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The burning of Maya books by the Spanish - painting by Carlos Andujar Domingo

The burning of [Maya] books

In a single act of wanton zealotry, the Spanish friar Diego de Landa burned, by his own account, 27 priceless Maya screenfold manuscripts in front of the church in the 4,000-year-old town of Maní, on the Yucatan peninsula, on the evening of July 12th., 1562. It was an attempt to erase in the minds of the Maya peoples the memory of their gods and ancient beliefs. In this, it failed, dismally. Here is the eloquent testimony to this, ‘The Fire Blunders’, written by the world famous Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, taken from his masterpiece Memory of Fire...

Pic 1: Mural by Juan O’Gorman, Biblioteca Central de la UNAM , Mexico City
Pic 1: Mural by Juan O’Gorman, Biblioteca Central de la UNAM , Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Fray Diego de Landa throws into the flames, one after the other, the books of the Mayas.
The inquisitor curses Satan, and the fire crackles and devours. Around the incinerator, heretics howl with their heads down. Hung by the feet, flayed with whips, Indians are doused with boiling wax as the fire flares up and the books snap, as if complaining.
Tonight, eight centuries of Mayan literature turn to ashes. On these long sheets of bark paper, signs and images spoke: They told of work done and days spent, of the dreams and the wars of a people born before Christ. With hog-bristle brushes, the knowers of things had painted these illuminated, illuminating books so that the grandchildren’s grandchildren should not be blind, should know how to see themselves and see the history of their folk, so they should know the movements of the stars, the frequency of eclipses and the prophecies of the gods and so they could call for rains and good corn harvest.

Pic 2: Torching of Aztec books by Spanish friars
Pic 2: Torching of Aztec books by Spanish friars (Click on image to enlarge)

In the centre, the inquisitor burns the books. Around the huge bonfire, he chastises the readers. Meanwhile, the authors, artist-priests dead years or centuries ago, drink chocolate in the fresh shade of the first tree of the world. They are at peace, because they died knowing that memory cannot be burned. Will not what they painted be sung and danced through the times of the times?
When its little paper houses are burned, memory finds refuge in mouths that sing the glories of men and of gods, songs that stay on from people to people and in bodies that dance toe the sound of hollow trunks, tortoise shells, and reed flutes.


(Emphasis added). Source: Memory of Fire by Eduardo Galeano, Quartet Books, London, 1995.

Pic 3: Artist’s impression of Maya scribes painting, by Luis Garay
Pic 3: Artist’s impression of Maya scribes painting, by Luis Garay (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: illustration ‘Quema de códices e ídolos mayas en Maní, 1562 / Burning of Mayan codices and idols in Maní, 1562. Óleo sobre lienzo / Oil on canvas. 120 x 168 cm. Varsovia 2012’ by Carlos Andújar Domingo. Permission applied for
• Pic 1: Picture found on the website of ‘An Ethnologist Friar: Diego de Landa’ (link below). Permission applied for
• Pic 2: Image from Diego Muñoz Camargo, Descripción de la ciudad y provincia de Tlaxcala, Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 242, folio 242r) courtesy of the Special Collections Department, Library, University of Glasgow
• Pic 3: Painting courtesy of and thanks to Luis Garay.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 13th 2016

‘An Ethnologist Friar: Diego de Landa’
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