culture

An Account of the Things of Yucatan by Diego De Landa

       Fray Diego De Landa’s Account of the Things of Yucatan was written between the years 1563 and 1572, shortly after the end of the Spanish conquest.  The text can be described as a complete record of Maya culture.  Now a controversial figure in history, De Landa was a Franciscan friar who arrived after the conquest and was responsible for bringing Catholicism to the Yucatan civilizations.  He violently imposed his beliefs onto the indigenous Maya and publicly destroyed thousands of Maya manuscripts.  In 1562 he held the infamously vicious auto-da-fe, which led to his return to Spain where he was forced to defend himself against the Council of the Indies for unwarranted violence and going beyond his authority. His condemnation by the council led him to write the Account of the Things of Yucatan through which he defended his actions by cataloging everything he could remember about the Maya.

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         De Landa begins his account with a description of the region of the Yucatan, including geographic information and a map, and the ancient history and information from before and after the Spanish conquest.  He continues with Maya residential living, clothing, food, drink, agriculture, seeds, trade, currency, genealogy, mathematics and number systems, marriage, inheritance, childcare, priests’ duties, sacrifices, skull modification, self-mutilation, sciences, festivals, and feasts.  War, military practices and leaders, punishments for criminals, education, women’s’ chastity, death, funerals, and the afterlife are also described.

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        He continues with the Maya year count and its deity associations and the Maya calendar’s century. He also describes the sacrifices corresponding to each year in the calendar in great detail.  The flora, fauna, water sources, fish, snakes, poisonous animals, bees, birds, large and small animals and soils of the region are also discussed.  The following passage from Yucatan Before and After the Conquest by Diego De Landa describes auto-sacrifice in Maya culture:

At other times they practice a filthy and grievous sacrifice, whereby they gathered in the temple, in a line, and each made a pierced hole through the member, across from side to side, and then passed through as great a quantity of cord as they could stand; and thus all together fastened and strung together, they anointed the statue of the demon with the collected blood. The one able to endure the most was considered valiant, and their songs of tender age began to accustom themselves to this suffering; it is frightful to see how much they were dedicated to this practice. (De Landa 47-48)

The passage shows the descriptiveness of De Landa’s account as well as the bias and defense he utilizes through his writings.  De Landa describes the ritual from a sixteenth century European stand point by exaggerating the bloodshed and worship of “demons,” instead of attempting to understand the religious devotion the Maya had. He is offering his experience as alleged evidence in defense of his violent actions towards his brutal treatment and torture of the Maya, as he explains his fear towards their dedication to auto-sacrifice.

            Although De Landa’s account is considered a primary source for understanding Maya culture and religion, one cannot forget the biases the writer inexorably held.  As a result of De Landa’s actions, the once booming Maya civilization is now understood by many modern people as lost or forgotten.

Codex Ixtlilxochitl

ImageCodex Ixtlilxochitl

European Paper Manuscript, Early 17th century Image

            The Codex Ixtlilxochitl is a combination of fragments linked to Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, a seventeenth century historian and successor of the leaders of a pre-Columbian city Texcoco. Previously the codex was in three distinct parts. The third segment is believed to be in Ixtlilxochitl’s writing, yet there is disagreement over who assembled the codex, as it has been passed among numerous owners.  The Codex Ixtlilxochitl was obtained from the same source as the Codex Magliabechiano. 

            The subject of the Codex Ixtlilxochitl shows a calendar of yearly rituals performed by the Aztecs throughout their calendrical year. A specific deity or other Aztec figure represents every one of the eighteen months illustrated in the codex. Aztec religion, like most Mesoamerican cultures, had a cyclic nature dependent upon calendrical practices and rituals.  The first section dates from around 1600, and is recognized as a reproduction of a portion of an early cultural index reflecting Aztec rituals.  Eighteen monthly feasts are illustrated and expressed in Spanish, along with two distinct, vibrant images of Quetzalcoatl, and two funeral rites.  The second segment is Juan Bautista Pomar’s (a descendant of Tetzcocan sovereigns) rendition of Aztec gods and other components of their traditions.  Four complete portraits of Tetzcocan lords, Tlaloc (the Aztec water god/top right image), and a depiction of Tetzcoco’s Templo Mayor are illustrated.  The third and final fragment of the Codex Ixtlilxochitl is a literary rendition of the Aztec calendar.

            The Codex Ixtlilxochitl is written in Spanish, contained on twenty-seven sheets of European paper, and accompanied by twenty-nine visual aids. Reflecting the early colonial artistic style of New Spain at the time of its production, this work combines Spanish script with Aztec imagery. The style and medium of the codex are of European influence, but the subject matter is focused on the Aztec past. A page of the codex depicting a priest in the guise of Tlaloc dressed in imperial clothing reflects the colonial artistic notion of transculturation.  The figure of Tlaloc is standing in European contrapposto and has three-dimensional shading characteristic of European art, yet is adorned with Aztec ornaments and dress.

            The existence of the Codex Ixtlilxochitl demonstrates the transculturation occurring between Europeans, mestizos (mixed) and indigenous people in the seventeenth century. This codex serves as a cultural translator in a sense, making the Aztec calendrical rituals more comprehensible to Europeans, and giving a face to prominent Aztec deities.  The desire by Europeans to understand Aztec culture and not simply obliterate it is made clear in this assemblage of work.  The history of multiple owners and creators adds to the historical essence of the Codex Ixtlilxochitl, making this work a representation of Aztec culture from many standpoints.