The Annals of the CakchiQuels


The Cakchiquels, whose traditions and early history are given in the present work from the pen of one of their own authors, were a nation of somewhat advanced culture, who occupied a portion of the area of the present State of Guatemala.

Their territory is a table land about six thousand feet above the sea, seamed with numerous deep ravines, and supporting lofty mountains and active volcanoes. Though but fifteen degrees from the equator, its elevation assures it a temperate climate, while its soil is usually fertile and well watered.

They were one of a group of four closely related nations, adjacent in territory and speaking dialects so nearly alike as to be mutually intelligible. The remaining three were the Quiches, the Tzutuhils and the Akahals, who dwelt respectively to the west, the south and the east of the Cakchiquels.

These dialects are well marked members of the Maya linguistic stock, and differ from that language, as it is spoken in its purity in Yucatan, more in phonetic modifications than in grammatical structure or lexical roots.

Such, however, is the fixedness of this linguistic family in its peculiarities, that a most competent student of the Cakchiquel has named the period of two thousand years as the shortest required to explain the difference between this tongue and the Maya.

About the same length of time was that assigned since the arrival of this nation in Guatemala, by the local historian, Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzman, who wrote in the seventeenth century, from an examination of their most ancient traditions, written and verbal. 

Indeed, none of these affined tribes claimed to be autochthonous.

All pointed to some distant land as the home of their ancestors, and religiously preserved the legends, more or less mythical, of their early wanderings until they had reached their present seats.

How strong the mythical element in them is, becomes evident when we find in them the story of the first four brothers as their four primitive rulers and leaders, a myth which I have elsewhere shown prevailed extensively over the American continent, and is distinctly traceable to the adoration of the four cardinal points, and the winds from them.

These four brothers were noble youths, born of one mother, who sallied forth from Tulan, the golden city of the sun, and divided between them all the land from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to the confines of Nicaragua, in other words, all the known world.

City of Light – Tonatlan

The occurrence of the Aztec name of the City of Light, Tulan (properly, Tonatlan), in these accounts, as they were rehearsed by the early converted natives, naturally misled historians to adopt the notion that these divine culture heroes were “Toltecs,” and even in the modern writings of the Abbé Brasseur (de Bourbourg), of M. Désiré Charnay, and others, this unreal people continue to be set forth as the civilizers of Central America.

No supposition could have less support. The whole alleged story of the Toltecs is merely an euhemerized myth, and they are as pure creations of the fancy as the giants and fairies of mediæval romance. They have no business in the pages of sober history.

The same blending of their most ancient legends with those borrowed from the Aztecs, recurs in the records of the pure Mayas of Yucatan. I have shown this, and explained it at considerable length in the first volume of this series, to which I will refer the reader who would examine the question in detail.

There is a slight admixture of Aztec words in Cakchiquel.

The names of one or two of their months, of certain objects of barter, and of a few social institutions, are evidently loan-words from that tongue.

There are also some proper names, both personal and geographical, which are clearly of Nahuatl derivation. But, putting all these together, they form but a very small fraction of the language, not more than we can readily understand they would necessarily have borrowed from a nation with whom, as was the case with the Aztecs, they were in constant commercial communication for centuries.

The Pipils

The Pipils, their immediate neighbors to the South, cultivating the hot and fertile slope which descends from the central plateau to the Pacific Ocean, were an Aztec race of pure blood, speaking a dialect of Nahuatl, very little different from that heard in the schools of classic Tezcuco.

But the grammatical structure and stem-words of the Cakchiquel remained absolutely uninfluenced by this association.

Later, when the Spanish occupation had brought with it thousands of Nahuatl speaking followers, who supplied the interpreters for the conquerers, Nahuatl names became much more abundant, and were adopted by the natives in addressing the Spaniards. Thus the four nations, whom I have mentioned as the original possessors of the land, are, in the documents of the time, generally spoken of by such foreign titles.

