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Mexicolore contributor George Fery

The 1562 Tragedy at Mani

We’re most grateful to George Fery, a freelance writer-photographer of pre-Columbian history and archaeological sites of Mexico and the Americas, for launching our new Collaborations section with an intriguing article on the notorious ‘burning of Maya books’ in 1562 by the Spanish Inquisition led by Diego de Landa. Just what DID happen on that day...?

Pic 1: Peninsula of Yucatan
Pic 1: Peninsula of Yucatan (Click on image to enlarge)

The destruction of indigenous people’s secular and religious emblems, specifically those related to the record of their past, is often a common theme in the study of the Spanish conquest of the New World. In the annals of archaeology and anthropology, one needs to investigate behind the scene to bring a sharper focus on events that are not often what they seem to be. The case of the Franciscan friar Diego de Landa Calderón’s auto-da-fé, or “act of faith,” at Mani, in the peninsula of Yucatan, Mexico, is the most significant example of historical references with regard to the destruction of Maya “books.”

Pic 2: Seal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition
Pic 2: Seal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition (Click on image to enlarge)

In his 1566 Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, the friar documented the zeal and excess in his drive to “remove the demons” from the natives’ hearts. This story focuses on what led to that event and, specifically, what was really burned on July 12, 1562, and why. Diego de Landa (1524-1579) was among the first Franciscans to arrive in the Yucatan. Nueva España, or New Spain, then ruled by the Spanish viceroy and the Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición (Holy Office of the Inquisition) in Mexico City, was established by King Ferdinand II of Aragón and Queen Isabella I of Castile in 1478.

Pic 3: Treaty of Tordesillas (page 1)
Pic 3: Treaty of Tordesillas (page 1) (Click on image to enlarge)

Diego de Landa was born in the town of Cifuentes, in the Spanish province of Alcaria, on November 12, 1524. At that time, the Franciscan order had the religious monopoly in conquered lands and answered to the seat of the Holy Inquisition in Mexico City, administrator of religious affairs. Of note is the fact that the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1524 granted the rights of conquest of most of the Americas to Spain, with the understanding that the conquistadores (conquerors) would conquer land and riches for the Kings at Granada, but harvest souls for the Pope in Rome.

Pic 4: San Antonio de Padua Convent, Izamal
Pic 4: San Antonio de Padua Convent, Izamal (Click on image to enlarge)

De Landa arrived in Merida from Spain in 1549 a few years after the death of his wife Inesa de Inchaurduy, with whom he had two sons, Diego and Juan. He renounced his position as Royal Notary and, in 1541, joined the Order of Friars Minor, a religious order of the Franciscans in the convent of San Juan de los Reyes in Toledo. His initial appointment in Mexico was to the mission, later convent, of San Antonio de Padua in the town of Izamal, Yucatan, where he became known as a hardworking friar.

Pic 5: Fray Diego de Landa
Pic 5: Fray Diego de Landa (Click on image to enlarge)

He undertook his mission by first learning the Maya-Yucatec language and walked barefoot visiting many villages on the peninsula, then divided into nineteen independent chiefdoms. He learned about the land, the people and local custom. His direct approach, more than once in hostile villages, since the brutal conquest was a mere thirty years in the past, convinced him of his mandate to convert. He was, however, welcomed in many communities, and that helped him understand the people and his ecumenical mission.

Pic 6: Conquistadors
Pic 6: Conquistadors (Click on image to enlarge)

It was also unanimously understood that the Maya, and other indigenous groups, needed more time to convert and, therefore, could not be guilty of heresies when they had no sense of what the Christian doctrine was all about. It took thirty-five to forty years for the religious orders to develop conversion protocols for indigenous people. The explicit mission of the Franciscans at that time, was to protect the Maya communities from the abuses of the Spanish encomenderos, individuals that were duly recognized to be the first conquistadores of the land.

Pic 7: Ixtab, Maya goddess of suicide
Pic 7: Ixtab, Maya goddess of suicide (Click on image to enlarge)

As a reward for their military service to the crown, they received encomiendas or donations of populated lands; they were also called colonists. De Landa ignored the Inquisition’s mandate to stop forced conversion and persisted in eradicating traditional indigenous beliefs and rituals. His zeal to convert and expunge idolatry, was adopted by lower rank friars and lay people and reached extreme coercion to such an extent that it drove many people to ask Ixtab, the Maya goddess of suicide, to take their own lives by hanging.

