Here and There in Yucatan/The Lost Literature of the Mayas


The nations that peopled the American continent prior to the coming of the Spanish conquerors are all spoken of as Indians. The word Indian immediately calls up a vision—at least in the mind's eye of many people—of a dark-skinned savage; not overburdened with clothing, but elaborately tatooed and smeared with paint, a towering ornament of gaudy feathers on his head, a tomahawk in his hand.

It seldom occurs to those who have not seriously considered the matter that there is no reason why this large continent should not have been inhabited by as great a variety of people as the lands on the other side of the globe, since it was equally suitable for the human race.

Nevertheless, all scientific discoveries made up to the present time tend to prove that such was in fact the case. The "noble savage" had his place, and there was abundant space left for the sage. They dwelt in different latitudes; those of greater civilization lived in the tropical climes, so much more conducive to the welfare of man than our temperate zones.

It is in Southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, down to Darien, that the traveler pauses in amazement before splendid monumental remains that are scattered over vast territories. Who were the builders? The people found there at the time of the Conquest said they did not know; if any traditions existed among them they remained untold; nor is it to be wondered at when we consider the way in which the natives were treated by the European invaders.

Civilized as they were in some respects, the Americans at that epoch were degenerated—as history teaches us that all great nations do sooner or later degenerate, like individuals who, having reached maturity, pass to old age and decay. Even the Mayas, once masters of all Central America, the hardest to conquer, and the most civilized, would, after a few more centuries, have relapsed into a savage state, into a national second childhood. The palaces and temples of their ancestors make the peninsula of Yucatan, where there are several ancient cities, a very attractive place for antiquarians; those temples and palaces are elaborately adorned with sculptured ornaments and inscriptions.

If a complex language indicates an advanced civilization the Mayas were highly civilized, for their language enables one to express the finest shade of thought; even to-day some of the aborigines use such poetical forms of speech that it is a delight to listen to them telling quaint stories. The priests, who accompanied the Spanish conquerors to Yucatan, felt sufficient interest in the new country to write an account of what seemed to them noteworthy, though there is not the least doubt that they left many things unrecorded; they, however, took particular care to describe the books of the Mayas.

Father Landa, in his work "Las Cosas de Yucatan" (the things of Yucatan), tells us that the Maya priests wrote books about their various sciences, and imparted their knowledge to others whom they considered worthy of such enlightenment.

Very good paper was manufactured from the roots and bark of certain trees, the surface of the paper being made lustrous with a white transparent varnish on which it was quite easy to write; the varnish was said to be indestructible. The paper was made in very large sheets, some of the books being ten or twelve varas long (a vara is 33 inches), of one piece, and folded like a fan.[2]

Archæology was one of the sciences studied by the Maya wise men, which shows that the past was as great a mystery, and as attractive a subject for them as it is for antiquarians of our days. They also had works on medicine, on astronomy, on chronology, and geology; theology too was treated of in their writings, and they had a ritual explaining when certain religious festivals should be celebrated: the art of divination and gift of prophecy were likewise considered.

Many of the gentlemen were instructed in all those matters, being much respected for their learning, but never spoke about it, or made a display of it in public; they were no doubt bound not to divulge certain things revealed to them in the secrecy of initiation.

There were individuals who made a special study of genealogy; they were frequently employed to trace out the ancestry of persons who wished to boast of noble lineage.

They had books containing the early history of their own nation, and that of other people with whom they had had friendly intercourse or war. In those volumes there were complete records of what had taken place in different epochs; of the various wars, inundations, epidemics, plagues, famine, and every important event.

Doctor Aguilar, a Spaniard who succeeded in learning to read some of the Maya writings, said that in a book which he took from one of the "idolators," he read of a plague which had fallen upon the country in remote times; it was called Ocna-kuchil, which, said he, means sudden death. (Ocna is to sink down, kuchil to come to a termination). There was also an account of another plague which made such shocking ravages that the buzzards entered the houses to consume the corpses, the people being no longer able to bury their dead.

The name they gave to inundations and hurricanes was Uunyecil, "flooding or floating of trees."

Among the divinities mentioned in their theological treatise was the goddess of painting (probably of literature, because all their writings were painted in various colors) and "weaving figures into cloth" (tapestry). She was named Ix-che-bel-yax.

The god of poetry was called Ah-Kin-Xox. (The priest who says foolish or frivolous things).

