Elliot tells the story of the destruction of the indigenous Mayan peoples of Guatemala and their leader, Tecun Uman.
He shares first hand accounts of The Spanish conquest of The Kʼicheʼ kingdom and the brutal treatment of the Native Americans at the hands of Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado.
A fascinating account of the history of the Americas, and the brave defiance of its indigenous peoples.
The Ice Giants by Kevin MacLeod
It's 1522 in the highlands of Guatemala. The clamour of the Spanish kettle drum reverberates through the forest. Monkeys, jaguars and birds all scatter trying to escape the din. The villages nearby, usually a hubbub of noise and life stand lifeless and deserted.
It seemed that every living thing had fled the area after learning that an army of strange whiteskinned men were coming their way. Stories of their clothing that could reflect the sun, their sticks that could make fire and the terrifying creatures that they could shapeshift into had spread terror amongst the populace. But not all had run. Standing proudly at the front of the Mayan army stood Tecun Uman. Wielding a razor sharp obsidian club and adorned from head to toe in sacred green feathers. He was an inspiring sight to his men, many of whom had never seen a Spaniard before. He and his 8000 strong army were the only mine state that had not accepted Spanish rule. They were known as The Kʼicheʼ.
While their kingdom was only a fraction of the strength it once was the legacy of a proud and defiant warrior culture pulsed through the veins of every man gathered there that day.
He knew that these whitefaced men did not fight like he did. In their warfare, there was no personal glory and no prisoners captured for human sacrifice. It was calculated, cold and wickedly efficient. All at once they emerged from the clearing.
Tecun Uman recognized their leader instantly. Though he knew him not by his Spanish name, only by the name he had been given: Tonatiuh, The Sun God. It seemed like the rumours were true. Many of the Spaniards had transformed into strange fourlegged beasts. Each being stood several feet taller with four legs and two heads. At first he was shaken by the sight of them but the fear quickly left him when he heard the chirping of a bird close by. On a branch in the tree above him sat a single green quetzal bird. His personal spirit guide was the only animal that had not fled.
Surely this was a good omen.
There was no time to think. Tonatiuh's wicked grey eyes met his own and he yelled to his fourlegged creatures who charged forward. The war chief raised his club, screamed out the Kʼicheʼ war cry and ran toward him…
You're listening to Anthology of Heroes and this is the story of Tecun Uman and the Last Stand of the Kʼicheʼ.Listener discretion is advised on this one.
Guatemala is a lush, mountainous country located south of Mexico, north of El Salvador and flanked by both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The beautiful highlands and pleasant temperature earn in the nickname the Land of the Eternal Spring.
In fact, its name is based off a Kʼicheʼword Cuauhtēmallān , meaning land of many trees.
I was lucky enough to spend a little over a month here in early 2020 learning Spanish and living with a local family. One night over dinner while the grandfather of the family patiently spoke to me in Spanish at a glacial speed, he pulled out an old book about Guatemalan history.
He flipped to a particular picture that caught my eye. It was a statue of a native chieftain standing tall, rippling with muscle, fists clenched and back arched; picture like wolverine when he gets his claws out.
I was fascinated to learn that this statue was only just around the corner from where I was staying in the city of Quetzaltenango, meaning place of the Quetzal bird. After finding the statue and one of his supposed battle locations, I started my investigation into this fascinating man. And here I am making a podcast about him only a year later.
Just a heads up, I'm going to be really making a dog's breakfast of some of these Mayan names. So apologies in advance . I've usually stuck to Kʼicheʼ translations of place names, but if I found the word too hard, I moved to the Aztec Nahuatl translations which were easier for me.
In the 15th century, the Americas were a bit like Europe in the way they were divided.Each region was dotted with empires, states, client states and kingdoms. The Spanish and the Portuguese were the first Europeans to start colonies in what was to be called the New World. When the Spanish arrived in modern day Mexico, they found the formidable Aztec Empire. Formidable, but almost universally hated by its neighbours. The Aztecs ran their empire like a cartel, squeezing tribute out in the form of feathers, animal hides, gold or slaves from all smaller and weaker states around it. If you didn't pay up, well, they were coming to get you.
