One Catholic Priest Destroyed the Entire Mayan Written Language

By Craig A. James | 2 December 2008
The Religion Virus

Mayan Glyphs.
Mayan Glyphs.

The New York Times described the decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphs as “one of the great stories of twentieth century scientific discovery.” Tragically, this decipherment was only necessary because of a one-man Spanish Inquisition, a deliberate, decades-long campaign by a single Catholic priest to destroy the Mayan language and culture. The priest, Diego de Landa, wiped out all knowledge of the written language, and nearly destroyed the spoken language too.

Diego de Landa’s one-man inquisition perfectly illustrates the power of the Intolerance Meme, an idea that evolved in the Jewish religion a few centuries before the birth of Jesus, and was taken up with a vengeance by Christians in the third and fourth centuries AD. The Intolerance Meme declares that not only is Yahweh the only god, but in addition, anyone who worships other gods is committing a sin. The Intolerance Meme justifies all sorts of atrocities in Yahweh’s name: Murder, slavery, forced conversion, suppression and destruction of other religions, racism, and many other immoral acts.

This was Diego de Landa’s background when he discovered that many of his Mayan “converts” had actually incorporated the Catholic Yahweh/Jesus/Spirit, along with the various saints and angels, into their own traditional religion. When Landa discovered “idol worship” among some of his converts, he felt that his “children” had turned their backs on him, and his life’s work was a failure.

Being a good Roman Catholic, and a carrier of the Intolerance Meme, Landa was furious – he saw this as a betrayal, and started an inquisition that resulted in torture and death across the Yucatan region. He was determined to wipe out all knowledge of the Mayan religion, and saw the Mayan language and hieroglyphs as a key. Fifty years later, in 1699, Spanish soldiers burned a town that had the last school of scribes who knew the Mayan hieroglyphs. By 1720, not a single person alive knew what the hieroglyphs meant.

The Roman Catholic church’s response? They punished Landa. But not for murder, not for torture, and not for destroying an entire culture’s history. No, none of these things were worthy of the Church’s sanctions. Diego de Landa’s crime was that he carried out an inquisition without authorization.

It took over two hundred years, and an international team of linguists, anthropologists, archeologists, mathematicians, an architect, a few brilliant hobbyists, and one twelve-year-old child prodigy hieroglyphics expert, to undo the damage that Landa caused. Armed with their fierce determination and perseverance, they recovered the written language, bit by bit, word by word, symbol by symbol. Thanks to this dedicated group, the meaning of almost 90% of the hieroglyphs is now recovered.

As for Landa, he had to spend a few years under house arrest in Spain, contemplating his disobedience and praying. Once he’d done his penance, he was promoted to Bishop of Yucatan, and sent back to Central America where he lived out the remainder of his life.

Special thanks to filmmakers David Lebrun and Amy Halpern-Lebrun, who graciously agreed to be interviewed during my trip to the Red Rock Film Festival in Utah. I highly recommend their excellent film, Breaking the Maya Code. You can also watch the shorter one-hour Nova version online, courtesy of PBS and WGBH Boston.

Craig A. James is a writer, computer scientist, evolutionist, and movie producer. He lives in Southern California.

Cracking the Mayan Code PBS Nova

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  1. The funny thing is, that the passage in Exodus 20 called the Second Commandment, carries the self-evident truth that it is foolish to worship a false god, and proof, in the line "I am a Jealous God" that its own god is either false, or that there are other Gods.

    The prelude to the first "Commandment" appears to have been refuted twice, once by Ingersoll's observation that ancient Hebrew and Egyptian have no words in common, and more recently by the honest Israeli archaeologists sent by David ben Gurion to the Sinai, who found no evidence whatever of the tale told in Exodus.

  2. "Some one out there up in the secret ranks is trickling valuable occult information to some of us using the social media to do so; like throwing bread crumbs on a path in the woods in some twisted hopes that others might take notice – how else would you intervene in the matters of men if you were an alien? Radio, Internet, You Tube, Facebook! Personally, I doubt that the lost manuscripts to the Dresden Codex et. al. were "ordered to be burned" just because the Church thought that they possessed "demonic" content – the Church might be an organization full of murderous self-righteous thieves etc. but they are NOT stupid.

