(1524 - 1579)



One of the most ancient and most important documents for Americanists - and especially for the study of Mayan civilization, calendar and writing system - is certainly the manuscript "Relación de las cosas de Yucatán" (approx. 1566) of Diego de Landa (1524-1579), the second residing bishop of Yucatán. The manuscript was discovered by Abbé Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg in the "Biblioteca de la Academia de la Historia de Madrid" (Signatura B.68). He published this document in 1864. The best publication in English is for us certainly the Tozzer edition with an enormous amount of useful footnotes.

Almost every modern author has written on Diego de Landa. More than 10 editions of his manuscript undoubtedly prove the immense importance of his work, and we frequently use him as a source for our study. We made even an authorized facsimile edition for mayanists, historians, ethnographers, paleographers, etc. Therefore it is necessary to give some background information on his work and life. Brasseur de Bourbourg expresses his views on Landa in his "Avant-propos" of the first edition of the manuscript (Landa, 1864:vii-viii. Bowditch 1910:7-10. See also Tozzer 1941:vii-x, 77-85, Genet 1934, Cogolludo, and Lizana):

"Landa has in turn been considered a saint and an odious persecutor. According to Cogolludo, his first biographer, he died in the odor of sanctity, and according to another biography, inserted as an appendix to the second edition of Cogolludo, published at Campeche in 1842, he is stigmatized as a fanatical, extravagant and cruel man. But if circumstances and the times which also make men, it is often the circumstances and the times which also make their reputation.

Of the two biographers of Landa, one exagerates his faults, which shocks us of this age and especially the liberal writers of Yucat n, but which, nevertheless, were virtues in the eyes of Spaniards of earlier times. In order to appreciate Landa's true character, it is only necessary to run through what he accomplished. He had a severe character, but an investigating one, wiser than one would think, and sincerely friendly to the natives, whom he protected constantly from the violent acts of the conquerers.

From the point of view in which he placed himself, he may well be excused for having delivered to the flames so many statues and valuable documents, a fact which he acknowledges most ingenously. In doing this he was no more culpable than Zumarraga in Mexico and Las Casas in Guatemala. But in the midst of this excess of zeal, which we deplore so much today, Landa rendered an immense service to historical science in compiling the precious information which we publish here, and in preserving the characters of the Maya alphabet. His book wipes out over and over again his faults, which were those of his century; for it is the key of American inscriptions; without it they would have remained an enigma, perhaps forever, like the hieroglyphs of Egypt before the discovery of the Rosetta stone and the splendid work of Champollion."

The present document is only a copy of a part of the original manuscript which is lost. Many chapters are missing which indicates that the original manuscript was much longer than the one which is now available in Madrid. On the first page of the copy we read : "Relación de las cosas de Yucatán taken from that which the Fray Diego de Landa of the Order of San Francisco wrote". The next page bears the name of Landa followed by the year indication MDLXVI, which of course means 1566. This seems to be true because the last reported facts in his manuscript are dated May 2, 1565.

Landa (or the copyist) must have written his manuscript after 1555 for another good reason: by official decision, starting with January 1, 1556, New Year for Spain and Portugal began on January 1st. In his manuscript he begins indeed his example of the Indian year with January first. The text is written in 3 different handwritings. With the exception of Sahagún, there is no other manuscript of New Spain which adequately covers a similar range of subjects. Landa present almost every phase of the social anthropology of the ancient Mayas, the history of the Spanish discovery and conquest, the native and ecclesiastical history, religion and rituals, and the first knowledge of the hieroglyphic writing.

Diego de Landa of the noble house of Calderon, was born in Alcarria (Toledo, Spain) on November 12, 1524. At the age of 16 he became franciscan in 1541 at the Convent of San Juan de los Reyes in Toledo. At that time it was a custom that the friars took the name of a town or place who was important in their life, such as : Pedro de Gante, Andrès de Bruselas, Bernardino de Sahagún, Antonio de Ciudad Real...

In 1972 we found in the "Diccionario coriográfico" a village with the name Landa, at 16 km of Vitória and 3 km of Arrazua-Ubarrindia, 250 km north of Cifuentes, in the Province Alava in Spain. Miek and Suzanne Malfliet, two members of the "Flemish Institute for American Cultures", visited this region and they say that it is now submerged because of the construction of a dam. What was the connection Landa (man) - Landa (village) ?

In 1549 Fray Diego de Landa accompanied Fray Nicolas de Albate and 5 other friars to Yucatán. (The 5 other friars are: Alonso de Alvarado, Francisco Navaro, Antonio de Valdemoro, Antonio Figueras, and Pedro Noriega)

In the year of his arrival he was assigned to the newly founded mission of and he was appointed as assistant to the Guardian. At the same time he was a teacher with already many pupils. Landa tells us that in that same year the Indians, "to oblige us", gave one of the ancient constructions at Izamal as a place for a monastery.

