Tuesday, December 2, 2008

One Catholic Priest Destroyed the Entire Mayan Written Language

The New York Times described the decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphs as "one of the great stories of twentieth century scientific discovery." Tragically, this decipherment was only necessary because of a one-man Spanish Inquisition, a deliberate, decades-long campaign by a single Catholic priest to destroy the Mayan language and culture. The priest, Diego de Landa, wiped out all knowledge of the written language, and nearly destroyed the spoken language too.

Diego de Landa's one-man inquisition perfectly illustrates the power of the Intolerance Meme, an idea that evolved in the Jewish religion a few centuries before the birth of Jesus, and was taken up with a vengeance by Christians in the third and fourth centuries AD. The Intolerance Meme declares that not only is Yahweh the only god, but in addition, anyone who worships other gods is committing a sin. The Intolerance Meme justifies all sorts of atrocities in Yahweh's name: Murder, slavery, forced conversion, suppression and destruction of other religions, racism, and many other immoral acts.

This was Diego de Landa's background when he discovered that many of his Mayan "converts" had actually incorporated the Catholic Yahweh/Jesus/Spirit, along with the various saints and angels, into their own traditional religion. When Landa discovered "idol worship" among some of his converts, he felt that his "children" had turned their backs on him, and his life's work was a failure.

Being a good Roman Catholic, and a carrier of the Intolerance Meme, Landa was furious – he saw this as a betrayal, and started an inquisition that resulted in torture and death across the Yucatan region. He was determined to wipe out all knowledge of the Mayan religion, and saw the Mayan language and hieroglyphs as a key. Fifty years later, in 1699, Spanish soldiers burned a town that had the last school of scribes who knew the Mayan hieroglyphs. By 1720, not a single person alive knew what the hieroglyphs meant.

The Roman Catholic church's response? They punished Landa. But not for murder, not for torture, and not for destroying an entire culture's history. No, none of these things were worthy of the Church's sanctions. Diego de Landa's crime was that he carried out an inquisition without authorization.

It took over two hundred years, and an international team of linguists, anthropologists, archeologists, mathematicians, an architect, a few brilliant hobbyists, and one twelve-year-old child prodigy hieroglyphics expert, to undo the damage that Landa caused. Armed with their fierce determination and perseverance, they recovered the written language, bit by bit, word by word, symbol by symbol. Thanks to this dedicated group, the meaning of almost 90% of the hieroglyphs is now recovered.

As for Landa, he had to spend a few years under house arrest in Spain, contemplating his disobedience and praying. Once he'd done his pennance, he was promoted to Bishop of Yucatan, and sent back to Central America where he lived out the remainder of his life.

Special thanks to filmmakers David Lebrun and Amy Halpern-Lebrun, who graciously agreed to be interviewed during my trip to the Red Rock Film Festival in Utah. I highly recommend their excellent film, Breaking the Maya Code. You can also watch the shorter one-hour Nova version online, courtesy of PBS and WGBH Boston.


  1. And I thought the goatse.cx meme was bad.

  2. One bad Catholic does not make the entire Catholic Church bad. Just like one bad US Senator does not make all of the United States bad. You have an interesting article, but I sense an axe grinding against the Catholic Church, which reduces the impact of your writing.

  3. Tim, did you miss the part about how Landa was not punished for murder and torture, but only for conducting an unauthorized inquisition? And later was promoted to Bishop and sent back to Central America where he completed the destruction of the Mayan written language?

    I don't need an "axe to grind" against the Catholic Church – it sharpened the axe for me centuries ago.

  4. tim, unless youre just being sarcastic... come on now, im sure we all know theres more than just one bad apple in the catholic church...

    thats it, im forming an atheist rock band to spread the word of wisdom across the lands.