Tecpan Utlatlan, Tecpan Atitlan

The Cakchiquels were referred to as Tecpan Quauhtemallan, the Quiches as Tecpan Utlatlan, the Tzutuhils as Tecpan Atitlan, and the Akahals as Tecpan Tezolotlan. In these names, all of them pure Nahuatl, the word Tecpan means the royal residence or capitalQuauhtemallan (Guatemala), “the place of the wood-pile;” Utlatlan, “the place of the giant cane;” Atitlan, “the place by the water;” Tezolotlan, “the place of the narrow stone,” or “narrowed by stones.”

These fanciful names, derived from some trivial local characteristic, were not at all translations of the native tribal names. For in their own dialects, Quiche, ciche, means “many trees;” Tuztuhil, dzutuhil, “the flowery spot;” Akahal, “the honey-comb;” and Cakchiquel, a species of tree.


These four nations were on the same plane of culture, and this by no means a low one. They were agriculturists, cultivating for food beans, peppers, and especially maize.

To the latter, indeed, they are charged with being fanatically devoted. “If one looks closely at these Indians,” complains an old author, “he will find that everything they do and say has something to do with maize. A little more, and they would make a god of it.

There is so much conjuring and fussing about their corn fields, that for them they will forget wives and children and any other pleasure, as if the only end and aim of life was to secure a crop of corn.”

In their days of heathenism, all the labors of the field were directed by the observance of superstitious rites. For instance, the men, who always did a large share of the field work, refrained from approaching their wives for some days before planting the seed.

Before weeding the patch, incense was burned at each of the four corners of the field, to the four gods of the winds and rains; and the first fruits were consecrated to holy uses.

Their fields were large and extremely productive. In this connection it is worth noting, in passing, that precisely Guatemala is the habitat of the Euchlæna luxurians, the wild grass from which, in the opinion of botanists, the Zea Mais is a variety developed by cultivation.

Cotton was largely cultivated, and the early writers speak with admiration of the skill with which the native women spun and wove it into graceful garments. As in Yucatan, bees were domesticated for their wax and honey, and a large variety of dye-stuffs, resins for incense, and wild fruits, were collected from the native forests.

Like the Mayas and Aztecs, they were a race of builders, skillful masons and stone-cutters, erecting large edifices, pyramids, temples, and defensive works, with solid walls of stone laid in a firm mortar. 

The sites of these cities were generally the summits of almost inaccessible crags, or on some narrow plain, protected on all sides by the steep and deep ravines—barrancas, as the Spaniards call them—which intersect the plateau in all directions, often plunging down to a depth of thousands of feet.

So located and so constructed, it is no wonder that Captain Alvarado speaks of them as “thoroughly built and marvelously strong.”

In the construction of their buildings and the measurements of their land, these nations had developed quite an accurate series of lineal measures, taking as their unit certain average lengths of the human body, especially the upper extremity.

In a study of this subject, published during the present year, I have set forth their various terms employed in this branch of knowledge, and compared their system with that in use among the Mayas and the Aztecs.

It would appear that the Cakchiquels did not borrow from their neighbors, but developed independently the system of mensuration in vogue among them. This bears out what is asserted in the Annals of Xahila, that their “day-breaking,” or culture, was of spontaneous growth.

The art of picture writing was familiar to all these peoples. It was employed to preserve their national history, to arrange their calendar, and, doubtless, in the ordinary affairs of life.

But I am not aware that any example or description of it has been preserved, which would enable us to decide the highly important question, whether their system was derived from that of the Mexicans or that of the Mayas, between which, as the antiquary need not be informed, there existed an almost radical difference.

The word for “to write,” is ibah, which means, in its primary sense, “to paint;” ahib, is “the scribe,” and was employed to designate the class of literati in the ancient dominion. Painted or written records were called ibanic.

They had a literature beyond their history and calendars. It consisted of chants or poems, called bix, set orations and dramas. They were said or sung in connection with their ceremonial dances.

These performances were of the utmost importance in their tribal life.

They were associated with the solemn mysteries of their religion, and were in memory of some of the critical events in their real or mythical history. This will be obvious from the references to them in the pages of their Annals.

