Diego de Landa

Diego de Landa is a person who changed the course of Mayan history forever, and as most of these stories, go the outcome was not a positive one. Diego de Landa was a Spanish priest who was given the task of converting the Mayan people to Catholicism, and in the process almost singlehandedly destroyed the Mayan language.

How did one person wipe away a whole ancient civilization’s language, making deciphering the carved symbols on discovered artifacts so difficult? De Landa accomplished this through burning books and religious idols that would have helped to give insight to the language and other aspects of Mayan life. This was not to say that he was an evil person, he was just very passionate about converting other people to Catholicism and so anything disputing his religion needed to change. While he felt sympathy for the Mayans who were facing disease and societal collapse, the matter of religion took precedent as he believed that by converting the people they could be saved. De Landa was fervently against the practice of human sacrifice, something that the late Mayans performed as a form of appeasement to the gods. He felt he needed to rid Mayan society of this barbaric practice and so attempted to destroy all text, art, statue or physical manifestation of the idea of sacrifice altogether. In doing so, he burned many books in an effort to rid Mayan society of their “evils”, including the idea of sacrifice and their other pagan rituals. Performing somewhat of his own inquisition in the Yucatan, he rid the Mayans of their texts and stripped them of their beliefs and practices, something that did not bode well with the people.

After what he believed to be a successful conversion, it did not take de Landa very long to discover that the people were not pleased with him and that things were not going as smoothly as he originally believed. Upon discovering that some members of society were still worshipping old gods, retaining their original beliefs, and still performing religious ceremonies, de Landa devised a brutal plan. He decided to jail and torture many people, in some cases murdering them if he found them suspicious or guilty of going against the Catholic church. In doing so, he angered the church, who declared his actions to be too harsh and unwarranted. His actions were investigated but were cleared by the church, and he then went on to be appointed to bishop of Yucatan.

After realizing the error of his ways, de Landa decided to write a book on Mayan history, called Relación de las cosas de Yucatán in 1566. After destroying much of the Mayan language and culture, de Landa’s choice of chronicling the civilization is odd. It can be noted that de Landa actually felt remorse later for the way he treated the Mayan people while he was investigating their outlawed religious practices, and felt this was a way to correct his errors. The book was important in helping to decode the hieroglyphics that were written all over Mayan sites and in the discovered texts and artwork, because it provided the full Mayan alphabet as well as ways to sound out the words phonetically. However this deciphering did not happen until the late 1800s to early 1900s because the book was not published until then. With the addition of de Landa’s information, roughly 1/3 of all Mayan hieroglyphs were able to be decoded, a number that is much higher today.

While de Landa was a detrimental person to the fate of the Mayans, he did contribute sufficiently to the understanding of the language and culture with the detailed descriptions in his book. With that being said, there really is nothing to admire about the man. The fact that he treated the Mayans so poorly, tried to get them to abandon their own beliefs and practices with the use of violence and fear, along with the fact that he attempted to destroy one of the most major pieces of their civilization demonstrates his true character. While he tried to make up for it in the end, his whole plan was extremely counterintuitive. De Landa could have saved himself a whole lot of time, effort, and work if he would have left the Mayans in peace in the first place.

 

 

6 thoughts on “Diego de Landa

  1. I found this blog extremely interesting. It is always fascinating to read about some of the things that people decide to do and why they did them. The fact that de Landa almost destroyed an entire civilization actually reminds me a lot of the Irish and how when the English took over, they decided to try and rid the entire country of anything that was of Irish culture, including the language. As what seems to have happened to the Mayans, the Irish were forced to give up their language and religion as it did not match the conquering Britain’s beliefs. The only places where irish speakers survived was on the coast of the island where it would be difficult for the soldiers to invade and kill the native population that defied the orders of the king. Obviously because of people like this we lose pieces of history that can never be restored. It was peculiar how in the end he chose to try and backtrack on all the bad things he did to the Mayans and tried to preserve their culture. I only wonder behind his true motivations. People that begin will such intentions as destroying a community of people does not usually make a complete flip at the end. Maybe in the end in his religion spoke to him and caused de Landa to see the error of his ways, but as most of history shows, people with such convictions do not usually see that they are doing wrong, but instead feel as though their religion or beliefs support them fully in the actions they take. I am pleasantly surprised that in the end he did something to help those in the future decipher what the Mayans were trying to communicate, but I am not sure that makes up for all that he caused the society to lose.

