Books of Chilam Balam

The sacred books of the Maya of Yucatán, the books of Chilam Balam were written in the Mayan language in Mexico in the 17th and 18th centuries. They supposedly contain the secrets of the Mayan civilization. They are a major source for contemporary knowledge of Mayan religion, history, folklore, medicine, and astronomy.

Historians believe that once the books of Chilam Balam collection held many more books, although only a handful, named for the towns in which they were written, have survived. Most important among the remaining books of Chilam Balam are Mani, Tizimin, Chumayel, Kaua, Ixil, Tusik, and Codice Perez.

The books of Chilam Balam is named after the last and greatest Mayan prophet, Chilam, or chilan meaning the mouthpiece or interpreter of the gods. Balam means jaguar, but it is also a common family name in Yucatán.

The title of the present work could be translated as the Book of the Prophet Balam, who lived during the last decades of the 15th century and foretold the arrival of strangers from the east who would establish a new religion. The prophecy came to pass and established the prophet Balam as the authority for many other prophecies in the older books of the same kind, so the Maya named the other books after Balam.

Hieroglyphic Writing System

The Maya developed a complex system of hieroglyphic writing to record astronomical observations, calendar calculations, and historical and genealogical information centuries before the Spanish conquest. To the Maya, the written word had sacred significance and the priests were the only members of the community who wrote.

Texts were considered divine objects, containing the religious and moral principles of the community, the path of the truth, and the example of ancestors and prescriptions of the gods. Priests read the sacred books during religious ceremonies imbuing the community with the meaning of its existence.

Gukumatz, the Serpent God of the K'iche' Maya
Chilam Balam illustration - Gukumatz, the Serpent God

A party of shipwrecked sailors who landed in Yucatán in 1511 was the first group of Spaniards to encounter the Maya. In the next 150 years, expeditions of Francisco de Córdoba, Francisco de Montejo, and Pedro de Alvardo extended Spanish domination of Maya territory.

Finally Martín de Ursúa, the Spanish governor of Yucatán, completed Spanish domination of the entire Maya region in 1697 when he conquered the small group of Maya in the central Petén area. The Spanish brought European diseases against which the Maya had no natural immunity; consequently many of them died. The Spanish also killed many Maya in battle and forced the survivors to labor on Spanish farms or in gold and silver mines.

Among the Spaniards’ goals was eradicating Mayan language and culture. The Catholic Church of 16th-century Mexico sought to educate and to evangelize. Shortly after the Spanish conquest of the Maya, Spanish monks and friars learned the Mayan language for evangelical purposes and adapted the Latin alphabet to Maya, improvising when necessary to include sounds foreign to the Romance languages.

Spanish monks and friars wrote the books of Chilam Balam in the Mayan language, but used European script instead of Mayan hieroglyphs. Each book is a self-contained library covering a vast array of subjects. Besides the prophecies there are brief chronicles, fragmentary historical narratives, rituals, native catechisms, mythological accounts of the creation of the world, almanacs, and medical treatises.

The Spanish friars and the Maya undoubtedly transcribed some of the material from older hieroglyphic manuscripts that still existed in northern Yucatán at the close of the 17th century. As time passed, more European material was added to the native Mayan lore.

In some books, there are a mixture of the old faith with Christianity and translations of Spanish religious tracts and astrological treatises into Maya as well as notes of events occurring during the colonial period. Part of a Spanish romance translated into Mayan is found in two of the books.

The Spanish grudgingly admired the Mayan graphic system, but they were determined to destroy the old manuscripts and erase all knowledge of the hieroglyphs from the minds of the converts. For their part, the Maya revered their hieroglyphic writing, which symbolized their old religion. The Spanish intended their new, improved version of the Mayan language for Christian use only, but the Maya quickly adapted it to their own purposes.

They recorded everything from prophecies and rituals to petitions to the Crown, but the books of Chilam Balam were the most important manuscripts that the Mayans recorded in the century after the conquest. Shaped by the dominant Spanish culture, they contain much information about life in colonial Yucatán, but basically reflect the religious and mythological traditions of the Maya.

The Maya and the Spanish produced two categories of books during this time of transition and translation. The Spanish authorities often solicited books written for legal purposes, and the second type were written as new sacred literature of the communities.