  5. Regarding the one-bad apple meme, it's somewhat the same with Islam: 99% of Muslims give the rest a bad name.

  6. I wouldn't call it a "meme", because it is supported in the Bible: "you shall have no other gods before me". I'm not saying it's a good idea though, and this is yet another example of how religion makes a mess of everything for no reason

  7. Anon,

    Actually, most of the Native Americans were killed by accident, by European diseases. My book, The Religion Virus, devotes an entire chapter to how disease and other semi-accidental factors, helped Christianity spread. Those Indians who survived were indeed massacred for their land, as you say. But don't forget, this genocide was at least exacerbated by Christian morality, which (at the time) encouraged a view that killing non-Christians was not necessarily a sin.

    Any discussion like this is dangerous, because "Christian" is far too broad a term. There are, and have always been, good people and evil people, in every faith, and of no faith. The point of the story of Bishop Landa is that his Roman Catholic faith was directly responsible for his actions, and the official response of the Roman Catholic church was, by today's standards, immoral.

  8. Hey, second Anonymous person, there was plenty of religious reasoning behind the early Spanish oppression of indigenous Americans. And even for centuries after that, they and other people of color in what was becoming the US were denied rights and treated poorly, with justification coming from whites' belief in their own supremacy, that God was on their side. Sure, there was plenty of non-religious motivation, but to say religion had nothing to do with it is very naive.

  9. @ Paul Betts:
    Of course it is a meme -- the bible is a human document that is full of them. It was written by people, for a purpose. It was not written by a god. Until you really understand that, you miss the entire point.

    Memes are analogous to living organisms -- they propagate, they reproduce, they infect, they even kill. Memes often have "immune systems" whereby competitors -- other memes -- are attacked and destroyed.

    The Intolerance Meme is crucial to much of modern religious "success" -- if you call widespread delusional behavior and psychopathic actions "success".

    Yah, religion! Isn't it great!

  10. Excellent example of how the idea of "they're like me, so they can't be bad" (used by all of humanity, but largely by theistic apologists- i.e. "That guy who bombed the abortion clinic was a Christian, so he isn't THAT bad" or "Kay Hagan accepted an award from atheists; that means Kay Hagan isn't a Christian") is a poor way to mentally organize others.

  11. The Global Warming Meme declares that not only is man-caused global warming a fact, but in addition, anyone who denies this is committing a sin.

    The Sexual Equality Meme declares that not only are women equal to men, but in addition, anyone who holds women as property is committing a sin.

    The Emancipation Meme declares that not only are all men created equal, but in addition, anyone who enslaves another man is committing a sin.

    The Nonviolence Meme declares that not only are is nonviolence holy, but in addition, anyone who assaults another man is committing a sin.

    Obviously I am not defending what Diego did, but your logic is faulty. Some things are legitimately worthy of Intolerance. Slavery, murder, genital mutilation. I am Intolerant of these things. Aren't you? Diego's mistake wasn't Intolerance, it was the belief that Heresy could be objectively defined.

    Get your arguments straight, or your book will suck.

  12. Brock is right, of course. There is no "intolerance meme". Intolerance is not an idea; it's a behavior implicit in other ideas, of which there are very many.

    And as for the Catholic Church's inadequate response, you're making far too much of it. Obviously Landa's actions were unpopular within the church or he wouldn't have been charged with anything at all. As it was, the crime of unauthorized inquisition was the easiest with which to convict. (This calculation happens all the time in modern courts.) I doubt the bureaucratic apparatus was equipped to handle crimes of "destryoing an entire culture's history".

  13. aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh .... one more mention of that word MEME and I'll go Inquisition on your ass.

    How old are you 12? Learn to express a potentialy interesting article without repetition of MEME.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. Paul...
    You mentioned,

    "I wouldn't call it a "meme", because it is supported in the Bible: "you shall have no other gods before me"."

    Yes, the bible does say that. It does not say "you shall have no other gods before me and if you find anyone with them, destroy their culture.

