The Spanish Inquisitor who Accidentally Saved the Maya

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In the jungles of Central America, John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood went on an adventure.

This was a manly outing, the kind of cross-country trek that Teddy Roosevelt would take before shooting a rhino or Hemingway before doing it with Anaïs Nin. Their trail wound through a poisonous rainforest crushed into a thin crust between Atlantic and Pacific and, later, to the dry, stony bulge called the Yucatan. This was terrain that had broken the legs of Spanish horses. It had eaten armies sent to quell native rebellions. In the year of their journey, 1839, it was home to a brutal civil war, with soldiers and bandits alike pillaging towns and killing travelers.

So why not go check it out?

Stephens and Catherwood came following the murmurs of earlier explorers, vague and poorly translated testimonials of ancient ruins overgrown by jungle. They came with few expectations, sure only that they would meet the normal tropical surprises: electric eels, poisonous frogs, ticks, flies, mosquitoes, and malaria. They crossed mountain passes and climbed sharp cliffs, hacked through undergrowth with machetes, continued on foot when their mules collapsed from exhaustion. More than once, they nearly died.

But despite everything the jungle could throw at them, perseverance paid off and the two young explorers’ wildest wishes were granted: in the heart of the jungle, Stephens and Catherwood found a lost civilization.

Massive pyramidal temples hundreds of years old, dwarfing all European achievements of that time period. Great stone pillars, carved with an ancient and indecipherable language, sticking out of the overpowering green like foreign tombstones. Steles and stories marking a dead people and their dead cities, their forgotten battles and inscrutable bloody gods. Overcome with wonder, the two asked themselves: Who could have built these monuments, now drowned in a thousand years of foliage? Who could have birthed such great cities from the malarial heat and strangling growth of the tropics? Who could have dug the irrigation ditches that were now only swampwater and crocodiles? And what could have destroyed such an advanced, sophisticated people?

(Answer key: The Maya. The Maya. The Maya. Spain.)

The intrepid pair brought back drawings, notes, theories – and indecipherable copies of what was clearly some kind of writing. These impenetrable symbols, carved into everything from tombs to staircases, were the hieroglyphs of ancient Maya scribes and astronomers, and nobody had any idea what they might signify. Those nineteenth-century scholars who studied the glyphs found themselves without a clue.

The Mayan language, unlike their dead cities, would not simply open to the inquisitive invaders; it was mind-numbingly complex, and any would-be translators had nowhere to start. This was a lost civilization, after all, and none of the scribes who had created this riddle lived on – only their illiterate descendants. How could one even begin to solve such a mystery?

Thinking on the question during his trip, Stephens shrugged off despair like he had shrugged off malaria. “For centuries the hieroglyphics of Egypt were inscrutable,” he wrote in his travel journal. “Though not perhaps in our day, I feel persuaded that a key surer than that of the Rosetta stone will be discovered.”

He was right – though the Mayan Rosetta Stone would come from strange and bloody hands.

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The colonization of New Spain was always bound to be a bumpy ride. With little preamble, two civilizations, each boasting a culture that had grown in complete isolation from the other, suddenly found themselves sharing everything from food to living space to – eventually – language and religion. Religion, especially, was a focal point of their interactions, and the relationships between priests and their would-be American converts were the most complex of all. You might say that the priests had come with the best of intentions: to lead all people to what they saw as the Holy Truth. You might also say, though, that they’d come with the worst intentions: to brainwash the peoples of the Americas into perpetual servitude. Maybe because of how complicated their mission was, or maybe because they had to interact so closely with the Aztec and Maya and Inca, priests’ views on the conquered peoples covered the whole spectrum of possible ways to react to the foreign.

Bartolome de las Casas for example, originally a participant in the massacres that won Cuba, gave up his hard-won estate, freed his slaves, and preached that everything Spain had done in the New World was immoral and illegal. Bernardino de Sahagun, assigned to the boonies of the Mexican desert, wrote a Nahuatl-Spanish dictionary and transcribed the legends and history of the people there – without that work, today we’d know next to nothing about ancient Aztec culture.