    They have the texts. I suspect that they are all kept in the vaults of our favourite place on Earth, the Vatican – but closed off to the rest of the world. Oh, sure – they will digitize SOME of their prized possessions to be made accessible online, in order to make it look like they are acting generous, but surely they won't so easily let go of the best ones. Not yet, at any rate. But why?"

    • No it doesn't. The Mission takes place in 1740, well past the era of the Inquisition. Great film, but not about the Spanish Inquisition.

  3. Isn't it nice then that the Maya also wrote on stone, on vessels and on bone? The ENTIRE language was not destroyed. This is just sensationalist drivel.

    • no, the language wasn't entirely destroyed, just every single person who actually knew how to speak or read it. it was just genocide, not complete destruction of a language! it's all good!

      your dad is sensationalist drivel

  4. Yeah, let us bash Catholicism some more. DeLanda's writings were invaluable to the history of the Conquista, but let's entirely ignore that to bash one billion Roman Catholics.

    • This article is certainly not bashing one billion Roman Catholics. It's criticizing one priest and the hierarchy that supported his cultural destruction. Just like modern day criticism of the Catholic church for allowing abusive priests to continue having access to their victims is not bashing Roman Catholics in general, but is focusing deserved criticism on those responsible for those crimes.

    • I wouldn't bash any Catholic because they have been deceived almost from the get go by the papacy. They put the fear of God in them and still do by their manmade up dogma telling them it is truth. The papacy in it's history, had forced conversations, slavery, murdered innocent people, they worship idols, they believe the pope is infallible, I could go on and on. Do I love Catholic people you bet I do. I try my best to love others. Doesn't mean I won't speak up against their false teachings.

  5. So, I agree that this man destroyed knowledge of written Mayan due to his perception of right and wrong.

    I do not agree with the author’s attribution of the “intolerance” idea to Judaism. Judaism has always been a religion for Jews. Jews don’t expect or push Jewish requirements on others. Judaism always acknowledged other deities. It requires that Jews put our God first. Not that others do.

    The idea that this should be spread to everyone is a uniquely Church concept. I deliberately say Church, because I do not believe it is truly Christian to push religion on other people.

    • Yes, it is. Christian religion urges followers to spread the good word, which oftentimes involves pushing their beliefs onto others. And yes, this is something inherited from the intolerance in judaism, which had evolved to be non tolerant of other beliefs. After the exodus, it was a tool of conquest, making all other deities inferior, and this was used and reinforced during the take over of Canaan from the tribes inhabiting it, at the time of the israelites arrival.
      After Ezequiel, their national identity was fortified by the belief of their god was the only true deity and others were invalidated, whenever or wherever the jewish had been exiled, because at the time they were not victorious anymore, but defeated by greater powers and exiled to other lands. This ensured their identity was kept, independent of their political situation.
      I am not saying this is good or bad, nor that it was invented by judaism. Monotheism had been tried earlier in Egypt, before the jewish gained any notoriety and intolerance resulted shortly afterwards. But it was learned and worked for judaism in keeping their identity at all costs, and christianity learned it too, thus promoted intolerance as a tool of conquest, but taking it to another level.

  6. The intolerance meme is an interesting concept, believable, especially among colonial Spaniards as among contemporary fundamentalists (Christians). It's also been called colonization and an epistemicide, notably by scholar Grosfoguel, the Western destruction of its "competitors:" Africans, Muslims, Jews, Women, and Mesoamericans. The colonization in the Americas is alive and well and its children are leading Black Lives Matter, Immigrant rights, Ethnic Studies in schools… movements to decolonize ALL of us, movements we should all get behind, regardless of race, class, gender. The world needs more informed, intelligent AND compassionate people.

  7. Wikipedia: The word meme is a neologism coined by Richard Dawkins.[11] It originated from Dawkins' 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins's own position is somewhat ambiguous: he welcomed N. K. Humphrey's suggestion that "memes should be considered as living structures, not just metaphorically"[12] and proposed to regard memes as "physically residing in the brain". Later, he argued that his original intentions, presumably before his approval of Humphrey's opinion, had been simpler.[ So how did the Catholic Church Have an Intolerance Meme, before the word meme was invented?