These chants and dances were accompanied by the monotonous beating of the native drum, tun, by the shrill sound of reed flutes, xul, by the tinkling of small metal bells, alakan, which they attached to their feet, and by rattles of small gourds or jars containing pebbles, known as zoch.

Other musical instruments mentioned, are the chanal, the whistle (pitoDicc. Anon.), and tzuy, the marimba, or something like it.

These nations were warlike, and were well provided with offensive and defensive weapons.

The Spanish writers speak of them as skilled archers, rude antagonists, but not poisoning their weapons.

Besides the bow and arrow, ha, they used a lance, achcayupil, and especially the blow-pipe, pub, a potent weapon in the hands of an expert, the knowledge of which was widely extended over tropical America.

Their arrow points were of stone, especially obsidian, bone and metal. Other weapons were the wooden war club, haibalche; the sling, ica; the hand-axe, iah, etc.

For defense, they carried a species of buckler, pocob, and a round shield called çeteçic chee, “the circular wood.” Over the body they wore a heavy, quilted cotton doublet, the xakpota, which was an efficient protection.

They may all be said to have been in the “stone age,” as the weapons and utensils were mostly of stone. The obsidian, which was easily obtained in that country, offered an admirable resource for the manufacture of knives, arrow heads, awls, and the like. It was called chay abah, and, as we shall see on a later page, was surrounded with sacred associations.

The most esteemed precious stones were the ual, translated “diamond,” and the xit, which was the impure jade or green stone, so much the favorite with the nations of Mexico and Central America. It is frequently mentioned in the Annals of Xahila, among the articles of greatest value.

Engraving both on stone and wood, was a prized art. The word to express it was otoh, and engraved articles are referred to as otonic.

Although stone and wood were the principal materials on which they depended for their manufactures, they were well acquainted with several metals.

Gold and silver were classed under the general name puvak, and distinguished as white and yellow; iron and copper were both known as hih, and distinguished also by their color.

The metals formed an important element of their riches, and are constantly referred to as part of the tribute paid to the rulers. They were worked into ornaments, and employed in a variety of decorative manners.

The form of government of the four nations of whom I am speaking approached that of a limited monarchy.

There was a head chief, who may as well be called a king, deriving his position and power through his birth, whose authority was checked by a council of the most influential of his subjects. The details of this general scheme were not the same at all periods, nor in all the states; but its outlines differed little.

Among the Cakchiquels, who interest us at present, the regal power was equally divided between two families, the Zotzils and the Xahils; not that there were two kings at the same time, as some have supposed, but that the throne was occupied by a member of these families alternately, the head of the other being meanwhile heir-apparent. 

These chiefs were called the Ahpo-Zotzil and the Ahpo-Xahil; and their eldest sons were entitled Ahpop-camahay and Galel Xahil, respectively, terms which will shortly be explained.

The ceremonial distinction established between the ruler and those nearest him in rank, was indicated by the number of canopies under which they sat. The ruler himself was shaded by three, of graded sizes, the uppermost being the largest. The heir-apparent was privileged to support two, and the third from the king but one.

These canopies were elaborately worked in the beautiful feathers of the quetzal, and other brilliant birds, and bore the name of muh, literally “shade” or “shadow,” but which metaphorically came to mean royal dignity or state, and also protection, guardianship.

The seat or throne on which he sat was called temhacat, and alibal, and these words are frequently employed to designate the Supreme Power.

The ceremonies connected with the installation of a king or head chief, are described in an interesting passage of the AnnalsSec. 41: “He was bathed by the attendants in a large painted vessel; he was clad in flowing robes; a sacred girdle or fillet was tied upon him; he was painted with the holy colors, was anointed, and jewels were placed upon his person.” Such considerable solemnities point to the fact that these people were on a much higher plane of social life than one where the possession of the leadership was merely an act of grasping by the strongest arm.

Of the four nations, the Quiches were the most numerous and powerful. At times they exercised a sovereignty over the others, and levied tribute from them. But at the period of Alvarado’s conquest, all four were independent States, engaged in constant hostilities against each other.

There is no means of forming an accurate estimate of their number. All early accounts agree that their territory was thickly populated, with numerous towns and cities. 

