The Mayan Genocide
BRUCE E. BYLAND — GISELE DIAZ & ALAN RODGERS — THE CODEX BORGIA — 1993
This book is an amazingly beautiful book that brings up a civilization that has been dead for several centuries due to its own failure, probably because of some climatic drought in Yucatan that destroyed their cultivation of cocoa which was their own currency and their main export, hence the tool and means of their power. The Maya civilization was later on systematically destroyed by the Spaniards when they invaded Mesoamerica, and these Spaniards particularly targeted the books, the codices, the cultural artifacts that could be transported and that they accused of being pagan heretical and satanic symbols, and they abandoned the architecture in the jungle that took it over. A genocidal crime against humanity.
The first thing I would like to say is that codices were made with paper and this paper has a rich technological history. It uses the fiber from inside the bark of trees, Ficus trees or fig trees. This fiber was collected and processed in a very rich and complicated way. We don’t know when the Mayas devised this technique but it is a long time ago since codices were probably in existence in their pre-classic period some ten centuries before their end, hence around the 5th century BCE. But this fiber when the processing is finished has to be processed into sheets of paper about 20 centimeters wide and as long as necessary to produce the book. To get the proper length they glued together shorter sheets. But then they had to process the surface to be able to write and draw and paint on this paper. They used both sides, so they processed both sides with some mixture of various natural elements that made the surface smooth and very feasible for the rich drawings, paintings and writing they used. This preparation is called “gesso.” The scribes were an elite educated body of people who were considered as highly spiritual if not even some kind of priests. They are called “he-of-the-writing” (“ah ts’ib” in Maya). Apparently, the same word could be used for the rare female scribes.
A book or codex was thus a long sheet of paper and then it was creased into an accordion-like screen fold. Both sides were used. Apparently, this codex works from right to left, the first page or plate is on the extreme right, and the pages advance from right to left. When you reach the extreme left of the first side, you turn the codex over and you read the second face the same way. The presentation of the plates in the book respect this disposition to keep the follow-up pages in proper order. So Plate 1 is at the very end of the book and plate 76, the last one, is just after the introduction. In the same way, you have to accept that it is common for plates to be divided into several layers or tiers. You start reading on the extreme bottom right corner and read the first lower tier that can cover several pages. When you reach the end of this tier you move up to the extreme left of the second middle tier and read it from left to right. Eventually, if there is a third tier you go up to the higher tier starting at the extreme right and read it from right to left. That’s sinuous or serpent-like reading. Disposition of drawings and writing can vary a lot. It is the same thing with many glyphs that are composed of two, three or four glyphs. The order may vary a lot from one composite glyph to the next.
But this book is a full-color restoration of the ancient “Mexican” manuscript. We cannot be sure it is what this codex used to be. The original has been aging somewhere in Borgia. But it gives a real idea of what this culture and this codex could have been. An aesthetic prodigy (not only for us) but also and mainly for the Mayas a religious textbook and social code for full obedience and submission to their gods, and first of all Quetzalcoatl. This codex has to do with the 260-day tzolk’in calendar that is supposed to regulate the Mayas’ everyday life. 260 days is nearly the length of a woman’s pregnancy. But that does not explain anything since this pregnancy is normally around 270 days long. But the real mystery is how they come to this number of 260 days. They crossed two numbers. The first one is the length of what can be called a “month”: twenty days, each one with a name and you have thirteen successive groups of twenty days always in the same order. This is simple to explain since the basic numerical system of the Mayas is a vigesimal counting system with 20 as its base. But the months in this 260-day tzolk’in calendar do not have names because names are not needed. The 260 days are identified by the systematic rotation of numbers from 1 to 13 on that long list of 260 days composed of thirteen times the series of twenty days. The first day of the series of twenty is “Imix” (often translated as “alligator,” but it could be “light” or even “womb” because it is the first day, the day when time and life started, connected to the sun itself and seeing the sun rise was one of the fundamental tasks of humans when they were fabricated by the gods. They could only become a structured and identified society when they had seen the sun rise for the first time. In the 260-day tzolk’in calendar, there are 13 Imix and each one is identified by the number 1 to 13 that the rotating cycle of thirteen will attribute to it as it progresses in the thirteen sets of twenty days. Thus it will be 1 Imix, 8 Imix, 2 Imix, 9 Imix, 3 Imix, 10 Imix, 4 Imix, 11 Imix, 5 Imix, 12 Imix, 6 Imix, 13 Imix, 7 Imix, and then the next 260-day tzolk’in cycle starts again with 1 Imix. The number of the day goes up by seven units in a continuum of 13 numbers repeated cyclically twenty times.