  16. And now for a comment which doesn't even mention religi... (d'oh!)

    Thank you for bringing this up and summarizing it so succinctly. While I haven't (yet) seen the movie which evidently inspired you to comment, I doubt it sums the situation up quite so neatly either.

    Despite (slowly) having reached similar conclusions as to Landa's ultimate legacy, this is the first time I can recall ever reading any analysis of the subject which has stood back far enough to be able to "connect the dots" and directly state what should be obvious to all:

    One man's misguided actions created (most of) the need for an entire research field.


    Sucks to be Landa, who no doubt meant well, but seems destined to end up a loathsome footnote, like Pedrarias Davila.

    Even though at first glance, this tale from long ago might not seem so relevant to today's world ... it clearly shows, among other things, that it's never too late to admit the truth!

  17. Anon above: ironically, the opposite is true. If it weren't for Landa, who saved a syllabary of Mayan script and wrote the only contemporary Mayan ethnography ("Relacian de las Cosas de Yucatan"), there would be virtually no basis for modern research into ancient Mayan culture and language. He was the first Mayanist.

    He was also responsible for the destruction of a great deal of Mayan writing. But the loss of original documents happens naturally when one culture replaces another. In fact, evidence of cultures that no longer exist is often limited to what Catholic missionaries consciously wrote down. The Celtic civilization is a good example of this. If it weren't for Catholic missionaries, we would know nothing about it. What makes Landa remarkable -- and what he's remembered for -- is what he saved, not what he destroyed.

    So don't believe everything you read on the internet.

  18. "Ironically" your defense sounds like praising nazis because they had not managed to kill ALL the jews and so some survived death camps.
    "Loss of original documents happens naturally" - especially if you add oil and fire to a pile of them. Seriously, gimme a break and take your silly defense elsewhere.

  19. Who can defend his actions? Nobody. But to say he created the need for an entire research field is way off base. The opposite is true. He made a conscious effort to record Mayan culture and writing, and in so doing started the research field. Without him we wouldn't have that much.

    PS. Godwin's law so soon? Come on.

  20. I have read that Landa was not concerned with pissy Catholic resentment towards idol worship so much as his objection to the resilient tradition of human sacrifice - a cause which began when he saved a seven year old from death - and in the course... Read more of extirpating which he himself incited the deaths of many in a variety of excruciating ways.

    The Mayan civilization perished at the end of the First Millenium and it is suggested by the time De Landa arrived no living person understood Mayan hieroglyphs.

    He burned "idols" and Mayan texts, a massive act of cultural vandalism, but I also see Landa's Relacion De Las Cosas De Yucatan was an ethnographic masterpiece which ironically enough preserved the Mayan language for posterity and ultimate decoding: albeit in a form he did not understand.

    But sure.... bad bad bad bad.

    "Where one burns books, one will soon burn people." --Heinrich Heine

  21. How stupid does a group of people have to be to forget their own language even when it is destroyed?

  22. Sid - How stupid do you have to be to not even read the article's headline? The part where it says, "destroyed the ... WRITTEN language"? The Mayan people kept their spoken language and culture alive, and in fact were a huge help in the process of rediscovering the meaning of the Mayan hieroglyphs.

  23. Those of you who are defending Landa for "saving" the Mayan language with his syllabary, halting human sacrifice, etc., have interesting points ... but it's not that simple. Landa was a complex man, and did many good deeds, as well as some very bad deeds. You should see the documentary before you jump to conclusions.

    The syllabary was indeed instrumental in decoding the hieroglyphs, but Landa also gathered hundreds of books and burned them. Only four books survived, and they were probably far more important than Landa's syllabary. His syllabary would have been pointless if he hadn't destroyed the books and schools, and prohibited the teaching of Mayan writing.

    According to filmmaker David Labrun, in spite of Landa's actions, he was still widely mourned by the Mayans when he died. His legacy is not simple.

  24. Craig,

    Do you not see that your logic is pretty bad here? You're applying the division/part of the whole fallacy.