The contingent sent to Alvarado by the Cakchiquel king, to aid in the destruction of Quiche, was four thousand warriors in one body, according to Alvarado’s own statement, though Xahila puts it at four hundred.

There are various reasons for believing that the native population was denser at the Conquest than at present; and now the total aboriginal population of the State of Guatemala, of pure or nearly pure blood, is about half a million souls.

Computation of Time

I propose, in a future work, to discuss the methods of reckoning time in use in Central America; but a brief explanation of that adopted by the Cakchiquels is essential to a comprehension of their Annals.

The Cakchiquels were probably acquainted with the length of the year as 365 days; there is even some evidence that they allowed an intercalary day every four years, by beginning the reckoning of the year one day earlier.

The beginning of their year is stated, by most authorities, to have been on the day corresponding to our January 31st or February 1st, old style (February 11th or 12th, new style).

The year was not divided into lunar months, as was the case with the hunting tribes, but in a manner similar to the highly artificial and complicated system that prevailed among the Mayas and Mexicans.

This allotted to the solar year twenty months of eighteen days each, leaving a remainder of five days, which the Mexicans called nemontemi, insufficient; the Mayas n yail kin, days of pain or of peril, and the Cakchiquels api ih, days of evil or days at fault; and which were not included in the count of the months.

Dates, however, were not assigned by a simple reference to days of the month, but by days of the week; these weeks being of thirteen days each, and including every day of the year. The week days were not named, but numbered only.

As will be noted in the Annals, more importance was attached to the day on which an occurrence took place than to the year. This is common with untrained minds. Every citizen of the United States knows that George Washington was born on the 22d of February; but it would puzzle a large portion of them to be asked the year of his birth.

The personal name was always that of the day of birth, this being adopted for astrological reasons. There was a fixed opinion that the temperament and fortunes of the individual were controlled by the supposed character of his birthday, and its name and number were therefore prefixed to his family name. This explains the frequent occurrence in the Cakchiquel Annals of such strange appellatives as Belehe Queh, nine deer; Cay Batz, two monkey, etc.; these being, in fact, the days of the year on which the bearers were born. They should be read, “the 9th Queh,” “the 2d Batz,” etc.

Stone God

The Stone God, indeed, is a prominent figure in their mythology, as it was in their daily life. This was the sacred Chay Abah, the Obsidian Stone, which was the oracle of their nation, and which revealed the will of the gods on all important civil and military questions.

To this day, their relatives, the Mayas of Yucatan, attach implicit faith to the revelations of the zaztun, the divining stone kept by their sorcerers, and if it decrees the death of any one, they will despatch him with their machetes, without the slightest hesitation. 

The belief was cherished by the rulers and priests, as they alone possessed the power to gaze on the polished surface of the sacred block of obsidian, and read thereupon the invisible decrees of divinity.

As the stone came from the earth, it was said to have been derived from the under world, from Xibalbay, literally the unseen or invisible place, the populous realm in Quiche myth, visited and conquered by their culture hero, Xbalanque. Hence in Cakchiquel tale, the Chay Abah represented the principle of life, as well as the source of knowledge.


The Cakchiquel Annals do not pretend to deal with mythology, but from various references and fragments inserted as history, it is plain that they shared the same sacred legends as the Quiches, which were, in all probability, under slightly different forms, the common property of the Maya race.

They all indicate loans from the Aztec mythology. In the Cakchiquel Annals, as in the Popol Vuh and the Maya Chronicles, we hear of the city of the sun god, Tulan or Tonatlan, as the place of their origin, of the land Zuiva and of the Nonoalcos, names belonging to the oldest cycles of myths in the religion of the Aztecs.

In the first volume of this series I have discussed their appearance in the legends of Central America, and need not refer to them here more than to say that those who have founded on these names theories of the derivation of the Maya tribes or their ruling families from the Toltecs, a purely imaginary people, have perpetrated the common error of mistaking myth for history.

It is this error that renders valueless much that the Abbé Brasseur, M. Charnay and others of the French school, have written on this subject.

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