Posted by: Johan Normark | September 7, 2010

The Books of Chilam Balam

Mayanist researchers have from time to time used textual sources from the Colonial period and projected them into the Prehispanic past in order to shed some light on historical or cultural issues. The so-called Books of Chilam Balam (BCB) have been particularly important in trying to understand Maya cosmology. These nine manuscripts, found at various places in the northern Yucatan, were all written down with Latin alphabet, but in Yucatec. Chilam/chilan is a priest who declares prophecies and Balam is a common surname meaning Jaguar. Since these Colonial period books mention historical events predating the European arrival it has been assumed that they all go back to a common Prehispanic narrative. Particularly the mentioning of katun (20 year periods) prophecies that date back to Prehispanic times have been of interest. A recent example is Prudence Rice’s may-cycle (13 katuns) sociopolitical model for the Prehispanic Maya area. The reason why Mayanists have found these books of interest is that they were written down by Maya authors for Maya addressees that were largely “outside” the Spanish governance and mission. Hence, they have been assumed to be less affected by Spanish influence and therefore more authentic to the Prehispanic beliefs.

However, in his outstanding study “Converting Words” William Hanks (2010:362) shows that “there is simply too much Christianized Maya reducido [missionary Maya, the way Christian ideas were translated into Yucatec Maya by the Spanish missionaries] in the BCBs to think that these texts come from a position of sheer exteriority. Their writers were colonial subjects; even if they carved out spaces of discursive autonomy, they did so using much language that was itself the product of linguistic reducción.”

Basically, those who wrote the BCBs (and there were many authors for each manuscript) were people deeply affected by Christian doctrines. Hanks (2010:362) shows that “doctrinal Maya, the converting word, was an important part of the scribal repertoire and the genre of the books. This in turn poses a formidable problem of method for the older way of reading these works. How can we be confident whether a passage […] is an ancient text or […] a colonial one? The answer is that we cannot be confident in such judgments unless we undertake an in-depth analysis of Maya reducido, which has been lacking in the literature to date.”

Since few archaeologists are capable of doing such an analysis I suggest references to the BCBs or the Popol Vuh to be handled with care. I am deeply suspicious of any attempt to fill spatiotemporal gaps in our understanding of the Prehispanic past with analogies from sources that potentially were heavily affected by Christian doctrines. Such sources are primarily texts. A greater focus on material objects without this filling in of voids should be a better strategy. However, that is not exactly the way the anthropological tradition of Mesoamerican archaeology works. It will always be anthropocentric and the analogies will sneak in one way or another.


  1. Thanks for the notification of Hanks’ work, Johan. I too am highly suspicious of the Chilam Balam books, as the historical information is seriously garbled. Attempts to interpret these texts with a 24 year katun also are suspicious as this method still leaves numerous incorrect dates and there is no good evidence that the Precolumbian Maya made such a drastic change to their calendar. If the writers of the Chilam Balam books got Colonial dates so wrong, why should we trust them for Precolumbian dates? There is very little historical information provided for the Precolumbian period, and what little is given doesn’t jive very well with the picture formed from archaeology. Attempts to find the Tutul Xiu in Uxmal, I think, are completely misplaced, as there is no reason to believe they are anything but late Postclassic arrivals in the region. The only reference to any person who is clearly pre-Late Postclassic is Kakupacal, and even this history is garbled. So I am definitely in agreement; the Chilam Balam books must be used with extreme caution and we should remain wary of any interpretation of Precolumbian life and history that relies entirely on entries in these books.

    • Are there any indications that there might have been more than one Long Count during the Classic period? I mean, are we absolutely sure that all sites had the same beginning (as we would record it in the Gregorian calendar)? How often do we find the same events recorded at different sites (which, I assume, must be the only way to know for sure that two sites made use of the same calendar)?


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