We are unable to explain the meaning of this 13, except mathematically. If you want this cyclical system to work since the difference between 13 and 20 is seven, you have to add the immediately lower even number to 7 for the whole system to work smoothly. On page xviii of the introduction by Bruce E. Byland, you have the full chart of the 260 days with twenty lines for the twenty days and thirteen columns. I will regret the author uses English names and does not mention the Maya names.
As I have just said this 260 days tzolk’in calendar is a mathematical prodigy because the Mayas were mathematically extremely advanced. With their Base 20 vigesimal counting system, which is common in the world (the old English Pound less than fifty years ago was composed of twenty shillings and each shilling was twelve pennies, and I have seen and known in the early 1960s a halfpenny and a farthing, or a quarter of a penny. They even had a guinea that was twenty-one shillings), the Mayas had invented a sign that was “twenty” after nineteen, and then is known as “K’al” or the moon sign, and as such it is the sign of the completion of the vigesimal first set of numbers, but it is also used when a group of twenty or multiple of twenty is empty and thus it can be identified as “zero,” and then it is known as “mih” or nothing. This is in phase with the philosophy of the Mayas: everything is a direct retrospective allusion to what it comes from and a prospective anticipation of what it will be followed by.
When you turn to the “Haab” year which counts eighteen months of twenty days (the same days as before) plus five days to reach 365, then the months have names. The five extra days are called “wayeb’” and have an ominous reputation. This “Haab” year is not concerned in this codex. But a day in the year is identified as follows:
[1 to 13 (tzolk’in) Day Name] + [1 to 19 (rank in the month of 20 days) Month Name].
It is only 1 to 19 because the twentieth day is making the month jump to the next one and in this case, the second part of the date is replaced by [“chum” Name of the next month]. This shows how 20 plays a twofold role: it is the completion of the vigesimal group of 20 and at the same time the trigger that brings the next month. So it is not really “zero,” the same as in the decimal system of ours when we consider the first decimal group of ten units in the metric system that is 1 to 10. The “zero” goes back to the first positive unit and triggers the second group of ten units that runs from 11 to 20, where the zero has the double role of completing the second decimal group and triggering the next decimal group. Remember zero is nothing and you are of-age when you have fully completed your 18th year and not when you enter it the first day after your 17th birthday. That’s why calendars in the world do not have any year “zero” and there is no “0 BCE or CE.”
You will only be able to enjoy this codex if you enter all these intricacies.
But of course you can only look at the pictures, but then you will miss so much. The Mayas were more advanced than their conquerors. Remember that “zero” was introduced in the western world, in western mathematics only in the 17th century by René Descartes who also invented algebra, which by the way means “le zero” in Arabic. The Mayan calendar was probably inherited in parts at least from the Olmecs (1200 BCE-400 BCE). The Roman Empire did not exist yet and the Greeks invented geometry between 600 BCE and 400 BCE.
