The Mayan Apocalypse: July 1562

“We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.” 

The Madrid Codex

The Madrid Codex

These were the words of Bishop Diego de Landa who ordered the burning of thousands of Mayan codices in July 1562. The codices were the primary written sources of Maya civilisation, along with the inscriptions on stone monuments and stelae that survived. The range of subject matter in all likelihood embraced more topics than those recorded in stone and buildings, and was more like what is found on painted ceramics (the so-called ‘ceramic codex’).

Every claim of Maya civilisation, the meticulous recording of past and present by generations of Mayan scribes over hundreds of years, religious and cosmographical texts, in short everything one could possibly know turned to ashes. Imagining the sense of loss this giant void caused is painful. A sense of doom and surrender must have overcome the Mayas who saw the destruction of their books. The Spanish conquest of Yucatán was the Mayan Apocalypse.

Alonso de Zorita wrote that in 1540 he saw numerous such books in the Guatemalan highlands that “...recorded their history for more than eight hundred years back, and that were interpreted for me by very ancient Indians.” (Zorita 1963, 271-2). Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas lamented that when found, such books were destroyed: “These books were seen by our clergy, and even I saw part of those that were burned by the monks, apparently because they thought [they] might harm the Indians in matters concerning religion, since at that time they were at the beginning of their conversion.” The last codices destroyed were those of Tayasal, Guatemala in 1697, the last city conquered in America.[4] With their destruction, the opportunity for insight into some key areas of Maya life has been greatly diminished. (From Wikipedia, Maya codices).

The extent of destruction was such that, of the thousands that existed in the sixteenth century, only three Mayan codices remain today: the Madrid Codex, also known as the Tro-Cortesianus Codex (112 pages, 6.82 metres (22.4 feet)); the Dresden Codex also known as the Codex Dresdensis (74 pages, 3.56 metres (11.7 feet)); and the Paris Codex, also known as the Peresianus Codex (22 pages, 1.45 metres (4.8 feet)).

You can read a short history of the Classical and Post-Classical Maya codices.