The first type of books served to secure privileges such as reducing tributes and conserving ancestral lands. The authors tried to please the Spanish authorities, by demonstrating that they had assimilated the teachings of the friars and endeavoring to prove that they had embraced the doctrines of Christianity instead of the stories of their own past.

Books in the second category, new sacred literature of the communities, were written out of the desire of the Maya to reclaim the truth of their religion and their customs that the Spanish had invalidated. New sacred books were written to replace the ancient codices and they reproduced the myths of the gods and the history of the Maya ancestors as well as recording the oral traditions passed down from father to son.

They also recorded the explanations that the old priests gave of the codices. These new books did not serve any legal purpose, but were designated to be read in native community ceremonies as sources of songs and dances and rituals of prehistoric tradition.

The impetus for writing the new books in the Mayan language, using the writing that the Spanish taught, spread across the entire Yucatán peninsula and the entire Mayan area. Although the style of the Yucatán books is different from the style of the Guatemala books, the structure and contents of all of the books faithfully preserve the religious traditions and the memory of the past.

All of them represent the moment in Mayan time when the Spanish conquered them and imposed a new religious, social, political, and economic way of life on them while reducing them to servitude in their own homelands.

Many of the old Mayan communities have preserved the books, some secretly. The Maya had to hide some of these books that contained ancient spiritual rituals, because the Spaniards pursued and killed those who performed and participated in the rituals, considering them demonic. Families closely guarded these books and passed them down from father to son.

The existence of these books did not become known until the 18th century, when scholars discovered them. The most important of these books were the Popol Vuh of the Quiches, the Memorial de Solola of the Cakchiqueles, and the Libros de Chilam Balam of the Yucatán Mayans.

The majority of the texts of the books of Chilam Balam are religious, describing individual parts of cosmological myths without a discernable connection between them. Others are ritual texts, prophesies of the Katunes, symbolic formulas of religious initiations, calendar and astronomical texts, and historical descriptions about the main groups of Yucatán and the Spanish conquest. The work ends with the famous prophesies about the arrival of a new religion, attributed to Chilam Balam and other prophets.

The myths and prophesies are written in archaic, symbolic language, using metaphors, colors, and natural beings to express ideas. The authors use cryptic language and secret texts and as in many sacred books there are parallels, repetition of the same thought in different terms, and numberings that give the texts a rhythm that allows them to be recited or sung.

The books of Chilam Balam were written on European paper and bound in notebooks, some with cowhide covers. The existing versions of the books of Chilam Balam are not the 16th century originals, but are copies of copies made in the last part of the 17th and 18th centuries.


Historians surmise that the Chilam Balam de Chumayel originates in Chumayel, a district of Texhax, Yucatán, and that the compiler was a native of Yucatán named Juan José Hoil. His name appears on page 81 of the manuscript next to the date listed as January 20, 1782.

Later, other people integrated other texts and Justo Balam, the secretary of Jose Hoil, next owned the book. He wrote two baptismal registrations on one of the blank pages of the book in 1832 and 1833.

During the following decades, the book of Chumayel passed through several hands and in 1868, Dr. Carl Hermann Berendt copied it by hand and Daniel Brinton published fragments of it in his work Maya Chronicles.

In 1910, George B. Gordon, director of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, made a photographic reproduction and edited it in a facsimile form in 1913. Juan Martínez Hernández published a translation in Spanish from these chronicles and from other fragments of the book in 1912, 1913, 1927, and 1928.

Antonio Mediz Bolio did the first complete Spanish translation of the books of Chilam Balam, which the Repertorio Americano edited in Costa Rica in 1930. Ralph L. Roys translated the second complete version into English, edited by the Carnegie Institution of Washington in 1933.

Alfredo Barrera Vásquez and Silvia Rendon included various fragments in their version of the Libros de Chilam Balam in 1938, and the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico edited the version of Mediz Bolio in the Biblioteca del studiante Universitario in 1941.

In 1952 and 1973, the second and third editions were published. The same version was reedited in 1980, in the anthology titled Literatura Maya, prepared by Mercedes de la Garza for the Biblioteca Ayacucho, of Caracas, Venezuela.