men of the same village were taken to a judge, who having heard both sides, fixed appropriate damages. If the malefactor could not pay these, the obligation extended to his wife and relatives. Crimes which could be satisfied by the payment of an indemnity were accidental killings, quarrels between man and wife, and the accidental destruction of property by fire. Malicious mischief could be atoned for only by blows and the shedding of blood. The punishment of murder was left in the hands of the deceased’s relatives, who were at liberty to exact an indemnity or the murderer’s life as they pleased. The thief was obliged to make good whatever he had stolen, no matter how little; in event of failure to do so he was reduced to slavery. Adultery was punishable by death. The adulterer was led into the courtyard of the chief’s house, where all had assembled, and after being tied to a stake, was turned over to the mercies of the outraged husband, who either pardoned him or crushed his head with a heavy rock. As for the guilty woman, her infamy was deemed sufficient punishment for her, though usually her husband abandoned her.
The Maya were a very hospitable people, always offering food and drink to the stranger within their gates, and sharing with him to the last crumb. They were much given to conviviality, particularly the lords, who frequently entertained one another with elaborate feasts, accompanied by music and dancing, expending at times on a single occasion the proceeds of many days’ accumulation. They usually sat down to eat by twos or fours. The meal, which consisted of vegetable stews, roast meats, corn cakes, and cocoa (to mention only a few of the viands) was spread upon mats laid on the ground. After the repast was finished beautiful young girls acting as cupbearers passed among the guests, plying them industriously with wine until all were drunk. Before departing each guest was presented with a handsome vase and pedestal, with a cloth cover therefor. At these orgies drinking was frequently carried to such excess that the wives of the guests were obliged to come for their besotted husbands and drag them home. Each of the guests at such a banquet was required to give one in return, and not even death could stay the payment of a debt of this kind, since the obligation descended to the recipient’s heirs. The poor entertained less lavishly, as became their means. Guests at the humbler feasts, moreover, were not obliged to return them in kind.
The chief amusements of the Maya were comedies and dances, in both of which they exhibited much skill and ingenuity. There was a variety of musical instruments—drums of several kinds, rattles, reed flutes, wooden horns, and bone whistles. Their music is described as having been sad, owing perhaps to the melancholy sound of the instruments which produced it.
The frequent wars which darken the final pages of Maya history doubtless developed the military organization to a high degree of efficiency. At the head of the army stood two generals, one hereditary and the other elective (nacon), the latter serving for three years. In each village throughout the country certain men (holcanes) were chosen to act as soldiers; these constituted a kind of a standing army, thoroughly trained in the art of war. They were supported by the community, and in times of peace caused much disturbance, continuing the tumult of war after war had ceased. In times of great stress when it became necessary to call on all able-bodied men for military service, the holcanes mustered all those available in their respective districts and trained them in the use of arms. There were but few weapons: Wooden bows strung with hemp cords, and arrows tipped with obsidian or bone; long lances with sharp flint points; and metal (probably copper) axes, provided with wooden handles. The defensive armor consisted of round wicker shields strengthened with deer hide, and quilted cotton coats, which were said to have extraordinary resisting power against the native weapons. The highest chiefs wore wooden helmets decorated with brilliant plumes, and cloaks of “tiger” (jaguar) skin, thrown over their shoulders.
With a great banner at their head the troops silently stole out of the city, and moved against the enemy, hoping thus to surprise them. When the enemies’ position had been ascertained, they fell on them suddenly with extraordinary ferocity, uttering loud cries. Barricades of trees, brush, and stone were used in defense, behind which archers stood, who endeavored to repulse the attack. After a battle the victors mutilated the bodies of the slain, cutting out the jawbones and cleaning them of flesh. These were worn as bracelets after the flesh had been removed. At the conclusion of their wars the spoils were offered in sacrifice. If by chance some leader or chief had been captured, he was sacrificed as an offering particularly acceptable to the gods. Other prisoners became the slaves of those who had captured them.
The Maya entertained an excessive and constant fear of death, many of their religious practices having no other end in view than that of warding off the dread visitor. After death there followed a prolonged period of sadness in the bereaved family, the days being given over to fasting, and the more restrained indulgence in grief, and the nights to dolorous cries and lamentations, most pitiful to hear. Among the common people the dead were wrapped in shrouds; their mouths were filled with ground corn and bits of worked stone so that they should not lack for food and money in the life to come. The Maya buried their dead inside the houses or behind them, putting into the tomb idols, and objects indicating the profession of the deceased—if a priest, some of his sacred books; if a seer, some of his divinatory paraphernalia. A house was commonly abandoned after a death therein, unless enough remained in the household to dispel the fear which always followed such an occurrence.