Late in 1550 he was elected custodio, and he was sent to Guatemala to represent the Yucatecan Franciscans before the President and Audiencia. Returning to Yucatán, he brought with him the famous statue known as "Our Lady of Izamal".

For some time Landa lived at the Convent of Conkal. In 1553 he became guardian, or official head of the convent at Izamal. He was in charge of building the monastery "because up to now there were some little houses of straw in which the clergy lived". In the same year he supported many Indians in the great famine.

He worked up from 4th "Definidor" of the Province to the 1st in 1556. The "definidors" were elected by the Chapter to assist or advise the "provincial" or "custodio". There were usually 4 of these, normally serving for 3 years.

In 1560 he was appointed President of the "Capítulo", and he became "guardian" of the convent in Mérida.

The first "Capítulo Provincial" was celebrated in Mérida on September 13, 1561, under the presidency of Francisco de la Torre, and Landa was elected as the first "Ministro Provincial" and first "definidor" of the new Franciscan province of St. Jozef of Yucatán and Guatemala. This Province had been separated in 1559 from the Mexican Provincia Santo Evangelio (Holy Gospel).

The following Spring, evidence of idolatry came to light. This resulted in the famous inquisitorial proceeding against the Yucatecan Indians. Prior to the arrival of Bishop Toral, the heads (Comisario, Custodio or Provincial) of the Franciscan order served as governing prelates for the whole body of the Church of Yucat n, with authority to serve as ecclesiastical judges and to perform all episcopal functions, except those that could be exercised only by a consecrated bishop. This was established by various papal bulls, notably the "Exponi Nobis" of Adrian VI, dated May 10, 1522.

Under Landa's auspicies as prelate, the investigation was carried out with considerable severity. He made an Inquisition followed by the famous "auto de fé" (techichinoliztli) of San Miguel de Maní on Sunday, July 12, 1562. He destroyed statues and burned a large number of books. He said:

It is a fact that the destruction of the manuscripts was so radical, that only three Maya codices survived, all to be found in Europe. Lizana and Cogolludo (1633, Pt. 12, VI:5 and 1688, 6, I) are the first authors to speak of the burning of books at Maní in 1562.

Lizana after relating the discovery of the idols in the cave and of Landa being called to Maní, writes :

And Cogolludo writing later, says of this "auto de fé" at Maní :

Another early authority was Acosta (1590, 6, VI), who writes :

It appeared to a teacher of doctrine that this must be to make witchcraft and magic art; he contended that they should be burned and those books were burned and afterwards not only the Indians but many eager-minded Spaniards who desired to know the secrets of that land felt badly.

The same has happened in other cases were our people, thinking that all is superstition, have lost many memories of ancient and hidden things which they might have used to no little advantage. This follows from a stupid zeal, when without knowing or even wishing to know the things of the Indies, they say as in the sealed package, that everything is sorcery and that the peoples there are only a drunken lot and what can they know or understand. The ones who have wished earnestly to be informed of these have found many things worthy of consideration.

Speaking of the Maya codices, Ciudad Real (1588 1932:314) adds in the Ponce " Relación", an interesting detail :

Previously Yucatán was included in the Diocese of Chiapas, established in 1538. The first Bishop of Chiapas, Juan de Artega, never visited Yucatán. His successor, Las Casas, was in Campeche for 2 weeks in January 1545, on his way to Chiapas. In 1547 Montejo, the "cabildo" of Mérida, and the Franciscans asked the Crown to name a bishop for Yucatán."

By a "Cedula" of 1552 the King named Fray Juan de San Francisco as first Bishop of Yucatán. Prefering the appointement of "Ministro Provincial" of the province of Santo Evangelio, he resigned the bishopric. Fray Juan de la Puerta was then appointed Bishop on July 17, 1555. He died before he was able to take office. From 1545 to 1562, when Toral arrived in Yucatán, the ecclesiastical affairs were in the hands of the "prelados".

Francisco Toral came to México in 1542. He was the third person who was appointed Bishop of Yucatán and Campeche. He was consecrated in 1562. Toral had an important part to play in the adjustement of difficulties regarding Fray Bernardino de Sahagún. He ordered him to write his famous " Historia ..." in Nahuatl and Spanish, and even assisted him in many ways. Maybe he also ordered Landa to write his " Relación ...".

Then came the well known bitter Toral-Landa controversy. Toral arrived in Yucatán on August 14, 1562, just after the famous "auto de fé" at Mani, full of prejudice against Landa, disapproving his methods of christianization and "stupid zeal".