For this reason, the Spanish had no trouble convincing tribes to join them in a war against them once the Aztec Empire was defeated. And this is simplifying an incredibly complex and interesting story that I'll be covering in a later episode. Anyway, once they were beaten, the Spanish expedition leader, a guy named Hernan Cortez, broke apart his forces to scout different areas, mostly looking for gold or good ground for a new settlement. Cortez selected a man named Pedro de Alvarado to head south into what we now call Guatemala, but at the time was unmapped territory. Most of the Spanish soldiers on the expedition known as Conquistadors had a vested interest in extracting as much gold as they could from the native populace. This is because they were not paid and instead were entitled to a share of any plunder the army got its hands on. And in the case of the recently conquered Aztec Empire, this proved to be a very lucrative deal indeed. So the Conquistadors were incentivized to be greedy.
But Pedro de Alvarado was another thing entirely. Alvarado had been part of the expedition since they first arrived in Mexico. He was battle hardened, handsome, with a sound military mind. He was also exceptionally cruel and utterly ruthless, harbouring a particular hatred for Native Americans who were viewed as nothing more than savages who stood between him and mounds of gold. Let me give you an example. During the conquest of the Aztecs, he had to stand in for governor for Cortez for a few weeks. During this time, he supervised an Aztec religious ceremony that he had given permission to take place. As he watched the procession move past him he noticed how many of the native participants wore gold armbands, gold rings, gold hair ties, gold so much gold!
Drunk on greed, he ordered his men to block the exits and open fire on the unarmed men, women and children midway through their religious dance. A rare Aztec account of the massacre goes like this:
They ran in among the dancers, forcing their way to the place where the drums were played. They attacked the man who was drumming and cut off his arms.
Then they cut off his head, and it rolled across the floor.
They attacked all the celebrants, stabbing them, spearing them, striking them with their swords.
They attacked some of them from behind, and they fell instantly to the ground with their entrails hanging out.
Others they beheaded: they cut off their heads, or split their heads to pieces.
Alvarado never showed any hint of interest in governing the provinces the Spanish conquered. As soon as he had extracted every last speck of gold, he moved on, leaving whoever came after him to try and pick up the pieces of the devastated region. Even his fellow Spaniards lived in fear of him. Knowing he thought of them as only slightly less disposable than the natives. Cortez instructed Alvarado to march south from the Aztec capital and scout the area. He was to look for gold, good ground for new colonies and stomp out any native resistance he came into contact with.
For the expedition, he provided Alvarado with 150 cavalry, 300 infantry, a few cannons and thousands upon thousands of native warriors. Almost all of his army was made up of Aztec soldiers that had been forced into service now fighting for the very same man that had just destroyed their empire. It's estimated that for every one Spaniard there were somewhere between three and ten native warriors.
They had no way of knowing it, but they were hammering the nail into the coffin of their way of life. The tyranny these small estates had endured under the Aztecs of the Kʼicheʼ could not even compare to the fate that awaited them once Spain was in control. But before the army had even left the capital a far more potent threat had already reached the Kʼicheʼ kingdom. Over the centuries, Europeans had built up a natural immunity to diseases like smallpox, measles or typhus. Their bodies were used to them.
Those that lived in the Americas, however, were not. These diseases travelled across the Atlantic Ocean on trading ships and once they reached the native communities, it hit them like a truck. Members of the native communities noticed townsfolk and family members covered in sores and boils that they had never seen before. And after a few days of feverish, sweating and vomiting, they would be dead.
Speculation ran wild. Had they angered the gods with this punishment for something? Eventually 90% of the native population would die from these new diseases. 90%. Nine out of ten people. As Alvarado's expedition marched south through the Yucatan, they passed through a few of the kingdoms that had either resisted or fallen out of favor with their new Spanish overlords. For the native warriors in his army, it was a bleak look into their future. A Spanish friar, Bartolomé de las Casas, travelled back and forth to the new colonies and was disgusted by what he saw.
