The Books of Chilam Balam: Part two

articles History & People Maya

Ronald A. Barnett ©

Mexican History

The Yucatecan Books of Chilam Balam, which comprise the Chumayel, Tizimin, Mani and others, are notoriously difficult to translate and interpret because of archaic or obsolete words in the Mayan language, esoteric references – the meanings of which are now lost, and the sometimes unintelligible (to us at least) mixture of Spanish and Latin words scattered throughout the Mayan text. From the earliest attempts at translation to the present, translators sometimes differ significantly in their interpretations. What is clear, however, is that these books, in particular the Chumayel, reflect the development of Maya thought-patterns from pre-Hispanic times to the present and are therefore of value in understanding the thoughts and actions of the Maya people today. Although the books were written in the European script taught by Spanish missionaries in the 16th century, they represent a more or less unbroken continuation of native traditions, religious beliefs, and modes of thought from the early Spanish Colonial period on. The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel in particular is a prime example of what R. Roys in his 1933 translation of this book called the “Americanization of Christianity.”

Early Spanish writers claimed that the Maya of northern Yucatan readily accepted Christianity. But the Indian form of Christianity was far different from that of the Spanish missionaries. As we shall presently see, the Maya simply superimposed the new religion over the original pre-Hispanic religion and substituted the names of Christian saints for the old Maya deities. Much of the symbolism of Christianity was also adapted to preexisting symbols of Mesoamerican religion. In this way, the Maya combined the two forms of religion to suit their own religious beliefs and psychological needs. Sometimes they expropriated Christian rituals and symbols into their own religious practices, with the result that some Spanish priests were more concerned with the way in which Maya priests or shamans were making use of Catholic symbols and rituals than with recalcitrant native converts who regressed back into the old ways. In some cases, the Maya imitated Catholic rituals and used Christian symbols in their own religious ceremonies, much to the consternation of the Spanish friars. In some Katun or twenty-year prophecies in the Books of Chilam Balam, the Christian God is even cited as the authority for prophecies that were made long before the arrival of the Spaniards. This resulted in a mixture of Christian and Maya religious concepts and practices still followed today by many Maya in parts of Yucatan and Quintana Roo.

Today the strongest indigenous religious practices are found in the Maya Highland area and Chiapas. In the lowlands of Yucatan, the Spanish occupation was more sustained and the people lost more of their traditions and religious beliefs at an earlier period of Spanish colonization. In general, when the main religious centres collapsed, classic Maya religion went from a state to a folk religion. Lowland Maya religion was further adversely affected by changes in land distribution under President Diaz and the attitude of the Catholic church toward the Maya. It is somewhat paradoxical, therefore, that so many of our extant indigenous documents are found in Yucatan.

Prophecy played an important role in the religious life of the ancient Maya. Analysis of the style and the content of the prophecies shows that they follow closely the pattern of the pre-Hispanic hieroglyphic manuscripts. We are thus able to understand better how the ancient Maya mind worked. There are four classes of prophecies in the Books of Chilam Balam: day-prophecies; year-prophecies, Katun (twenty-year) prophecies, and prophecies concerning the return of Quetzalcoatl (Kukulcan in Mayan). In the first class of prophecies, the diviner determines which days are lucky or unlucky and what may or may not be done on those days. The second class involves genuine predictions for the coming year, usually gloomy, if not catastrophic, such as those for a certain Katun 5 Ahau in the Tizimin and the Mani. The third class is of the greatest historical value, because the priest in charge of the Katun had to predict future events in the coming Katun based on his past experience. According to the Maya cyclical concept of time, what happened in the past during a particular Katun was expected to recur in a future Katun of the same name. The historical content of these prophecies is attested in the Chumayel by one prophecy in which the commentator refers both to the arrival of the “foreigners,” an event which actually took place, and to the prior prophecy of that event. Belief in these “post-eventum prophesies,” as they have been described, in the chronicle sections of Chumayel, Tizimin, and Mani was so strong that they may have actually influenced the course of history.

We should not be too critical of the Maya preoccupation with prophecies. There are many seemingly insoluble problems in the writing of history in western society as in the ancient Maya world – the problem of narration and interpretation in historiography, for example. A history, as opposed to a chronicle, is a running narrative that depends to a large extent on the imagination of the historian. The choice of historical “facts” to be included in the narrative is at the discretion of the historian. Other factors involved in the choice of subject matter and method of presentation are the language of the historian and his or her concept of time.

Most early Spanish missionaries were especially interested in the fourth class of prophecies, because they were thought to foretell the coming of the Spaniards and the conversion of the Maya to Christianity. The Chronicle of Chicxulub tells us that on a day ” One Imix (a particular day in the Mesoamerican calendar), bearded men will come from eastern lands with the sign of the only god…” One Ymix was a sacred day in Yucatan, the day on which the Bacabs, the year-bearers who supported the four corners of Heaven, died but were destined to come to life three days later. The Chilam Balam of Mani predicted that bearded men would come from the east and introduce a new religion. However, as Roys points out, fishing canoes were apparently some times driven across to Yucatan by storms. Therefore, according to Roys, the arrival of the Spaniards would likely have been known before they actually reached Yucatan.

