4 Mayan Chilam Balam

The Book Of Chilam Balam Of Chumayel, translated by Ralph L. Roys, Washington D.C.; Carnegie Institution, 1933

The Books of the Chilam Balam form the basis of our knowledge of the Maya peoples’ recorded history. They were translated into Spanish from the Yucatec and Chol languages (two of about twenty Mayan dialects), and are the only written record of Mayan history which currently exists. Although the Books of the Chilam Balam were written during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, some of the writings of the Chilam Balam are drawn from older hieroglyphic records dating back as far as the 7th century CE. Their source materials were most likely combinations of ancient heiroglyphics and oral traditions.

The Mayan civilization has existed in Mesoamerica for millenia; a Maya site in Cuello, Belize has been radiocarbon dated back to 2,600 BCE. At their height, Mayan lands included the entire Yucatán Peninsula and southern Mexico, Belize, most of Guatemala, western Honduras, and western El Salvador. The Maya began as nomadic farmers until eventually settling in villages, which became widespread in lowland areas by about 1,000 BCE.

The “Classic Period” of Mayan culture (about 250 CE to about 900 CE) is usually considered the apex of Mayan civilization, which appears to have collapsed around 900 CE for reasons that remain inconclusive. The Maya excelled in astronomy and mathematics, and were able to use these skills to chart the cycles of various planets. They also created one of the most accurate calendar systems in recorded history based on complex calculations of solar, lunar, planetary, and human cycles.

The Chilam Balam were elite spiritual leaders of the Mayan culture, their social positions being similar to those of priests. Many of the Mayan towns had their own Chilam Balam, whose book would take the name of the town. Several different types of writing have been attributed to the Chilam Balam; in addition to predictions, the topics covered in the books range from calendrics (the study of the calendar) to astronomy and medicine. The portion devoted to each topic varies with the author and the specific Yucatan community he resided in. For example, the writings of the Chilam Balam of Nah are predominantly about medical topics, and include discussion of possible causes of illnesses, symptoms, and courses of treatment.

The Maya believed that events occurring during a certain period of time would recur at certain times in the future. They also believed that the exact times recurring events would happen could be predicted by using numerical and astronomical calculations based on the Mayan calendar. Because they believed that a successful future depended on their calculations, the Chilam Balam had to be very precise, and their positions within the community were important ones.

While the label “Chilam Balam” implies predictions of future events, only five of the surviving twelve books contain texts which actually include prophesies. These are the books of the Mayan towns of Chan Kan, Chumayel, Kaua, Mani, and Tizimin communities. The most important of these twelve surviving books are the Books of Chilam Balam of Tizimin (1837), Chumayel (1837), and Mani (1837), all written in the Yucatec language. All three describe the arrival of the Spanish and Christianity.

The Chilam Balam of Chumayel is probably the best-known of all the books and has been widely translated. It contains a wide variety of topics including the history of Yucatán, the creation of the world, the Spanish conquest, and the prophecies of a new religion (usually identified as Christianity).

It is important to remember when reading these texts that there are frequently copyists’ errors as well as other problems with accuracy and interpretation. Sometimes the texts are both prediction and history at the same time, due to the Mayan belief that present events predict future events. In addition, historic information about those in power was sometimes distorted, added, or deleted, due to rivalries and politics. The texts provide a glimpse into the life of ancient Mayan people, but they should be read as just that, and not as a completely factual account of past events.


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“Living Maya Time”. Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian 6/28/17



MesoAmerican Research Center, University of California, Santa Barbara


Chilam Balam. Matt Krystal. Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture.

Ed. Jay Kinsbruner and Erick D. Langer. Vol. 2. 2nd ed. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2008. p317. Word Count: 324. From Gale Virtual Reference Library.


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Mayan Chilam Balam by Joel Gladd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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