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The Books of Chilam Balam: Part one

Ronald A. Barnett ©

The Books of Chilam Balam are indigenous Maya chronicles written in northern Yucatan during the century or so following the Spanish Conquest. The surviving texts we have are copies of the originals to which religious and historical material has probably been added. There are ten or twelve, some in a fragmentary state, others apparently complete. Among the best known are the Books of Chilam Balam of Mani, Tizimin, and Chumayel. The books, which are named after the towns in which they were found or produced, are a continuation of native tradition in European script as taught by Spanish missionaries in the 16th century. Although the Christian priests taught the Indians to write for purposes of conversion, the Maya managed to record a number of their own chronicles, rituals, and history. The native chronicles (u Kahlay Katunob), which are based on the katun, or twenty-year period basic to the Maya calendar, provide us with a picture of the Spanish Conquest and the coming of Christianity from the viewpoint of the Maya themselves. In general the books represent a carryover from the hieroglyphic codices in which the Maya recorded historical events and matters of religion, art, astronomy and the like. Because of their distinctively Maya character, the prophecies are among the more interesting categories of the books, especially those which announce a new religion.

The title Chilam Balam ("Jaguar Priest") is a little confusing, for at least six prophets are quoted. In general the Chilames were a class of priests who acted as soothsayers and prophets. The best-known prophecy is that of Chilam Balam himself, which, it is generally agreed, refers to the return of Kukulcan-Quetzalcoatl. The rapid fall of the Aztec empire is sometimes attributed to the trepidation and hesitation of Moctezuma based on the supposed belief that the arrival of Cortes was actually the fulfillment of the prophecy of the return of Quetzalcoatl. But like so many other apparent "facts" of pre-Hispanic history, even this has recently been called into question.

Part of the problem of translation and interpretation of the Books of Chilam Balam lies in their content, an inextricable mingling of native traditions and Christian missionary influence, along with an extraordinary mixture of the Maya, Spanish, and Latin languages. Some of the Latin passages, among others, are almost unintelligible because of erratic spelling, obsolete words and phrases, and religious and philosophical references lost forever in the bonfires of the Spanish priests. Indeed, earlier researchers into the mysteries of the Books of Chilam Balam sometimes despaired of ever recovering the true meaning of these texts. However, recent progress in the decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphic writing system has shed new light on the subject, although many difficulties remain.

A fuller exposition of the texts would require a detailed account of the Mesoamerican calendrical system that lies at the basis of the Maya chronicles and katun prophecies, an undertaking beyond the scope of the present article. Therefore, we shall here confine ourselves to possible traces of the pre-Hispanic Maya hieroglyphic texts in one of the chronicles, the Chilam Balam of Chumayel, which dates from 1782, although the language indicates an earlier date of composition. From internal evidence, we know that the book was compiled by a Don Juan Josef Hoil of that town. Mistakes in the text have been generally attributed to his sources, for Hoil seems to have been a fairly careful copyist.

The late E. Thompson, the foremost Mayanist of his era, considered the almanacs in the Books of Chilam Balam as debased and corrupt versions of the hieroglyphic texts. He had a very low opinion of the Tizimin group, the most historical of the chronicles: "The whole scheme of prognostication is so mangled and so full of errors that it is next to meaningless." Further, he wrote: "One feels like averting one's face at the spectacle of this sad degeneracy. Can any good be gained by examining these monstrous abnormalities?" When he wrote these disparaging remarks Thompson did not believe that the Maya hieroglyphic writing system was in any meaningful sense phonetic (which it is). Consequently, although a leading specialist on Maya glyphs, he failed to recognize the historical content of the hieroglyphic inscriptions and was therefore not in a position to see the Books of Chilam Balam in their proper historical context.

Indeed, it is in the Chumayel that we have documentary evidence for the correlation of European dates with those of the Maya calendar, an important step in the decipherment of the Maya script. According to the Chumayel, the district of Tihoo, Ichcanziho (Merida), was founded in 1542. Writing around 1566, Bishop Landa states that the Spaniards arrived in what is now Merida in 1541 in the era of Katun 11 Ahau in the Maya dating system, which appears to be an error on Landa's part. However, on other evidence, the correlation between the European and Maya dates based on this reference in the Chumayel appears fairly certain.

As might be expected in the highly technical study of the Books of Chilam Balam and Maya hieroglyphic writing, there is much room for controversy and conflicting interpretations. For example, I recently came across on the internet what purported to be a "new" English translation of the Chumayel by S. Fisher. To my surprise, it turned out to be a word for word English translation of the early Spanish translation of the Chumayel by A. M. Bolio which, unfortunately, repeated all the errors and omissions of Bolio's very loose poetical adaptation of the book. My first reaction was to ask myself why anyone would go to the bother of translating a translation in this particular case. Subsequently, I discovered I was not alone in my quandary.