Priests might be the most sympathetic Spanish any indigenous person would see – there definitely weren’t any conquistadors writing down old Indian stories or petitioning for native freedoms. (In fact, when las Casas finally got new laws made to protect the Americans, the conquistadors tended to lynch any governors who tried to enforce them.) But while some of these strangers in a strange land we might nominate for a Nobel Peace Prize if they lived today, others we could easily indict for crimes against humanity.

Our hero.

Our hero.

The priest named Diego de Landa came to the Yucatan at age 25. Once the northernmost point of the Maya civilization, the peninsula was the driest and least forgiving part of New Spain. Here lived some of the most resilient and rebellious natives, still smarting over their recent loss to the Spaniards less than a decade before his arrival. Much of the interior was still untamed, dangerous for any Spaniard to enter even with an armed escort

None of this dampened Landa’s spirits. Though he’d been sent to a completely alien and unforgiving land, an unsafe land where the hot dry climate surely worsened the asthma he’d been born with, the young priest threw himself into his duties with gusto. He learned Mayan so quickly and so perfectly that he was given the task of translating the catechism and editing fellow priests’ dictionaries. Soon after he arrived, he applied for special permission to leave the few areas under Spanish control where most missionaries huddled in fear. The un-indoctrinated, after all, lived in the rebellious regions, and that was where any proper priest must be. Like Stephens and Catherwood years later, he forsook comfort and safety to wander off into the wild; unlike them, he went alone and defenseless.

But perhaps not completely defenseless. He spoke Mayan with a silver tongue, and this let him thrive in even the most dangerous, most anti-Spanish regions where his countrymen would be swiftly murdered. People welcomed him, spoke to him; mothers shared recipes with him, children taught him games, even pets enjoyed his company. His writings, full of these details, show how intimate he was with the Maya, how much those whom he met trusted him. He was allowed to visit their greatest and most rebellious cities, and the sacred cenote of Chichen Itza. There is even a story of him leaping to the aid of a boy about to be sacrificed and preaching so eloquently that the village smashed their idols, released the erstwhile victim, and asked Landa for spiritual guidance. Regardless of how true that is, we can be sure that Landa was quite the charmer.

He even managed, despite all odds, to worm his way into the hearts of the higher echelons: that of chiefs, elders, and native priests. These were the rulers still fighting clever guerilla wars against the conquistadors, the people who had the most to lose from the conquest and the most reason to fear a strange Spaniard asking questions, and although they had every reason to be suspicious they accepted him totally. Maybe they did it because, aside from his charm, Landa clearly carried himself like a man of letters. The elders and priests were the academics of the Maya; perhaps they saw in the foreign, strangely-dressed Landa a brother, a fellow seeker of knowledge.

One explained the Maya system of reckoning time to him, and another taught him the basics of their written language. Many complained in detail of the cruelties of Spanish rule. A few even showed Landa the sacred histories and prophecies of the Maya, passed down for generations by the ruling families and normally kept secret from outsiders. These old leather books recorded everything the Maya knew about themselves, everything they thought about the world, every event they could remember from their past as a powerful nation to their divined future. They were invaluable cultural artifacts, the Holy Grail of Maya history and culture, and it was an astounding act of confidence to allow a foreigner to read them. Finally, after extensive travels, Diego de Landa left the Maya of the interior with smiles and teary farewells.

At this point in history, Landa seems like just another priest who appreciated the people he was supposed to baptize a little too much; another “solider of the Lord” turned eager ethnographer; another scholar who, bursting with wonder at the discovery of new and foreign knowledge, nearly forgot his Christian duty to convert the heathen. Perhaps he would have remained so, if his language skills, his conviction, and his brave expedition had not made him a famous name among Church leaders in Spanish-controlled territory. Soon, at an unprecedentedly young age, they promoted him to Bishop of the Yucatan and Guatemala – religious ruler of the whole peninsula.

This promotion marked him, setting him a world apart from the other, more sympathetic priests. Unlike Las Casas or Sahagun, Landa had now gained great political power. And, also unlike them, he couldn’t afford to indulge in the protection of indigenous culture. He had grown up in a part of Spain only recently reconquered from Moorish rule, a place that Church officials, skeptical of convenient conversions, had more than once combed for lingering Muslims or secret Jews. He had likely lived under suspicion of insufficient zeal his entire life. So Landa could never be lax in his duties – he had never known the luxury of allowing others to doubt his commitment. He had so much to prove that mere sympathy would not stop him from his divine task: to guide the Maya to the True Faith, as would a stern father.

