« Winifred Maxwell Maya Indians Christian Mayer »

Maya Indians

Maya Indians

The most important of the cultured native peoples of North America, both in the degree of their civilization and in population and resources, formerly occupying a territory of about 60,000 square miles, including the whole of the peninsula of Yucatan, Southern Mexico, together with the adjacent portion of Northern Guatemala, and still constituting the principal population of the same region outside of the larger cities. Their language, which is actually supplanting Spanish to a great extent, is still spoken by about 300,000 persons, of whom two-thirds are pure Maya, the remainder being whites and of mixed blood. The Mayan linguistic stock includes some twenty tribes, speaking closely related dialects, and (excepting the Huastec of northern Vera Cruz and south-east San Luis Potosi, Mexico) occupying contiguous territory in Tabasco, Chiapas, and the Yucatan peninsula, a large part of Guatemala, and smaller portion of Honduras and Salvador. The ancient builders of the ruined cities of Palenque and Copan were of the same stock. The most important tribes or nations, after the Maya proper, were the Quiche and Cakchiquel of Guatemala. All the tribes of this stock were of high culture, the Mayan civilization being the most advanced and probably the most ancient, in aboriginal North America. They still number altogether about two million souls.


The Maya proper seem to have entered Yucatan from the west. As usual with ancient nations, it is difficult in the beginning to separate myth from history, their earliest mentioned leader and deified hero, Itzamná, being considered by Brinton to be simply the sun-god common to the whole Mayan stock. He is represented as having led the first migration from the Far East, beyond the ocean, along a pathway miraculously opened through the waters. The second migration, which seems to have been historic, was led from the west by Kukulcan, a miraculous priest and teacher, who became the founder of the Maya kingdom and civilization. Fairly good authority, based upon study of the Maya chronicles and calendar, places this beginning near the close of the second century of the Christian Era. Under Kukulcan the people were divided into four tribes, ruled by as many kingly families: the Cocom, Tutul-xiu, Itzá and Chelé. To the first family belonged Kukulcan himself, who established his residence at Mayapan, which thus became the capital of the whole nation. The Tutul-xiu held vassal rule at Uxmal, the Itzá at Chichen-Itzá, and the Chelé at Izamal. To the Chelé was appointed the hereditary high priesthood, and their city became the sacred city of the Maya. Each provincial king was obliged to spend a part of each year with the monarch at Mayapan. This condition continued down to about the eleventh century, when, as the result of a successful revolt of the provincial kings, Mayapan was destroyed, and the supreme rule passed to the Tutul-xiu at Uxmal. Later on Mayapan was rebuilt and was again the capital of the nation until about the middle of the fifteenth century, when, in consequence of a general revolt against the reigning dynasty, it was finally destroyed, and the monarchy was split up into a number of independent petty states, of which eighteen existed on the peninsula at the arrival of the Spaniards. In consequence of this civil war a part of the Itzá emigrated south to Lake Petén, in Guatemala, where they established a kingdom with their capital and sacred city of Flores Island, in the lake.

On his second voyage Columbus heard of Yucatan as a distant country of clothed men. On his fifth voyage (1503-04) he encountered, south-west of Cuba, a canoe-load of Indians with cotton clothing for barter, who said that they came from the country of Maya. In 1506 Pinzon sighted the coast, and in 1511 twenty men under Valdivia were wrecked on the shores of the sacred island of Cozumel, several being captured and sacrificed to the idols. In 1517 an expedition under Francisco de Cordova landed on the north coast, discovering well-built cities, but, after several bloody engagements with the natives, was compelled to retire. Father Alonso Gonzalez, who accompanied this expedition, found opportunity at one landing to explore a temple, and bring off some of the sacred images and gold ornaments. In 1518 a strong expedition under Juan de Grijalva, from Cuba, landed near Cozumel and took formal possession for Spain. For Father Juan Diaz, who on this occasion celebrated Mass upon the summit of one of the heathen temples, the honour is also claimed of having afterwards been the first to celebrate mass in the City of Mexico. Near Cozumel, also, was rescued the young monk Aguilar, one of the two survivors of Valdivia's party, who, though naked to the breech-cloth, still carried his Breviary in a pouch. Proceeding northwards, Grijaba made the entire circuit of the peninsula before returning, having had another desperate engagement with the Maya near Campeche. After the conquest of Mexico in 1521, Francisco de Montejo, under commission as Governor of Yucatan, landed (1527) to effect the conquest of the country, but met with such desperate resistance that after eight years of incessant fighting every Spaniard had been driven out. In 1540, after two more years of the same desperate warfare, his son Francisco established the first Spanish settlement at Campeche. In the next year, in a bloody battle at Tihoo, he completely broke the power of Maya resistance, and a few months later (Jan., 1542) founded on the site of the ruined city the new capital, Mérida. In 1546, however, there was a general revolt, and it was not until a year later that the conquest was assured.