    And also, just attributing everything to a meme isn't a rational point. You are making a philosophical claim which you would be completely unable to provide empirical evidence for.

    You've yet to explain how you can even know that you are not carrying one of these negative memes. You operate on the assumption that your viewpoint is the correct one and any religious viewpoint is obviously carrying some sort of malicious viral meme yet you provide no empirical evidence of this.

    How do you know you aren't just carrying an irreligious meme which hates all things religious? How would you go about empirically proving this rather than making philosophical claims?

  25. those arguing against the article seem to have their own religious bias. diego behaved as he did because of his religion (Catholicism) specifically. had he not been a follower of Catholicism (probably Christianity in general), he may not have responded as he did.

    if we switched Catholicism to Islam in this article i nearly guarantee those attempting to point out the "weakness" of this article wouldn't be roused enough to respond.

    Catholicism's been the foundation of many evil, terrible things. as has atheism, being Caucasian, having a penis, etc. evil spans most physical/spiritual boundaries, but that doesn't mean it's inappropriate to point out the specific areas within which said-evil has been fueled. and it absolutely doesn't make the author's writing any less elegant.

    that aside, i re-read the article twice and i fail to see any subliminal opinion. looks objective to me, and seems that those offended are taking offense to the factual history of Catholicism, perhaps because of their unwillingness to admit the extent to which these olden atrocities reached.

  26. Religion is the biggest farse in History. It alienates people against each other. It causes destructive conflicts amongst cultures that last centuries. Unity through Diversity, We All Are One!

  27. Wow, thats downright scary when you think about it!


  28. Religion cannot survive without coercion. How's that old saying go: change a man's mind against his will - he remains of the same opinion still?

    It's interesting how Christians of today look with disdain at religious terrorists, forgetting that without the pro secular enlightenment period of the western world we'd still be bowing to tyrants who fancy themselves divine.

    No religion can survive without coercion.

  29. William S Burrough wrote all about this many years ago. Read all of his books. he was hipper than anyone in the 20th century. it's not easy to read his books [that means ALL of you], but worth it for the wisdom.

  30. Face it. There is no God. Morality is arbitrary. We can not Judge the past out of context. If we want to say that someone has done 'wrong', it has wrong by the standards of THAT time, not this time. he was judged, in his own time. We try to obsess over other peoples morality, and ignore our own.

  31. To be fair, what kind of culture is that that can be wiped out by one determined moron with some soldiers? Making huge generalization, they hardly reached the level of Middle Kingdom Egypt.

    Insert Theo Roosevelt's war with savages quote :)

  32. rraven, you can't be serious. That's the most morally bankrupt comment I've seen in a long time. Might makes right? If I can beat the crap out of you, does that mean it's OK to force you to do whatever I want?

  33. Craig A. James: no, not might. Pity for unnecessary destruction of many artifacts, but it was a primitive culture, destroying it and replacing it with much more advanced culture is obviously good.

  34. @rraven: yeah, that's why the Mayans are so praised by their math and astronomy knowledge. They even share the creation of the 0 (zero) with the Egyptians or Chinese (I'm not sure which). Primitive? Hmm, please at least read Wikipedia before commenting and outing yourself as stupid.

    And all the comments just make me see, how full of shit all of you are.

    BTW, I'm Mexican, born and raised in Merida, Yucatan. So, I think I know a bit more about this than you do.

    And YES, Diego de Landa, did destroy most information and later became the first "european man" to document Mayan related history.

    And @Endo The Bible, does say "kill unbelievers", please read it first, maybe it will lead you to Atheism ;)

  35. @Bernie

    Sorry I am about a year behind, but in the interest of truth and fairness . . .

    I have a dozen Muslim friends. I have worked with dozens more. They are as pleasant, nice, trust worthy, and amiable as anyone.

