Chiasmus in Mayan Texts

New research suggests that the Book of Mormon and old Mesoamerican texts have something in common—a now-familiar Near Eastern literary device called chiasmus.

One firm indication that the Book of Mormon is an ancient work is its extensive use of chiasmus. Chiasmus is a rhetorical pattern that matches elements in reverse order; that is, the first element parallels the last, the second element parallels the next-to-last, and so on. This sentence of King Benjamin is a simple example: “I give not because I have not, but if I had I would give.” (Mosiah 4:24; italics added.)

Modern civilizations use chiasms infrequently, though many ancient civilizations, especially in the Near East, employed them often. 1 Since chiasmus is a pattern, it can function in virtually any language and survive translation. Chiastic patterns are found throughout the Bible, sometimes governing the structure of entire chapters. 2

Chiasmus also appears in the Book of Mormon. Many of these chiasms have been identified and discussed, 3 but very little research has been done on the use of chiasmus in other ancient American writings. It is entirely possible that descendants of the Book of Mormon peoples knew of the device and used it in their own records. As a translator of ancient Indian languages from Guatemala, I was intrigued with the possibility. Although I knew of no one who had documented the presence of chiasmus in these languages, I knew that Mayan writings, particularly, contain extensive selections of poetry 4 and might contain this rhetorical pattern used so liberally in the Book of Mormon. Such a pattern could exist even though Maya and Hebrew are such dissimilar languages.

I began by reviewing thirty-seven ancient Mayan texts written shortly after the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. To my surprise, I found that chiasmus was relatively common in many of the documents, though not in all of them.

To understand the study of Mayan literature, one must know a little of the history of available sources. Very few ancient New World cultures used a true writing system. Only cultures in the limited area of Mesoamerica knew and practiced the technique of writing. Those cultures included the Maya, who inhabited present-day Guatemala, portions of Honduras and El Salvador, and the extreme southern portion of Mexico.

Following their conquest of the Mayan kingdoms in the early sixteenth century, the Spaniards attempted to “Christianize” the Indians. The first European priests and monks to work among the Maya were appalled by their idolatry and determined to eradicate their pagan practices. Because of their perceived heathen contents, old hieroglyphic manuscripts were singled out as hindrances to the natives’ conversion and destroyed. The Spanish monks believed that if they could destroy the ancient texts and eradicate knowledge of the Mayan script, they could more easily introduce the Indians to the European system of writing and indoctrinate them in the Christian faith. The Spaniards placed particular emphasis on teaching young nobles to read and write their native languages using European letters. 5

A facsimile of the Codex Borgia

A facsimile of the Codex Borgia, which was discovered in central Mexico and reports events dating as early as A.D. 700. Such codices were written on paper made from the pounded bark of wild fig trees, then covered with lime plaster and painted with figures and hieroglyphs.

As a result of the Spanish clergy’s efforts, portions of only three or four Mayan hieroglyphic books are known to have survived (though numerous hieroglyphic inscriptions on stone monuments, bark paper, and ceramic vessels have been found). Many native priests continued to practice idolatry in secret, keeping sacred hieroglyphic books as relics. At the close of the sixteenth century, Sanchez de Aguilar wrote that the Indians of Yucatan still recorded the passage of years and significant events on painted bark-paper codices. A century later, Father Avendano y Loyola wrote that he was familiar with contemporary Mayan “books of barks of trees, polished and covered with lime, in which by painted figures and characters they have foretold their future events.” 6

Still, the new European script came into wider and wider use. The Indians were soon using the new script to record native texts based on pre-Columbian writings. These transcriptions were not as severely condemned as the ancient hieroglyphic books, and many of them survived. Francisco Ximénez wrote early in the eighteenth century that “it was with great reserve that these manuscripts were kept among [the Indians], with such secrecy, that neither the ancient ministers knew of it, and investigating this point, while I was in the parish of Santo Tomás Chichicastenango, I found that … they had many of these books among them.” 7

The Quichés were the most powerful of the highland Mayan tribes at the time of the Spanish conquest. Their kings had kept detailed records of their genealogy and of their mythological beliefs, and few of these early documents betray Western influences. Significantly, many of the writings composed by the Quichés after the Conquest depended in varying degrees on the contents of ancient hieroglyphic books. It is these writings that are often rich in chiasmus.