Far from benevolent overlords, spreading God's word of love, las Casas tells us of the horrors he witnessed. He tells us of cruel Spanish soldiers ripping children from their mother's breast and smashing the children against rocks, laughing and mocking the mothers as they sobbed hysterically. He goes on to say that he witnesses families being torn apart as the more attractive native women were given to his sailors and men to rape and murder with impunity.
His personal account of this is completely unique. He compiled his observations into a book called A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. The book was intended to be read by the King of Spain, and it brings to light the cruelty and outright barbarity that Spanish governors like Alvarado allowed to take place.
Stories like this flooded south into states that had not yet made contact with Spain. To the Kʼicheʼ, it was now clear the fate that awaited them should their kingdom fall. In the Kʼicheʼ capital of Utalan, the king spoke with three of his commanders. The state was a kind of oligarchy where nobles formed a bit of a council. And at the top were four men, with one reigning supreme over the others. This was Aj’Pop Oxib Kej. Aj’Pop translates roughly to keeper of the mats as the Kʼicheʼ throne was a collection of mats. And Oxib Kej was a ruler's name, translating to three deer. So more or less king three deer. The four men discussed how best to deal with the whiteskinned, men who, by all accounts, would soon be at their doorstep. While some spoke of terms of surrender or the discussion of alliance, this was shut down quickly. Up until very recently, the Kʼicheʼ had held supremacy over many of the other kingdoms in the region.
But in around 1470, a rebellion had forced them to grant autonomy to many of the vassal. Kingdoms. To surrender would be seen as weak.
But if they could defeat these Castilians, their prestige would swell and they could regain the dominance they had just recently lost. It was agreed that the Kʼicheʼ would fight off this threat.
But how would they do it? Their scouts had reported that the invaders had possessed incredibly potent magic sticks that could make fire, clothing that could reflect the sun.
And most concerningly, they had the ability to transform into tall, fearsome, four legged animals. Whoever was to lead the Kʼicheʼ forces would need to be brave and determined. And for this reason, Aj’Pop Oxib Kej volunteered his son. His name is lost to history, but we know him by his title Tecun Uman, meaning prince or captain. Tecun was around 30 years old at the time of his appointment. As a member of the ruling class, during peacetime, it would have been up to him to ensure the kingdom ran smoothly.
Despite being far behind the Europeans in technological advancement I don't want to give the impression that the Minds were savages who sat around the dingy fire waiting for the warm light of Christianity to enrich their lives. Far from it.
The Mayans lived an incredibly culturally rich life and spent their days trading, producing crops and goods, conducting religious ceremonies, playing games, dancing, writing and studying astronomy and mathematics.
One of the games that the ancient Mayans played was known as Pok-A-Tok. It's a bit of a mix between basketball and soccer, but played entirely with one's hips and upper legs.
Once the news of his appointment reached Tecun Uman, he would have understood that he had a mammoth task on his shoulders. And it was only getting harder. As the Spanish came south, all smaller kingdoms accepted their suzenerity . Many of them, who had recently rebelled against the Kʼicheʼ, welcomed an opportunity for an outsider to break the hold they held over the region.
As he readied his men for the fight of their lives, the prince had to explain the different ways these foreigners fought. In Mayanwarfare battles were fought with a focus on capturing prisoners. The prisoners could be enslaved or sacrificed to please the gods. To kill someone on the battlefield was considered somewhat wasteful. Not only this, but there was much more opportunity for personal glory in native warfare. Men would enter the battle dressed in the most elaborate and eyecatching costumes jaguar pelts, feathered headdresses the more dazzling the better. For armour, they wore a heavy watersoaked cotton tunic, which proved to be very effective from mobility and protection. So much so that the Spanish began to use them as well. The Mayans had not learned how to smelt iron, so they didn't use swords and instead fought with something called a Macuahuitl.
The Macuahuitl was an incredibly interesting weapon. It's a long, flat, wooden club with razor sharp discs of volcanic rock inserted around the edges. The volcanic rock, known as obsidian, had a wicked sharp edge on par, if not sharper than any sword the Spanish bought over. And so, with his men as ready as I'll ever be, Tecun Uman took the initiative and with around 8000 Kʼicheʼ warriors, planned an ambush for Alvarado and his army near the west coast of Guatemala along the Samala River.