In the original commission to Montejo it had been expressly stipulated that missionaries should accompany all his expeditions. This, however, he had neglected to attend to, and in 1531 (or 1534), by special order, Father Jacobo de Testera and four others were sent to join the Spanish camp near Campeche. They met a kindly welcome from the Indians, who came with their children to be instructed, and thus the conquest of the country might have been effected through spiritual agencies but for the outrages committed by a band of Spanish outlaws, in consequence of which the priests were forced to withdraw. In 1537 five more missionaries arrived and met the same willing reception, remaining about two years in spite of the war still in progress. About 1545 a large number of missionaries were sent over from Spain. Several of these—apparently nine, all Franciscans—under the direction of Father Luis de Villalpando, were assigned to Yucatan. Landing at Campeche, the governor explained their purpose to the chiefs, the convent of St. Francis was dedicated on its present site, and translations were begun into the native language. The first baptized convert was the chief of Campeche, who learned Spanish and thereafter acted as interpreter for the priests.

Here, as elsewhere, the missionaries were the champions of the rights of the Indians. In consequence of their repeated protests a royal edict was issued, in 1549, prohibiting Indian slavery in the province, while promising compensation to the slave owners. As in other cases, local opposition defeated the purpose of this law; but the agitation went on, and in 1551 another royal edict liberated 150,000 male Indian slaves, with their families, throughout Mexico. In 1557 and 1558 the Crown intervened to restrain the tyranny of the native chiefs. Within a very short time Father Villalpando had at his mission station at Mérida over a thousand converts, including several chiefs. He himself, with Father Malchior de Benavente, then set out, barefoot, for the city of Mani in the mountains farther south, where their success was so great that two thousand converts were soon engaged in building them a church and dwelling. All went well until they began to plead with the chiefs to release their vassals from certain hard conditions, when the chiefs resolved to burn them at the altar. On the appointed night the chiefs and their retainers approached the church with this design, but were awed from their purpose on finding the two priests, who had been warned by an Indian boy, calmly praying before the crucifix. After remaining all night in prayer, the fathers were fortunately rescued by a Spanish detachment which, almost miraculously, chanced to pass that way. Twenty-seven of the conspirators were afterwards seized and condemned to death, but were all saved by the interposition of Villalpando. In 1548-49 other missionaries arrived from Spain, Villalpando was made custodian of the province, and a convent was erected near the site of his chapel at Mani. The Yucatan field having been assigned to the Franciscans, all the missionary work among the Maya was done by priests of that order.

In 1561 Yucatan was made a diocese with its see at Mérida. In the next year the famous Diego de Landa, Franciscan provincial, and afterwards bishop (1573-79), becoming aware that the natives throughout the peninsula still secretly cherished their ancient rites, instituted an investigation, which he conducted with such cruelties of torture and death that the proceedings were stopped by order of Bishop Toral Franciscan provincial of Mexico, immediately upon his arrival, during the same summer, to occupy the See of Mérida. Before this could be done, however, there had been destroyed, as is asserted, two million sacred images and hundreds of hieroglyphic manuscripts—practically the whole of the voluminous native Maya literature. As late as 1586 a royal edict was issued for the suppression of idolatry. In 1575-77 a terrible visitation of a mysterious disease, called matlalzahuatl, which attacked only the Indians, swept over Southern Mexico and Yucatan, destroying, as was estimated, over two million lives. This was its fourth appearance since the conquest. At its close it was estimated that the whole Indian population of Mexico had been reduced to about 1,700,000 souls. In 1583 and 1597 there were local revolts under chiefs of the ancient Cocom royal family. By this latter date it was estimated that the native population of Mexico had declined by three-fourths since the discovery, through massacre, famine, disease, and oppression. Up to 1593 over 150 Franciscan monks had been engaged in missionary work in Yucatan.

The Maya history of the seventeenth century is chiefly one of revolts, viz., 1610-33, 1636-44, 1653, 1669, 1670, and about 1675. Of all these, that of 1636-44 was the most extensive and serious, resulting in a temporary revival of the old heathen rites. In 1697 the island capital of the Itzá, in Lake Petén, Guatemala, was stormed by Governor Martín de Ursua, and with it fell the last stronghold of the independent Maya. Here, also, the manuscripts discovered were destroyed. In 1728 Bishop Juan Gomez Parada died, beloved by the Indians for the laws which he had procured mitigating the harshness of their servitude. The reimposition of the former hard conditions brought about another revolt in 1761, led by the chief Jacinto Canek, and ending, as usual, in the defeat of the Indians, the destruction of their chief stronghold, and the death of their leader under horrible torture.

