Diego de Landa


Diego de Landa was the Catholic Bishop of the Yucatan during the latter part of the 16th Century. His writings about the culture of the Maya of the Yucatan provide us with the same type of information that the writings of Sahagun do about the Aztecs of the Mexico Valley.


The 16th-Century Catholic Bishop Diego de Landa can be compared to Fray Bernardino De Sahagun in the sense that whereas Sahagun compiled the culture and oral traditions of the natives of the Mexico Valley, Landa did the same in t e Yucatan.

Of course, at the time, the Yucatan was not considered part of the Mexico culture. Mexico (Mexico Valley) was dominated by the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish Conquest. The Yucatan was, and had been for centuries, considered as part of the great Maya culture. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec has been a natural dividing line throughout modem history. Not until 1840 did Yucatan became a legitimate part of the Country of Mexico.

Landa can also be compared to Bernal Diaz, the soldier in the army of Cortez who wrote a history of the Conquest of Mexico. Landa included in his writings, Relacion de las Cosas de Nueva Espana, accounts of the conquest of the Yucatan. The Aztecs of Mexico City (Tenochtitlan) surrendered in the year 1521. The Maya of the Yucatan were not considered conquered until 1546.


In the eyes of history, Diego De Landa is considered to be both a benefactor and a scoundrel. He has been labeled a scoundrel because he is considered the man responsible for the burning of the Maya codices, or records, at the village of Mani in the Yucatan. The Indians were devastated at this action. Almost immediately, Landa's contemporaries expressed deep disappointment in the wanton destruction of records that contained the history, rituals, and customs of the people. Within a generation and continuing up to our time, there is a feeling of disgust and disdain for this act of Diego de Landa.

We must remember, however, that during this period of time (the 16th Century), the Catholic inquisition, (auto de fe), was in full force. People could be flogged, branded, humiliated, ostracized from the community, put in jail, or even put to death for committing heresy or for violating the sacraments of the church.

The Maya of the Yucatan, for the most part, had accepted, or had been forced to accept, the covenants of the church.

The old Maya priests, who represented a hierarchy of elite for more than a thousand years, yearned for the power they had lost under the new Spanish government and their imposed new religion. Incidents were reported that they were encouraging the natives to return secretly to their old religious ways but to continue to pay lip service to the so-called Christianity. When word leaked out in the area of Mani that virtually the entire village had secretly returned to their old ways, the act of Landa apparently seemed justified in his mind.


From a historical perspective, Landa redeemed himself to a degree, as he wrote a history of the traditions and culture of the Maya of the Yucatan. He was also one of a handful of Catholic priests who put forth the effort to learn the language of the Maya. Landa wrote, to the best of his ability, the sounds and alphabet of the Maya language, as they related to Spanish. It is this alphabet that has proved to be invaluable in the present-day deciphering of the Maya hieroglyphs. It is this contribution of Landa that has earned him the title of being a great benefactor.

Landa recorded the day and month signs of the Maya calendar. (Schele 1987:5-6) Furthermore, he recorded the Maya alphabet to the best of his ability, as shown in Figure 3-6. A comparison of Landa's alphabet and sounds in the Spanish language is shown in Figure 13- 1.

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As to the history and traditions of the Maya of the Yucatan, Landa provides us with additional insights. Again. we are cautioned about the work of Landa. Some have labeled him the great plagiarist, as much of his material apparently was taken from contemporary chronistas.

Of great interest, nevertheless, is the process of comparing Landa's information about the religious, social, work-habit, and family customs with current Maya villages. Landa reached back in history 200 to 300 years and observed that little difference existed between the 1200 AD Maya and the 1550 AD Maya. Now, over 450 years since the Conquest, we observe a high degree of the same ethnic patterns among the small villages of the Yucatan Maya and the patterns we read about in Landa's writings.

Our travels throughout the Yucatan provide a time tunnel to the ancient customs of the Maya. From a Book of Mormon perspective, the Maya were, in all probability, closely associated with the Lamanite culture of the Book of Mormon. What we observe in the extensive priestcraft society of the 16th-Century Maya seems to parallel with the beginnings of a hierarchy priestcraft society in the Book of Mormon at 200 AD.

Nevertheless, the people did harden their hearts, for they were led by many priests and false prophets to build up many churches, and to do all manner of iniquity. And they did smite upon the people of Jesus; but the people of Jesus did not smite again. And thus they did dwindle in unbelief and wickedness, from year to year, even until two hundred and thirty years had passed away. (4 Nephi 1:34)


Landa, as well as other 16th-Century writers, recorded a prophecy of the Maya concerning the coming of the Spaniards. Tozzer wrote:

In the same way that the Mexican nation (meaning the Aztecs) had signs and prophecies of the coming of the Spaniards, and of the destruction of its power and its religion, so did the populations of Yucatan some years before the Adelatado Montejo conquered them; and in the mountains of Mani, which is in the province of Tutul Xiu, an Indian named Ah Cambal, (who held the) office (of) Chilan, (which means), "he who has the duty of giving the answers of the god (demonio)," announced to them publicly that they would soon be subjected by a foreign race, and that they would preach to them one God and the power of a tree, which in their language is called "uahom che," which means "a tree erected with great virtue against the evil spirit." (Landa/Tozzer 1941:42-43)

We cannot determine where this man named AH CAMBAL gained his knowledge to make such a prophecy-that is, whether it was gleaned from Maya written history or from his own insight. It was certainly available in written history, as the Prophet Nephi proclaimed the same type of prophecy more than 2,000 years earlier:

And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.

