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.


         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.


        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.


Depictions of the Moon Goddess in Maya Vases

        Differences in style and content between two Maya vases– Kerr 559 and Kerr K2733- will be  analyzed in this post.  A focus on the moon goddess Ix Chel in each vase’s imagery reveals multiple attributes of the deity.  On Kerr 559 Ix Chel alludes to fertility, and on Kerr K2733 the lovely deity is reminiscent of her sexuality and promiscuity.

ImageKerr 559 (above) is located at the Museum of Fine Arts at Boston as, “Moon Goddess giving birth to rabbit. Goddess O helps the rabbit nurse.” The polychrome vase’s dimensions are a height of seventeen centimeters, a diameter of ten and one half centimeters, and a circumference of about thirty-three centimeters.  The vase is in good condition except for a few minor surface scratches.

Image  Kerr K2733 (above) is located at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  Like Kerr 559, this vase is also polychrome except Kerr K2733 is a few inches larger all around.  The vase has a height of fifteen and one half centimeters, a diameter of fifteen centimeters and a circumference of about forty-nine centimeters.  The damage and erosion on the vessel is extensive, making it necessary to include a sketch of the surface detail.

Repetition in both vases is used to create unity.  Kerr K2733 has a series of three large circular forms seen in the far left figure, and serpent’s body loops to the center and right.  The undulating form of the vision serpent throughout the composition is similar to the repetition of deities in Kerr 559.  There is an equal amount of space between each figure creating equal distances of order and harmony in Kerr 559.  Instead of cluttering the scene with glyphs and iconography the artist(s) chose to create an orderly scene that was easily read.  On each vase the eyes are guided smoothly along the composition despite differences in their use of repetition.

The proportions and naturalism in each vase are different.  Kerr 559 has realistic proportions, except for the rabbit that is idealized and contrasts starkly with the realistic proportions of the deity and midwife. It is possible the artist did not wish to place emphasis on the rodent.  The rabbit’s limbs are more human than rabbit, and his eyes are simple circles, which stand out from the realistic human figures and elegant proportions. Differences in realism between figures on Kerr 559 indicates more than one artist was at work on this vase.  The imagery on Kerr K2733 is detailed but less naturalistic.  Kerr KS733’s subject matter has an effect on the degree of naturalism and realism seen in the imagery.  The artist spent no time worrying about proportion- the anthropomorphic creature under the vision serpent is much larger than the moon goddess, indicating the world painted here is not of this realm. 

Ix Chel can be seen in both vases accompanied by her rabbit.  In Kerr 559 the moon goddess is giving birth to the rabbit in the scene to the left, and in the subsequent scene she is holding the rabbit on her lap while facing goddess O, helping goddess O nurse the newborn rabbit.  The focal point of the composition is the Moon Goddess, since she has the darkest coloring and appears more than once.  In Kerr K2733, Ix Chel and her rabbit are tangled between a loop of the celestial monster, and she is sitting on a crescent moon.  There are three other loops on the celestial monster that have images of deities in each, but the moon goddess stands out from the scene.  Her poised and carefully drawn figure contrast with the cluttered and organic imagery surrounding her.  The emphasis placed on Ix Chel and the rabbit in both vases indicates the importance of the moon goddess to the Maya.

There are stark differences in the style of the vases.  Kerr 559 is a logical, narrative scene, while Kerr K2733 is abstracted and ambiguous.  Kerr Number 559 has two separate scenes, clearly separated by the chair, or throne, in the center of the image: the birth scene, and the nursery scene.  In comparison, Kerr K2733 has no beginning or end, and “Neither was it intended to be narrative or instructive; rather, the image functions to transform an ordinary container into an object that focuses power through ritual.  It is addressed not to a human user, but to the gods called forth in ritual” (Schele).  The stylistic differences indicate a difference in usage and ownership. 

Due to the complex imagery on Kerr K2733 Linda Schele has commented on it in her book Blood of Kings.  Kerr K2733 is associated with ritual, indicating the ownership was that of priests and ritual enactors.  The cluttered, unrealistic imagery is depicting the Maya underworld of Xibalba, and therefore does not need to be understood by humans (Schele).  The celestial monster that spans the length of the vase guides the eye flowing throughout the image, surrounding multiple deities.  There is no clear focal point within the scene, enabling the viewer to focus on the aesthetically pleasing organic lines and shapes.  In contrast, Kerr 559 is clearly showing a connection to fertility, birth and childcare. Kerr 559 also has celestial imagery but the artist chose to focus on Ix Chel and not a multitude of characters.

Due to the excellent physical condition of the piece, I believe Kerr 559 was kept in a domestic setting such as a house or a form of nursery.  The potential of the vase being kept and used in a domestic context such as a nursery may allude to Maya childcare norms. The narrative scene on the vase denotes that Maya women, of elite status, kept midwives to care for their infants and children.  The narrative also indicates the vase’s production purpose as an expectant mother’s gift or newly born child’s gift. 

The moon goddess symbolizes fertility and childbirth in Kerr 559, but she has other attributes not indicated by this vase.  The moon goddess also alludes to a variety of things like weaving, creation and destruction, disease, and sexual promiscuity (Sigal).  In Kerr K2733 the moon goddess is representing sexuality, and not strictly maternal attributes as in Kerr 559. The organic lines surrounding the moon goddess in Kerr K2733 exude sensuality. Male deities placed around the moon goddess within the loops of the vision serpent conjure ideas of promiscuity.  Further, the sun god was her husband, and is among the convolution of deities in this image (Schele).  

The celestial imagery on each vase is both formally beautiful and alludes to the moon goddess and her rabbit.  When viewing both vases different attributes of the moon goddess are shown: fertility on Kerr 559 and sexuality on Kerr K2733.  The artists that made these vases represent different perceptions of beauty, style and technique among the Maya. The differences between depicting the same deity indicate room for experimentation and new ideas about what was beautiful among the ancient Maya.  Further, the contrasting imagery of the same deity, Ix Chel, on each vessel indicates the multifaceted characteristics of deities prevalent in Maya religious beliefs. 

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.