The Popol Vuh is the most important Quiché document to survive the early Spanish Colonial period. It was written in the European script by unknown representatives of the royal Quiché family. Though it records no date for its composition, internal evidence points to a date between 1554 and 1558, when many Quiché lords moved from the royal capital of Utatlán to Chichicastenango, where the manuscript was discovered. 8

Although the Popol Vuh represents in part a claim to supremacy by the royal family, it also contains extensive passages on ancient mythology, history, and ritual. The authors declared that they were transcribing ancient traditions: “This is the beginning of the old traditions of this place called Quiché. Here we shall write and we shall begin the old stories, the beginning and the origin of all that was done in the town of the Quiché, by the tribes of the Quiché nation.” 9

Later, the authors identify the source of these traditions as a written work: “We shall bring it to light because now the Popol Vuh, as it is called, cannot be seen any more, in which was clearly seen the coming from the other side of the sea and the narration of our obscurity. … The original book, written long ago, existed, but its sight is hidden to the searcher and the thinker.”10 (Vuh,incidentally, is a word that means book or bark-paper.)

The following is one of many examples of chiasmus in the book.11 The English translation is by Munro Edmonson, whose work is relatively faithful to the original. In some cases I have altered slightly the published translation to agree more closely with the form or intent of the Mayan original. When this has been done, I have provided an endnote to clarify the correction:

The face of the earth was not yet visible.
All by itself lay dammed
the sea, 12 and the womb of heaven, everything.
There was nothing whatever, all was silenced, 13
or at rest.
Each thing was made silent,
Each thing was made calm, was made invisible,
was made to rest in heaven.
There was not, then, anything in fact that was standing there.
Only the pooled water, only the flat sea.
All by itself it lay dammed.
There was not, then, anything in fact that might have existed.

Longer chiasms are also evident in the text. The initial section of the Popol Vuh, dealing with the creation, is arranged as a single, large chiasmus. Each phase of creation is outlined in detail, from primordial darkness to the formation of mountains. The final ten lines of the section then summarize the events in reverse order. 14

The following chiasmus comes from another Quiché document, The Title of the Lords of Sacapulas. This text has not been published in English. I have therefore included my own translation:

Those that accompanied them arrived then, before they were settled here.
No one was there
in Omuch Ynup, Omuch Cakha, as the hill was called,
when they arrived, when they came from the other side of the lake,
from the other side of the sea.
Only they were in Omuch Ynup, Omuch Cakha.
Only they were there
when they came with X-Umul Gag.

The Cakchiquel-Maya were second in power only to the Quiché in highland Guatemala, ruling a large kingdom from their capital, Iximché. The following chiasmus is taken from The Annals of the Cakchiquels, written between 1573–1582 by representatives of the royal family: 15

The defense with cinders,
they could not enter the place. Then it was said:
“O thou lord, I will give thee the venison and the honey.
I am the lord of the venison, the lord of the honey;
but I have not entered, 16 it was said, 17
because of the cinders.”

The lowland Maya of Yucatan have also left us fragments of their literary tradition. The most important of these are the books named after a famous native Mayan prophet, Balam, who lived during the final decades of the fifteenth century. He had predicted that bearded strangers from the East would come to establish a new religion. 18 The following chiasm is from the Chilam Balam text of Tizímin: 19

The taxation of the world.
That will be the coming of Hun Pic from Ax;
That will be the descent of Can Ul
by succession.
Seven years will be the succession
of Can Ul;
Seven years will be the succession of Hun Pic from Ax.
Then came the descent of the tax on fields.

