A Syncretic Religion: Maya and Catholic Practice at Izamal and in the Northern Yucatán

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Maya people in the northern Yucatán Peninsula, especially around the region of Izamal, experienced a process of conversion to Christian Catholicism led by a limited number of Spanish friars and priests. This study aims to demonstrate that the Yucatec Maya embraced elements of Catholicism due to connections with their own traditional worldviews and established spiritual mentalities. Rather than focusing on the violent aspects of Spanish colonization, this study highlights the largely peaceful and natural facets of syncretism, a merging of traditional Yucatec Maya and Catholic practices.

The syncretic process, which involved the merging of indigenous religious practices and Catholicism, appears within four key aspects: saint veneration, festivals and holidays, rituals, and pilgrimages. Among these elements, saint veneration provided the foundation for structuring and linking these practices. By examining primary sources, available case studies, field work, and material evidence, this essay seeks to provide a comprehensive explanation of these syncretic practices, their origins, and their significance. Friar Diego de Landa's Relación will be the starting point for analysis and interpretation of indigenous Maya practices prior to the Conquest. [1] This will be followed by a comparison of documented Maya Catholic practices surrounding the cult of the most important aspect of Mary in the Yucatán, in her aspect as the Virgin of Izamal. This will demonstrate influences and links to previous Maya traditions, and when applicable, compared with modern syncretic Maya practice. [2]

Ultimately, this study will contribute to a deeper understanding of the peaceful blending of Yucatec Maya and Catholic practices during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The ways in which the Yucatec Maya adapted and integrated elements of Catholicism into their existing spiritual beliefs, demonstrate the resilience and adaptability of their culture, in the face of significant external challenges.

In examining the four key areas of Yucatec Maya syncretism, saint veneration stands out as the most significant, playing a central role in the other syncretic practices of festivals, ceremonies, and pilgrimages. [3] Furthermore, the Maya linked these practices closely to the cult of the Virgin of Izamal, demonstrating her civic primacy. [4] The Catholic practices endorsed by Spanish missionaries offered a means for the continuation of multiple types of pre-Conquest worship. According to Diego de Landa, “so many idols did they have, that their gods did not suffice them, there being no animal or reptile of which they did not make images, and these in the form of their gods or goddesses.”[5] He notes that while there existed many images of stone, they greatly valued images of wood, and respectively noted that they “honored them because of what they represented,” despite being crafted by human hands and not divine in origin. [6]

But what did these “idols” and images represent for the Yucatec Maya? As De Landa notes, their images could be gods, but there is evidence to suggest that they could also represent a number of entities within the Maya spiritual and geographic landscape. Besides a number of common cultural deities in the Yucatán Peninsula, Classic and Postclassic Maya identified strongly with their local civic identity, often also tied to one or more major patron deities. For instance, Itzamna was revered at Izamal, Kukulcan in Mayapan and Chichen Itza, and Ah Muzen Cab in Tulum. [7]

Maya engraved images could have also represented more than their gods, but also the spirits of the land and family ancestors. The spirits of the land, or the "lords" of the mountains and waters, are not entirely understood in their differences with other spiritual beings, except that they dwelled in the natural landscape and geography outside of the cities. [8] In contrast, Maya cities were home to the aforementioned major gods. Thanks again to De Landa, we have a better understanding of how Yucatec Maya used carved images to honor and venerate their deceased family members and ancestors, at least among the wealthier classes. De Landa writes that they “made statues of wood, made hollow…then they burned part of the body, and put part of the ashes therein…[and] kept them together with all the other images…among other idols, with great reverence and affection.”[9] He even says that the Maya would preserve some of the skin and teeth of the dead person on the statue, and present them offerings of food and drink, as if they were still living among them. [10]

This specific and widespread Maya practice, combined with other applications of engraved images symbolizing powerful spiritual forces, readily allowed for syncretism with Catholic saint veneration, particularly in the case of the Virgin Mary cult at Izamal. As the most important saint of the Northern Yucatán, she took on numerous functions, primarily as a healer and protector during natural disasters. Furthermore, she represented a shift away from the traditional civic deities and towards a new, Catholic, and Hispanicized civic and regional identity. [11]

The origins and beginnings of saint cults among the Maya, where evidence is available, do indicate a syncretic connection with previous indigenous civic deities, land spirits, and famous ancestors, although there exists a great deal of variation. For the sake of comparison, the origins of saint veneration among the K'iche' Maya in Guatemala serve as an important case, where they preserved translation stories (that is the translation or transference of divine power and relics from one region to another), unlike many Yucatec saints. For example, the cult of Santiago among the K'iche' maintained a tradition of rejection and acceptance of saintly images. The statues and engraved images of the saint are carried outside the towns and cities, and placed in wells and cenotes, symbolically beaten, and then brought back, combining the elements of festival, ritual, and pilgrimage in this one event. This represents both the status of Catholic saints as foreign visitors, but also connects them with previous beliefs of land spirits living in the wilderness, now accepted in the civic spaces. [12]

Unfortunately in the case of the Virgin of Izamal, available archival records are silent on the hagiographic origins of the saint, and De Landa himself, bishop of Izamal during the mid sixteenth century at the time of her translation, does not even mention her presence. [13] Instead, we must rely on a general narrative source from the following century (1633), the Historia de Yucatán: Devocionario de Nuestra Señora de Izamal y Conquista Spiritual, written by Fray Bernardo de Lizana. [14] Lizana’s work is primarily concerned with recorded miracles of the Virgin, and does not record the actual circumstances of the Virgin of Izamal’s translation or origins. Lizana did record the earliest instance of a commission for an Italian artist to create the earliest image of the Virgin Mary by De Landa himself. This commission seemed to have been originally intended only for De Landa’s Convento de San Antonio de Padua, built upon the old temple of Itzamna. [15]

The significance and spiritual statement of this commision, and the presence of the new saint, literally and symbolically on top of a previous Maya center of spiritual power cannot be overestimated. Besides the singular site of Izamal, Fransiscan missionaries regularly exploited and used architecture as a means of co-opting indigenous spatial understandings of authority. [16] While this strategy had mixed success elsewhere, it proved triumphant because of the previous Yucatec Maya associations and practices of communal veneration centered around the site of Izamal.

The city of Izamal received its name from the previous Maya deity, Itzamna, a god of creation and healing. Before the conquest, this city had been a site of pilgrimage for those seeking remedies. [17] During the Yellow Fever outbreak of 1648 in the Yucatán Peninsula, the indigenous nobility of Izamal organized a formal procession of the physical image and statue of the Virgin from Izamal. This procession included stops along all of the major villages between Izamal, and the Spanish capital of Merida, for locals to offer prayers and offerings to the saint, hoping to relieve the disease. [18] This may appear to have been a wholly Catholic instance of saint veneration, since similar processions are practiced in Europe. However, there is evidence for a Maya precedent and foundation. More importantly, this event clearly illustrates the different interpretations of the same Catholic religious activity by both Spanish and indigenous Maya audiences. [19]