According to the Spanish, as this territory was claimed by the Spanish King, Charles V, The Kʼicheʼwere actually committing treason by rebelling against their rightful lord. Imagine this line of logic: without even knowing it you're committing treason by defending your land from someone who has never even set foot in it.
The Spanish and their allies hugged the coast, both for food and because the interior was not mapped by them. They knew the highlands were the domain of the Kʼicheʼ. As the invading army waded across the river, Tecun Uman caught his first glimpse at Alvarado. His men that had witnessed him earlier said he bore a striking resemblance to the god of the sun and war, the one they called Tōnatiuh. They were right. His brightly colored red hair was something Tecunhad never seen before. God or not, the signal was given, and a Kʼicheʼ burst forward with the Spanish halfway through crossing the river.
It was well timed. Down from the treelines they came, the men, a dazzling display of colors and sounds as the Spanish turned to face them. The light of their armour shined back in the eyes of Tecun and his men, who had never seen iron before. Even after having the Spanish weapons described to them, he and his men were terrified as the crack of Spanish musket fire echoed through the valley.
But even more than that, their horses shocked them. The Mayan men stood around, a foot shorter than the Spanish, at least, and boosted by sitting atop a horse, they appeared before them as terrifying four legged giants. The idea of shapeshifters was well known in Mayan mythology. They even had a name for it: Nagual.
It's very likely that Tecun and his men assumed this is what the horses were and believed that the Europeans had the ability to transform into these beasts at will. All this at once would have been a staggering amount of information to take in. Tecun and his men scattered, barely even making contact. But further into the highlands, he rallied them and planned his next move. Alvarado set his men loose on the countryside. Plunder, rape, theft, murder were committed with impunity. He wanted the region punished for its rebellion.
He was in a particularly foul mood, too. Guatemala and Central America had nowhere near the amount of gold Mexico did. Abducting and torturing natives had not produced any sizable amounts either.
As Tecun Uman calmed as men, they devised a clever series of traps along the main road. Aware that the four legged beasts could not travel well through the jungle, they had spiked pits, dug into the road and then covered with leaves. Alvarado lost several horses to this, but soon he stopped falling through the trap, and when he did find a pit, he had it filled not with dirt… but with any native villages they had captured who were impaled on the wooden skewers and left to suffer as a warning to anyone who might think of fighting against the Spanish.
Bruised but not broken, the Kʼicheʼ reformed their lines up in the mountains and built a defensible choke point at this point, Alvarado and his men were almost on the outskirts of their capital, Utalan. Knowing that the men had a fear of charging cavalry, Tecun picked a particularly rugged spot that would make it difficult for the horses to manoeuvre.
By Alvarado's own report, they had a great deal of trouble with the choke point. A seemingly endless hail of Kʼicheʼ arrows kept them back, but eventually they punched through the defenses into a clearing much more fitting for cavalry. Losing men quickly to arrow fire, Alvarado gave the word to retreat, and his cavalry darted off towards the clearing. Tecun thought he finally had the upper hand, and he and his men chased down the fleeing army. But the Spaniards had planned this ruse to lure them away from their defenses, and they had fallen for it. Tecun Uman led the charge. He and his men burst forth into the clearing, sprinting after the horses.
But just as they began to close the distance ‘Santiago!’ Alvarado yelled, and on cue, the Spaniard cavalry wheeled around. A volley of close range musket fire ripped through the completely exposed Kʼicheʼ front lines. Tecun Uman watched his best men cut down instantly by a wave of the magical sticks. The strength of the Spanish magic was staggering. It was at this moment, in the heat of battle, Tecun noticed a single queen resplendent quetzal bird in the tree above. The Quetzal bird had always been as Nahual, his spirit guide, and in this moment the sight of the bird steadied his resolve.
As his men ducked to the ground, trying to avoid the next volley of fire, Tecun noticed Tōnatiuh’s red hair in the midst of battle and, grabbing a spear from the corpse of one of his men, the Kʼicheʼ captain charged forward.
