Menu Home

Dominion of the Itza

THE PERIOD OF 1445-1697

The Significance of the Itzas. The dates of the Itza dominance over the region around Tayasal are roughly those given above. Although the Spaniards became a factor in the lives of the Itzas about 1525, their presence does not alter the fact that this tribe was so powerful as to be able to preserve its independence for a long time. The Itzas may be considered as presenting, in diminished form, all the more important political and social conditions that had formerly characterized the great Maya states in the northern part of the peninsula. We will now study these conditions so as to understand better the problems the Spanish conquerors were called upon to meet and to solve later on. In spite of the proximity of the Spaniards, it is doubtful whether the Itzas changed much during the two hundred and fifty years they occupied the Peten or Tayasal region.

The Location of Peten or Tayasal. The Itza stronghold was located at Peten or Tayasal. The present city of Flores, located on a small island in the Lake of Peten, is sometimes thought to be the site of ancient Tayasal. Others think that Tayasal was really on the peninsula north of Flores. This latter opinion is held by Mr. Morley and Dr. Tozzer, who have been on the spot. The former believes that the lake was formerly higher than now, which would explain how the present peninsula, formerly an island, attained its present condition. The island of Flores is scarcely more than half a mile in diameter; Avendaño says that Tayasal was half a league long … As visitors to Tayasal usually either came or left by way of Tipu, the distance from Tayasal to the shore which they generally traveled was that from the village to the eastern end of the lake, a journey often said to be six leagues in length, which is approximately correct. Perhaps the most important piece of evidence is that given by Avendaño … He gives three cayos or islands in the lake. They are arranged in such a way that the Cayo Grande (Tayasal) is to the east; just northwest of it is Otro Cayo (Another Cayo). I believe that after the general level of the lake fell these two cayos were united and formed the present peninsula. Flores is on the cayo shown by Avendaño as just south and east of these two. Maler, who is among those who have used the name Tayasal, says that the name means “in the midst of green waters.”

Description of Peten and its Surroundings. We will now give Padre Avendaño’s account of the region occupied by the Itzas and ruled by their king, Canek: “Before we leave the said Peten Ytza, it is well to give the clearest information about it, its territories and its people, so that, in the future, historians may have clear light about it and may give in full the necessary information. Peten Ytza is situated in the middle of a great lake and there are not only this one on which the King lives, but also four other Petens, or islands which also lie in the said lake. Others say that these Petens are seven in number, and still others that there are thirty, and that this lake also surrounds the seven, as some say, as well as the thirty which the others speak of. What is certain is that I stopped there and asked purposely what number of people and Petens the Ytzalana nation contained, and they told me that there were only five Petens. The lake which surrounds them is large, its length I have not measured, nor have I gone over more than the part of it by which I came, which was three leagues across, more or less (entering it at the West and going eastward), till one reaches the Peten on which the King lives. But the length of the said lake which runs from North to South (as far as we could see it), although we did not succeed in seeing to its end, was probably from eight to ten leagues.  There are some who say that the said lake is sixty leagues long. If it is true that it surrounds the above thirty Petens, it is not improbable that it is of that length. The principal Peten or island (the court where the King lives) must be more than half a league long and is a high island from which many hills are seen all around. The situation is very pleasant on account of these hills being in sight, as well as the five Petens which the lake encloses, so that from the said Petun any one is seen who comes across the lake from a distance from any one of the four directions, as well as those who go fishing on the lake….”

The Lake neither Rises nor Falls. “I asked them why they had their houses so close to the shore of the lake, and if they had any trouble with its risings and fallings. They told me that they had no trouble, since the lake never rose or fell. From this it is inferred that it is also true that no river enters it or flows out of it on the surface,–either of rapid or gentle current, as many who speak of this lake try to show; since, if such a stream entered it, or left it, it could not fail to increase with the freshets, as in dry times to grow smaller; although we should not be able to deny the hidden and subterranean connection of this lake with other neighboring lakes, because of its permanent preservation of level….”