At the end of March or early in April 1563, after preparing a "Probanza" and presenting his resignation as Provincial, Landa set out for Mexico and Spain to seek redress from the Bishop's attitude. Of course Landa took with him on his trip a mass of notes and documents to defend himself. This means , that his notes concerning the calendar, date from before April 1563, which is important to know.

On February 26, 1564, just before Landa's departure for Spain, and naturally unknown to him, Toral orders were dispatched to various officials in Mexico and in Yucatán, demanding that Landa and other friars, who had taken part in the Maní investigations, should be sent to Spain together with all the documents concerning the case. It took Landa almost a year and a half to reach eventually Spain in October 1564. He was shipwrecked and also delayed by a serious illness. In the copy of the manuscript of Landa (1941:80-84) we read:

And the members of the Council showed still more irritation at these excuses, and resolved to send him and his papers and those which the bishop had sent against the friars to Fray Pedro de Bobadilla, the provincial of Castile, to whom the King wrote, giving him orders to look into the matter and to do justice. And this Fray Pedro, on account of sickness, intrusted the examination of these procedings to Fray Pedro de Guzman, one of his own order, a man learned and well experienced in matters connected with the inquisition. There were presented the opinions of 7 learned men of the kingdom of Toledo, ...., who declared that the provincial had acted justly in making the "auto de fé", and also in the other things which he had done in punishment of the Indians...

After reviewing the case, the Council of the Indies remitted it to the Franciscan provincial of Castile, and in January 1569, Landa was acquitted and formerly absolved of the charges against him. Moreover, he received in the convent of San Juan de la Cabrera a 'Real Cédula', saying that he was appointed Bishop on April 30, 1572 by Philip II, one year after the death of his bitter enemy Toral in Mexico in April 1571. The bulls of Gregorio XIII of 15 and 16 november give all the details concerning the election and relative explanations. In 1572 he sailed away, with 30 franciscans and fray Pedro de Cardete as 'comisario', from Sevilla for Yucatan.

He wrote certainly his manuscript in Spain in 1566, and undoubtedly he brought it to Yucatán after his exoneration and election as Bishop. Setting out from Spain in 1572, he arrived at Campeche in October 1573, accompanied by 30 friars whom his friend Philip II had alloted him. The natives gave him a great welcome.

Landa died in Mérida, April 29, 1579, at the age of 54, in a katun 7 Ahau, as we can read twice in the Chilam Balam book of Chumayel :" Vuc ahau : cimci obispo de Landa. Uuc Ahau : machabi u tunil lae, lay u Katunil cimci Obispo de Landa lae, tixuli uhel obispoxani." He was buried in the local Church of San Francisco, his bones were transfered to the tomb of his fathers in the village of Cifuentes, Spain. After his death, his manuscript was conserved in the Franciscan Convent at Mérida, and it is certain that copies of his work were sent to Spain, for the fact is mentionned in the "Relación de Chunchucha", dated 1581.

It is interesting to quote here Miguel Rivera's "Introducción" of his Landa edition (1985:25-26):

This sepulchre was destroyed during the civil war of 1936. There is a modern statue of Diego de Landa on the plaza of Izamal where he was guardian.

Diego de Landa gave us the symbols of days and months, as well as a so-called alphabet and a first knowledge of the hieroglyphic writing system in the Mayan pictorial manuscripts. Landa tells us of his intimacy with Don Juan (Nachi) Cocom, the halach uinic or "true man" of the Province of Sotuta, but another interesting source of information was certainly a native interpreter, Gaspar Antonio Chi, who was converted at the age of 15 and educated by the Franciscans. His Indian name was Na Xiu Chi and his Spanish name Don Gaspar Antonio de Herrera, after his teacher father de Herrera (see Genet). In Genet's "Landa" (1928 I:15-17) we read : :

Pedro Sanchez de Aguilar (1892 XX:295) says of Antonio Chi that he was the son of Kinchi :

Kinchi is maybe Ah Kin Chi, the high priest Chi. We do not know much about Landa's linguistic works. He was probably one of the first to open a school in the monastery of San Antonio at Izamal, where priests learned Mayathan, the language of the Maya. Cogolludo (1688 lib. v, cap. xiv) writes about him in regard to the language : "El que más prestó, y con mayor perfección la supo, fue el bendito Padre Fr. Diego de Landa, de quien se dize (no sin admiración) que a poco días la hablaba, y predicaba, como si fuera su lengua nativa".


With regard to the so-called Maya alphabet we can quote Landa (1941:169-170) :

Landa told us here that the Maya hieroglyphic writing is composed of letras (letters), caracteres (characters), figuras (figures) "which the writings signified", and señales (signs).

