Yucatan Before and After the Conquest
In 1562, de Landa conducted an 'Auto de fé' in Maní where in addition to 5000 'idols,' he burned 27 books in Maya writing. This one act deprived future generations of a huge body of Mayan literature. He culturally impoverished the descendents of the Mayas, and left only four codices for scholars to puzzle over.
The document translated here is de Landa's apology, and one of the few remaining contemporary texts which describe pre-conquest Mayan society, science, and art in detail. As such it must be read in context. The translator and editor, the distinguished Americanist William Gates, provides plenty of background on de Landa, the decline of the Maya, and what is today known about their ancient culture.
Landa's Relación de las cosas de Yucatán also created a valuable record of the Mayan writing system, which despite its inaccuracies was later to prove instrumental in the later decipherment of the writing system. Landa asked his informants (his primary sources were two Maya individuals descended from a ruling Maya dynasty, literate in the script) to write down the glyphic symbols corresponding to each of the letters of the (Spanish) alphabet, in the belief that there ought to be a one-to-one correspondence between them. The results were faithfully reproduced by Landa in his later account, although he recognised that the set contained apparent inconsistencies and duplicates, which he was unable to explain. Later researchers reviewing this material also formed the view that the "de Landa alphabet" was inaccurate or fanciful, and many subsequent attempts to use this transcription remained unconvincing. It was not until much later, in the mid-twentieth century, when it was realised and then confirmed that it was not a transcription of an alphabet, as Landa and others had originally supposed, but was rather a syllabary. Confirmation of this was only to be established by the work of Russian linguist Yuri Knorozov in the 1950s, and the succeeding generation of Mayanists.
Relación de las cosas de Yucatán was written by Diego de Landa Calderón circa 1566 shortly after his return to Spain after serving as Bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yucatán in the sixteenth century. In it, de Landa catalogues a partial explanation of written and spoken language that proved vital to modern attempts to decipher the language as well as Maya religion and the Mayan peoples' culture in general. It was written with the help of local Maya princes, and contains the famous translation of "I do not want to". The original manuscript has been lost, although many copies still survive.
Currently available English translations include William E. Gates's 1937 translation, has been published by multiple publishing houses under the title Yucatan Before and After the Conquest.
- Auriel Media, January 2013
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