This is the story of one man, a Catholic priest who single handedly destroyed history and made the world a darker place for it.
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 it’s culture. The priests name, Diego de Landa, and he wiped out all knowledge of the Mayan written language, and nearly destroyed the spoken language too.
In his efforts he erased thousands of years of history and burned 10s of thousands of ancient books. In his zeal to erase the Mayans, their culture and their language. Its knowledge alone equal to that of all European collective knowledge at the time was lost forever.
Think about that a moment. Just the Mayan people’s knowledge and advancements at the time equalled all of Europe’s knowledge at the time. Nearly 100 advanced civilizations fell to the Europeans in the 525 or so years since the Europeans arrive. Many times more knowledge than the collective of Europe were destroyed and lost. But back to our story.
Diego de Landa’s one-man inquisition perfectly illustrates the power of Intolerance. It illustrates the worst of what happens with fanatical religious zeal. When one believes themselves so morally superior to everyone else they become so dangerous that a single human in power can drive such carnage, death and destruction.
The Intolerance in this instance declares that not only is Yahweh/Yashua the only god, but in addition, anyone who worships other gods is committing a sin. The Intolerance was used to 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.
Diego de Landa 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 this “idol worship” among some of his converts, he felt that his “children” had turned their backs on him, on God, and his life’s work was a failure. This started his Inquisition against everything Mayan, from the people to the language, from the gods to the civilization itself. Landa decided it all must be destroyed.
His inquisition resulted in torture and death across the Yucatan region. Death to which extent this section of the world had never seen before. He was determined to wipe out all knowledge of the Mayan religion, and saw the Mayan language and hieroglyphs as a key. After decades of inquisition, in 1699, Spanish soldiers burned a town that had the last school of scribes who knew the Mayan hieroglyphs. All were killed and by 1720, not a single person alive knew what the hieroglyphs meant.
Landa was punished by the church for an illegal inquisition but later would be acquitted and promoted to Bishop. He never faced trial nor charges for the deaths of a million people that he himself ordered killed, the destruction of all that history, torture nor any other of his crimes against humanity. Only briefly for not getting permission for his inquisition.
What ever happened? Three book survived, yes exactly three. From those three books it took over two hundred years, and an international team of linguists, anthropologists, archaeologists, mathematicians, an architect, a few brilliant hobbyists, and one child prodigy hieroglyphics expert, to undo the damage that a single man caused.
This team armed only with fierce determination and perseverance, recovered some of the Mayan written language, bit by precious bit, word by precious word, and symbol by precious symbol. It was a painstaking task and one which this team took seriously.
Thanks to this dedicated team we now understand about 90% of what remains of the Mayan language. All from the three books that escaped the wrath of one zealot bent on erasing an entire people from history and attempting to rewrite history to his personal liking.
Just think how much knowledge of history, math, science, medicine and culture was lost in the 10s of thousands of book destroyed by one hateful intolerant man. People wonder why I spend so much time on intolerance but examples like this should be your wake up call if you still wonder. I know first hand how intolerance nearly wiped out my people, erased in time as if we never existed. At least that is what they wanted of us, but we were too stubborn to die quietly. By sheer force of will Maya survives as a spoken work.
As with all contact in the Americas as zealots made their best attempt to erase entire cultures, rich histories and knowledge which at the time surpassed that of the Europeans so vastly. Sure they were ahead of these native people in killing other humans but we were light years ahead in saving them and making life and civilization better.
For the story on breaking the code you could rent/buy the film “Breaking the Maya Code.” I forget who it’s by though.
You can also watch the shorter one-hour Nova version online, courtesy of PBS and WGBH Boston. ** https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5ppfC6y-5s **