Mention the Mayan civilization and you probably think of strange celestial calendars carved in stone, Meso-American pyramids and human sacrifice. You probably wouldn’t think about an ancient library book. Well, the gringa says, “Think again.” And what scholars have translated from the pages of this 17th century Mayan book might have a plan of strategy for those Americans engaged in the Trump resistance of today. Who knew?!
During the time the manuscript was written, European colonialism and Christian religious oppression was in full swing over the indigenous people of pre-Columbia America. Although the entire manuscript is comprised of entries by different authors, it does open a very revealing window to how the influence of Pope Urban IV affected the Mayans.
The manuscript itself is a map of linguistic evolution. Four different languages are represented. It would be only natural to find Latin and Spanish. But two native tongues of the Mayan Empire, K’iche’ and Kaqchikel, are also part of this written record.
The K’iche’ language was already thousands of years old by the time European invaders arrived. But the K’iche’ dialect was what was commonly spoken between the Spanish speaking Europeans and the Mayans. Even today K’iche’ is still used in parts of Guatemala and Mexico by more than one million people, although the influence of Spanish and Latin can be detected in the most current versions. Thousands of immigrants to the United States also speak this ancient language.
The existence of this language into the modern age is a testament to a people who vehemently resisted the Catholic Church’s attempts to convert them and the efforts of Europeans to assimilate them. K’iche’ eventually lost status as an official language in Guatamala. Priests tried to convert Mayans through catechisms and confessionals performed in Latin and Spanish. But the Mayans wanted none of it.
By refusing to assimilate to European customs and the Catholic religion, Mayans were able to preserve their culture. They defended their beliefs by adapting certain elements of their public spaces. This compromise, a public recognition of the political and cultural sovereignty of the Europeans and the Catholic Church, created a buffer, allowing the resistance to live wholly Mayan in private, unmolested.
The religion practiced by the K’iche’ speaking Mayans evolved over time. It eventually became a hybrid with indigenous and Christian elements easily recognizable in their tenets, documents and art.
One example is the most fundamental concept of sin in Christianity. No such concept existed within Mayan beliefs. Dominican missionaries introduced the concept through a play on words. The K’iche’ word “mak” literally translates “will”, as in personal desire or impulse. The missionaries used the idea of personal impulse to illustrate sin because man is not to follow his own impulse but, rather, the will of god.
Even today, when visiting a Catholic church in Guatamala one will find a very different religious environment than a traditional Catholic setting. The effectiveness of the Mayan religion was a heritage that has reached far, even into our own current era.
To satisfy the Church that they were being compliant, the K’iche’ speaking Maya simply picked and chose the elements of Catholicism that seemed interesting or agreeable. Visiting Catholic officials would see an amalgamation of rites and rituals, many they easily recognized, and would go away satisfied. It was a resistance perpetrated through appearing to appease the oppressor.
Many people, especially Catholics, prefer to visualize the Catholic Church for its many charitable works it performs today. It is easier on the Catholic conscience to overlook the history of cruelty and brutality. But the reality of violent measures to mandate conversions are the reason the Church was met with such virulent resistance. Who wants to love and serve a god who is represented by something like that?
And it wasn’t just a cruel example of god that turned off the Mayans. The Europeans enslaved them. They, a proud, free and dignified people, a wealthy empire that had built massive monuments were forced into labor, slaves for their invaders. To refuse to serve their taskmasters and worship their overlord’s god often meant imprisonment, torture and, eventually, death.
Although the need for a slave class prevented the physical genocide of the Mayans, a cultural genocide was attempted as a means to force their religious conversion. Prized artifacts and relics were destroyed. Sacred shrines desecrated and razed to the ground. Any written text burned. So, it isn’t that ancient Meso-Americans intelligent enough to build pyramids were illiterate. It’s that their conquerors were effective book-burners. But one amazing book escaped their fires.
If you want to see it in person, it can be perused at the National Museum of History. Or, a digital version can be enjoyed online.
Image Credit: Smithsonian
Video Credit: SmithsonianNMAI