Tōnatiuh noticed him, but it was too late. The spear found its mark, and the four legged beast screamed out in pain, its front legs rearing up before collapsing as the blood gushed from the wound and the creature went silent.
Tecun cheered proudly to his men that he had defeated the monster, but as he pulled his spear free, his blood ran cold as he saw a man slide out from the creature. In that moment, everything was clear. There were two different beings.
The man had not shapeshifted.
He had just been sitting atop a different animal. Donateir fumbled for his magic stick, pointed at Tecun, and clicked…
As the hot lead entered his chest, he stumbled back and collapsed. Seeing their chieftain killed, his men fled back to the capital, but few would make it back that far. As the slaughter began, the Quetzal bird that had been watching the battle flew down and landed mournfully on Tecun Uman's chest, his blood forever staining the bird's green breast.
With their leader dead, whoever was still left made for the city of Quetzaltenango.
Hearing of his son's death, Aj’Pop Oxib Kej was overwhelmed with grief. But he put it aside and tried to gather up the men back into their positions. What was left of the army desperately tried to stand the ground in a town nearby. But by now their best and bravest had already been lost. And it wasn't so much of a battle and more of a massacre. The slaughter was on such a scale that the field it took place was given the name Shekikiyala. Bathed in blood.
With their army completely wiped out, the proud Kʼicheʼ had no choice but to discuss terms of surrender. The other small nations that had remained loyal to the Kʼicheʼ throughout this also sent envoys and gifts to Alvarado. News of the defeat had spread to every corner of the Guatemalan highlands. The Kʼicheʼ were a nation that had risen and fallen numerous times throughout the millennia.But this war was to be their death blow.
European weapons and tactics were so incredibly advanced in comparison to what they had, it would be like us bringing a machine gun to the Battle of Hastings. Aj’Pop Oxib Kej invited Alvarado into his capital or Utalan. But Alvarado was suspicious at Kʼicheʼ knowing that they now had nothing to lose and were probably planning something treacherous. Instead, he insisted that The Aj’Pop and another Kitchee lord travelled to his camp to discuss terms.
Once they got there, according to the Spanish sources, a plan was leaked Alvarado that confirmed that the Aj’Pop was indeed planning to murder him if he went to the capital, Utalan. The Mayan sources say nothing of this.
Whatever the case, Alvarado and his hair trigger fury was tweaked. And after killing his son on the battlefield, Alvarado had Aj’Pop Oxib Kej burnt alive along with the other Kʼicheʼ lord. He probably hadn't planned on killing them and instead was planning to torture them until they revealed where they had hidden away their gold. But Guatemala was not Mexico. There simply wasn't much gold to be found. Under pain of torture, the two Kʼicheʼ lords had messages bring forth the closest they had. A mixed alloy that resembled gold known as orichalcum, which was in fact close to bronze. Predictably, this only made their torture angrier. And in a final act of cruelty, Alvarado ordered his men to burn down Utalan, their precious capital. In their final moments of what can only be described as hell on earth, the two men died knowing that not only their empire but their families would be scorched from the face of the earth.
In a letter to Cortez, Alvarado says of the event:
And seeing that by fire and sword I might bring these people to the service of His Majesty I determined to burn the chiefs, who at the time I wanted to burn them told me; as it will appear in their confessions, that they were the ones who had ordered this war.
During my time in Quetzaltenango, I checked out the ruins of Utalan. It was an incredibly sad sight. And the 500 years or so that have come and gone since Alvarado's sacking, there have been no restorations. And apart from a few very faded plaques, there was no indication about the significance and prestige that this decaying ruin once held.
And thus ended the kingdom of the Kʼicheʼ. Our Spanish friar, Bartolomé de las Casas, leaves out nothing, once again telling us that anyone left standing in Utalan was conscripted into Alvarado's forces, but he provided them no food and instead forced them to eat other native Indians, be they men, women or children.
Making note that Alvarado took a sick sense of enjoyment watching them being roasted alive… With the Kʼicheʼ gone, Alvarado and his army continued south, leaving a merciless trail of destruction in their wake.
