Early Spanish priests arriving with the conquerors imposed a daunting task upon themselves: saving the souls of the Indigenous population. These first Spanish missionaries also assumed the responsibility of eradicating the 'cult of the devil' defined by the Church as anything involving Indigenous religion.
It would have been unrealistic to expect the Indigenous population to learn Spanish in order to go to catechism class. Their first task was for the priests themselves to learn the local languages. Each priest, or monastic order undertook that challenge using different methods.
Fray Diego de Landa (1524-1579) settled in Izamal a major Maya religious center in northern Yucatan dedicated to the cult of the god Itzamná. Today Izamal is one of the few archeological sites that can be visited any time of the day or night. It is a contemporary city with its main church right on top of one of the largest Maya pyramids.
I imagine Landa identifying a scribe in the community and showing this scribe how to make lines with a quill pen dipped in an inkpot on a piece of bark paper. How much finer a line could be achieved and how much easier it is than using a brush! He might have let the scribe experiment for a while, but then got serious and, said the first letter of the Spanish alphabet, "ah!" as he passed the pen to the scribe and insisted that he write the letter 'A'. It didn't mean anything to the scribe, but it sounded like ak, the Maya word for turtle, so he drew a turtle's head. Landa now had a Maya word he could associate, in his mind, with the letter A. He then said "bé" and passed the pen to the scribe who immediately drew two parallel lines and, between them, a footprint -- bé in Maya means road. On through the alphabet Landa went. For some letters he got several drawings, for others one, and for some none.
By the end of this exercise he had words and pictures he could associate in his mind with letters of the alphabet and was on his way to learning spoken Maya.
For the scribe these must have been fascinating sessions. He probably rushed home and made notes of whatever he could remember about this way to write in which with less than thirty symbols, representing sounds, one could write anything. It was much easier than mastering the 2,500 to 3,000 Maya hieroglyphic symbols, many of which represented syllables rather than sounds.
However, the scribes soon found they had to be careful with this new knowledge. Landa and other Spanish priests were clear in getting the message across that this was a Christian alphabet they were using and it was never to be used for anything associated with the cult of the devil. To be caught misusing the Christian alphabet could lead to being accused of being a heretic and to be burned at the stake.
Landa prided himself on the autos de fe -- acts of faith -- he carried out, how many Indigenous leaders he admonished, how many vases and images of gods he smashed into pieces, how many books he incinerated.
Indeed, Landa’s excessive fanaticism became so heinous that he was accused, by other Spaniards, of cruelty to the Indians -- a violation of the Laws of the Indies. Being a priest he had fuero (legal immunity) and could not be tried in a civil court of law. He was sent back to Spain to be tried by an ecclesiastical court. There he assembled the notes he had taken while in this colony, titled them Relación de las Cosas del Yucatan, and presented them as evidence in his own defense. He was able to convince the court that what was seen by others as cruelty was really righteous evangelical fervor. He was found not guilty and sent back to Yucatan as bishop.
One of the chapters in Landa’s book describes what is now known as the Landa Alphabet. His list of Spanish letters of the alphabet are found next to drawings of the equivalent Maya words or 'letters'. Landa is criticized for his ethnocentricity in having thought that the Maya alphabet would have the same letters as Spanish. In this case however, the ridicule should be addressed to his critics -- a 16th century educated priest, especially one eligible to be Bishop, not only knew his native dialect, but Castillian and certainly Latin. Most likely he read Greek and possibly Aramaic. He certainly did not think all languages used the same alphabet and his Landa Alphabet was likely proposed merely as a mnemonic exercise with which to learn spoken Maya. Indeed, in the 1950's Yuri Knorosov made use of the sound value of the Landa Alphabet, finding many of the symbols to be hieroglyphs for Maya syllables.
Another chapter deals with the calendar, the naming of periods of time, and the unusual practice of naming the Katuns (7,200-day periods) with the name of the last day of the Katun. He admits to not understanding what appears to be a convoluted naming system, but he draws an accurate chart to describe it -- which gave insight to our modern understanding of the calendar.
Through terrible irony it is to Landa, who prided himself on how many books he burned in huge bonfires, that we owe a lot of what we know about the Maya calendar. Up until the 1970's only about 15% of written Maya could be understood, and most of that dealt with the calendar, much of it based on Landa's book.
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