On July 12, 1562, Landa held at Mani (Yucatán) his famous "auto de fé". Bernardino de Lizana (1633 Historia general de las Indias ... y la conquista de México y de la Nueva España, Zaragoza) was the first author to write about the burning of books at Mani :

Diego Lopez Cogolludo (1688 Historia de Yucatan, Madrid) followed Lizana, saying :

The Maya alphabet according to Diego de Landa, cannot have been a real alphabet. This is demonstrated by the fact that there are: 3 x A, 2 x B, 2 x L, 2 x O, 2 x K, 2 x Q, 2 x X, and 2 x U.

Many researchers tried to decipher Maya writing without success. They relied on the Landa-alphabet, which was not sufficient for the deciphering.

Yet the author of this book could benefit from this alphabet and the characters for days and months, be it from a different point of view : the thorough, comparative phonetic analysis. They are probably the initial letters of syllables or short words. Some can be explained as follows :

Landa (1941:27-9) also tells us something else about the Mayan writings:

(*) Ahau Kin means "he of the sun"-. He is an astronomer and astrologer in the first place and he is also a high-priest. There were 4 functions of Ahau Can or Ahau Tzab Can for the 4 world directions :

  1. Zac Ahaucan = white Ahaucan, for the north;
  2. Ek Ahaucan = black Ahaucan, for the west;
  3. Chac Ahaucan = red Ahaucan, for the east; and,
  4. Kan Ahaucan = yellow Ahaucan, for the south.

Ahau tzabcan is also the name for the rattle snake; the crotalus durissus durissus of Yucatán.



ACOSTA, José de
1590 Historia natural y moral de las Indias, en que se tratan las cosas notables del cielo, elementos, metales, plantas, y animales de ellos; y los ritos, ceremonias, leyes, gobierno de los Indios, Salamanca and Sevilla.

CIUDAD REAL, Antonio de
1588 Relación breve y verdadera de algunas cosas de las muchas que sucedieron al Padre Fray Alonso Ponce ... en las provincias de la Nueva España..., Coll. Doc. Ined. Hist. de España 57-8, Madrid 1872.

COGOLLUDO, Diego Lopez
1688 Historia de Yucatan, Madrid; ed. in 2 vol. Campeche and Mérida, 1842-5; Mérida 1867-8.

DE LAET, Joannes
1625 Nieuwe Wereldt ofte Beschrijvinghe van West-Indien, Leiden;
1633 Novus orbis feu descriptionis Indiae Occidentalis, Antwerpen.

1601-1615 Historia general de los hechos de los Castellanos en las islas y tierra firma del mar oceano, edition in 9 vol., Madrid 1726-30.

LANDA, Diego de
1566 Relación de las cosas de Yucatán

    1º Brasseur de Bourbourg, 1864. Edition 300, first in Lyon and then in Paris. Spanish text with a translation in French. The edition has some errors and is incomplete, lacking chapters XLIII and LI.
    2º Juan de Dios de la Rada y Delgado, 1881; de Rosny. Edition 200, with some small errors in the proper names. The two maps are lacking. Is incomplete lacking chapters XXXIV and XLII, and the text is not always correct.
    3º Coll. de Doc. Ined., 13; Relaciones de Yucacatán 2:265-411, 1900.
    4º Jean Genet, 2 vol. incomplete, 1928-9.
    5º William Gates, 1937.
    6º Rosado y Onteveros, Yucatán, 1938.
    7º Hector Perez Martinez, 1938.
    8º Barrera Vasquez y Joe F. Cason, 1938.
    9º Tozzer 1941, 396 p., Cambridge, Mass.
    10º Russian edition, Moscow.
    11º Edición Bibl. Porr£a 13, México, 252 p.
    12º German edition, Boelicke & Kutscher.
    13º Facsimile edition, Antoon Leon Vollemaere, Flemish Institute for American Cultures, Mechelen, Belgium.
    13bis CD.ROM edition of Landa's MS + Brasseur de Bourbourg.

LIZANA, Bernardo de
1633 Historia de Yucatán. Devocionario de Nuestra Señora de Izamal, y conquista espiritual, Valladolid; second edition in México 1893.

1533 De rebus oceanicis et orbe novo decades tres, Basilae p. 68v-75v; several editions.

1912-1913 Fray Diego de Landa, inquisidor de las Indias en Yucatan, XVIIIth Int. Congress Amer. London 1912 tomo II; London 1913:484-497.

OVIEDO y VALDES, Gonzales Fernandez de
1535 Historia general y natural de las Indias, islas y tierra-firme del mar océano, 4 vol. Sevilla 1851-5.

1639 Informe contra idolorum cultores de Obispado de Yucatan, Madrid; 2nd ed. Anales del Museo Nacional, México vol. 6, 1892:15-122.