Finally we come to the last and most famous of the prophets after whom the books were named, Chilam Balam himself. Described as “the great priest,” he lived at Mani in the first decades of the 16th century and predicted fairly accurately the date of arrival of the Spaniards. Again, from our supposedly more objective “scientific” point of view we would say that, in fact, Chilam Balam was expecting the white-robed priests of Quetzalcoatl, not Cortes and his band of cutthroats. From the Maya point of view, however, his “prediction” was so accurate with regard to the Spaniards that he was ever afterwards regarded as the greatest of the Maya prophets.

The Books of Chilam Balam, in particular the Chumayel, clearly illustrate the process of adaptation (syncretism) that took place between the Catholic religion and the Maya religion after the Conquest, a process that continues to the present day. Maya deities merged with Christian saints, or perhaps it was the other way around. It all depends on your point of view. However, at first glance, the complex and extensive Maya pantheon or hierarchy of deities is confusing, to say the least. We are confronted with a bewildering array of gods and goddesses, the patron god series, the thirteen gods of the Katuns, the gods of the twenty days, the gods of the fourteen numerals, among others. We seem to be dealing with a wholly polytheistic religion. This is deceptive. But that is another story. Here we shall only observe that, in time, the Chacs turned into Catholic saints, the moon goddess Ixchel metamorphosed into the Virgin Mary, and the sun god Kinich Ahau became Jesus Christ. Even today, some Maya farmers pray to the Chacs, along with the Christian saints. The rationale behind this adaptation of religious symbolism is that you can’t have too many gods on your side; and since the Spanish gods apparently conquered the Maya gods, they should be given special attention. Christian symbols too were incorporated into the Maya religious fold. For example, the Christian symbol of the cross was easily adopted by the Maya as simply a variation of the common Mesoamerican universal tree of life, such as we see in the Temple of the Cross at Palenque.

Of particular interest here is the relationship between the remote Maya god Hunab Ku and the Christian concept of God. In the Chumayel, the phrases Dios citbil ( “God the remote”) and Hunab Ku (literally, Hun “One” + ab + “the state of being” + ku “god”) appear several times. Hunab ku, the principle deity of the Maya, was never included in everyday affairs. According to the Motul Dictionary (page 1744) he was “…the only living and true god, the greatest of the gods of Yucatan. He had no image because they said that being incorporeal he could not be pictured.” The late great Maya scholar E. Thompson thought that Hunab Ku may have been a later invention resulting from Christian influence. According to Thompson, the idea of a single creator god is out of keeping with the general Mesoamerican concept of a pair of creator gods because “…a Maya god without a wife to make his tortillas and weave his clothes” would not have made much sense to an ancient Maya. Thompson therefore believed that Hunab Ku as a single deity was simply a distorted version of the original Maya concept, although it was probably not “invented” by the friars. But Thompson was a strong Christian and I suspect that it went against his religious instincts to acknowledge the possibility that the ancient Maya with their apparent myriads of deities could have had monotheistic tendencies as well. Other evidence that we cannot deal with here also indicates a kind of monotheistic concept of deity in ancient Mexico. While the Zapotec Indians of Oaxaca worshiped the usual Mesoamerican deities, they too believed in a supreme force that could not be seen or depicted, known by name as Pijetao (“God without end and without beginning…”) and Coquixee (“…the uncreated lord, who has no beginning and no end”). In late pre-Hispanic central Mexico, the Ometeotl Complex (the “Lord and Lady of Duality” conceived as a single deity) among the Aztecs had no cult of its own but was present in every ritual. Many other examples could be given.

Mexican Catholicism, at least among many native peoples, is a somewhat incongruous mixture of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican religion with the religious practices and beliefs of the Catholic church. A prime example is the Virgin of Guadalupe. Whatever the historical “facts” may be, the converted Indians transferred their allegiance from the Aztec goddess Tonantzin to the Christian version of the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ. It is not my purpose here to deal with the “higher criticism” involving matters of faith or anyone’s fundamental religious beliefs but only to point out that the beautiful dark-skinned woman who miraculously appeared to the humble Indian Juan Diego on December 9, 1531, gave the Indians their own dark-skinned Virgin Mary at a time when they were most oppressed, thus satisfying their deeper psychological needs and desire for cultural recognition within the new Christian order of things.

Not all indigenous peoples in Mexico have “adapted” to the “new” religion to the same extent. When I first came to Mexico many years ago, I visited the Huichol museum at the Basilica in Zapopan and learned from the priest who was there at the time how the Catholic church intended to convert the Huichols to Catholicism. The padre showed me a book of instructions for priests on how to rearrange the ririki (a kind of Huichol temple) in such a way that the unsuspecting Indians would not realize they were actually involved in a Catholic ceremony. Years later, I attended the annual peyote fiesta at remote Las Guayabas in the Sierras with some Huichol friends. Personally I was pleased to see that in spite of the pressures on the Huichols, little had changed over the years, except that lead dancer wielding the deer antlers as part of the ceremony was wearing blue jeans. Apart from that and a few other jarring indications of the outside world, I was transported back into a spiritual world relatively uncontaminated by the crass material values of the modern world.

It would appear that not only the Huichols but many other native peoples in Yucatan and elsewhere in Mexico are really only nominal Catholics and are, in fact, still practicing their own form of religion. As R. Roys pointed out “The Christian god is the Zeus of the [Maya] Pantheon.” Further he adds: “The Virgin Mary, the Saints of the Catholic Church, and such of the old gods as have survived, form a less powerful, but more friendly group of divinities.” Evidence from the Books of Chilam Balam clearly supports this view of Mexican Catholicism as a thin veneer of Christianity over the native religion.

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