The Temples of Tayasal Described by Avendaño. “In order to worship the … idols there are nine very large buildings, made in the form of the churches of this Province,–all new, with traces of others which had been burned, although they built them again, as I saw in the case of two which had been rebuilt. All such buildings have a wall about a yard and a half high and of the thickness of six quarters; the bench or seat all around, which stands out from the middle inwards, is three quarters thick and the rest, which stands out above, is three quarters thick; so that both together form two rows of seats around the said churches, and all repainted and polished.”

The Palace of Canek, Chief of the Itzas. “Of this same workmanship is the hall which the King or Ah Canek has as a vestibule to his house, in which he receives his guests as he did us, although in addition it has the floor covered with bitumen and polished, which the said temples do not have. At the entrance of the said hall stands a large stone table more than two yards long and proportionally broad, placed on stone columns, with twelve seats of the same around it for the priests. This is the table of sacrifice, which they call in their language Mayactun,–the first object which our eyes perceived in that first reception, from which, with the preceding attempts on the lake, we were able to conjecture that they would put us to death; and the more so when we saw that the number of people who ran together at the novelty of seeing us was so great, that besides filling all the hall inside, those who could not find a place there, obstructed on the outside all the light which the hall had, and which came in all around it, so that they left us in such gloomy darkness, that, being seated, as I was, in the midst of my companion Padres, we could only perceive one another by the touch; but such a thing did not come into our minds, but rather we understood that here was the room of welcome for all….”

The Districts of Peten Itza. “I asked them how many districts that Peten had on which we were, and counting by the fingers on their hands and the toes on their feet, they told me there were twenty-two, which they went on to describe by their names, and they are as follows:

“Districts of Peten Ytza on which the King Ah Canek lives–

That of King Ahcanek
That of Ach Cat Baca
That of noh ah chata
That of ach cat halach Vinic
That of Ah tze tzin batab
That of ach cat Mulcah
That of the cacique nohche
That of ach cat Kinchil
That of ach chatan ek
That of ach cat Kinchan
That of ach cat Cixban
That of ach cat Kayom (?)
That of noh tzo can Punab
That of ach cat Cit can
That of noh tzo can noh
That of ach cat Ytza
That of tzo can tzic
That of ach cat Pop
That of ach can Matan cua
That of ach cat Camal
That of ach cat Batun
That of ach cat Mas Kin
“These towns or districts bear the names of the cacique or head who rules them, as seen by the table above, although all have separate names of their own, and all are subject, as are also the other Petens, to the King Ahcanek, and also all the communities which are found in Cha Kan Ytza, besides those who are found on the main land towards the East situated around the said Petens. This kingdom came to him by inheritance, and so their Kings are always Ah Can Eks. But not because of this are all the Caneks of royal blood or relations of one another; since also all those of his own town or district are called Caneks, and not on this account are they his relations, since they also bear their lawful names and only have this one because of the chief who rules them. It is well known to the King that he holds this place through blood, since it is certain that he and his family have a rare character and goodness, since he is so very good that all treat him with some boldness, so that he is not able to govern what he possesses….”

Extent of the Itza Dominion under the Chief Canek. It is from the Franciscan Fray Alonso Cano, who wrote about 1696, that we derive the clearest information as to the extent of the Itza dominions. He says: “… The other forty-five leagues from Mopan to the Lake one travels (though with various windings) from South to North, with some little tendency to the North-west. This land belongs to the Mopanes and Ahizaes, and it stretches to the East as far as the sea-coast … Of the boundaries of the Ahiza nation on the North the men of Yucatan will give trustworthy information.”

All the foregoing leads one to believe that the influence of Canek, petty chief of the Itzas, and of his immediate subjects was felt throughout the region east of Lake Peten, the region in which are located Alain (or Yalain), San Clemente, Yaxha, and Tipu. Indeed Villagutierre leaves us in no doubt as to the fact that Chamaxculu, the aged chief of Alain, was the direct vassal of Canek.

