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The Books of Chilam Balam are the sacred books of the Maya of Yucatan and were 

named after their last and greatest prophet. Chilam, or chilan, was his title which means 

that he was the mouth-piece or interpreter of the gods. Balam means jaguar, but it is also 
a common family name in Yucatan, so the title of the present work could well be 

translated as the Book of the Prophet Balam.

During a large part of the colonial period, and even down into the Nineteenth Century, 

many of the towns and villages of northern Yucatan possessed Books of Chilam Balam, 

and this designation was supplemented by the name of the town to which the book 
belonged. Thus the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel is named for a village in the 

District of Tekax, a short distance northwest of the well-known town of Teabo.

This Prophet Balam lived during the last decades of the Fifteenth Century and probably 

the first of the Sixteenth Century and foretold the coming of strangers from the east who 
would establish a new religion. The prompt fulfilment of this prediction so enhanced his 

reputation as a seer that in later times he was considered the authority for many other 

prophecies which had been uttered long before his time. Inasmuch as prophecies were 
the most prominent feature of many of the older books of this sort, it was natural to 

name them after the famous soothsayer.

The Books of Chilam Balam were written in the Maya language but in the European 

script which the early missionaries adapted to express such sounds as were not found in 

Spanish. Each book is a small library in itself and contains a considerable variety of 
subject material. Besides the prophecies we find brief chronicles, fragmentary historical 

narratives, rituals, native catechisms, mythological accounts of the creation of the 
world, almanacs and medical treatises. Many such passages were no doubt originally 

transcribed from older hieroglyphic manuscripts, some of which were still in existence 

in northern Yucatan as late as the close of the Seventeenth Century. As time went on, 
more and more European material was added to the native Maya lore. In some of the 

books not only do we find the ritual of a religion which is a mixture of the old faith with 

Christianity, but there are also translations into Maya of Spanish religious tracts and 
astrological treatises, as well as notes of events which occurred during the colonial 

period. In two of these books we even find part of a Spanish romance translated into 


The ability of the Maya to write their own language in European script was due to the 

educational policy of the Spanish missionaries. Although at first they rather admired the 
Maya for having a graphic system of their own, they were determined to destroy the old 

manuscripts and eradicate all knowledge of the glyphs from the minds of their converts. 
The Indians had a great reverence for their hieroglyphic writing which was permeated 

with the symbols of their old religion, and the friars felt that if they could wipe out this 

knowledge and substitute for it the European system of writing, it would be an effective 
means for the complete Christianization of the native population. This should be the 

easier, since the knowledge of hieroglyphic writing was confined to the priesthood and 

certain members of the nobility. Diego de Landa, afterward bishop of Yucatan, burned 
twenty-seven hieroglyphic manuscripts at the famous auto de fe in Mani in 1562, and 

although many of the Spaniards severely criticized him for this, there is little doubt that 

other missionaries followed his example whenever they had the opportunity.


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