Diego de Landa (1524-1579), Bishop and Inquisitor of Early Colonial Yucatan

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Diego de Landa (1524-1579), Bishop and Inquisitor of Early Colonial Yucatan

16th century portrait of Fray Diego de Landa in the monastery at Izamal, Yucatan.
16th century portrait of Fray Diego de Landa in the monastery at Izamal, Yucatan. Ratcatcher

Spanish friar (or fray), and later bishop of Yucatan, Diego de Landa is most famous for his fervor in destroying Maya codices, as well as for the detailed description of Maya society on the eve of the conquest recorded in his book,  Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan (Relation on the Incidents of Yucatan). But the story of Diego de Landa is far more complex.

Diego de Landa Calderón was born in 1524, into a noble family of the town of Cifuentes, in the Guadalajara province of Spain. He entered the ecclesiastic career when he was 17 and decided to follow the Franciscan missionaries in the Americas. He arrived in Yucatan in 1549.

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Diego de Landa in Izamal, Yucatan

The region of Yucatán had just been–at least formally–conquered by Francisco de Montejo y Alvarez and a new capital established in Merida in 1542, when the young friar Diego de Landa arrived in Mexico in 1549. He soon became the guardian of the convent and church of Izamal, where the Spaniards had established a mission. Izamal was an important religious center during the pre-Hispanic period, and the founding of a Catholic church in the same location was seen by the priests as a further way to extirpate Maya idolatry.

For at least a decade, de Landa and the other friars were zealous in trying to convert the Maya people to Catholicism. He organized masses where Maya nobles were ordered to give up their ancient beliefs and to embrace the new religion. He also ordered inquisition trials against those Maya who refused to renounce to their faith, and many of them were killed.

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Book Burning at Maní, Yucatan 1561

Probably the most famous event of Diego de Landa's career happened on July 12, 1561, when he ordered a pyre to be prepared on the main square of the town of Maní, just outside the Franciscan church, and burnt several thousand objects worshiped by the Maya and believed by the Spaniard to be the work the devil. Among these objects, collected by him and other friars from the nearby villages, there were several codices, precious folding books where the Maya recorded their history, beliefs, and astronomy.

In his own words De Landa said “We found many books with these letters, and because they contained nothing that was free from superstition and the devil’s trickery, we burnt them, which the Indians greatly lamented”.

Because of his rigid and harsh conduct against the Yucatec Maya, De Landa was forced to return to Spain in 1563 where he faced trial. In 1566, to explain his actions while waiting for the trial, he wrote the Relacíon de las Cosas de Yucatan (Relation on the incidents of Yucatan).

In 1573, cleared from every accusation, De Landa returned to Yucatan and was made a bishop, a position he held until his death in 1579.

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De Landa’s Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán

In his most text explaining his behavior to the Maya, Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, De Landa accurately describes Maya social organization, economy, politics, calendars, and religion. He gave special attention to the similarities between the Maya religion and Christianity, such as the belief in afterlife, and the similarity between the cross-shaped Maya World Tree, which linked heaven, earth and the underworld and the Christian cross.

Particularly interesting to scholars are the detailed descriptions of the Postclassic cities of Chichén Itzá and Mayapan. De Landa describes pilgrimages to the sacred cenote of Chichén Itzá, where precious offerings, including human sacrifices, were still made in the 16th century. This book represent an invaluable first-hand source in Maya life on the eve of the conquest.

De Landa’s manuscript went missing for almost three centuries until 1863, whne a copy was found by the Abbé Etienne Charles Brasseur de Boubourg at the Library of the Royal Academy for History in Madrid. Boubourg published it then.

Recently, scholars have proposed that the Relación as it was published in 1863 may actually be a combination of works by several different authors, rather than De Landa's sole handiwork.

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De Landa’s Alphabet

One of the most important part of De Landa’s Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan is the so called “alphabet”, which became fundamental in the understanding and deciphering of Maya writing system.

Thanks to Maya scribes, who were taught and forced to write their language in Latin letters, De Landa recorded a list of Maya glyphs and their corresponding alphabet letter. De Landa was convinced that each glyph corresponded to a letter, like in the Latin alphabet, whereas the scribe was actually representing with Maya signs (glyphs) the sound being pronounced. Only in the 1950s after the phonetic and syllabic component of Maya script was understood by the Russian scholar Yuri Knorozov, and accepted by the Maya scholarly community, did it become clear that De Landa's discovery had paved the way toward the decipherment of Maya writing system.


Coe, Michael and Mark Van Stone, 2001, Reading the Maya Glyphs, Thames and Hudson

De Landa, Diego [1566], 1978, Yucatan Before and After the Conquest by Friar Diego de Landa. Translated and with noted by William Gates. Dover Publications, New York.

Grube, Nikolai (Ed.), 2001, Maya. Divine Kings of the Rain Forest, Konemann, Cologne, Germany