On July 12, 1562, in the courtyard of his recently constructed church at Mani, Diego de Landa (1524-1579), a bishop in the newly formed Roman Catholic archdiocese of Yucatan, publicly burned all the books, images and religious implements of the subjugated and nominally converted Maya.
Although now an impoverished rural Mexican village, at the time, Mani was a major Maya city and a center of resistance to the imposition of Spanish political rule and Christian conversion. De Landa believed his mission was not only to convert the Maya to Christianity but also to systematically destroy their polytheistic religion.
From the perspective of the native Maya who watched the burning of their books and sacred images, the extraordinary military and technological power of the Spanish invaders had clearly demonstrated that the god of Christianity was more powerful than the gods of the Maya. From within their polytheistic worldview, it made perfect sense for them to worship this new, strange and powerful deity — but by adding him to the pantheon of their old gods, not by replacing their old gods. Thus, a Maya could sincerely “convert” to Christianity and yet still pray to the old rain god Chaac, from whom the life-giving rains came.
Of course, Bishop de Landa did not see things from this perspective. We can perhaps better understand his cultural “vandalism” when we remember that human sacrifice was widespread among the Native Americans of Mexico. De Landa and his fellow missionaries looked with horror upon what they could only have understood as a satanic religion replete with idolatry, witchcraft and human sacrifice. De Landa believed it was both his moral duty to stop human sacrifice and demonolatry and his religious duty to bring the Maya to Christ.
Thus, despite their nominal conversion, when de Landa discovered that many Maya were still worshipping the old gods in the old ways, he felt that it was his duty to save both their lives and their souls. Hence, the Inquisition appeared among the Maya, creating the paradox of Catholic priests ordering the torture of the Maya in order to stop the Maya from practicing torture and human sacrifice. The average Maya peasant would have been hard-pressed to understand the difference between the Spanish priests’ practice of religious torture and the Maya priests’ practice of torture and human sacrifice.
In alliance with the brutal conquistadors, de Landa and his fellow Franciscan friars eventually created a system of interlocking Spanish military power; economic control of land, resources and trade; native servitude; and militantly Catholic ideology — a mix very like that which, a century before, had driven the Moors from the Iberian peninsula after nearly 800 years of Muslim presence in Andalusia.
This potent combination of God, gold and glory established Catholic dominion not only in Mexico but also throughout much of Latin America — “Latin” precisely because of the use of Latin as the scholarly and liturgical language of the Catholic priests and friars. (The same system, in a somewhat more benign form, was eventually exported into southern California in the 18th century, with the Spanish missions there.)
Paradoxically, de Landa’s efforts to Christianize the Maya required him to try to accurately understand their culture, language and religion. He recorded his findings in his famous book “Relacion De Las Cosas De Yucatan” (Description of the Conditions in Yucatan), one of our most important sources for the study of the pre-conquest Maya. Furthermore, de Landa’s description of some of the glyphs and the fundamental principles of ancient Maya writing provided the “Rosetta Stone,” or interpretive key, for the eventual decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs.
Whatever one may think of de Landa’s methods of systematically destroying the religious and cultural heritage of the Maya, one has to admit that these methods were exceptionally successful. Although some Maya still retain parts of their traditional religion, for the most part, images of the Maya rain god Chaac now lie crumbling in ancient ruins, remaining only to be gawked at by tourists and crawled upon by iguanas. But images of the Virgin of Guadalupe adorn every village and most houses of the modern Maya.
The career of Diego de Landa represents a classic example of the potent combination of control of wealth, information and coercive power, whether wielded by a king, a religion or a democratically elected government.
Unfortunately, however, when a religion becomes intertwined with power and wealth, that religion is usually left hopelessly corrupted yet dominant nonetheless.
Daniel Peterson edits BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. Among other things, William Hamblin co-authored “Solomon's Temple: Myth and History.” They represent only themselves.
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