The apparent parallels between native Maya belief and the Christian doctrine struck the Spaniards as amazing, and the observance of the cross as a feature of worship was marveled at. Likewise, the trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost and Virgin mother were noted to have parallels in Maya belief. This account is from Francisco Hernandez de Córdoba (died 1517), a Spanish conquistador, known to history mainly for the ill-fated expedition he led in 1517, in the course of which the first European accounts of the Yucatán Peninsula were compiled.
OF THE RELIGIOUS BELIEFS OF THE INDIANS OF YUCATAN IN 1545
Report of Francisco Hernandez
When our people discovered the kingdom of Yucatan they found crosses there, and one cross in particular which was made of stone and mortar, of a height of ten palms, and was erected in the center of a court or enclosure, very prominent and fair, and crowned with battlements; it stands alongside of a sumptuous temple and is very much frequented by a great number of people. This is on the island of Cozumel, which lies near the mainland of Yucatan. It is said that this cross was really adored as the God of Water or Rain; as often as there was a drought they went to sacrifice quail before it, as will be told later. When asked whence or through whom they had first heard of that sign, they replied that a very handsome man had once passed through their country and that he left it with them, that they might always remember him by it. Others, it is said, answered that it was because a man more resplendent than the sun had died on that cross. This is referred to by Peter Martyr in chapter I of his Fourth Decade.
I shall refer to another tale or report which is very unusual and new regarding the Indies, and which until now has not been found in any other part of them. As this kingdom, on account of its close proximity to it, comes within the jurisdiction of my bishopric of Chiapa, on one of my visits I disembarked and remained at a very healthy port. I met there a clergyman, good, so it seemed, of mature age and honest, and [one] who knew the language of the natives from having lived there several years. As it was necessary for me to return to my episcopal residence, I nominated him as my vicar, and ordered and entreated him to travel inland and visit the Indians there and preach to them in a certain way in which I instructed him. After a certain number of months (I even believe it was one year), he wrote to me that on his trip he had met a principal lord or chief, and that on inquiring of him concerning his faith and the ancient belief all over his realm, he answered him that they knew and believed in God who was in heaven; that that God was the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. That the Father is called by them Içona, and that he had created man and all things. The Son’s name was Bacab, who was born from a maiden who had ever remained a virgin, whose name was Chibirias, and who is in heaven with God. The Holy Ghost they called Echuac. They say that Içona means the great Father. Bacab, who is the son, they say killed Eopuco, and flagellated him, crowning him with a crown of thorns, and placed him with arms extended on a pole, not meaning that he should be nailed to it, but tied (and in order to show him how, the chief extended his own arms), where he finally died. He was dead for three days, but on the third day he returned to life and went up to heaven, and he is there with his Father. After this immediately came Echuac, which is the Holy Ghost, and he filled the earth with all it needs. When asked what Bacab or Bacabab meant, he said it meant the son of the great Father, and that Echuac meant merchant. And very good merchandise did the Holy Ghost bring to this earth, for he filled men with all their faculties, and divine and abundant graces. Chibirias means mother of the Son of the great Father. He added, furthermore, that at a certain time all men would have to die, but he did not seem to know anything of the resurrection of the flesh. When asked how they came to know all these things, the chief replied that the lords taught their sons, and in this manner it descended from one age to another. They also assert that in olden times, long ago, there came to the land twenty men (he gave the names of fifteen of them), but because they were very poorly written, and furthermore as they do not have great importance for this report, I do not copy them. Of the five others the vicar says he could not obtain their names. The principal one was called Cocolcan, and they called this one the God of all kinds of fevers. Two of the others are the Gods of fish, still another two the Gods of farms and homesteads [landed properties], still another was the God of Lightning, etc. They all wore long gowns or mantles, and sandals for their feet. They had long beards, and wore nothing to cover their heads. These men ordained that the people should go to confession and should fast, and some people fasted on Fridays because on that day Bacab had died. The name of this day (Friday) is Himis, and they honor it in their devotion on account of the death of Bacab. The chiefs (caçiques) know all the particulars of those things, but the common people believe only in the three persons, Içona and Bacab and Echuac, and in Chibirias, the mother of Bacab, and also [in] the mother of Chibirias called Hischen, whom we consider to have been Saint Ann. All this above stated is from information I have received in a letter from that reverend father whose name is Francisco Hernandez, and I still have his letter among my papers. He also stated that he took the said chief to a Franciscan friar who lived near there, and that the caçique repeated all he said before the friar, and they remained both greatly surprised at it. If all those things just stated are true, it would seem that that part of the land had been (long ago) informed about our Holy Faith, for in no other part of the Indies have we ever found such news. It is true that in Brazil, which belongs to the Portuguese, it was stated that traces of the wanderings of Saint Thomas the Apostle had been discovered, but such news could not very well fly over through the air, and furthermore it is quite certain that the country and kingdom of Yucatan give us more special and singular cases to ponder over, and of far greater antiquity, if we think of the great, exquisite, and admirable way the most ancient buildings are constructed, also of a certain lettering in queer characters which are not found anywhere else. Finally these are the secrets which only God knows.
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)
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.