    In fact, they are generally way too nice for me to feel good about bashing their religion. They don't try to convert me and they don't assume I am a horrible person because I don't subscribe to their doctrine.

    Christians on the other hand are generally repugnant concerning these matters. More often, Christians earn the derision I am happy to give them concerning their brain washing.

    Keep this in mind:
    NOI and Al-Qaeda are to Islam
    KKK and Nazi's are to Christianity

  36. sparkmeinthemoodofoctoberMarch 2, 2010 at 1:34 AM

    "A pacific one, a culture who had no need to defend them selfs from catholic nut jobs."

    Oh, wow, I was not aware that prehispanic civilizations were pacific. You know, with all these wars and sacrifices that history books mention, and the fact that some indians who had lost to the power of Aztecs joined forces with Cortez to beat them, I think I missed that.


    (You guys need to read a little more)

  37. rrraven said: "it was a primitive culture, destroying it and replacing it with much more advanced culture is obviously good"

    Hitler also had the same set of deals: anything and anyone considered inferior or not meeting his standards or ideals was condemned to destruction. He felt Judaism (as well as most other religions) was an archaic, primitive cultural failure and that Jews, as well as the chronically sick, the physically and mentally challenged, homosexuals and colored people were contributing to Germany's (and all the world's) downfall. So, he developed "The Final Solution" as part of his plan to replace them, as he felt they were abominations, and pretty much everything else, with his own version of Christianity and Aryan purity. This was a man who also believed that it was a good thing to rid the world of "defective" or "primitive" cultures and replace them with his own, more "advanced" culture and saw that as progress.

    People who think like this tard should be dumped on a remote island with all manner of weapons where they can wage holy wars, conquests, and cultural "cleansing" or "replacing" of so-called "primitive" cultures amongst themselves (think "Escape from New York") so the rest of the world can move forward with enlightenment, learning, compassion, scientific development and peace..

  38. @Tim
    The Catholic Church is one Big Murderer. In history it has killed and tortured beyond human reason in the name of Inquisition hundreds of thousands human beings. their work is not the work of the Christ which is Love but of the Devil which is fear.

    This tortures and inquisitions did not happens only in the Mayan culture, the RCC have done this atrocities to almost all cutures from Mexico, to Macau, to China, the Philippines and every places they have colonized.

    How about these torturous will be done to all Bishops and the Popes? I really want to see these tortures fall untto them.

  39. It's amazing that most religions around the world profess their god's love and forgiving of all men yet at the same time advocating intolerance -and in many cases violence- toward those who are deemed different, "errant", having opposing opinions, or even neutrally positioned. It's as if they all say, "God loves everyone, just so long as they believe in MY god." Everywhere you go, it's an exclusive club that requires conformity to a set of standards and ideology in order to be accepted and have fellowship, even though many religions say "God's house is open to all.". What a crock of crap.

    Religion is the all-time champion of hypocrisy, exaggerated claims and false

  40. George Carlin said it best (sorry for some language, but I am quoting him verbatim):

    "One phrase that come up quite a bit in abortion discussions is "sanctity of life." What about that? Do you think there's a thing as sanctity of life? Personally,, I think it's a bunch of shit. Who says life is sacred? .....god? Great, but if you read your history you know that god is one of the leading causes of death and has been for thousands of years. Hindus, Moslems, Christians, Jews, all taking turns killing one another, because god told them it was a good idea. The sword of god, the blood of the lamb, Vengeance is mine, onward Christian soldiers. Millions of dead people. All because they gave the wrong answer to the god Question: Do you believe in god?


    BAM! Dead.

    How about you? Do you believe in god?


    Do you believe in MY god?


    BAM! Dead!

    My god has a bigger dick than your god.

    For thousands of years all the bloodiest and most brutal wars have been based on religious hatred. Which of course, is fine with me; anytime "holy" people are killing one another, I'm a happy guy......but please, don't kill each other and give me that shit about sanctity of life."