With the exception of singing and poetry the arts and sciences were personified as females.[3]

The Spanish historians tell us that the Mayas had remarkable memories and were in the habit of reciting ancient fables; the Christian fathers did everything in their power to make them forget such folk-lore. To effect their purpose more rapidly they made free use of the lash and obliged the victims to learn all sorts of stories connected with the Romish church. This, of course, was after the fathers had learned the Maya language; it must be remembered that the conquest of Yucatan occupied several years.

Among those who knew the ancient fables there were some very clever actors who personated the characters portrayed in such stories.

Notwithstanding the fact that many of the books were on scientific subjects, Landa makes the following confession, as if he were rather proud of the deed. "We found a great number of their books, but because there was nothing in them that had not some superstition and falsehood of the Devil, we burned them all, at which the natives were marvellously sorry and much distressed.[4]

Father Cogolludo, who went to that country a hundred years later, commenting on the destruction of the books, says: "It seems to me that the books might have been sent to Spain."

Besides burning the paper books, Landa fed the flames with twenty-seven large manuscripts of parchment (deerskin); likewise destroying five thousand statues, of various sizes, and one hundred and ninety-seven vases.

Words fail to express the regret that one must ever feel at this irreparable loss, due only to the misguided zeal of a fanatical priest whose intellect seems to have been groping in the darkness of the middle ages. Could we but have those books in our hands to-day, in this age of discovery, possibly we should find that some of those very things condemned by the good father as superstition and falsehood, were a record of curious facts or studies known in times gone by, and now refound. Who can tell? How many of the recent discoveries would have been regarded, less than a hundred years ago, and even by the most extravagant minds, as utter impossibilities?

Landa had but an imperfect understanding of the Maya writings, and has given no translation of any of them; yet, with some inconsistency, he made a copy of the alphabetical signs, as well as others that stood for the names of days and months. It is well that he did this, for although he boasted of having burned all the books, four escaped falling into his hands—how, it is not known; and the few signs he condescended to copy and keep, now serve as a key to the translation of those precious volumes. They are known as Troano Manuscript, Dresden Manuscript, Codex Vaticano, and Codex Lettellier. This last is in the Imperial Library at Paris. We are not aware that any of these manuscripts have been copied, except the Troano.

This one belonged to a gentleman named Tro y Ortelano, Professor of Paleography at the Madrid University; he lent it to the learned archæologist Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg, permitting him to reproduce it, the French government defraying expenses; one of those facsimile copies is in our possession.

The Troano Manuscript is divided in two parts, one having thirty-six plates, the other thirty-four, each measuring about ten by five inches, and being separated by broad, horizontal lines into two three, or four compartments, as paragraphs. Some of the pages are illustrated by colored sketches, others are composed entirely of text. The titlepage occupies the place of the last page in our books; the seventieth plate being what we call the first page. The text is written sometimes in horizontal lines, sometimes in vertical columns; these columns commencing at the top or bottom, according to the fancy of the writer; the Mayas in this, as in many other things, resembling the Egyptians. The page must be read from right to left; if the sentences are all in vertical columns, the column on the right must be read first.

In the Troano Manuscript the direction of all sentences is indicated by a faint red line beneath, or, if in columns, at their side. These lines seem to have been entirely overlooked by the few scholars who have hitherto attempted the task of translating the book; the result may be better imagined than described.

Dr. Le Plongeon has translated part of the Manuscript. He finds that it is a work on geology and ethnology, containing also an account of some principal events in the early history of the Maya nation. For example, part of the history of the Can family, is recorded in the second part, corresponding exactly to what we have discovered, regarding that royal family, in our study of the ancient paintings and inscriptions.

The author of the Troano Manuscript appears to have had a knowledge of the various strata of which the crust of our planet is composed, for he has painted them of different colors. He seems to have also known that the convulsions of these superficial strata, earthquakes, were due to volcanic forces, and to have been acquainted with these forces, since he represented the activity of volcanoes by appropriate signs.

In this book we find records of cataclysms by which the face of the earth has more than once been changed, owing to the submersion of some lands, and the upheaval of others. It confirms the story of the disappearance of a great island, Plato's Atlantis, in the Atlantic ocean. The text consists of very brief sentences that tell the facts in as few words as possible.

How old is the Troano Manuscript? is a question frequently put to us; and one that we cannot answer positively. It is, however, our opinion that the book was written thirteen hundred years ago; although it refers to events which took place in very remote ages.

Like the Egyptians, the Mayas had a demotic (popular) and a sacred alphabet; many of the signs in each being similar to those of the Egyptians.