And it came to pass that I beheld the Spirit of God, that it wrought upon other Gentiles; and they went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters.

And it came to pass that I beheld many multitudes of the Gentiles upon the land of promise; and I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles and were smitten. (1 Nephi 13:12-14)

Landa was intimately acquainted with a Cocom who had a book of his grandfather's that told of a conquering nation who would affrive on large deer. (The natives called the horses of the Spaniards deer or cows.)

He showed him a book which had belonged to his grandfather, a son of the Cocom who had been killed at Mayapan. In this was a painting of a deer, and his grandfather had told him that when large deer of this kind should come into that country (for this is what they call the cows), the worship of the gods would cease; and this was fulfilled since the Spaniards brought large cows with them. (Landa/Tozzer 1941:44, 46)


The Maya culture, at the time of the Conquest, presents an interesting picture of tribes and their leaders that, historically, appear to have existed for centuries. About 29 AD, Mormon records that the Nephite culture divided into tribes:

And every tribe did appoint a chief or a leader over them; and thus they became tribes and leaders of tribes.

Now behold, there was no man among them save he had much family and many kindreds and friends; therefore their tribes became exceedingly great. (3 Nephi 7:3-4)

Landa wrote about two great tribes in the 16th Century called the cocoms and the XIUS. It is of great interest to travel today through the small Maya villages. The road from Uxmal to Chichen Itza, via the towns of Mani and Sotuta, is very narrow, with low jungle growth closing in on both sides of the road. The distance between these two small villages is only about 30 miles. Perhaps you may see one or two motor vehicles in each town. Most of the transportation consists of the three wheeled bicycle, which serves as the Maya taxi. The bicycle peddler provides a seat between the two hind wheels, where the woman may sit as she is transported from her home to market and other places of interest. The vehicle also has a large metal basket for the children to ride in.

Landa records that the Xius were the Lords of Mani and the Cocoms were the Natural Lords of Sotuta. Tozzer, who wrote extensive notes in his publication of Landa, quotes another chronicler on this subject, as follows:

One province fought with another and the said province of Mani was always at war with that of Cotuta (Sotuta) with a lord of the ancient people of this land called Na Chi Cocom on account of the long standing  enmity which the said Cocoms had against the Tutul Xius saying that the Cocoms were "natural lords" and the Tutul Xius, foreigners. (Landa/Tozzer 1941:56)

Enroute from Chichen Itza to Cancun, travelers pass a village named cocom. So that the reader does not get the idea that two small villages were all that belong to a tribe, it should be pointed out that the division line between provinces apparently met at Sotuta and Mani.

In one war among the tribes, some years prior to the Conquest, 150,000 men died in battle.

Book of Mormon students have often speculated why the last Lamanite-Nephite battle does not show up extensively in Mesoamerican history, since 230,000 Nephite soldiers were killed. Logically, the 16th-Century Maya people would have had no interest in recording a battle that occurred 1,200 years earlier on the opposite side of the Isthmus-when they were having battles that killed hundreds of thousands of their own people and when such battles were occurring right up to the time of the Spanish Conquest.

This conclusion is consistent with the 400 AD Book of Mormon historian, Moroni, who wrote, speaking of the Lamanites, "For behold, their wars are exceedingly fierce among themselves . . . ." (Moroni 1:2)

Reference was made to the cocom in Chapter 3, "And Then It Came to Pass." co is a very common beginning of a proper name in the Book of Mormon, such as COHOR and CORIANTON. com is the actual name of a Jaredite king. It is of further interest that the COCOMS were considered natural Lords-that they were an aristocratic elite who traced their genealogy for centuries and who passed the high priest office from father to son. (Landa/Tozzer 1941:27)


Customs from the 16th Century that persist today, and many of which probably reach back to Book of Mormon time, jump out at you from Landa's description of Maya life. The 24-hour flu that we think was invented by the American tourist was common among the Maya. The Maya hardly ever drank water alone. Even today, water, in Spanish, usually refers to a fruit drink, such as watermelon, cantaloupe, rice, etc., with water added. The custom of having the married extended family living in the same quarters has not changed much over the last 500 years and causes us to suspect that little change has occurred over 2,000 years.

The settlement of the Yucatan is consistent with what we glean from the Book of Mormon. The Lamanite-Nephite migrations always appear to come from the south. Mosiah led a righteous group of Nephites from the south about 200 BC. The Lamanites keep showing up on the "big screen" among the Nephites. Landa records:

The Indians say that numerous tribes with their chiefs came to Yucatan from the south, and it appears that they came from Chiapas, although the Indians have no more knowledge about it. But this author conjectures it because there are in Chiapas many remains of places which have been abandoned .... (Landa/Tozzer 1941:29-30)

No dating is given by Landa, but the cultural pattern and movement express the culture pattern and movement in the Book of Mormon. The facts that they came from Chiapas and the Peten (Landa/Tozzer 1941:22-30) and that the cities were abandoned reflect a possible Nephite movement.


Yucatan may have been part of the State (or Country) of Bountiful spoken of in the Book of Mormon. Bountiful was  north of Zarahemla, and Zarahemla was north of Nephi. On a map, it would be reflected as shown in Figure 13-2.

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Landa probably wrote his original "Relacion" in 1566. He had supported a large number of Indians during the famine of 1553. He was elected Bishop of Yucatan on April 10, 1572. He had burned the books at Mani ten years earlier, in 1562. He died April 29, 1579. His works were first published in 1864. The information described herein is taken from an 8th publication by Alfred M. Tozzer, published in 1941. It is complete with extensive commentary and notes from other chroniclers (16thCentury Mexican writers).