In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The Americas 62.3 (2006) 413-444

[Access article in PDF]

The Passion According To the Wooden Drum:

The Christian Appropriation of a Zapotec Ritual Genre In New Spain*

Vassar College
Poughkeepsie, New York


Sometime after the summer of 1703, a strange traveler journeyed to several Zapotec-speaking communities nestled in the rugged geography of Villa Alta—an alcaldía mayor northeast of Oaxaca City in New Spain. He wore a pectoral ornament around his neck—a gift from the Benedictine friar Ángel Maldonado, a newly appointed bishop who had arrived in Oaxaca in July 1702—and was received throughout Villa Alta with "great noise and expressions of joy."1 Upon his arrival in each locality, he would gather the townspeople and proclaim an offer of amnesty from the bishop: in exchange for registering a collective confession about traditional ritual practices at the administrative seat of San Ildefonso, and turning in their ritual implements—such as alphabetic ritual texts and wooden cylindrical drums—each Zapotec community would receive a general amnesty from ecclesiastical prosecution for idolatry. The identity of Maldonado's messenger added a note of urgency to these proclamations—after all, he was one of 32 defendants convicted of insubordination, murder, and idolatry after a 1700 riot in San Francisco Cajonos that resulted in the execution of two informants who had denounced an unorthodox celebration to the resident Dominicans. In January 1702, 15 of these rebels had been hanged and quartered [End Page 413] after being sentenced to death without appeal, and their remains had been placed along the main road to Oaxaca.2 The remaining 17 defendants were given a suspended death sentence, but Maldonado obtained a commutation from the Audiencia, tried 11 of them for idolatry, and selected one of the former "teachers of idolatry" to proclaim his clemency across the region.

Bishop Maldonado's innovative approach to idolatry eradication, which he also pursued through two visits he made to Villa Alta between 1702 and 1704, triggered an unprecedented native response. Between September 1704 and January 1705, the elected officials of 15 Bijanos Zapotec, 27 Cajonos Zapotec, 26 Nexitzo Zapotec, 29 Mixe and 7 Chinantec towns—representing a total native population of about 60,000, according to Maldonado— journeyed to San Ildefonso to register a communal confession about their local ritual observances before Joseph de Aragón y Alcántara, one of the most experienced idolatry extirpators in the diocese. Many, but not all, of the Zapotec officials also surrendered 103 booklets (cuadernos) containing alphabetic texts in Cajonos, Nexitzo, and Bijanos Zapotec. 99 of these booklets contained, among other writings, a list of each of the 260 day names in the Zapotec ritual calendar—called piyè in Valley Zapotec and biyè in Villa Alta—which was similar in structure to the 260-day divinatory day counts in other Mesoamerican societies.3 The authors of this textual genre called it "the time count of our ancestors and fathers," or biyè xotao xoci reo. The remaining four booklets contain alphabetic transcriptions of 15 Christian songs and 22 songs devoted to local Zapotec ancestors and deities that were performed to the beat of a wooden, two-tone cylindrical drum—known as nicachi in Zapotec and teponaztli in Nahuatl (see Figure 1). These texts, along with the better known Maya books of Chilam Balam, are the two largest extant corpus of clandestine ritual texts produced by native authors in colonial Spanish America. Therefore, their potential to illuminate the clandestine realms of ritual and writing practices in colonial indigenous communities is rather extraordinary.

If Maldonado had followed habitual procedure regarding the confiscated collections of "diabolical characters," he would have staged a public burning of texts—a strategy that idolatry extirpators such as Gonzalo Curiel and Gonzalo [End Page 414]

Click for larger view
Figure 1
The entire Nexitzo Zapotec text of Song 1 from Booklet 102. AGI México 882, 664r. (Illustration courtesy of Archivo General de Indias, Seville, Spain).
[End Page 415]

de Balsalobre had embraced in 1633, 1635, and 1654...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 413-444
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.