In the ancient edifices of the Mayas we find inscriptions in stone, wood, and stucco. Those of stone are in three styles, intaglio, bas-relief, and mezzo-relievo. The wood-carvings are in bas-relief ; those of stucco in mezzo-relievo.

The writings of Mexico proper (anciently Yucatan was not part of Mexico) were altogether pictorial. Not so those of the Mayas; but, like the Egyptians, the Maya scholars represented material objects by drawing their outlines to render their conceptions more plain to those uninitiated in the arts of reading and writing.

They also employed symbolic characters, in order to conceal truths discovered by them when they did not care to make them known to the multitude; perhaps believing that "the secrets of nature or art discovered by philosophers, must be hidden from the unworthy."[5]

Besides pictorial and symbolic characters, they had phonetic or alphabetical signs, letters, which they called uooh. The Maya hierogrammatists often employed in one inscription two modes of writing, even three; the figurative, symbolic, and phonetic; neither of them were like that which among the Egyptian writings is called demotic.

By the figurative method, subjects of a purely physical nature could be presented to the mind more surely than by the most perfect phonetic system. In writing the names of persons by this method the signs used are called totems, and are images of the things they take their names from; thus an individual named Fish would be represented as a fish.

By the symbolical method, ideas were indirectly expressed. They consisted for the most part of certain emblems denoting different names given to Deity, the various phenomena of nature, and certain metaphysical conceptions: for example, in the Troano Manuscript the busy bee signifies the activity of volcanic forces.

As among other nations of antiquity, so among the Mayas, the priests and noblemen were the scholars. About the fifth century of the Christian era many of these were put to death; others fled for dear life, to wander in distant lands, because the warlike and blood-thirsty Nahualts of Mexico invaded the country and conquered its inhabitants.

We have reason to hope that at that time the wise men concealed some of their books to save them from destruction. If we ever obtain the necessary protection, we shall endeavor to bring those volumes to light.

It is possible that some old books are yet hidden among the extremely secretive natives; in fact we have had vague information of such books on two occasions. When we were at Mugeres Island, Don Pedro Pobedano, the oldest inhabitant of that place, told us that when he was a boy he knew a very old man named Jacobo Canul, who lived on the mainland at a place called Ɔiɔantun, near the city of Motul; that he had a large Maya book called by him sacred writings. In it there were many prophecies, "some of which have been, others are being, fulfilled," said Don Pedro. He did not know what had become of the old man or his book.

Again when we were at Espita, in the interior of Yucatan, we made the acquaintance of an Indian potter, said to be a hundred and fifty years old, but having all his faculties, and still working for his living; his name was Mariano Chablé. When we asked him if he knew anything about the ancient ruins in the city of Chichen Itza, he said, "No, but when I was a boy I knew a very old man whose name was Alayon, and he talked to me about the enchanted houses. He had a book that only he could read, which contained many things about them. I do not know what became of the sacred book."

With the dispersion of the Maya priests, the arts and sciences disappeared, or died out; yet there were some men who remembered the primitive history of the nation, who perhaps had in their possession ancient books. The author of the Troano Manuscript seems to have had some such documents.

But the antique or hieratic mode of writing being only understood by those initiated in the art, under oath of secrecy, a new alphabetical system was needed. In the mural inscriptions we find also traces of a writing that might have been known to the people, as was the demotic among the Egyptians. These popular letters no doubt served, together with some of the signs of the Nahualts, to form the alphabet that Landa, several centuries later, found in use, and preserved for us at the same time that he destroyed all the Maya literature he could lay hands on. His alphabet contains only six letters of the old hieratic alphabet, which Dr. Le Plongeon has discovered by studying the sculptured mural inscriptions.

The Troano Manuscript is written with the new alphabet, and for this reason we judge that the work was compiled after the settlement of the Nahualts in the peninsula.

The task of fully translating the volume requires much patient labor; yet would be as nothing compared with the work of interpreting the mural inscriptions found on the walls of the ancient temples and palaces. Nevertheless, this can be done if students turn their attention to it, because the alphabet discovered by us is a key to them, and the language in which the records are inscribed is still spoken—though many words are lost or changed—by the aborigines of Yucatan, who gaze with awe and wonder upon the handiwork of their ancestors.

  1. Published in "Literary Life."
  2. Cogolludo. "Hist. de Yucatan."
  3. Cogolludo. "Hist. de Yucatan."
  4. Landa. Las cosas de Yucatan, chap. xli., p. 316.
  5. Roger Bacon, de secret, oper. art. et nat., cap. i.