Civilization in ancient America rose to its highest level among the Mayas of Yucatan. Not to speak of the architectural monuments which still remain to attest this, we have the of the earliest missionaries to the fact that they alone, of all the natives of the New World, possessed a literature written in "letters and characters," preserved in volumes neatly bound, the paper manufactured from the bark of a tree and sized with a durable white varnish.[2]

A few of these books still remain, preserved to us by accident in the great European libraries; but most of them were destroyed by the monks. Their contents were found to relate chiefly to the pagan ritual, to traditions of the heathen times, to astrological superstitions, and the like. Hence, they were considered deleterious, and were burned wherever discovered.

This annihilation of their sacred books affected the natives most keenly, as we are pointedly informed by Bishop Landa, himself one of the most ruthless of Vandals in this respect.[3] But already some of the more intelligent had learned the Spanish alphabet, and the missionaries had added a sufficient number of signs to it to express with tolerable accuracy the phonetics of the Maya tongue. Relying on their memories, and, no doubt, aided by some manuscripts secretly preserved, many natives set to work to write out in this new alphabet the contents of their ancient records. Much was added which had been brought in by the Europeans, and much omitted which had become unintelligible or obsolete since the Conquest; while, of course, the different writers, varying in skill and knowledge, produced works of very various merit.

Nevertheless, each of these books bore the same name. In whatever village it was written, or by whatever had, it always was, and to-day still is, called "The Book of Chilan Balam." To distinguish them apart, the name of the village where a copy was found or written, is added. Probably, in the last century, almost every village had one, which was treasured with superstitious veneration. But the opposition of the padres to this kind of literature, the decay of ancient sympathies, and especially the long war of races, which since 1847 has desolated so much of the peninsula, have destroyed most of them. There

[1] Read before the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Philadelphia, at its twenty-fourth annual meeting, January 5th, 1882.

[2] Of the numerous authorities which could be quoted on this point, I shall give the words of but one, Father Alonso Ponce, the Pope's Commissary-General, who traveled through Yucatan in 1586, when many natives were still living who had been born before the Conquest (1541). Father Ponce had traveled through Mexico, and, of course, had learned about the Aztec picture-writing, which he distinctly contrasts with the writing of the Mayas. Of the latter, he says: "Son alabados de tres cosas entre todos los demas de la Nueva España, la una de que en su antiguedad tenian caracteres y letras, con que escribian sus historias y las ceremonias y orden de los sacrificios de sus idolos y su calendario, en libros hechos de corteza de cierto arbol, los cuales eran unas tiras muy largas de quarta ó tercia en ancho, que se doblaban y recogian, y venia á queder á manera de un libro encuardenada en cuartilla, poco mas ó menos. Estas letras y cararteres no las entendian, sino los sacerdotes de los idolos, (que en aquella lengua se llaman 'ahkines,') y algun indio principal. Despues las entendieron y supieron leer algunos frailos nuestros y aun las escribien."—("Relacion Breve y Verdadera de Algunas Cosas de las Muchas que Sucedieron al Padre Fray Alonso Ponce, Comisario-General en las Provincias de la Nueva España," page 392). I know no other author who makes the interesting statement that these characters were actually used by the missionaries to impart instruction to the natives; but I learn through Mr. Gatschet, of the Bureau of Ethnology, Washington, that a manuscript written in this manner by one of the early padres has recently been discovered.

[3] "Se les quemamos todos," he writes, "lo qual á maravilla sentian y les dava pena."—"Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan," page 316.

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