  2. The fact that one individual affected much of a large and vast ancient culture is what makes this post very interesting. De Landa did make contributions to understanding Mayan culture and their way of living but the originality of what would have came with many of the findings he destroyed leaves much of the original findings potentially untouched by archaeologists and historians. The positive is that we are still able to take much from the Mayans and understanding of their culture and history because of De Landa’s efforts with his own text and the work of other archaeologists and scientists moving forward. The Mayans seemed to prove to have been continuingly resilient to De Landa’s efforts because of how they continued to worship their own gods and hold their beliefs strong, even in the face of the consequences that De Landa may have brought upon them. Since much of De Landa’s motivation had a religious backing, with his main goal being the conversion of their people to Catholicism, the difficulties of trying to push a civilization into denouncing their own belief system in order to worship one that is so foreign to them is understandable if you were to consider the thoughts of the Mayan people. The demise of the Mayan people (or more so the destruction of their civilization) was definitely devastating. Wrought with disease that wiped out countless Mayans that the Spaniard’s brought with them, as well as the attempts to break down the Mayan people and attempt to erase their culture. It is definitely interesting how De Landa sort of had a “change of heart” in a way in trying to make a sort of last ditch effort to preserve their ways and culture in his writing as well as their methods of communication.

  3. I found this article to be very intriguing. I always was aware of the status of Mayan language, and how much of it is hard to decipher, even today, and how there are almost no people in the entire world who can decipher the ancient hieroglyphics. It’s hard to feel remorse or bad for this guy, especially for everything he did including murders and tortures, but part of me feels bad for what he had to live with for the rest of his life. This answers a lot of question about “What happened to all the ancient text” and gives us peace and realization that a lot of it isn’t missing or undiscovered, but what destroyed. I also think that his book is very important because it talks about what he destroyed, and puts the whole thing into context, which is always important. I also don’t blame him really for what he did, but his culture. Catholiscm and other religions played a huge role in eastern culture, and european culture as well. I believe that this very real belief in his religion was a huge reason for the demise of all of these ancient texts. I also honestly believe that Diego De Landa was trying to do something that he thought was right. Many Catholics believe that if you reject the word of god, that your soul will not be saved. Diego was probably pretty passionate about this, and saw how their society was falling, and just wanted to save the souls of the people of the civilization that his people were destroying.

  4. I enjoyed reading this article mainly because there is no single biased towards Diego De Landa. What he thought he was doing was right and in some ways he was. Catholics are against any slaying of another being, and human sacrifice was a very ignorant (unknowledgeable) way of pleasing a deity. When we look at many South Americans today, we see many people devoted to their Religion (Catholicism). We thank people like Diego for that. I do not believe it is good or bad that the native peoples of South America transformed their beliefs, it just happened this way due to conquest, and social-cultural mixing between Spaniards and Natives.
    Where Diego had turned was when he devised his plan of imprisoning, and killing those who did not convert to his teachings of the Catholic faith. This goes against a reason as to why he did not like the Yucatan belief system. The native theology of Human sacrifice and killing did not seem to change when he had people killed just because they were not, “Listening.” Diego De Landa had become what the church is against, evil. He gained power over the people, and when power enters the wrong hands, things do not end well.
    As you were stating that many Mayan articles could not be found, this is unfortunate. However; it is a good thing that he documented facts about the peoples original language and culture, but unfortunately That just goes to show that he went from trying to save these people to using them as a subject he was documenting.

  5. You make some really good points here, Diego de Landa had some brutal tactics, to say the least, as with many missionaries and European agents sent to ‘save’ the inhabitants of the New World. I did, however, find it a bit ironic that, as you say, de Landa decided to chronicle the nation and civilization that he so helped dismantle. Even though his book helped archaeologists decipher Mayan glyph, it still begs the question, if he hadn’t quashed so much of their culture, would that be of more help to us now? Even though he was so (ironically, since he would likely use ‘civilizing’ as a term for his actions) barbaric in his treatment of the Maya, if he had left them alone or not gone to the Yucatan, we might not have as much, or any, knowledge of how the Mayan language works, and thus have nowhere near our current grasp of how the Mayan culture worked.
    If he had today’s cultural attitudes, de Landa might have simply written about the Maya without taking action, violent or otherwise, but cultural projection across time is a different discussion entirely.

  6. The astounding fact that one individual was able to affect such a vast ancient culture is what makes this blog post so very interesting. It is always fascinating to read about some of the things that people decide to do and why they did them. De Landa did make supports to understanding Mayan culture and their way of living but the ingenuity of what would have come with many of the findings he destroyed leaves much of the original findings theoretically unaffected by archaeologists and historians. It’s hard to feel remorse for this guy, especially for everything he did including murders and tortures, but part of me feels bad for what he had to live with for the rest of his life. I always was aware of how hard the Mayan language was to decipher, but it became even harder after what De Landa did, and now toady there are almost no people in the entire world that can decipher the ancient hieroglyphics. The Mayans seemed to prove to have been continuously resistant to De Landa’s efforts because of how they continued to worship their own gods and hold their beliefs strong, even in the face of the consequences that De Landa may have brought upon them. Since much of De Landa’s motivation had a religious backing, with his main goal being the conversion of their people to Catholicism. Which many Catholics believe that if you reject the word of God, that your soul will not be saved and that you will be sentenced to eternal damnation. This is quite similar to what some extremist Iraq individuals are doing to members of the United States right now as we speak.

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