In the higher walks of life the mortuary customs were more elaborate. The bodies of chiefs and others of high estate were burned and their ashes placed in large pottery vessels. These were buried in the ground and temples erected over them. When the deceased was of very high rank the pottery sarcophagus took the form of a human statue. A variant of the above procedure was to burn only a part of the body, enclosing the ashes in the hollow head of a wooden statue, and sealing them in with a piece of skin taken from the back of the dead man’s skull. The rest of the body was buried. Such statues were jealously preserved among the figures of the gods, being held in deep veneration.
The lords of Mayapan had still another mortuary practice. After death the head was severed from the body and cooked in order to remove all flesh. It was then sawed in half from side to side, care being taken to preserve the jaw, nose, eyes, and forehead in one piece. Upon this as a form the features of the dead man were filled in with a kind of a gum. Such was their extraordinary skill in this peculiar work that the finished mask is said to have appeared exactly like the countenance in life. The carefully prepared faces, together with the statues containing the ashes of the dead, were deposited with their idols. Every feast day meats were set before them so they should lack for nothing in that other world whither they had gone.
Very little is known about the governmental organization of the southern Maya, and it seems best, therefore, first to examine conditions in the north, concerning which the early authorities, native as well as Spanish, have much to say. The northern Maya lived in settlements, some of very considerable extent, under the rule of hereditary chiefs called halach uinicil, or “real men,” who were, in fact as well as name, the actual rulers of the country. The settlements tributary to each halach uinic were doubtless connected by tribal ties, based on real or fancied blood relationship.
During the period of the Triple Alliance (1000-1200 A. D.) there were probably only three of these embryonic nations: Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Mayapan, among which the country seems to have been apportioned. After the conquest of Chichen Itza, however, the halach uinic of Mayapan probably attempted to establish a more autocratic form of government, arrogating to himself still greater power. The Spanish authorities relate that the chiefs of the country assembled at Mayapan, acknowledged the ruler of that city as their overlord, and finally agreed to live there, each binding himself at the same time to conduct the affairs of his own domain through a deputy.
This attempt to unite the country under one head and bring about a further centralization of power ultimately failed, as has been seen, through the tyranny of the Cocom family, in which the office of halach uinic of Mayapan was vested. This tyranny led to the overthrow of the Cocoms and the destruction of centralized government, so that when the Spaniards arrived they found a number of petty chieftains, acknowledging no overlord, and the country in chaos.
The powers of the halach uinic are not clearly understood. He seems to have stood at the apex of the governmental organization, and doubtless his will prevailed just so far as he had sufficient strength to enforce it. The batabs, or underchiefs, were obliged to visit him and render him their homage. They also accompanied him in his tours about the country, which always gave rise to feasting back and forth. Finally they advised him on all important matters. The office would seem to have been no stronger in any case than its incumbent, since we hear of the halach uinic of Mayapan being obliged to surround himself with foreign troops in order to hold his people in check.
Each batab governed the territory of which he was the hereditary ruler, instructing his heir in the duties of the position, and counseling that he treat the poor with benevolence and maintain peace and encourage industry, so that all might live in plenty. He settled all lawsuits, and through trusted lieutenants ordered and adjusted the various affairs of his domain. When he went abroad from his city or even from his house a great crowd accompanied him. He often visited his underchiefs, holding court in their houses, and meeting at night in council to discuss matters touching the common good. The batabs frequently entertained one another with dancing, hunting, and feasting. The people as a community tilled the batab’s fields, reaped his corn, and supplied his wants in general. The underchiefs were similarly provided for, each according to his rank and needs.
The ahkulel, the next highest official in each district, acted as the batab’s deputy or representative; he carried a short thick baton in token of his office. He had charge of the localities subject to his master’s rule as well as of the officers immediately over them. He kept these assistants informed as to what was needed in the batab’s house, as birds, game, fish, corn, honey, salt, and cloth, which they supplied when called on. The ahkulel was, in short, a chief steward, and his house was the batab’s business office.
Another important position was that of the nacon, or war-chief. In times of war this functionary was second only to the hereditary chief, or batab, and was greatly venerated by all. His office was elective, the term being three years, during which he was obliged to refrain from intercourse with women, and to hold himself aloof from all.
An important civil position was that held by the ahholpop, in whose keeping was the tunkul, or wooden drum, used in summoning people to the dances and public meetings, or as a tocsin in case of war. He had charge also of the “town hall” in which all public business was transacted.