Quincanek. So far we have been considering only the political aspect of the Itza state. There was an important sacerdotal organization as well. As to its exact nature there is, unfortunately, some confusion. Villagutierre says that the head of the priesthood was the oldest brother of Canek and that he bore the title of Quincanek. Cano says that Cuin Kenek was the chief of Peten. Pedro Sanches de Leon, writing in the eighteenth century, says:  “In that time (1700-1703), or a little before, the conquest of the Lake of the Ahitzaes took place, and the Indian kings were seen to enter Guatemala as prisoners; they were called after baptism Don Jose and Don Francisco Canek, and with them also was the high-priest of this nation, who was also called Canek….” Maler uses the terms Canek and Kincanek interchangeably. The question is not an important one, and I shall make no attempt to solve it.

Further Information about the Region. “… In the northerly direction lies the Kingdom of Yucathan; towards the South, the road which the men of Gautemala have opened, starting from Vera Paz; on the West, Cha Kan Ytza and the Cehaches; on the East, slightly North, the nation of the men of Tipu; in the direction of the South, running from East to West, are very high ridges, which are really the Sierra Madre, from which (in New Spain) they exploit mines, and as there are mines there, there is no doubt that there are some here, since it is one and the same ridge. There must be mines in the environs of this nation of the Ytzaes, because the most of the Indians (in some large ear drops which they wear) have roses of silver hanging down, and others of silver and gold, and as the Spaniards do not come to this nation, nor the Indians of this Province of Yucathan, nor of the other provinces, because they are afraid of them, I do not know where they could get this gold and silver unless they took it from some mine. In the said southerly direction running towards the East, the said Peten Ytzaes have their farms and tilled fields on the main land; and in said fields they have their houses as in Peten, so as to live there all the time that the cultivation lasts, so that the houses are doubled in number as well as the families. From this, people imagine that this nation is more numerous than it really is.

“The largest and best calculation which I can make of this nation was from the account which the King and his chiefs gave me, and this was that the Petenin which we stopped consisted of twenty-two districts and towns, and they did not know how to give me the count of each town, since they know how to count only up to twenty, and in going beyond many twenties, they do not know how to explain it, for it appears to them an infinite number did not have much time to verify this, for I preferred to employ the little time I had in baptizing; but nevertheless from what I saw and understood of the number of the people of all ages, I say that Peten Ytza, with the other Petenes, Cha Kan Ytzaes and Tuluncies (?), with the communities, which are found on the main land, will all come up to twenty-four or twenty-five thousand souls,–a thousand more or less. This computation I make from the Peten on which the King lives, for he told me that all the Petens were equal in the number of people, with but little difference.”

The Itzas Described. “These Ytzaes are well-featured and, like mestizos, nearly all of a light complexion and of very perfect stature and of natural gifts. But the Devil has compelled them, in their weakness, to make themselves hideous and witches, because it appears to them a greater feat to frighten by their appearance than to conquer by their strength. And so most of them have their faces cut and rubbed in with black, and some streaked like black negroes. And this hideousness many women also show in their ear lobes, so that it is not possible for them to wear ear drops or pendants. Painting themselves or cutting on their faces the form of the animal which they have as a charm, the men consider themselves as more genteel than the women; and as they are of this opinion, they dress themselves in this way, tying up their hair with bands of cotton which are made by them, woven with many curious designs of various colors, with cords and tassels at the ends, made very beautifully. They clothe themselves with something like jackets with half sleeves, and all from top to bottom woven at intervals with stripes of various designs and incorporated in the same woof,–very lovely to look at. And with all these elegantly ornamented clothes, they always paint themselves red and black. All this vanity and effeminate care to decorate themselves so much is a sign of what many believe, that it is [due to] the wicked vice which is common among them; for the women do not go about well clothed nor do the men pay much attention to them; for the women wear only some skirts of cotton from their waist down, but from the waist up they go bare and uncovered, with their hair rolled up without as much care as the men. The latter always go with little stools under their arms to sit on wherever they go; and at night they muffle themselves up with sheets woven of various stripes and designs of different colors, like cloaks; their drink is always posole or saca, which is a drink made of cooked maize, and they always drink it lukewarm, but they never like to drink clear or cold water….”


Source: Indian Notes and Monographs, edited by F. W. Hodge, Vol. IX No. 3, A Series of Publications Relating to the American Aborigines.  Reports on the Maya Indians of Yucatan.  New York, Museum of American Indian Heye Foundation (1921)

Categories: Maya Maya History

Tagged as:

The Orly

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.