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When the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards was completed, Hernán Cortés, who had heard of the existence of rich lands inhabited by a number of tribes in Guatemala, decided to send Pedro de Alvarado, the most fearless of his captains, to subdue them.
In the sixteenth century, the territory immediately to the south of Mexico, which is now the Republic of Guatemala, was inhabited by various independent nations which were descended from the ancient Maya, founders of the remarkable civilization whose remains are to be found throughout northern Guatemala and western Honduras, in Chiapas, and in Yucatán, Mexico. Of the nations located in the interior of Guatemala, the most important and numerous, without doubt, were the kingdoms of the Quiché and of the Cakchiquel, rival nations which had often made war upon each other for territorial, political, and economic reasons, and which continually disputed with each other for supremacy. At the time of the Spanish Conquest, the Quiché nation was the most powerful and cultured of all those that occupied the region of Central America.
[paragraph continues] In 1524, when Alvarado attacked the Quiché, the Indians offered vigorous resistance, but after bloody battles they were forced to surrender before the superiority of the arms and tactics of the Spaniards. As a last desperate measure, the Quiché kings decided to receive Alvarado in peace at Utatlán, their capital. But once within its walls, the astute Spanish captain suspected that they were trying to destroy him and his army in the narrow streets between the fortifications, and so he withdrew to the surrounding fields and there seized the kings, condemned them to death as traitors, and executed them before their terrorized subjects. Then he ordered the city razed to the ground and the inhabitants scattered in all directions.
When the conquest of the Quiché was completed, it is likely that a part of the inhabitants of Utatlán, especially members of the nobility and the priesthood, who had their houses in the capital and saw them disappear in the devouring flames, moved to Chichicastenango, the next town, which the ancient Quiché called Chuilá, or "place of nettles." Later the Spaniards named this town Santo Tomás and entrusted its pacification to missionaries of the religious orders, who converted the inhabitants to the Roman Catholic faith and introduced them to the civilization of the Old World. In this way, Santo Tomás Chichicastenango, as it is still called, became an important center of the Quiché Indians, which prospered throughout the three hundred years of Spanish rule and which today is still one of the most industrious and extensive Indian communities of Guatemala and the Mecca of foreigners, who are strongly attracted by the natural beauty of the place and the picturesque dress and customs of its people.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Father Francisco Ximénez of the Dominican Order lived within the thick walls of the convent of Chichicastenango. Father Ximénez was a wise and virtuous man, who knew the languages of the Indians and had a lively interest in converting them to the Christian faith. It is probable that in his dealings with them, and through his help and fatherly advice, he had won their confidence and had succeeded in having them tell him the stones and traditions of their race. Ximénez, as I have said, was an accomplished linguist and, therefore, had the advantage of
being able to communicate with his parishioners directly in the Quiché language, concerning which he has left valuable grammatical studies. All of these favorable circumstances helped to overcome the natural distrust of the Indians, and it is probably due to this fact that, finally, the book which they so jealously guarded, and which contained the ancient histories of their nation, came into the hands of this Dominican friar.
This document, written shortly after the Spanish Conquest by a Quiché Indian who had learned to read and write Spanish, is generally known as the Popol Vuh, Popol Buj, Book of the Council, Book of the Community, the Sacred Book, or National Book of the Quiché, and it contains the cosmogonical concepts and ancient traditions of this aboriginal American people, the history of their origin, and the chronology of their kings down to the year 1550.
The name of its author and the fate of his original manuscript, which remained hidden for more than 150 years, are unknown. Father Ximénez, who found it in his parish at Santo Tomás Chichicastenango, transcribed the original Quiché text and translated it into Spanish under the title Historias del origen de los Indios de esta Provincia de Guatemala. This transcription, in the handwriting of this priest-historian, is still preserved; but no information has survived concerning the original document written in the Quiché tongue, and it is possible that after Father Ximénez had finished copying it, it was returned to its Indian owners and to the obscurity in which it had remained up to then.
Ximénez says in the foreword to his second translation of the manuscript that the lack of information about the ancient history of the Indians is due to the fact that they hid their books in which it was written, and if some of them had been found in some places, it was impossible to read or to understand them. For this reason--says the historian--"much has been imagined about these various peoples and their origin." And he adds: "And so I determined to transcribe, word for word, all of their tales and translated them into our Spanish language from the Quiché language in which I found they had been written, from the time of the Conquest, when (as they say there) they changed their way of writing to ours. . . .
In the Relación of Fray Alonso Ponce's expedition it is said that one of the three things for which the Maya of Yucatan (whom he visited in 1586) were most praised is that "they had characters and letters, with which they wrote their histories and ceremonies and the order of the sacrifices to their idols and their calendar in books made of the bark of a certain tree, which were some very long strips of a quarter or a third [of a Spanish vara] in width which they folded and brought together and in this way it had the form of a bound book in quarto, more or less. Only the priests of the idols (who in that language are called 'ahkines') and some principal Indians understood these letters and characters."
The Indians of Mexico and Guatemala also preserved their histories and other writings by means of paintings on cloths, some of which were saved from the general destruction in which the books and Indian documents disappeared. The Bishop of Chiapas, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, who, from the beginning of the Conquest, gathered extensive information about the life and customs of the Indians, says, in an oft-quoted passage, that among them were chroniclers and historians who knew the origin of everything pertaining to their religion, the founding of villages and cities, how the kings and lords carried out their memorable deeds, how they governed, and how they elected their successors; they knew about their great men and their courageous captains, of their wars, their ancient customs, and all that belonged to their history. And, he adds: "These chroniclers kept account of the days, months, and years [and] although they did not have writing such as ours, they had, nevertheless, their figures and characters," with which they could represent all that they wanted to and with them they formed "their large books With such keen and subtle skill that we might say our writings were not an improvement over theirs. Some of these books were seen by our clergy, and even I saw part of those which were burned by the monks, apparently because they thought [these books] might harm the Indians in matters concerning religion, since at that time they were at the beginning of their conversion."