The question of succession is important. Bishop Landa distinctly states in one passage “That when the lord died, although his oldest son succeeded him, the others were always loved and served and even regarded as lords.” This would seem to indicate definitely that descent was by primogeniture. However, another passage suggests that the oldest son did not always succeed his father: “The lords were the governors and confirmed their sons in their offices if they [the sons] were acceptable.” This suggests the possibility, at least, that primogeniture could sometimes be set aside, particularly when the first-born lacked the necessary qualifications for leadership. In a somewhat drawn-out statement the same authority discusses the question of “princely succession” among the Maya:
If the children were too young to be intrusted with the management of their own affairs, these were turned over to a guardian, the nearest relation. He gave the children to their mothers to bring up, because according to their usage the mother has no power of her own. When the guardian was the brother of the deceased [the children’s paternal uncle] they take the children from their mother. These guardians give what was intrusted to them to the heirs when they come of age, and not to do so was considered a great dishonesty and was the cause of much contention…. If when the lord died there were no sons [ready, i. e., of age] to rule and he had brothers, the oldest or most capable of his brothers ruled, and they [the guardians] showed the heir the customs and fetes of his people until he should be a man, and these brothers, although the heir were [ready] to rule, commanded all their lives, and, if there were no brothers the priests and principal people selected a man suitable for the position.
The foregoing would seem to imply that the rulers were succeeded by their eldest sons if the latter were of age and otherwise generally acceptable; and that, if they were minors when their fathers died, their paternal uncles, if any, or otherwise some capable man selected by the priests, took the reins of government, instructing the heir in the duties of the position which he was to occupy some day; and finally that the regent did not lay down his authority until death, even though the heir had previously attained his majority. This custom is so unusual that its existence may well be doubted, and it is not at all improbable that Bishop Landa’s statement to the contrary may have arisen from some misapprehension. Primogeniture was not confined to the executive succession alone, since Bishop Landa states further that the high priest Ahau can mai was succeeded in his dignity by his sons, or those next of kin.
Nepotism doubtless prevailed extensively, all the higher offices of the priesthood as well as the executive offices being hereditary, and in all probability filled with members of the halach uinic’s family.
The priests instructed the younger sons of the ruling family as well as their own, in the priestly duties and learning; in the computation of years, months, and days; in unlucky times; in fetes and ceremonies; in the administration of the sacraments; in the practices of prophecy and divination; in treating the sick; in their ancient history; and finally in the art of reading and writing their hieroglyphics, which was taught only to those of high degree. Genealogies were carefully preserved, the term meaning “of noble birth” being ah kaba, “he who has a name.” The elaborate attention given to the subject of lineage, and the exclusive right of the ah kaba to the benefits of education, show that in the northern part of the Maya territory at least government rested on the principle of hereditary succession. The accounts of native as well as of Spanish writers leave the impression that a system not unlike a modified form of feudalism prevailed.
In 1517 Francisco de Cordoba landed the first Spanish expedition on the shores of Yucatan. The natives were so hostile, however, that he returned to Cuba, having accomplished little more than the discovery of the country. In the following year Juan de Grijalva descended on the peninsula, but he, too, met with so determined a resistance that he sailed away, having gained little more than hard knocks for his pains. In the following year (1519) Hernando Cortez landed on the northeast coast but re-embarked in a few days for Mexico, again leaving the courageous natives to themselves. Seven years later, however, in 1526, Francisco Montejo, having been granted the title of Adelantado of Yucatan, set about the conquest of the country in earnest. Having obtained the necessary “sinews of war” through his marriage to a wealthy widow of Seville, he sailed with 3 ships and 500 men for Yucatan. He first landed on the island of Cozumel, off the northeast coast, but soon proceeded to the mainland and took formal possession of the country in the name of the King of Spain. This empty ceremony soon proved to be but the prelude to a sanguinary struggle, which broke out almost immediately and continued with extraordinary ferocity for many years, the Maya fighting desperately in defense of their homes. Indeed, it was not until 14 years later, on June 11, 1541 (old style), that, the Spaniards having defeated a coalition of Maya chieftains near the city of Ichcanzihoo, the conquest was finally brought to a close and the pacification of the country accomplished. With this event ends the independent history of the Maya.
As Fray Bernardino de Sahagún observed: the Mexicans “are held to be barbarians and of very little worth; in truth, however, in matters of culture and refinement, they are a step ahead of other nations." We explore the history and legacy of the Nahua and Maya civilizations, both of which challenge our preconceptions.