In 1847, taking advantage of the Government's difficulties with the United States, and urged on by their "unappeasable hatred toward their ruler from the earliest time of the Spanish conquest", the Maya again broke out in general rebellion, with the declared purpose of driving all the whites, half-breeds and negroes from the peninsula, in which they were so far successful that all the fugitives who escaped the wholesale massacres fled to the coast, whence most of them were taken off by ships from Cuba. Arms and ammunition for the rising were freely supplied to the Indians by the British traders of Belize. In 1851 the rebel Maya established their headquarters at Chan-Santa-Cruz in the eastern part of the peninsula. In 1853 it seemed as if a temporary understanding had been reached, but next year hostilities began again. Two expeditions against the Maya stronghold were repulsed, Valladolid was besieged by the Indians, Yecax taken, and more than two thousand whites massacred. In 1860 the Mexican Colonel Acereto, with 3,000 men occupied Chan-Santa-Cruz, but was finally compelled to retire with the loss of 1,500 men killed, and to abandon his wounded—who were all butchered—as well as his artillery and supplies and all but a few hundred stand of small arms. The Indians burned and ravaged in every direction, nineteen flourishing towns being entirely wiped out, and the population in three districts being reduced from 97,000 to 35,000. The war of extermination continued, with savage atrocities, through 1864, when it gradually wore itself out, leaving the Indians still unsubdued and well supplied with arms and munitions of war from Belize. In 1868 it broke out again in resistance to the Juarez government. In 1871 a Mexican force again occupied Chan-Santa-Cruz, but retired without producing any permanent result. In 1901, after long preparation, a strong Mexican force invaded the territory of the independent Maya both by land and sea, stormed Chan-Santa-Cruz and, after determined resistance, drove the defenders into the swamps. The end is not yet, however, for, even in this year of 1910, Mexican troops are in the field to put down a serious rising in the northern part of the peninsula.


Under the ancient system, the Maya Government was an hereditary absolute monarchy, with a close union of the spiritual and temporal elements, the hereditary high priest, who was also king of the sacred city of Izamal, being consulted by the monarch on all important matters, besides having the care of ritual and ceremonials. On public occasions the king appeared dressed in flowing white robes, decorated with gold and precious stones, wearing on his head a golden circlet decorated with the beautiful quetzal plumes reserved for royalty, and borne upon a canopied palanquin. The provincial governors were nobles of the four royal families, and were supreme within their own governments. The rulers of towns and villages formed a lower order of nobility, not of royal blood. The king usually acted on the advice of a council of lords and priests. The lords alone were military commanders, and each lord and inferior official had for his support the produce of a certain portion of land which was cultivated in common by the people. They received no salary, and each was responsible for the maintenance of the poor and helpless of his district. The lower priesthood was not hereditary, but was appointed through the high priest. There was also a female priesthood, or vestal order, whose head was a princess of royal blood. The plebeians were farmers, artisans, or merchants; they paid taxes and military service, and each had his interest in the common land as well as his individual portion, which descended in the family and could not be alienated. Slaves also existed, the slaves being chiefly prisoners of war and their children, the latter of whom could become freemen by putting a new piece of unoccupied ground under cultivation. Society was organized upon the clan system, with descent in the male line, the chiefs being rather custodians for the tribe than owners, and having no power to alienate the tribal lands. Game, fish, and the salt marshes were free to all, with a certain portion to the lords. Taxes were paid in kind through authorized collectors. On the death of the owner, the property was divided equally among his nearest male heirs.

The more important cases were tried by a royal council presided over by the king, and lesser cases by the provincial rulers or local judges, according to their importance, usually with the assistance of a council and with an advocate for the defense. Crimes were punished with death—frequently by throwing over a precipice— enslavement, fines, or rarely, by imprisonment. The code was merciful, and even murder could sometimes be compounded by a fine. Children were subject to parents until of an age to marry, which for boys was about twenty. The children of the common people were trained only in the occupation of their parents, but those of the nobility were highly educated, under the care of the priests, in writing, music, history, war, and religion. The daughters of nobles were strictly secluded, and the older boys in each village lived and slept apart in a public building. Birthdays and other anniversaries were the occasions of family feasts.

