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FRIAR DIEGO DE LANDA — YUCATAN BEFORE AND AFTER THE CONQUEST — 1566–1937–20169

This book is essential if you are interested in the Mayas, but you must keep in mind that the author was not able to know what Maya country was before the conquest because he only arrived there after smallpox and other diseases had decimated the population and the civilization. He is only giving information he got second-hand, but it is important to consider what he has to say. The second remark is the fact that he was responsible for the burning of all books and other written documents he could find and seize. He destroyed hundreds and probably thousands of such codices and today only four have escaped this fate. So his opinion on the religious practices of the Mayas, including what he says about their sacrificial rituals has to be taken with a grain of salt as something he puts forward to justify what he did himself which was plain cultural genocide.

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Now this book solves a couple of questions. First of all, the buildings are oriented on the four cardinal points but not the angles of the pyramids or other palaces, but the sides of the square pyramids and all other buildings.

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He insists on the cruelty of the Spaniards. Let’s just quote some of these cruel treatments: “… burning them alive with the greatest inhumanity in the world… a captain had hung many women with their infant children hung from their feet… hung two Indian women, one maiden and the other recently married, for no other crime than their beauty… fearing a disturbance among the soldiers … cutting off their noses, hands, arms, and legs, and the breasts of their women; throwing them into deep water with gourds tied to their feet, thrusting the children with spears because they could not go as fast as their mothers… cut off their heads…” and he says what sounds like some understatement: “resulting in the reduction of the population.” (page24–25) And remember that was after the smallpox-et-al pandemic.

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He insists too on the cruelty of the Mayas with themselves, with the Mayas. “… they made sacrifices of human beings as easily as they did of birds, and as often as their accursed priests or the chilanes said it was necessary, or as it was the whim or will of their chiefs…” (page 91) But we must keep in mind once again that he never witnessed what it was before the conquest and there were two difficulties for him to get reliable information: first it was only second hand about a past that did not exist anymore; second he speaks of the books but he has had them all destroyed and thus cannot rely on them accurately; third we can also think there might have been a problem with the language since he apparently did not really understand or read the language and he probably relied on translators like Cortes relied on La Malinche for translating and communicating with the Aztek and other tribes.

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But what he says on the clothing, arts and music, dancing and festivities is interesting, though of course, he could not say what it was before the conquest without the distorting nostalgia of his informers.

But what he says about language is more than interesting since it is from this that Knorozov actually was able to crack this glyphic written language. Diego de Landa tried to break the alphabet of this language and he did not really understand that his informers were giving him words starting with the sound he was looking for. Page 60, he writes: “The letters are as follows, each with its name above to understand their correlation with ours.” And the list of glyphs he gives is the list of the twenty days of the Tzolkin calendar with their names above. But these names are the names of the days not of the letters because the glyphs are not letters but in this case full words. And he is very consistent and persistent on the point. Note by the way many illustrations are added by the modern editor because Diego de Landa could not really use or refer to the Dresden Codex since for him it did not exist anymore (he burned them all, remember) and he did not even know the city of Dresden. The illustrations are thus not very clear if they are original or added for this modern edition.

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But the most important passage is page 83 with the facsimile of one page of Diego de Landa’s manuscript with his proposed alphabet, and he actually says just before: “They also wrote in syllables.” (page 83) It is not “also”: it is “always” the case. Their phonetic writing, when it is phonetic, is always a syllabary and not an alphabet. Yet, we can rather easily recognize some of the glyphs he gives that are properly linked to a sound or a syllable, and we can find the T-numbers of some of them rather easily. For example, “ku” that should be “k’u” is T604, and close to the glyph Montgomery gives page 155 of his Maya Dictionary. In the same way, “u” can be seen as T1, Montgomery page 253. The two “b” glyphs are in fact “be” or T301, Montgomery page 43 (the road, the footprint), and “bi” or T585, Montgomery page 43 (the Quincunx).

To conclude here, I must say that what he says about the architecture and the buildings is important because at the time they were still standing, at least some of them and had not been repossessed by the tropical forest. Today we enjoy what has been excavated and restored or at least consolidated and preserved. But the four centuries that have elapsed since this 16th century have certainly not improved the state of repairs of most buildings. And that’s why it is interesting to read this testimony from 1566.

Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU

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Written by

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, PhD in Germanic Linguistics (University Lille III) and ESP Teaching (University Bordeaux II) has been teaching all types of ESP

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