In the comments section of my earlier post on the fake UFO quote from the prophecies of Chilam Balam, a reader takes me to task for what the reader perceives as my lack of knowledge about the Mayan books of prophecy:
I thought it was worth bringing this up to correct some common misconceptions about the Chilam Balam prophecies that are floating around the alternative community, and especially the dubious translation most alternative theorists rely upon.
My correspondent’s reference to a specific passage in the Chilam Balam of Tizmin (one of nine surviving versions of the text) comes from a specific (and flawed) translation, that of Vasser astronomer Maud Makemson in The Book of the Jaguar Priest (1951). I did not know of this passage when I wrote my first post because it does not appear in later, more accurate translations of the text. Contrary to alternative claims about its content, the passage reads as follows in Makemson’s translation:
The speaker is Chilam Balam (literally, “Jaguar Priest”), a Maya prophet supposedly living around 1500. Note that the direction of the sky journey is the opposite of what alternative theorists claim: it is the (human) Chilam Balam who ascends, not the alien gods who descend. The only thing that descends from the sky is “ornaments”—gifts and trinkets—in a sort of cosmic slot machine. The Maya, too, will be rewarded with new lands, the prophet claims. The phrase “face of the sun” is a particular Maya expression meaning “the high god,” not literally the sun disc, according to Munro S. Edmonson, a later translator of the Tizmin text.
It’s important to remember that the Chilam Balam texts are not ancient. Though they nominally take place circa 1500 CE, they were only written down—in the Mayan, not Spanish, tongue (though using the Roman alphabet)—in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (The first Spanish translation was made only in 1948, more than a decade after the first English version.) The writers of the texts have reshaped traditional material to reflect the current reality of Maya decline and oppression under Spain’s colonial government. While some material in the Chilam Balam corpus is genuinely pre-Conquest, the passages cited by alternative authors (when not outright fakes) tend to come from the prophetic sections of the texts, composed long after the fact to retroactively create a “prophecy” of the coming of the Spaniards and Christianity. This we can tell from the relative fluency of the text; where the writing is terse and obscure, it is more likely to be rendering into Roman characters pre-Conquest hieroglyphic texts. Alternative theorists, who do not investigate texts so long as there is a workable translation, do not care about such philological niceties.
Contrary to those alternative writers who use the texts promiscuously, the Chilam Balam translations currently available are in places subjective, largely because the original Mayan texts are obscure, relying heavily on metaphors that in many cases are no longer easily understood. As a case in point, the passage about the sun and the tempest quoted above does not appear in widely-accepted 1982 Edmonson translation of the Tizmin text. This is because Maud Makemson’s translation was and remains highly controversial and unsupported by modern scholarship. Makemson was an astronomer, not a Mayanist, and her translation was heavily influenced by her beliefs about the accomplishments of Maya astronomy and her philosophical belief that all pre-modern religions were stellar in nature, worshiping heavenly bodies. This translation is not used for scholarly work because it has many readings no longer considered accurate; Edmonson (the most recent translator of the Tizmin) writes that it “is so seriously flawed that I have not tried to use it.” Modern critics note that Makemson failed to realize that “during the recopying process” in the eighteenth century, “substantial changes seem to have been frequently made, passages garbled and incorrectly copied, and numerous interpolations inserted” (Henry B. Nicholson, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl). As a result, her translation treats all the text as of a piece, even when it is in origin a compilation of wildly different sources. Even in the 1950s, scholars recognized how “doubtful” her translation was.
Is this what we want to base a wild claim about ancient astronauts upon?
Ancient astronaut theorists love her translation because they read the "stars" as referring to aliens; accurate translations simply lack the same outer space connection. Naturally, in the updated 2012 e-book version of Odyssey of the Gods, Erich von Daniken relies on Makemson’s translation for his claims that the Chilam Balam of Tizmin records the descent of star gods: “They came down from the stars…they spoke the magical language of the stars.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t give page numbers, and his “quotation” is an English re-translation of the German translation of the original English translation of the Maya as written by Spanish-trained Mayan priests. In other words, the gibberish von Daniken writes appears in his work and nowhere else. Even in Makemson’s flawed, star-obsessed translation, this passage is very different: “There will be the majesty of him who speaks the magic language of the stars of heaven submerged in blue water…” The only place coming down from the stars is mentioned is when a (human) warrior travels down the “road of the Stars of Abundant Life.”
So now you know. I hope this settles the "mystery" of the Chilam Balam space gods.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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