Marriage between persons of the same gen was forbidden, and those who violated this law were regarded as outcasts. Marriage within certain other degrees of relationship—as with the sister of a deceased wife, or with a mother's sister—was also prohibited. Polygamy was unknown, but concubinage was permitted, and divorce was easy. Marriages were performed by the priests, with much ceremonial rejoicing, and preceded by a solemn confession and a baptismal rite, known as the "rebirth", without which there could be no marriage. No one could marry out of his own rank or without the consent of the chief of the district. Religious ritual was elaborate and imposing, with frequent festival occasions in honour of the gods of the winds, the rain, the cardinal points, the harvest, of birth, death, and war, with special honours to the deified national heroes Itzamná and Kukulcan. The whole country was dotted with temples, usually great stone-built pyramids, while certain places—as the sacred city of Izamal and the island of Cozumel—were places of pilgrimage. There was a special "feast of all the gods". The prevailing mildness of the Maya cult was in strong contrast to the bloody ritual of the Aztec. Human sacrifice was forbidden by Kukulcan, and crept in only in later years. It was never a frequent or prominent feature, excepting at Chichen-Itzá, where it at least became customary, on occasion of some great national crisis, to sacrifice hundreds of voluntary victims of their own race, frequently virgins, by drowning them in one of the subterranean rock wells or cenotes, after which the bodies were drawn out and buried.

The Maya farmer cultivated corn, beans, cacao, chile, maguey, bananas, and cotton, besides giving attention to bees, from which he obtained both honey and wax. Various fermented drinks were prepared from corn, maguey, and honey. They were much given to drunkenness, which was so common as hardly to be considered disgraceful. Chocolate was the favourite drink of the upper classes. Cacao beans, as well as pieces of copper, were a common medium of exchange. Very little meat was eaten, except at ceremonial feasts, although the Maya were expert hunters and fishers. A small "barkless" dog was also eaten. The ordinary garment of men was a cotton breechcloth wrapped around the middle, with sometimes a sleeveless shirt, either white or dyed in colors. The women wore a skirt belted at the waist, and plaited their hair in long tresses. Sandals were worn by both sexes. Tattooing and head-flattening were occasionally practised, and the face and body were always painted. The Maya, then as now, were noted for personal neatness and frequent use of both cold and hot baths. They were expert and determined warriors, using the bow and arrow, the dart with throwing-stick, the wooden sword edged with flints, the lance, sling, copper axe, shield of reeds, and protective armour of heavy quilted cotton. They understood military tactics and signalling with drum and whistle, and knew how to build barricades and dig trenches. Noble prisoners were usually sacrificed to the gods, while those of ordinary rank became slaves. Their object in war was rather to make prisoners than to kill. As the peninsula had no mines, the Maya were without iron or any metal excepting a few copper utensils and gold ornaments imported from other countries. Their tools were almost entirely of flint or other stone, even for the most intricate monumental carving. For household purposes they used clay pottery, dishes of shell, or gourds. Their pottery was of notable excellence, as were also their weaving, dyeing, and feather work. Along the coast they had wooden dugout canoes capable of holding fifty persons.

They had a voluminous literature, covering the whole range of native interests either written, in their own peculiar "calculiform" hieroglyphic characters, in books of maguey paper or parchment which were bound in word, or carved upon the walls of their public buildings. Twenty-seven parchment books were publicly destroyed by Bishop Landa at Mani in 1562, others elsewhere in the peninsula, others again at the storming of the Itzá capital in 1697, and almost all that have come down to us are four codices, as they are called, viz., the "Codex Troano", published at Paris in 1869; another codex apparently connected with the first published at Paris in 1882; the "Codex Peresianus", published at Paris in 1869-71; and the "Dresden Codex", originally mistakenly published as an Aztec book in Kingsborough's great work on the "Antiquities of Mexico" (London, 1830-48). Besides these pre-Spanish writings, of which there is yet no adequate interpretation, we have a number of later works written in the native language by Christianized Maya, shortly after the conquest. Several of these have been brought together by Brinton in his "Maya Chronicles". The intricate calendar system of the Maya, which exceeded in elaboration that of the Aztec, Zapotec, or any other of the cultured native races, has been the subject of much discussion. It was based on a series of katuns, or cycles, consisting of 20 (or 24), 52, and 260 years, and by its means they carried their history down for possibly thirteen centuries, the completion of each lesser katun being noted by the insertion of a memorial stone in the wall of the great temple at Mayapan.