In a tiny drop of Karmic retribution, Alvarado would eventually die trying to suppress a native rebellion after a horse fell on top of him. He was buried with full honours in the cathedral of Antigua in northern Guatemala, where, unfortunately, he still lies undisturbed to this day.
The most well known legacy of the Mayan’s today is their calendar.And while, yes, they were impressive astronomers who had a very advanced dating system, there was so much more to them. But because they weren't a centralised empire like the Aztecs or the Incans, their achievements are sometimes forgotten.
In 1534, the Spanish bishop in charge of Guatemala started the systematic destruction of the Mayan religions. Priests, backed by Spanish muscle, were sent to every town, city or village across Guatemala. Any idols found smashed, any places of worship converted, any religious texts burned or confiscated.
Friar diego De Lando makes no secret of this, stating:
We found a large number of books of these characters and as they contain nothing in which were not seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burnt them all which they (The Mayan people) regretted to an amazing degree and which caused them much affliction.
Anyone caught with the forbidden books or even reciting their contents was punished severely. This would ramp up tremendously over the centuries and come to be known as the Spanish Inquisition. But just like Tecun Uman, the Kʼicheʼ refused to give up their beliefs and culture so easily. One codex, known as ‘Título de Totonicapán’ survived the fires of the Inquisition and was later translated into French, then Spanish and finally English.
But an even more incredible story is that of the Popul Vuh. The Popul Vuh is the equivalent of a Kʼicheʼ Bible, their very own creation story detailing how humans were constructed by gods using leftover maize, the story of their battles between gods and how the stars came to be…
The creation of the book was the combined efforts of the Kʼicheʼ elders in the small town of Chichicastenango. Realising that their ancient story was on the verge of extinction, they collectively wrote it down. But crucially, they wrote in the Latin script as almost no one could read the old Kʼicheʼ hieroglyphs anymore.
The book was kept secret for over a century, and when a Spanish priest called Francisco Ximénez was assigned to oversee the small town, he discovered that unlike other villages, the inhabitants of this one, every man, woman and child knew their creation story like the back of their hand!
This was strange, as by this time he was under the impression that the Spanish had snuffed out the history of these people. After some sniffing around, he found that the village elders had kept this a secret. A single copy of the The Popul Vuh had been hidden for centuries.
Its ancient story was read aloud to the townsfolk who were sworn to secrecy. The Kʼicheʼ traditions were being kept alive by a tiny burning ember in a nondescript village…
Gaining the elders trust, he asked to see the sacred book, and I'm glad to tell you he kept the secret and actually copied the words into more modern Spanish. The original copy has never reappeared, and now all modern variations of The Popul Vuh are based on Ximénez’s own hand.
The Kʼicheʼ language itself is still widely spoken throughout Guatemala. Around 7% or one 1 million people still speak it fluently, with an increasing effort to have it embedded in more schools across the country. In fact, the school I studied in Quetzaltenango, even offered a Kʼicheʼ curriculum alongside the usual Spanish ones.
It was a fascinating language to hear spoken and really gave a sense of timelessness when I was sitting at a bar and heard two friends laughing and chatting in a language so foreign and ancient to my own ears.
The Mayan ball game I mentioned before, Pok-A-Tok has also enjoyed a cultural revival in recent times. And in Mexico, I was lucky enough to see the oldest ball game in existence still being enjoyed in the same place it began in ancient times.
Despite this, native Guatemalans, like a Kʼicheʼ or indeed any other Mayan subculture continue to face discrimination. My school teacher, who was part Mayan, told me of the racial profiling that natives are lazy, stupid or dirty, though there is still hope.
In 2019, a Mayan woman ran for the presidency in Guatemala on the promise to halt the systematic racism against those of my own blood. While she didn't win, it's at least a start. As for Tecun Uman, he was made the official national hero of Guatemala in 1960, and every year on the anniversary of his death, he is remembered through prayer, dance and festival.
The Quetzal bird, his nahual, is now the national bird of Guatemala and features on its flag the blood red spot in the middle of its chest, an ever present reminder of Tecun Uman and the last stand of the Kʼicheʼ.
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