  41. Well then, Craig must prefer the former Mayan religion of human sacrifice on the Pyramids, to Christianity.

    The human sacrifices, en masse, were to appease their satanic sun god, as historically depicted in the movie "Apocalypto".

    In his movie, Mel Gibson showed the Mayan high priest cutting out his victims' hearts, but he intentionally failed to include the rampant cannibalism that was practiced in every Indian village.

    This Mayan and Aztec cannibalism was documented in the 500 year old book "The Conquest of New Spain" by Bernal Diaz.

    Craig needs to take time to do a little more research.

    Francisco Bernadone

  42. Fracisco – In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries slavery, murder, infanticide, polygamy and many other things we consider immoral were practiced by just about every culture. Native Americans, Africans, Australians, Europeans ... there was hardly a culture on Earth that we would consider moral today. Including European Christians.

    What you're trying to do is excuse Diego de Landa and the Roman Catholic Church by claiming that they were less bad than the natives of America that they murdered and enslaved, and whose culture they nearly destroyed. Your argument doesn't fly.

  43. One can not rely on Eurocentric literature written about another culture. I can not tell you how many books I have read that are the words of Catholic priests and others of the European crown. These people came from a place where the environment had been long destroyed by their ancestors. Many of them thought the Indigenous people were inferior because they had not already destroyed their environment. They could not conceive why any one would want to live in balance with nature, thus they thought that Indigenous people must have been just another lowly animal of nature.

    Most all of the diseases that effected the native populations, upon European contact, were ones the Europeans had, were from living in close quarters with the animals they domesticated [livestock], some examples are: small pox, chicken pox, measles and such. As I stated before, most villages were small family groups that moved around in their territories through the cycle of the seasons, unlike the Europeans that were sleeping with their livestock, penned up in one place for long periods of time.

    I once read about a Catholic priest denouncing native Americans for sweating in their sweat lodges and then jumping into a body of water to rinse off, all while the priest was standing there thinking himself superior in is sweat stained robe and had not bathed in weeks. We are talking about a people who used to sew their clothes on, so they could not be taken off [Europeans].

    It may not be their fault to their unsightly ways of doing things, for most suffered from venereal disease which certainly must have rotted their minds. So let me also mention that venereal disease was the number one killer of native Americans, which was spread amongst them, by the rape of their women, by these more the holy Europeans.

    It is a shame that they did not bring enough sheep with them to meet their sexual needs. But lets not forget that the priests them selves preferred the young native boys.

    I could go on for days on this subject, but I think maybe you are starting to see my point.

  44. Catholics in South America did many bad things--- LOL, but in america, they blame EVERYTHING on... wasps, "anglos" or anglo-saxons, or southerners, or appalachians, or germans LOL. --all code words for protestant. They can't stand that America was blessed in direct relationship with how much they embraced protestantism and rejected the southern europe religion. They blame puritans for all american problems, but not even 5% wasps live in nyc or any other decision making cities, lol. They brag about not having any wasps on the supreme court anymore, and yet they are responsible for all evil. It is a very scary demonization campaign just like in europe, but now they brought to u.s. They saw nothing decent in the earlier american people. It's genocide. They say american south had "slaves," but really spanish and portuguese had 90% in south america---and many buried stories s/a this. It is scary when groups kill, and for nothing good, and then blame and demonize. Just not good. It is ethnic cleansing, genocide, vilification for the point of getting things. Genocide is illegal now.

  45. Yes, but the people who killed off the Native Americans saw them as heathen savages, so there was a religious angle to their demise.

  46. The problem with punishing him for "carrying out an inquisition without authorization." is that they didn't punish him harshly enough. Any system where the judge of an original jurisdiction judges without any reference to an objective system of right and wrong and uses a subjective system without any appeals is going to produce this. We have lots of judges who do this and are never even slightly punished. He should have been assigned to a monastery at least for a long time and so should our judges


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