NOTES ON THE SUPERSTITIONS OF THE INDIANS OF YUCATAN
Informe contra Idolorvm Cvltores
del Obíspado de Yvcatan.
By Pedro Sanchez de Aguilar (1555-1648)
The abuses and superstitions in which those Indians of Yucatan believe and the abuses which they cherish are mostly inherited from their forebears, and are as numerous as they are varied in kind. I am including in this report all I was able to investigate, so that they may enable the curates to disapprove them publicly, and in their sermons to reprimand the Indians on account of them.
They believe in dreams which they try to interpret to suit the occasion.
On hearing the cawing (or cackle) of a bird they call kipxosi, they interpret it to mean poor success to whatever enterprise they are engaged in at the time. They consider it as a bad omen or foreboding, as the Spaniards do with the female fox or the cuckoo.
If, while the Indian is traveling, he stumbles over a big stone among a pile which had been dug up to build or level a road, he venerates it by placing on the top of it a little twig, brushing his knees with another one in order not to get tired. This is a tradition of his forefathers.
If he happens to be traveling near sunset, and he fears that he will arrive late or even at night at the village he is bound for, he will drive a stone into the first tree he finds, believing that this will retard the setting of the sun. Another superstition to the same effect is the pulling out of some of his eyelashes and blowing them toward the sun. These are superstitions that came down to him by tradition from his forebears.
During lunar eclipses they still believe in the tradition of their forefathers to make their dogs howl or cry by pinching them either in the body or ears, or else they will beat on boards, benches, and doors. They say that the moon is dying, or that it is being bitten by a certain kind of ant which they call xubab. Once, while at the village of Yalcobá, I heard great noises during an eclipse of the moon which occurred that night, and in my sermon the next day I tried to make them understand the cause of the eclipse in their own language, according to the interpretation from the Philosopher: “The lunar eclipse is the interposing of the earth between the sun and the moon with the sun on top and the moon in the shadow.” With an orange to represent the sphere of Sacrobosco, and two lit candles on either side, I explained to them plainly and at sight what an eclipse really was. They seemed astonished, and quite happy and smiling, cured of their ignorance and that of their forefathers. I gave orders to their chieftain (caçique) that he should punish in the future all those who made a noise on such occasions.
They also call certain old Indian shamans when a woman is in labor, and, with words of their former idolatry, he will enchant her and hear her confession. They do the same with some other patients. I could not find out all about this, for which I am very sorry.
There are some Indian medicine-men who, with similar enchantment, are supposed to cure the bites or stings of snakes, especially of the rattlesnakes, of which there are a great many here. The victims of such bites are sometimes delirious, and often the flesh around the wound will decay until they die. The remedy the wizards give them, according to what I heard, is to make them eat human excrement or drink the juice of lemons, or else they will take a domestic fowl and place its beak on the wound, and have it suck in this way the poison of the snakebite. The hen or chicken will of course die, and they immediately replace it by another live one, and repeat that until all the poison is absorbed.
When they build new houses, which occurs every ten or twelve years, they will not inhabit nor even enter them unless the old wizard has been brought even from a distance of one, two, or three leagues to bless it or consecrate it with his stupid enchantment. This, however, I have only heard, and I am now sorry never to have recorded it personally.
They are fortune-tellers, and they perform this feat with a heap of grained corn, counting always two and two grains, and if it comes out in even numbers, the fortune-teller will continue counting one, two, or three times over until it comes out uneven, bearing all the while in mind the main facts or reason for which he had been called on to tell the fortune, vera gratia. Once a girl ran away from home, and her mother, like any true Indian woman would have done in a similar case, immediately called one of those fortune-tellers, who drew lots on all the different roads until the fortune told of or pointed to a certain road the girl had taken and where she would be found. They sent out to look for her and found her in the village to which that road led. I punished that wizard, who was a native of a village at one league from Valladolid, and while I examined him with patience and slowly, I found that all the words he used in that so-called fortune-telling, while he counted the grains of corn, were no more than “Odd or even, odd or even” (huylan nones, caylan pares). He could not even tell me whether those words were meant as an invocation to Satan. In fact, he seemed not to know what they meant, for this particular wizard was a very great simpleton, almost imbecile.
In this city of Mérida it is publicly known that there exist several Indian sorceresses (witches), who by using certain words can open a rosebud before it is time for its opening, which is given to the one they wish to attract to their lascivious desire. They let him smell of it, or they place it under his pillow; but should the person who gives it to him smell its perfume, she is said invariably to lose her mind for a long while, calling to the one she expected to inhale it, and in whose name the rose was opened by the witch—a worthy matter which serves as medicine as well as punishment, especially if it hits the double mark. It has also been assured that the Indian women of this city are wont to throw a certain enchantment into the chocolate which is ready for their husbands to drink, and by it they become bewildered. This I only heard however, and I could not vouchsafe its truth.
I will also note here what I saw as a child, and that is that they used to drown in a hole young puppies of a breed of dogs they raise as pets as well as for food. These are a kind of dogs, with but little or no hair at all, which they call tzomes. It is an old Jewish dogma of cosher. See the Apostle, ut abstineant se a suffocatis, etc.—that they abstain from the food of animals dying by smothering or any kind of natural death.
Source: Reproduced from Indian Notes and Monographs, edited by F. W. Hodge, Vol. IX No. 3, Reports on the Maya Indians of Yucatan, New York, Museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation (1921)
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.