The recent anticipation or anxiety associated with the end of the Mayan age of mankind, or “baktun” was a bit outrageous. The various doomsday theories prior to December 21, 2012, predictably did not come to pass. The unfortunate outcome, despite so much attention directed toward the Maya civilization, was that the hoopla and hyperbole regarding the end of time as humankind understood it, distorted the public’s perception of the ancient Maya. Sadly, the actual extant records of the Maya civilization remain only as bits and pieces of information that are totally incomplete.
Contemporary scholars are hindered in their attempts at a more thorough understanding of what the Mayans actually believed because the information gleaned from their ancient civilization is piecemeal at best. The majority of their writings had been destroyed by Spanish Franciscan friars, except for stelae (carved stone pillars) and stone buildings with their ancient picture writing, which has not been easy to decipher. What remains of the Maya “books” now, are four (one partial) codices, as currently identified, that were spared the rage of the friar’s destruction.
The remaining codices contain the written language of the Maya inscribed upon a type of stiffened paper fashioned from fig tree bark. Today, the three complete hieroglyphic codices exist in three different cities in the world: Dresden, Germany; Madrid, Spain; and Paris, France. These few surviving “texts” preserve incredibly valuable records of the Maya history and religious customs. These writings are reputedly from a period after the demise of the Maya civilization, from around 900 CE. Writing also has been preserved from some ceramic pottery which contains scenes or mural paintings as well and these are described by archaeologists as dating from 200 – 900 CE as well as from a much earlier period from 200 BCE – 200 CE.
From such writings, yet not totally decipherable, contemporary scholars are able to piece together their information regarding this amazing lost civilization. Unfortunately, many secrets remain buried in the rainforests of the Yucatan peninsula or within the ashes of the past. The vast majority of Maya books were burned by the Franciscan friars. The Catholic missionaries who accompanied the Conquistadors in the 1540s were empowered with the mission to convert the Maya to Christianity. In the attempt to liberate the Maya from their worship of idols in their shrines and temples, the zealous friars tried to stamp out any religious artifacts or writings that would compete with Catholicism.
One of the most zealous of the friars, Diego de Landa, was young and passionate about the mission entrusted to him and took it quite seriously. Within only a few months of arriving in a monastery built at Izamal, Landa was apparently speaking Maya and had been appointed to an administrative position. On the one hand, the scholar in him took notes and recorded the marvels of architecture of the buildings and temples in the Maya communities. But on the other hand, he would severely punish the Maya for worshipping idols and their primitive gods. Records indicat that in 1562, he organized the ruthless torture of dozens of “sinners” among the Maya that he was trying to bring to Christ.
The Franciscan friars ultimately went on a rampage and smashed the idols, destroyed sacred pottery, and succeeded in burning as many books of the Maya as they could lay their hands on. Landa remarked without compassion that the books, “contained nothing there were not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil… we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree.” Unfortunately, so do contemporary academics.
Despite all of the destruction of their writings, some later primary documents from the 16th century, the early colonial period, did survive to the present day. There are three specific works dealing with the Maya religion: the Popul Vuh, the Ritual of the Bacabs, and some parts of the Chilam Balam books. Ironically, even Landa’s documentation of his experience with the Maya serves as a secondary source of information about the Maya religion and way of life (specifically for the Maya of the lowland area).
The Popol Vuh means “Book of the Community” or as “Book of the People” and has been described as the Mayan Bible. The book was believed to have been written in the mid-1500s as a translation from older, more ancient Maya texts by unknown authors. All of the earliest editions of this text originate from a Dominican priest, Francisco Ximenez, who lived at the turn of the 18th century. Unfortunately, the original source has never been discovered. The Popol Vuh apparently had been hidden from the Spaniards for almost two centuries. It contains the Maya myth of creation and epic tales of twins who are known as the “Hero Twins,” as well as genealogies of the people.
In reality, perhaps the most important remaining source of the ways of the old Maya religion is the Maya who live today and who continue to carry on the ancient traditions and carry forth the stories of their ancestors to the present day. These descendants still carry on the old religious ways, despite the attempts to wipe them out. Many of those who are in positions of the existing religious hierarchy are willing to share their knowledge of their psome of eople. Although incomplete, these sources provide a more thorough and true understanding of the Maya and their religious beliefs and way of life.