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4523 - From Ku to Ángel: Changing Maya Conceptions of Supernatural Agents Before and After Landa's Relación

Research in the late 19th and early 20th centuries first demonstrated structural parallels between descriptions of calendrical ceremonies recorded in the Relación de las cosas de Yucatán attributed to the 16th century Franciscan missionary Diego de Landa and almanacs depicting similar ceremonies in the Postclassic Maya codices. Recent breakthroughs in the decipherment of the Maya logosyllabic script, however, have enriched scholars' understanding of the Maya concepts of supernatural agents that Friar Landa encountered. During the same period, advancements in Mesoamerican ethnohistory (the "New Philology") have likewise improved methods of reconstructing the transformations indigenous cosmologies underwent during asymmetrical contacts between Yucatec speakers and Christian missionaries such as Landa.

Of particular interest to the present discussion are the complex of quadripartite deities Landa discussed under the name Bacab, or alternately Xib Chac and Pauahtun. In Landa's account and elsewhere, these beings play an especially important role during the “yearbearer” ceremonies marking the end of one year and the start of the next, appearing prominently in Postclassic sources where they are depicted in pictorial form and named as the subject of hieroglyphic captions. During the colonial period, Maya supernatural agents underwent numerous transformations, with some being grouped under the prehispanic rubric kuob 'gods', whereas others were understood to be ángeles or cangeles ("archangels"). This transformation sees perhaps its earliest expression with Landa’s attribution, in ca. 1566, of the term ángel to two of the deities involved in rituals associated with the yearbearer ceremonies. A diachronic exploration of deity complexes in prehispanic codices and colonial Yucatec language documents provides us with a unique window into some of the processes of culture change that were both witnessed and instigated by Landa.

Keywords: Maya deities, Maya codices, Mesoamerican ethnohistory

Author: Vail, Gabrielle (New College of Florida, Ud States of Am / USA)
Co-Author: Knowlton, Timothy (Berry College, Ud States of Am / USA)

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