A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Testimony coerced from shamans by Spanish priests may, ironically, be a key to understanding more about Maya spiritual life.
On the eighth day of August, 1562, a Maya man named Diego Te sat nervously on a wooden bench inside a church in the Yucatec town of Sotuta, under the careful gaze of senior apostolic judge Juan de Villagómez. With a priest serving as translator, Te made the sign of the cross before the judge, swore to tell the truth, and finished with "Amen."
His account is preserved today in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville. About a year earlier, said Te, he had gone to the church at midnight to light a candle for his ill father when he encountered Lorenzo Cocom, the main cacique, or leader, of Tixcamahel, along with a man named Mateo and Francisco Uicab, a Maya shaman. The men had brought two "idols," representations of Maya gods, into the church. Standing next to the idols were two young boys the witness identified as Juan Chel and Juan Chan, kidnapped by the men from their home villages of Kantunil and Usil. As Te watched from the back of the church, Cocom and Mateo cut the hearts from the boys and handed them to the shaman, who, in turn, rubbed them on the mouths of the idols.
The following day, town bailiff Melchor Canche appeared before the apostolic judge and described a similar event. He had gone to the church late at night five years earlier to say his prayers, and saw the chief caciques of Tixcamahel and a number of shamans making sacrifices to their idols inside the church. Two children were killed and tied to wooden crosses; as the crosses were raised inside the church, the assembled men announced: "Behold the figure of Jesus Christ." As Canche looked on, two men he identified as Juan Cime and Luis Ku "opened them up and removed their hearts, and gave them to the ah-kines [shamans], who offered the hearts to the idols." The bodies of the children were later thrown into a cenote, or sinkhole.
The gods of the Maya pantheon were sustained with human blood. In turn, they provided mankind with the necessities for life. This fundamental relationship between man and god reached its peak during the Classic Period (A.D. 250 -900) and took on various forms, from the self-bloodletting of kings to the mass execution of war prisoners after ritual ballgames. Although the practice varied in intensity throughout the Maya world, the purposes of blood sacrifice stayed the same: to appease an angry god; to balance the forces of nature; to beseech a higher power; or to divine the future.
Most native ritual practice in Yucatán went underground with the arrival of Spanish rule and Christian missionaries the 1540s, and a few decades later Franciscan leader Diego de Landa launched a zealous campaign to root out idolatry that culminated in 1562 with the destruction of thousands of ritual objects and most of the Maya books in existence. Landa and his men held trials in and around the town of Mani, forcing the Maya, under torture or threat of torture, to renounce their beliefs and confess their rituals, particularly the reviled practice of human sacrifice.
Landa was eventually recalled to Spain for his excessive behavior, was tried and acquitted, and before returning to the New World in 1573 as Bishop of Yucatán, recorded oral traditions of the Maya in An Account of the Things of the Yucatán. He included variations on the ritual of human sacrifice, including tossing idols and live victims into Chichen Itzá's duly named Cenote of Sacrifice. The Maya saw cenotes as gateways to Xibalba, the Underworld, and home of Chac, god of rain. Bishop de Landa wrote that the sacrifice was performed during times of drought, noting that the Maya believed that the victims would not die, "although they never saw them anymore." Dredging operations at Chichen Itzá by archaeologists in 1910 and the 1960s recovered the remains of at least 120 individuals and a variety of ritual objects, seemingly confirming Bishop de Landa's account. With the advent of the cave-diving exploration era in the 1980s, scientists began to realize that countless other cenotes, formed when acidic rain-water eats away at the porous limestone bedrock of the Yucatán Peninsula, also housed a wealth of ancient cultural material and human remains ("Diving the Maya Underworld," May/June 2004). Few archaeologists are trained for the dangerous diving required to search these deep, dark, underwater caverns, and thousands of sites across the peninsula still await discovery and exploration. Now, researchers at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán in Merida are trying to narrow their search for cenotes of enormous ritual importance to the Maya by using the detailed colonial accounts of human sacrifice.
Kristin M. Romey is deputy editor and senior writer at ARCHAEOLOGY.