The historians Acosta, Clavijero, and Ixtlilxóchitl say that the Indians learned to recite the most notable speeches of their ancestors
and the songs of their poets, and that one or another of them taught these to the youths in schools which were connected with the temples, and in this way they were handed down from generation to generation.
In another passage of the Apologética, Bishop Las Casas reports that the Mexican Indians had five books of figures and characters. The first book contained the history and the computation of their time; the second had the days of ceremony and the feast days of each year; the third dealt with dreams, auguries, and superstitions; the fourth with the way in which children were named; and the fifth contained their marriage rites and ceremonies. He adds that besides computing the years, feast days, and days of ceremony, the books of the first class told of their wars, victories, and defeats, the origin, genealogy, and deeds of the principal lords, and public disasters and their conquests down to the arrival of the Spaniards. This book mentions the peoples who in olden times inhabited the territory of Mexico, and of whom it says confusingly that they came from the Seven Ravines. That first book, says Las Casas in conclusion, is called Xiuhtonalamatl in the Indian language, or "Story of the Counting of the Years."
Ixtlilxóchitl, on his part, makes the following statement about his Mexican ancestors:
"Each tribe had its writers; some wrote annals, arranging in order the things that came to pass during each year, together with the day, month, and hour; others had charge of the genealogy of the descendants of the kings, lords, and persons of lineage, setting down with detailed account those who were born, and in the same manner striking out the names of those who died. Some had the care of the paintings of the boundaries, limits, and landmarks of the lands; whose they were, and to whom they belonged; others had charge of the books of laws, rites, and ceremonies which they followed."
According to Ixtlilxóchitl, Huematzin, the king of Tezcuco, had gathered together all the chronicles of the Tolteca in the Teoamoxtli, or "Divine Book," which contained the legends of the creation of the world, the emigration from Asia of those peoples, the stops on the Journey, the dynasty of their kings, their social and religious institutions, their sciences, arts, and so on.
Herrera, the well-known compiler of the Spanish historical reports of the sixteenth century, repeats the information about these native books which were found "in Yucatan and in Honduras." Oviedo and Gómara, on their part, give an account of the books of the Indians of Nicaragua. "They have, "says Gómara, "books of paper and parchment, a hand in width and twelve hands in length, folded like a bellows, on both sides of which they make known, in blue, purple, and other colors, the memorable events which take place."
Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who wrote his Verdadera Historia de la Conquista de la Nueva España, in Guatemala, says that the Indians of Mexico had "booklets of a paper made of the bark of a tree which they called amate [Ficus], and in them made their signs of the times and of past events."
It was very difficult for the natives of Guatemala to renounce the traditions of their forefathers, and for a long time after the Conquest they continued to perform their dances, during which they sang episodes of their ancient history and recited passages of their mythology. The Spaniards were not pleased with this, and as early as the year 1550, Licenciado Tomás López, Oidor of the Audiencia of Guatemala, less tolerant than his predecessor the illustrious Zorita, requested the King that he not permit the Indians to perform their old dances, as they do, singing their ancient, idolatrous histories."
The American Indian's devotion to his ancient beliefs still persisted in Yucatan in the seventeenth century, according to the following paragraphs from Cogolludo's Historia de Yucatán:
"They had very harmful legends of the creation of the world, and some (after they knew how) had written them down, kept them and read them in their gatherings, although they had been baptized Christians. Dr. Aguilar says in his Informe that he had one of these books of legends which he took from a choir-master of the chapel, by the name of Cuytún, of the town of Zucop, from which he [the choir-master] fled, and he could never reach him in order to learn the origin of their Genesis."
With a very liberal and human understanding, befitting real Christian missionaries, the Spanish priests and friars of Guatemala
from the beginning of the Colonial Period undertook to teach the Indians to read and write Spanish. Some of the latter made rapid progress, in writing and using the Latin alphabet, and wrote in their own language the chronicles and stories of the ancient times which they had preserved by handing them down by word of mouth, or by means of pictorial characters. The Spanish clergy not only did not oppose this work, but actually encouraged the Indians in it, and thanks to this enlightened policy, valuable documents have come down to us which shed light on the history of the races that inhabited the country many centuries before the Spaniards arrived.
Besides the Manuscrito de Chichicastenango, the following are the only original Quiché documents which are preserved:
1. The original manuscript of the Historia Quiché by Don Juan de Torres, dated October 24, 1580, which differs from the manuscript which Fuentes y Guzmán cites and which contains the account of the kings and lords, chiefs of the Great Houses, and of the chinamitales or calpules of the Quiché;
2. The Spanish translation of the Títulos de los antiguos nuestros antepasados, los que ganaron las tierras de Otzoyá, written apparently in 1524 and bearing the signature of Don Pedro de Alvarado;
3. The Spanish translation of the Título de los Señores de Totonicapán, dated 1554; and
4. The Papel del Origen de los Señores included in the Descripcíon de Zapotitlán y Suchitepec, año de 1579.
Despite their brevity, these documents contain interesting accounts of the origin, political organization, and history of the Quiché people, which supplement the information given in the Popol Vuh.
Next: 2. The Manuscript of Chichicastenango