Book Of Chilam Balam Of Chumayel

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 Maya.

None of the Books of Chilam Balam that have come down to us were compiled earlier than the last part of the Seventeenth Century, and most of them date from the Eighteenth Century. The older ones were probably worn out by constant use. Nevertheless we have Maya legal documents covering almost every decade from the year 1557 down to the present time, and a comparison of the language of these with that of the Books of Chilam Balam shows that many passages of the latter were copied verbatim from Sixteenth and early Seventeenth Century originals.

At the present time we have photographic reproductions of the Books of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, Tizimin, Kaua, Ixil, Tekax and Nah as well as copious extracts copied from the Mani and Oxkutzcab manuscripts. The latter were made by Dr. Hermann Berendt and are now in the Berendt Linguistic Collection of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. This scholar also made copies of the Chumayel and Tizimin manuscripts about sixty years ago, when they were in better condition than when the present photographs were made. Consequently a complete transcription and translation of the texts can only be made with the aid of these copies. Tozzer gives the names of four others known by reputation only: the Books of Chilam Balam of Nabula, Tihosuco, Tixcocob and Hocabá. Genet and Chelbatz give a brief description of a Book of Chilam Balam of Telchac.

Of these books the Chumayel, Tizimin and Mani manuscripts have the greatest value for the study of Maya civilization, although the others are not lacking in interest. The
Chumayel was a small quarto volume which appears to have originally consisted of
fifty-eight numbered leaves. There are only 107 written pages in the University of
Pennsylvania reproduction. Three leaves, numbers 1, 50 and 55, are missing, and there are breaks in the text at these places. The other pages seem to have been blank. The writer has seen only the leather cover, in which a hole had been burned; the book itself had disappeared. A number of the leaves are either torn or have crumbled away along the edges, and some of the pages are badly water-stained in places. Nevertheless the manuscript is very legible on the whole. Although it dates only from the year 1782, the language suggests the Seventeenth Century much more than it does the Eighteenth. The book contains comparatively little of the intrusive European material which predominates in other Books of Chilam Balam written at so late a date. The drawings which illustrate the volume are quite European in character, although many of the ideas which they represent are purely Maya.

Brinton was the first to make a translation of any considerable portion of the Chumayel. Using the Berendt copy of the text, he translated the three chronicles found in Chapters XIX, XX and XXI of the present work. Martinez Hernandez has published his own Spanish translations of these chronicles, also the story of the Last Judgment in Chapter XXIII and the first part of the creation narrative in Chapter X. Tozzer has translated the prophecy of Chilam Balam in Chapter XXIV and the chronicle in Chapter XX. The writer has published translations of Chapters II, IX and XIII, and the entire manuscript has been freely rendered into Spanish poetical prose by Mediz Bolio.

We know from internal evidence that the Chilam Balam of Chumayel was compiled by
Don Juan Josef Hoil of that town, as we find his name signed to a notation written in the same hand as the rest of the book and dated 1782. Only a few interpolations added at later dates are written in different hands.

Overview of the book:-

1. History

  • Histories, cast in the mold of the indigenous calendar: migration legends; narratives concerning certain lords of the indigenous kingdoms; and chronicles up to and including the Spanish conquest.
  • Prognostication, cast in the framework of the succession of haabs (years), tuns (360-day periods) and katuns (20X360-day periods).
  • Prophecy, ascribed to famous early 16th-century oracular priests.

2. Formularies with Metaphors

  • Collections of riddles, used for the confirmation of local lords into their offices (the so-called ‘language of Zuyua’).

3. Myth and Mysticism

  • Myth, particularly the destruction and re-creation of the world as connected to the start of katun 11 Ahau.[4]
  • Ritualistic mysticism, particularly concerning the creation of the twenty named days (uinal); the ritual of the ‘Four Burners’ (ahtoc); and the birth of the maize, or ‘divine grace’ (the so-called 'Ritual of the Angels').[5]

4. Practical Calendars and Classifications

  • Classifications according to the twenty named days (correlating birds of tiding, plants and trees, human characters, and professional activities).
  • Treatises on astrology, meteorology, and the Catholic liturgical calendar (the so-called reportorios de los tiempos). The astrology is Ptolemaic and includes the European zodiac.
  • Agricultural almanacs.

5. Medical Recipes

  • Herbal medicine: The Chilam Balam books contain the sort of medical prescriptions that derive from Greek and Arab traditions, rather than the Mayan ‘incantation approach’, as represented by the Ritual of the Bacabs.[6]

6. Spanish Traditions

  • Roman Catholic instruction: feast days of the saints, tracts, and prayers.
  • Spanish romance, such as the tale of the ‘Maiden Theodora’.


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