Pic 8: Maya and Aztec gods; contemporary mural
Pic 8: Maya and Aztec gods; contemporary mural (Click on image to enlarge)

The historical record confirms that he was excessive in his indoctrination methods, but was not wrong on the most egregious ritual, the practice of human sacrifice that persisted throughout the Yucatan forty-five years after the conquest. As a man of his time, de Landa dealt in absolutes and believed that the original Inquisition mandate to convert had to be vigorously enforced in his diocese, if for no other reason than for saving the lives of sacrificial victims.

Pic 9: Actun Usil cave
Pic 9: Actun Usil cave (Click on image to enlarge)

In June 1562, two boys exploring the countryside found a traditional place of worship hidden in a cave near Mani, in southwest Yucatan, where the Mayas made their devotions to ancestors and deities (de Landa - Documento Uno, 1959/144-5). They found clay figurines and human skulls, the latter covered with copal incense. Frightened, they called the town custodian friar. Informed of the event, from his seat then in Merida, de Landa called on local Spanish civil authorities, and on Merida’s alcalde (mayor) to investigate, while putting together an investigating team that included halac huinics, or indigenous leaders.

Pic 10: Heartbreaking times... contemporary mural
Pic 10: Heartbreaking times... contemporary mural (Click on image to enlarge)

Also attending as “ordinary inquisitors” for the Holy Inquisition, were friars Miguel de la Puebla, Juan Picarro, Pedro de Ciudad Rodrigo, Antonio Verdugo and Francisco Aparicio (de Landa - Documento Uno, 1959/147). Once on site, the team proceeded to brutally question the people of Mani, and those of nearby villages about this hidden place of forbidden worship. Under extreme duress, some of them confessed even when they did not know what they were confessing about, while others in desperation committed suicide. Many people were burned in their thatched houses, others were flogged, and still others were hung from trees, while young children were hanging from their mother’s ankles.

Pic 11: The other face of the conquest... mural by Diego Rivera
Pic 11: The other face of the conquest... mural by Diego Rivera (Click on image to enlarge)

That there were unconscionable methods used by the friars to denounce the “worship of evil”, and identify priest-shamans, community leaders, and people that ministered to the forbidden ceremonies, there is no doubt. Was it any different from what went on in sixteenth century Spain? No. Locally, even the encomenderos, other colonists and Spanish residents were horrified by what happened at Mani. Let us then shed light on the limited, and at times contradictory, record we have of the Mani “act of faith” or public burning, that took place on July 12, 1562, to understand what this event was truly about.

Pic 12: A Ramada
Pic 12: A Ramada (Click on image to enlarge)

Mani was the home of the Tutul-Xiu, the Yucatec Maya dynasty, that moved its capital from Uxmal to Mani in the thirteenth century. The Xiu were the dominant power in western Yucatan after the fall of Mayapan in 1441 and were an important regional player in the new order. Mani hosts an old Franciscan monastery, the Parroquia y Convento de San Miguel Arcángel, founded in 1549. Its architecture was adapted to introduce the indigenous converts to the new faith, with a large open chapel on its north side. The open chancel was covered with an exposed ramada or open shelter, built at right-angles from the building, to protect parishioners from sun and rain.

Pic 13: Parroquia y Convento de San Miguel Arcángel at Mani
Pic 13: Parroquia y Convento de San Miguel Arcángel at Mani (Click on image to enlarge)

Facing the monastery is the large esplanade where the bonfires of the auto-da-fé or “act of faith” were placed. The so called “codices” burnt at Mani, Sotuta, and other locations were not in any way, shape or function related to the better known post-Classic codices. The Spanish called them “books” because they did not know what else to call them. They were in fact, canvases mostly consisting of a single sheet of varying size, and locally made from local material, such as the light color dried bark of trees (the wild fig tree amate or Ficus glabrata for example) soaked and dried, fashioned into thin mats made of woven plant fibers covered with finely ground limestone.