The priest in him was resolute. And the scholar in him knew: to utterly reshape the Maya, to truly convert them, he’d have to erase everything they thought they were.

So Diego de Landa executed his duties with zeal. Armed with the memory of his travels and an understanding of Maya culture, he returned to the interior to root out every idol he could find. Once this incredible cultural bounty, the envy of scholars for centuries to come, had been collected from the villages, Landa had his men build a pyre before the Franciscan Monastery at Maní and toss it all into the flames. He burned religious works, he burned pottery, he burned art, he burned toys, and he burned the sacred books that held everything the Maya knew about themselves, their history and their astronomy and their mathematics and their beliefs and their written language, books which for him “contained nothing that was free from superstition and the devil’s trickery.” “We burned them all,” he later wrote of the act, “which they regretted to an amazing degree and which caused them great affliction.”

When, despite the inspiring example of what Landa probably thought of as “tough love,” some Maya continued to worship in the old ways, he became convinced that the Maya priests and leaders he once knew were operating an underground network of covens to undo his good works. Though the unwritten policy towards religious relapses was a tongue-lashing and a confession, Landa knew that more stringent measures were needed: he launched his own inquisition, kidnapping, torturing, and mutilating hundreds of people. His priests pressed their captive subjects for the locations of idols that the Maya had, in fact, already burned, suspending them by their hands for hours, tying stones to their feet, splashing hot wax on them, doing anything to ensure a confession. Almost two hundred Maya died from this treatment. Many others were paralyzed, their fingers permanently curled into hooks from the weight of the stones on their feet. The fear of Landa and his agents was so strong that Maya leaders hanged themselves when they heard the priests were coming; the less bold took shelter in the homes of horrified conquistadors.

If Diego de Landa was mad, it was a scientifically thorough madness. Ordered to produce idols they’d confessed to, but didn’t actually have, many Maya sought out old ruins of the Classical period where they pillaged their ancestors’ cultural record to save their lives. In this way, Landa’s cleansing hand reached into the past as well, and his bonfires consumed almost everything of Maya culture, both contemporary and more ancient. Where there were once perhaps hundreds of the sacred books, today there are three.

To the scholars that walked in Stephens and Catherwood’s footprints, Landa was evil incarnate – the Maya-Hitler. He had brutally stamped out the culture they sought to research, burned off the face of the Earth the most valuable artifacts and sources they could have dreamed of studying. He was the man who lost the civilization.

But they could never entirely dismiss him, because Landa was also their only link to the lost world. When called upon to defend his extreme actions before the Spanish Inquisition, the bishop had written an extremely detailed account of his travels in pre-holocaust Maya society in Spanish. (This meant it was the only description of Maya culture that historians could actually read.) It was exquisitely descriptive, telling Mayan-illiterate historians everything they knew about the pre-contact people: from the layout of the cities, to the religious practices, to the home cooking recipes. Once you separated the zealot’s perspective and self-aggrandizement out of the real historical facts, it became a very useful guide.

As on this page, where Landa tells us the sounds of the Maya language:

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Over the one hundred years of screaming academic chair-fights that followed Stephens and Catherwood’s discovery, all dismissed this page as nonsense. Mayan was clearly a logographic language, like Chinese, where one glyph stood for a whole word. The three-toothed circle glyph in the upper-left, for example – that meant “house,” or maybe “shark,” or “gringo,” just like a Chinese character meant “horse” or “rice.”

Landa, though, wrote that it made a “C” sound; foolishly, the scholars assumed, he had thought that Mayan script worked like English or Spanish, that it was an alphabet where each glyph represented only a sound. He thought it was just a letter, instead of a whole word. The language clearly wasn’t structured that way, so his little notes were dismissed as nonsense, as memories distorted from the genocidal years elapsed between his travels and his trial.

Copies of the notes rotted in basement libraries for four hundred years.

Finally, in the 1960s, a Soviet linguist named Yuri Knorozov got bored. Going through loot he’d swiped from Berlin as a Red Army soldier in World War II, he uncovered the fateful page.

Though Knorozov was aware of the stigma surrounding Landa, he decided to take the man at his word. After all, the bishop had spent more time with ancient Maya than any of the scholars alive today. What if Landa had been on to something?