In "Continuity in Maya Writing - new readings of the Chumayel in light of decipherment and historical content" (1979), G. Brotherston extolls the special qualities of the Chumayel and analyzes two key passages (Ch.19-21 and 60-63) in the light of modern knowledge. The first describes the "Maya Golden Age," the second the "Beginning of Time." In order not to impose upon the patience of the reader, I shall not attempt to deal with the content of these passages in any detail but simply indicate the kinds of errors that can creep into Mesoamerican studies, where so much has been lost or destroyed and has to be reconstructed from sometimes rather scanty evidence.

In the first passage, Brotherston points out that in his translation Bolio not only omitted the name Nacxit Xuchit, the debased Nahuatl term for Kukulcan/Quetzalcoatl, but also misread a key term oraob, the result of which significantly changes the meaning of the passage. Instead Bolio somewhat perversely reads oraob, a Spanish-Mayan hybrid form (Spanish hora, - hour, plus -ob, a Maya plural noun ending) as oxaob (an improbable combination of ox - 3 plus -ob, which he translates as Los Tres ("The Three"). We cannot go into details here but the original text in the Chumayel describes the evils that befell the Maya not at the hands of the Spaniards or even the hostile Itzas, as implied in Bolio's translation, but rather under attacks by the earlier Toltec invaders under Nacxit Xuchit. The Spanish translation, however, gives the impression that the Maya were not capable of looking that far back into their past. Moreover, the mistranslation "The Three" might suggest the Christian Trinity to the unwary reader whereas the term oraob simply means "hours" and has nothing to do with the number three.

The second passage, which represents an "attempt to reconcile traditional Maya cosmology with ideas imported by the Christians," opens up an invaluable insight into Maya thought processes, for it deals with the uinal, the basic 20-day Maya month upon which the Mesoamerican calendar is based. The phrase: Oxlahun tuc uuc tuc, hun provides a clue to the meaning of the passage (literally, "thirteen/a heap/seven/ a heap, one"). This mysterious statement, which Brotherston translates as "Thirteen units plus seven units equals one," describes in Mayan terms both the beginning of time and the creation of the human race. The Maya practiced a kind of arithmetical astronomy and so thought in terms of numbers rather than the geometrical orientation of western science. The reasoning goes something like this: since uinal and uinic (man or woman) have a common root in Yucatecan Maya, therefore 13 + 7 = 20 (the number of days in the uinal) + uinic = one. This passage not only sums up preceding sections of the Chumayel but also gives a synthesis of Maya thought on Christian theology and purely indigenous ideas about time, space, and creation. Bolio translates this phrase: "Trece ... Y siete en un grupo." Again Fisher follows blindly with "Thirteen ... And seven in a group," which misses the point entirely.

Finally, let us glance briefly at a possible relationship between the Chumayel and the Dresden Codex (29c-31c), one of the four surviving Maya hieroglyphic codices. In "A Grammar of the Yucatecan Language, " D. and A. Bolles point out that certain phrases in the Books of Chilam Balam indicate that the writer has directly consulted a hieroglyphic manuscript. M. C. Alvarez (1974) compared the description of the four Maya lineages, Canul, Cauich, Noh, and Pucte in the Chumayel with a somewhat similar scene in the Dresden Codex. The key phrase in the Chumayel is A...u chun u unicil ("the head of the family," or "the first man of [family name]," which, Alvarez suggests, is possibly derived from the glyphs and accompanying figures in a section of the Dresden Codex. The word chun, which can also mean "tree," could apply in either case, for in the codex the four Chacs (rain gods) are seated on tree trunks ( chun), each associated with their particular direction and colour: East, the red god Chac, North, the white god Chac, West, the black god Chac, and South the yellow god Chac. Foods and other items associated with each Chac take on the colour of each individual Chac. The Maya were inordinately fond of puns. Therefore, as Bolles points out, chun could mean a tree on which the Chac figures in the Dresden Codex are seated or "the first of" as in the written text of the Chumayel. If Alvarez is right, we have here a direct association between the written Books of Chilam Balam and a hieroglyphic codex.

Can we ever really get to the essential meaning of these esoteric texts? The evidence indicates a direct connection between the later written Books of Chilam Balam in Yucatan and the hieroglyphic codices and other hieroglyphic inscriptions that survived the cultural holocaust of the Spanish Conquest. Closer examination of the Books indicates that the historical perspective of the Maya was much more critical and comprehensive than is generally recognized. Maya historical consciousness was not confined to a cyclical concept of time, as important as that was in the overall Mesoamerican calendrical system. They could also think historically in the western sense of linear history, as attested by the Long Count of the Maya calendar from the hypothetical starting date 3114 B.C.

Everyone has a right to an opinion. However, second-hand studies not based directly on the original texts or other primary sources are apt to be misleading. In dealing with the Maya writing system and the Books of Chilam Balam, a little knowledge is definitely a dangerous thing, for it can lead to the compounding of errors of commission and omission, such as the S. Fisher English translation of the Chumayel from the Christianized and obsolete Spanish translation of A. M. Bolio.

Published or Updated on: April 1, 2007 by Ronald A. Barnett © © 2007
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