Pic 14: Anger in the underworld...
Pic 14: Anger in the underworld... (Click on image to enlarge)

The records of country folks were simple motifs related to community and family. They drew their homestead on crude local maps with their milpa or maize fields, among others. The number of canvases burnt that day at Mani is disputed, but estimates may have been less than a hundred. In his Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, de Landa tells us about the sorrow and grief of the local people at their destruction: “We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.”

Pic 15: Maya glyphs
Pic 15: Maya glyphs (Click on image to enlarge)

The reason for the limited number of canvases lies in the fact that they were mostly used by halac huinics or lineage heads, the “true righteous men” and principals, while most people were illiterate. Family heads, however, knew enough to record their lineage and a rough description of their property’s location and homestead. Of note is the fact that the glyphs used on the burnt canvases were not the ones of Classic times, for the glyphs on ancient stone stelas could not be read by sixteenth century Mayas. These records were important, for they succinctly described information such as the cycles of the sun and moon in line with agrarian cycles, numbering structure and concomitant religious association.

Pic 16: Ancestor watching...
Pic 16: Ancestor watching... (Click on image to enlarge)

They also recorded secular information on villages, families, water rights and properties. Furthermore, de Landa stresses that several thousand wood artifacts, and small bundles called bultos that contained remains of deified ancestors represented most of the items burned. Also burned were hundreds of small humanlike shaped clay figurines. The question then is, if there were a relatively limited number of canvases, were they the only reason why the friars insisted that they be destroyed, or were the wood figurines with ashes of selected forebears, the real target of the “act of faith”?

Pic 17: Punuk wood figurine
Pic 17: Punuk wood figurine (Click on image to enlarge)

From time immemorial to our days, the record of ancestors’ predominance in social groups worldwide, is at the core of ancient spirituality, silent testimony of filiation to ancestry and patrimony. Figurines representative of ancestors made of wood were especially revered because they were carved to resemble human figurines. De Landa’s description of the process is as follows: “…the people of position made for their deceased fathers wooden figurines of which the back of the head was left hollow; they then burned a part of the body and placed its ashes there, then plugged it up; …and buried the rest…then preserved these statues with a great deal of veneration among their idols.”

Pic 18: Aztec sacred bundle carriers
Pic 18: Aztec sacred bundle carriers (Click on image to enlarge)

Freedman corroborates the pattern that ancestor veneration is a selective process and does not extend equally to all deceased progenitors (1966). The Punuk (Esquimo) wood figurine is the closest to those of 16th century Yucatan, for none from that time have been found to date. The bundle tradition of carrying tutelar gods and ancestors’ remains, especially on migration, can be traced as far back as the Olmec culture (2,500BC), through Maya and Aztec times, as well as in most present-day cultures of the Americas.

Pic 19: Command and control...
Pic 19: Command and control... (Click on image to enlarge)

These wood and clay representations of ancestors were important family heirlooms, so much so that they were integral to the descendants’ inheritance. They were intangible witness of the family belonging to that ethno-linguistic community, with all the rights attached to household and land. Together with the canvases they were the family seals of property. The foreign priests did not (or did they?), understand the significance of what they called superstition and idolatry when they burned these “idols.” By destroying these articles, they literally ripped the peoples’ identity, their standing in the community and “title” to their land and property.

Pic 20: Imploring ancestors... (detail from Diego Rivera mural)
Pic 20: Imploring ancestors... (detail from Diego Rivera mural) (Click on image to enlarge)

The facts, therefore, demand that the importance of how and why ancestors fitted into the economy and the daily lives of families be raised, because ancestral traditions lie at the root of this tragedy. As in traditional Maya communities today, each maize field holds a foundation shrine dedicated to deified ancestors who left land and other resources to their descendants. At these sites, prayers and incantations take place at each planting-harvesting cycle, and at dedicated times throughout the year. Ruth Bunzel (1982/95), noted that ancestors are the former owners of the house and land…therefore… one lives upon the land by their grace one does not own… since it is merely loaned to one as a lodging in the world.

Picture sources and bibliography follow in Part 2...

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 30th 2020

Read Part 2...

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