What if, Knorozov wondered, sometimes the glyphs did represent sounds? What if Maya wasn’t like Chinese – what if it were closer to Japanese? In Japanese, there are a few different sets of symbols. Some of those, the kanji, represent entire words as in Chinese; others, the hiragana, are essentially an alphabet. Could Mayan work along similar lines?

With one leap of intuition, Knorozov had realized that Mayan script was actually two Mayan scripts – one where a glyph represented a full word, like “tree,” and another where the same glyph might represent just one letter, a meaningless syllable, like “la.” Stephens had been right – the research had required a Rosetta Stone, a key. Without that springboard, without the genocidal bishop’s journal, the jump from perplexity to Eureka! was impossible. Without Landa’s account, written down as a direct result of his murderous policies, we would still be Mayan-illiterate.

Granting us the understanding that we were dealing with a script that could sometimes represent just sounds as well as words, Knorozov started us on the road to truly understanding the Maya: their wars, their kings, their gods and myths, everything that Stephens and Catherwood with all their courage and enthusiasm could never have guessed at. Today, after fifty years of ingenuity and hard work, expeditions to and transcriptions of many ruined cities, and phoneme-determining interviews with the still-living Maya, over 90% of Mayan is decipherable. Today, we know their pantheons, the various rulers of each city-state, their calendars, their mathematics, even their daily lives. Today we know of the watery underworld Xibalba, the carved stone face of the Maize God, and the epic of the Hero Twins. We know more about ancient Maya culture than anybody has known since the eighth century, when the Mayans abandoned their cities and headed back into the jungle.

So Diego de Landa, the vital link to all our understanding of the Maya, is difficult to dismiss as a mere genocidal maniac. Even as he destroyed knowledge, he preserved and saved it; even as he sought to convert the heathen and eradicate “pagan” culture, he indulged his love of learning and wrote it down. Perhaps a part of him, the same part that the Maya intelligentsia had recognized as a kindred spirit, wanted it to live on. Perhaps a part of him, despite everything he had been taught as a Catholic and a conqueror, couldn’t bear to let an entire culture die.

In death, do the cruelties of the priest outshine the deeds of the scholar?

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  • Iñaki Garrido

    “Massive pyramidal temples hundreds of years old, dwarfing all European achievements of that time period.” ¿Really? I love Mayan Culture but their greatest architectonic achievements cannot be described by no way like that. ¿And what time period exactly? The Greeks had built the Acropolis by the same time the mayan classical period was just beginning ¿Tikal or Uxmal? would “Dwarf” Rome 🙂
    What i do not understand is the prejudiced comparison, can’t the Maya be great without competing with European culture?

    Lastly, nobody denies the destructiveness of the Spanish, but mayas had a hand load of internal political end economical problems on their own, the mayas the spanish found were pretty long afar from the mayas of the Classical.
    Good article, too bad you had to “spot” it with this kind of easy shallow critics. Maybe next time you’ll write your articles in Chontal or Tepehuano, since you despise so much European culture.

    • Jorge Pérez de Lara

      While I agree that it is futile to compare cultures (they are adaptations to very different environments and conditions), it is also true that some of the buildings in the Maya area were among the largest built anywhere in the world up until at least the XIX Century. So while there was no Maya city that would have been “greater than Rome”, there are buildings from the Middle Pre-Classic period (ca. 400-300 b.c.e) at El Mirador that are taller than anything in Europe and more massive, too. The Maya certainly did not have anything approaching the impressive Roma network of roads, but they did have mathematical knowledge that nobody would even dream of in Europe before the Arab invasion, including the independent (and second earliest) invention of the concept of zero. Perhaps authors should watch hyperbole, but I would not dismiss it as inexact or as a manifestation of contempt for European culture, rather as misguided enthusiasm.

      • Berynice

        Right, he said, “Massive pyramidal temples hundreds of years old, dwarfing all European achievements of that time period.” Of that time period being what he was comparing. And the Maya were way advanced over those stinky Spanish and Portuguese invaders who lived in filth and filthy cities without even proper drainage.

  • gimmeanotherlonestar

    This is exactly the type of article I’d expect a Nazi, Communist, Stalin-lovin’ liberal to write.

    Every click on this article is another nuke in Iran’s arsenal.