The art in which above all the Maya excelled, and through which they are best known, is architecture. The splendid ruins of temples, pyramids, and great cities—some of which were intact and occupied at the time of the conquest—scattered by scores and hundreds throughout the forests of Yucatan, have been the wonder and admiration of travellers for over half a century, since they were first brought prominently to notice by Stephens. Says Brinton: "The material was usually a hard limestone, which was polished and carved, and imbedded in a firm mortar. Such was also the character of the edifices of the Quiches and Cakchiquels of Guatemala. In view of the fact that none of these masons knew the plumb-line or the square, the accuracy of the adjustments is remarkable. Their efforts at sculpture were equally bold. They did not hesitate to attempt statues in the round of life size and larger, and the façades of the edifices were covered with extensive and intricate designs cut in high relief upon the stones. All this was accomplished without the use of metal tools, as they did not have even the bronze chisels familiar to the Aztecs." The interior walls were also frequently covered with hieroglyphic inscriptions carved in the stone or wood, or painted upon the plaster. Among the most noted of the Maya ruins are those of Palenque (in Chiapas), Uxmal, Chichen-Itzá, and Maypan.

The Maya language has received much attention from missionaries and scientists from an early period. Of grammars the earliest is the "Arte y Vocabulario de la lengua de Yucatan" of Luis de Villalpando, published about 1555. Others of note are "Arte de la Lengua Maya" by Father Gabriel San Buenaventura (Mexico, 1684), and republished by the Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg in volume two of the "Mission Scientifique au Mexique" (Paris, 1870); "Arte de el Idioma Maya" by Father Padro de Santa Rosa Maria Beltran, a native of Yucatan and instructor in the Maya language in the Franciscan convent of Mérida (Mexico, 1746, and Mérida, 1859); "Gramática Yucateca" by Father Joaquin Ruz, of the Franciscan convent of Mérida, also a native of Yucatan and "the most fluent of the writers in the Maya language that Yucatan has produced" (Mérida, 1844), and republished in an English translation by the Baptist missionary, Rev. John Kingdom (Belize, 1847). Each of these writers was also the author of other works in the language.

Of published dictionaries may be mentioned: first and earliest, a "Diccionario", credited to Father Villalpando (Mexico, 1571); then "Diccionario de la Lengua Maya", by Juan Perez (Mérida, 1866-77); and "Dictionnaire, Grammaire at Chrestomathie de la langue Maya", by the Abbé Brasseur de Bourgourg (Paris, 1872). The most valuable dictionaries of the language are still in manuscript. Chief is the one known as the Diccionario del Convento de Motul" from the name of the Franciscan convent in Yucatan in which it was found; it is now in the Carter Brown Library at Providence. It is beautifully written and is supposed to be a copy of an original written by a Franciscan priest, who was evidently a master of the language, about 1590. "In extent the dictionary is not surpassed by that of any aboriginal language of America" (Bartlett). Other manuscript dictionaries are those of the Convent of Mérida (about 1640); and one by the Convent of Ticul (about 1690); and one by the Rev. Alexander Henderson, a Methodist missionary of Belize (1859-66), now the property of the Bureau of American Ethnology. (See also Brinton, "Maya Chronicles", and Maya titles in Pilling, "Bibliography, Proofsheets" (Washington, 1885).)

Physically, the Maya are dark, short, muscular, and broad-headed. Intellectually, they are alert, straight-forward, reliable, of a cheerful disposition, and neat and orderly habits. Their wars with Mexico have been waged, however, with the utmost savagery, the provocation being as great on the other side. Their daily life differs little from that of the ordinary Mexican peasant, their ordinary dwellings being thatched huts, their dress the common white shirt and trousers, with sandals and straw hat, for men, and for women white embroidered skirt and sleeveless gown. They cultivate the ordinary products of the region, including sugar and hennequin hemp, while the independent bands give considerable attention to hunting. While they are all now Catholics, with resident priests in all the towns, that fact in no way softens their animosity toward the conquering race. They still keep up many of their ancient rites, particularly those relating to the planting and harvesting of the crops. Many of these survivals are described by Brinton in a chapter of his "Essays of an Americanist". The best recent account (1894) of the independent Maya is that of the German traveler Sapper, who praises in the highest terms their honesty, punctuality, hospitality, and peaceful family life. A translation of it is given in the Bowditch collection. At that time the Mexican government officially recognized three independent Maya states, or tribes in Southern and Eastern Yucatan, the most important being the hostiles of the Chan-Santa-Cruz district, estimated at not more than 10,000 souls as against about 40,000 at the outbreak of the rebellion of 1847. The other two bands together numbered perhaps as many, having decreased in about the same ratio.


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