I will not comment upon the beauty of the pictures in this restored codex. I will not discuss the religion and the philosophy that you can see behind. I will insist on the fact that for the Mayas and many Indian cultures in the Americas, but also in many other parts of the world, the universe does not have four directions, North, East, South, West, but five with what they call the Center that is a vertical dimension with a below-area and an above-area and that give the general vision of a universe with an underworld — and its gods — and an overworld, the sky — and its gods. The center of man and we are not speaking of women here, is the heart (life) and the penis (procreated life), with eventually the tongue (speaking) and the ears (hearing). Sacrifice is performed most of the time by extracting the heart from the chest of the sacrificee, and self-sacrifice is performed most of the time by the puncturing of one’s penis with a jade knife, eventually the tongue and the ears. Let’s remember that at the same time in Europe gladiators were fighting to the death in Roman circuses, thousands of rebels (Hannibal’s slave uprising) and all types of “criminals” were crucified or whatever by the Romans, not to speak of the persecutions of the Christian later on. In the Christian feudal Middle Ages, witches were burnt alive, and political opponents paid their opposition with their lives in absolutely cruel public executions after days and days of torturing, called questioning of course, and this time in the privacy of some dungeons. As for self-punishment and self-torturing, some Christians were quite good at that with all kinds of hurtful clothing and the use of all kinds of whips and lashes. The practice of mortification of the flesh was used by some Christians throughout most of Christian history, especially in Catholic monasteries and convents. In addition, Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran Church, regularly practiced self-flagellation as a means of mortification of his flesh, if not the symbolic flesh of the whole sinning humanity.
To conclude I will consider two plates: plate 56 (page 22) and plate 73 (page 5).
The author of the book says they have the same theme but are inverted. In plate 56 Life and Death, Quetzalcoatl as the God of Life and Mitclantecuhtli as the God of Death are standing, each one on two legs and feet, back to back, the first one facing right and the second one facing left. If you go to plate 73, the two only have two legs, one turned to the right and one turned to the left, but the heads have been shifted, Quetzalcoatl to the left facing left and Mitclantecuhtli to the right facing right, and many elements have been modified and shifted more or less so that Quetzalcoatl’s head is in a more or less costume from the other and vice versa Mitclantecuhtli’s heads is in a more or less costume from the other, and the main dark piece of clothing that was clearly covering Quetzalcoatl’s back has been moved and modified so that is it equally on both sides of the vertical division line between the two characters, still visible only at the level of their bottoms. Many other details should be taken into account, but altogether I feel it is not an inversion of plate 56 but a full merger of Life and Death. If life is death and death is life, what future do we have in this cosmos, and true enough Quetzalcoatl has been fully sacrificed and he will one day come back from the East dressed in white carried by some big bird? We know the result of this belief for the Aztecs. But this is no explanation of the blood culture of this civilization. It is one element in many others. The explanation is missing, still.
But one thing is sure, the development of the phenomenal agricultural transformation in Mesoamerica centered on maize, a cereal unable to self-sow itself, derived by human engineering from teosinte, a cereal able to self-sow itself, and a flour when ground that would be dangerous for human health if it were not nixtamalized, a very complex procedure: the corn is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater (but sometimes wood ash lye) washed, and then hulled. This process removes up to 97–100% of aflatoxins from mycotoxin-contaminated corn. And that is a great îece of human engineering. This agricultural transformation (that must have taken a very long time to be devised and engineered) brought a tremendous demographic expansion to the Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas. I just wonder if human sacrifice was not the same type of answer as the one of the Christian world confronted to the same problem in Europe because of the religious reform of Charlemagne and the feudal transformation managed by the Benedictines in agriculture and later on with the proto-industrial revolution. The Christians decided to implement at the end of the 11th century the famous and infamous Crusades to get rid of great numbers of knights and other military personnel as well as of a great number of poor, unemployed and often starving people. And the Albigensian crusade liquidated something like 25% of the population in south and southwest France in the name of religious purity. On March 16, 1244, a large massacre took place, in which over 200 Cathar Perfects were burnt in an enormous pyre at the prat dels cremats (“field of the burned”) near the foot of the castle of Montségur, the very well named impregnable castle. There never is any hill, Sierra or even mountain that is safe enough to be secure against all dangers, particularly criminal or political.
Enjoy the book and its mysteries and check the days on every plate and the notes of the author of the introduction will help tremendously, but you can add some more personal research if you feel like it. The language and the civilization of the Mayas are far from having revealed all they are hiding behind their beautiful glyphic façade.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU