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Bishop Diego de Landa

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Bishop Diego de Landa

Diego de Landa Calderón (12 November 1524 – 1579) was a Spanish Bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yucatán. He left future generations with a mixed legacy in his writings, which contain much valuable information on pre-Columbian Maya civilization, and his actions which destroyed much of that civilization's history, literature, and traditions.


Born in Cifuentes, Guadalajara, Spain, he became a Franciscan friar in 1541, and was sent as one of the first Franciscans to the Yucatán, arriving in 1549. Landa was in charge of bringing the Roman Catholic faith to the Maya peoples after the Spanish conquest of Yucatán. He presided over a spiritual monopoly granted to the Catholic order of Franciscans by the Spanish crown, and worked diligently to buttress the order's power while converting the indigenous Maya. His initial appointment was to the mission of San Antonio in Izamal, which served also as his primary residence while in Yucatán. In 1562 he conducted the infamous auto-da-fé of Maní, which attracted negative attention from many other authorities, both secular and ecclesiastical. Bishop Toral saw this action as impinging on the authority of the Bishop and Landa had to return to Spain to defend himself against accusations of excessive violence in the conversion of the Maya and of overstepping his authority. His actions were strongly condemned before the Council of the Indies. This resulted in a "committee of doctors" being commissioned to investigate Landa's alleged crimes. In 1569 the committee absolved Landa of his crimes and when Bishop de Toral died in 1571 Landa was appointed Bishop in his place and he took the seat in 1573. Landa's period as Bishop was marked by continued campaigns of extirpation of idolatry among the Maya and he continued attracting opposition from secular authorities who found his methods excessive. This caused long conflict between the ecclesiastical judiciary system of de Landa and the Governors of Yucatán. At his death he was succeeded as Bishop by Gregorio de Montalvo, who ended the Franciscan orders monopoly on the catechization of the Maya, which had been supported wholeheartedly by de Landa, by handing it over to secular clergy.

He is the author of the Relación de las cosas de Yucatán in which he catalogues the Maya religion, Maya language, culture and writing system. This manuscript was written around 1566 on his return to Spain; however, the original copies have long since been lost. The account is known to us only as an abridgement, which in turn had undergone several iterations by various copyists. The extant version was produced around 1660, and was discovered by the 19th-century French cleric Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg in 1862. Brasseur de Bourbourg published the manuscript two years later in a bilingual French-Spanish edition, entitled Relation des choses de Yucatán de Diego de Landa.


Suppression of the Maya

After hearing of Roman Catholic Maya who continued to practice idol worship, he ordered an Inquisition in Mani ending with a ceremony called auto-da-fé. During the ceremony on July 12, 1562, at least forty Maya codices and approximately 20,000 Maya cult images were burned.[1] These actions earned Landa a controversial place in the history of the Christianization of the Americas.

Landa's Inquisition showered a level of physical abuse upon the indigenous Maya that was viewed as excessive even by other members of the church such as his predecessor as Bishop, Francisco de Toral.[2] Scores of Maya nobles were jailed pending interrogation, and large numbers of Maya nobles and commoners were subjected to examination under cruel and excessive forms of torture.[3] The violent methods of Landa's inquisition made many Maya flee into the forests to avoid further abuse.[4]

Some contemporary observers were troubled by this widespread use of torture. Crown fiat had earlier exempted indigenous peoples from the authority of the Inquisition, on the grounds that their understanding of Christianity was "too childish" to be held culpable for heresies. Additionally, Landa dispensed with much of the extensive formal procedure and documentation that accompanied Spanish torture and interrogation. When Landa received direct orders from the Viceroy through the Governor of Yucatán Francisco Velázquez de Gijón he retaliated by accusing the governor of abusing the Indians himself, of being an immoral man and a bad Christian and having had an extramarital affair with another man's woman.[5] This sparked a conflict between the ecclesiastical and secular authorities of Yucatán which resulted in the Governor being ex-communicated by Landa, and being replaced in 1577.[6]

Landa’s justifications

Scholars have argued that most instances of the Mexican inquisition showed little concern to eradicate magic or convict individuals for heterodox beliefs,[7] and that witchcraft was treated more as a religious problem capable of being resolved through confession and absolution. Diego de Landa, however was “monomaniacal in his fervor”[8] against it. Landa believed a huge underground network of apostasies,[9] led by displaced indigenous priests, were jealous of the power the Church enjoyed and sought to reclaim it for themselves. These apostates, Landa surmised, had launched a counteroffensive against the Church and he believed it was his duty to expose the evil before it could revert the population to their old heathen ways.

Landa claims he had discovered evidence of human sacrifice and other idolatrous practices while rooting out native idolatry. Although one of the alleged victims of said sacrifices, Mani Encomendero Dasbatés, was later found to be alive and Landa’s enemies contested his right to run an inquisition,[10] Landa insisted the Papal Bull Exponi nobis justified his actions.[9]

Lopez de Cogolludo, Landa’s chief Franciscan biographer, wrote of Landa’s first hand experiences with human sacrifices. When Landa first came to the Yucatán, he made it his mission to walk the breadth of the peninsula and preach to the most remote villages.[11] While passing through Cupules, he came upon a group numbering 300 that was about to sacrifice a young boy. Enraged, Landa stormed through the crowd, released the boy, smashed the idols and began preaching with such zeal and sincerity that they begged him to remain in the land and teach them more.

Landa was remarkable in that he was willing to go where no others would. He entered lands only recently conquered where native resentment of Spaniards was still very intense. Armed with nothing but the conviction to learn as much of native culture as he could, so that it would be easier for him to destroy it in the future,[12] Landa formulated an intimate contact with natives. Natives placed him in such an esteemed position they were willing to show him some of their sacred writings that had been transcribed on deerskin books.[13] To Landa and the other Franciscan friars, the very existence of these Mayan codices was proof of diabolical practices. In references to these books, Landa has said:

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 (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.[14]

Landa himself was never in doubt of the necessity of his inquisition. Whether magic and idolatry were being practiced or not, there can be little doubt Landa was “possessed” by fantasies of demonic power in a new land.[15] Landa, like most Franciscans of the time, subscribed to millenarian ideas,[16] which demanded the mass conversion of as many souls as possible before the turn of the century. Eliminating evil and pagan practices, Landa believed, would usher the Second Coming of Christ that much sooner.


A controversial figure in the history of the Christianization of Central America Diego de Landa is at once reviled for his cruelty and for his destruction of invaluable historic materials about Maya culture and valued for his personal contributions to the study of the same.

Landa’s Relación De Las Cosas De Yucatán is about as complete a treatment of Mayan religion as we are likely to ever have.[17] While controversy surrounds Landa’s use of force in the conversion process, few scholars would debate the general accuracy of his recordings. Allen Wells calls his work an “ethnographic masterpiece”,[18] while William J. Folan, Laraine A. Fletcher and Ellen R. Kintz have written that Landa‘s account of Maya social organization and towns before conquest is a “gem.[19]” Landa’s writings are our main contemporary source for Mayan history,[17] without which our collective knowledge of Mayan ethnology would be devastatingly small.[20] While Landa might have exaggerated some claims to justify his actions to his accusers, his intimate contact with natives and all around accuracy in other fields heavily implies his version of events has at least some truth in it.

Ironically, historian John F Chuchiak IV has suggested that the result of Landa's fervor to exterminate the traditional Maya religion in fact had the opposite effect and is partially the reason why Maya religion is still alive today in the Yucatán. He argues that Landa's excesses caused the secular authorities to remove the Franciscans' right to take disciplinary measures against idolaters while still leaving the Maya under the care of the Franciscans' cathechization. Chuchiak suggests that the revocation of the Franciscans' "rights" to administer punishments to idolaters was an important factor in the survival of Maya religion to this day.[21]

Epigraphic legacy

Landa's Relación de las cosas de Yucatán also created a valuable record of the Mayan writing system, which despite its inaccuracies was later to prove instrumental in the later decipherment of the writing system. Landa asked his informants (his primary sources were two Maya individuals descended from a ruling Maya dynasty, literate in the script) to write down the glyphic symbols corresponding to each of the letters of the (Spanish) alphabet, in the belief that there ought to be a one-to-one correspondence between them. The results were faithfully reproduced by Landa in his later account, although he recognised that the set contained apparent inconsistencies and duplicates, which he was unable to explain. Later researchers reviewing this material also formed the view that the "de Landa alphabet" was inaccurate or fanciful, and many subsequent attempts to use this transcription remained unconvincing. It was not until much later, in the mid-20th century, when it was realised and then confirmed that it was not a transcription of an alphabet, as Landa and others had originally supposed, but was rather a syllabary. Confirmation of this was only to be established by the work of Russian linguist Yuri Knorozov in the 1950s, and the succeeding generation of Mayanists.



  • Clendinnen, Inga. 2003. Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatán, 1517-1570 (2nd ed). Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
  • Chuchiak, John F. 2005. In Servitio Dei: Fray Diego de Landa, the Franciscan Order, and the Return of the Extirpation of Idolatry in the Calonial Diocese of Yucatán, 1573-1579. The Americas 61(4):611–646.
  • Durbin, Marshall E. 1969. "An Interpretation of Bishop Diego De Landa's Maya Alphabet." Philological and Documentary Studies 2/4.
  • de Landa, Diego. (William E. Gates, tr.) 1937. Yucatán Before and After the Conquest. (English translation of Landa's Relación.)
  • —, 2002. Relacion de las cosas de Yucatán/The relationship of the things of the Yucatán (in series Cronicas De America)
  • —, (Alfred M. Tozze, tr.) 1941. "Relación de las cosas de Yucatán: A translation". (Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University 18).

External links

  • A biography
  • Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing Glyph Drawings from Landa's Relación: A Caveat to the Investigator by George Stuart, Center for Maya Research

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