Of the thirty-seven Mayan documents I examined, chiastic patterns abound in sixteen. I discovered that the texts with chiasms had several traits in common: They had early sixteenth-century dates of composition, authorship by royal family members, internal evidence of reliance on pre-Columbian hieroglyphic books, significant references to Mayan history and religion, and relative freedom from European words and cultural influences.

None of the highland Mayan documents composed after 1580 include passages of chiasmus. By that time, the people familiar with ancient hieroglyphic books were, for the most part, gone.

At this point, one cannot establish a clear connection between Near Eastern use of chiasmus, its use in the Book of Mormon, and Mayan use of chiasmus. The presence of chiasmus in Mayan texts may only disclose that the rhetorical device can emerge independently in the writings of an isolated ancient culture. Nevertheless, we would expect it to be present in Central America if writings of the Book of Mormon peoples endured and influenced ancient groups of American peoples.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Richard D. Hull

[photo] Sections from a page of the Codice Tro-Cortesiano, also known as the Madrid Codex. The codex is one of the best-known books of Mayan hieroglyphics in existence. The original is located in the Museo de America, Madrid, Spain. (Used by permission of Ministerio de Educacion y Ciencia, Museo de America.)

Allen J. Christenson, a dentist and art history teacher, teaches the Gospel Doctrine class in the Merced (California) Second Ward.



  1.   1. 

    See John W. Welch, ed., Chiasmus in Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis (Hildesheim, West Germany: Gerstenberg, 1981).

  2.   2. 

    See Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet(Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, Co., 1982), pp. 36–38.

  3.   3. 

    See, for example, John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies, Autumn 1969, pp. 69–84; John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” in Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship, Provo: Brigham Young University, 1982, pp. 33–52; Noel B. Reynolds, “Nephi’s Outline,” in Book of Mormon Authorship, pp. 53–74; Paul Cracroft, “A Clear Poetic Voice,” Ensign, Jan. 1984, p. 28.

  4.   4. 

    Munro S. Edmonson, The Book of Counsel: The Popol Vuh of the Quiché Maya of Guatemala, Middle American Research Institute, pub. 35 (New Orleans: Tulane University, 1971), pp. xi-xii.

  5.   5. 

    Diego de Landa, Yucatan before and after the Conquest, trans. William Gates (New York: Dover, 1978), p. 29.

  6.   6. 

    Ralph Roys, The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967), p. 5.

  7.   7. 

    Delia Goetz & Sylvanus Morley, Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiché Maya (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950), p. 6.

  8.   8. 

    Robert M. Carmack, Quichéan Civilization(Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1973), p. 25.

  9.   9. 

    Goetz & Morley, p. 77.

  10.   10. 

    Ibid., pp. 79–80.

  11.   11. 

    Edmonson, chap. III, II. 118–34. Italics have been added to this and the following quotations.

  12.   12. 

    Edmonson: “All by itself the sea lay dammed.” Edmonson altered the original wording of the Quiché text, presumably for clarity.

  13.   13. 

    Edmonson: “There was nothing whatever silenced, or at rest.” This is an error in translation because it implies that there was activity prior to the Creation. The remainder of the passage contradicts this interpretation.

  14.   14. 

    See Edmonson, pp. 9–13.

  15.   15. 

    Daniel G. Brinton, The Annals of the Cakchiquels(Philadelphia: Brinton’s Library of Aboriginal American Literature, 1885), p. 93.

  16.   16. 

    Brinton: “but I have not passed.” The verb root iqo (to enter) is identical in the parallel passages, so I have translated them as such.

  17.   17. 

    The Brinton translation placed “it was said” incorrectly after “because of the cinders,” probably to make the passage read smoothly in English. I have followed the construction of the original text.

  18.   18. 

    Roys, p. 186.

  19.   19. 

    Monroe S. Edmonson, The Ancient Future of the Itza: The Book of Chilam Balam of Tizímin (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1982), II. 3902–9.


Christenson, Allen J.