Posted by: Johan Normark | May 22, 2012

The extirpation of idolatry in Colonial Yucatan

The extirpation of idolatry (idolatria) in the Maya area is a sad history of religious intolerance. During Colonial times idolatria meant “the adoration or cult that gentiles give to creatures or statues of their false gods” (p 149). From the earliest days of Christianity, idolatry became linked with superstition which was seen as a confession of unbelief by external worship.

The Spanish crown argued that the higher posts in the ecclesiastical hierarchy should be held by those clerics who were well educated, served in cathedrals or had extirpated idolatry. However, it was a futile endeavor that never succeeded because the Spaniards misunderstood what the Maya did with their “idols”. They did not “worship” them but more on the problematic use of Christian terminology in describing Maya ritual activities in a later post. Hence I use “” around terms like deity, god, religion, etc. to show their problematic uses.

In this post I will describe the historical sources to our knowledge about these activities. These are the dossiers or relaciónes de méritos that the priests and friars or an agent of them brought to Spain to show their merits. Some historians have argued that these are dubious sources as torture may have been used to make people confess. Chuchiak downplay the use of torture being used in the confessions because the local parish priest relied on local scribes and the Spaniard was quite isolated, or as one of them said “I am a lone island of Spanish civilization amongst a furious sea of idolatrous natives” (p 147).

Clendinnen and Tedlock argue that the clergy over-reported the cases of idolatry because this would look good to Spanish administrators. Chuchiak argues the opposite because the clergy had much to lose if people reported that widespread idolatry persisted. They could be removed from their office for failing. Sometimes even the clergy was blamed for being the cause of the idolatry. In fact, bishops and governors broke up large parishes where reports on idolatry persisted. Hence, the local priests would lose part of their annual revenue if idolatry persisted.

The Catholic clergy did not deny the powers of the idols but they attributed them to the devil. The term cizin (“devil”) came to stand for all Prehispanic “deities”, “religious” images and rituals. However, for the Maya their “gods” were both benevolent and malevolent. They changed their minds and the Maya propitiated them with gifts and sacrifices. Since these images were not important for their “worship”, the clerics broadened the definition of idolatry to include everything that was different from Spanish Christian society.

The campaigns against idolatry have been subdivided into three periods. The first is the period of the iconoclast bishops that began with de Landa (1572-1636). The second period, the “Era of the Zealous Juez Provisor”, ran from 1636 to 1714. These chief judges of the episcopal court called the Provisorato de Indios led the campaigns. The third era (1716-1827) is called “Era of Clerical Disillusionment”. During this time the clergy lost the hope of converting the Maya. They rather focused on idolatry among mestizo, mulatto and Spaniards. The clerics became more and more negative towards the Maya and after 1812 when the Maya were freed from tribute the clerics became hostile. The parish priests disappeared and they delegated the responsibilities to vicarios. Hence, idolatry became more and more. In fact, of the 399 known idolatry cases 347 or 87% did not involve worship of idols or images.

Chuchiak IV, John F. (2002). Toward a regional definition of idolatry: Reexamining idolatry trials in the “Relaciónes de méritos” and their role in defining the concept of “idolatria” in Colonial Yucatán, 1570-1780. Journal of Early Modern History, 6(2):140-167

Diego de Landa


  1. Thanks for this article! I had not realized the bias caused by the resulting effects of either over or under reporting cases of ‘idolatry’ by the clergy.


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