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Title: The Books of Chilan Balam, the Prophetic and Historic Records of the Mayas of Yucatan
Author: Brinton, Daniel Garrison, 1837-1899
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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Transcriber's Note

A number of typographical errors have been maintained in this version of
this book. They have been marked with a [TN-#], which refers to a
description in the complete list found at the end of the text.

The following codes are used for characters not available in the
character set used for this book:

  +   dagger
  ++  double dagger


  The Prophetic and Historic Records
  of the Mayas of Yucatan.


  ETC., ETC.




The substance of the present pamphlet was presented as an address to the
Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Philadelphia, at its meeting in
January, 1882, and was printed in the _Penn Monthly_, March, 1882. As
the subject is one quite new in the field of American archæology and
linguistics, it is believed that a republication in the present form
will be welcomed by students of these branches.


Civilization in ancient America rose to its highest level among the
Mayas of Yucatan. Not to speak of the architectural monuments which
still remain to attest this, we have the evidence of the earliest
missionaries to the fact that they alone, of all the natives of the New
World, possessed a literature written in "letters and characters,"
preserved in volumes neatly bound, the paper manufactured from the bark
of a tree and sized with a durable white varnish.[5-+]

A few of these books still remain, preserved to us by accident in the
great European libraries; but most of them were destroyed by the monks.
Their contents were found to relate chiefly to the pagan ritual, to
traditions of the heathen times, to astrological superstitions, and the
like. Hence, they were considered deleterious, and were burned wherever

This annihilation of their sacred books affected the natives most
keenly, as we are pointedly informed by Bishop Landa, himself one of the
most ruthless of Vandals in this respect.[5-++] But already some of the
more intelligent had learned the Spanish alphabet, and the missionaries
had added a sufficient number of signs to it to express with tolerable
accuracy the phonetics of the Maya tongue. Relying on their memories,
and, no doubt, aided by some manuscripts secretly preserved, many
natives set to work to write out in this new alphabet the contents of
their ancient records. Much was added which had been brought in by the
Europeans, and much omitted which had become unintelligible or obsolete
since the Conquest; while, of course, the different writers, varying in
skill and knowledge, produced works of very various merit.

Nevertheless, each of these books bore the same name. In whatever
village it was written, or by whatever hand, it always was, and to-day
still is, called "The Book of Chilan Balam." To distinguish them apart,
the name of the village where a copy was found or written, is added.
Probably, in the last century, almost every village had one, which was
treasured with superstitious veneration. But the opposition of the
_padres_ to this kind of literature, the decay of ancient sympathies,
and especially the long war of races, which since 1847 has desolated so
much of the peninsula, have destroyed most of them. There remain,
however, either portions or descriptions of not less than sixteen of
these curious records. They are known from the names of the villages
respectively as the Book of Chilan Balam of Nabula, of Chumayel, of
Káua, of Mani, of Oxkutzcab, of Ixil, of Tihosuco, of Tixcocob, etc.,
these being the names of various native towns in the peninsula.

When I add that not a single one of these has ever been printed, or even
entirely translated into any European tongue, it will be evident to
every archæologist and linguist what a rich and unexplored mine of
information about this interesting people they may present. It is my
intention in this article merely to touch upon a few salient points to
illustrate this, leaving a thorough discussion of their origin and
contents to the future editor who will bring them to the knowledge of
the learned world.

Turning first to the meaning of the name "_Chilan Balam_," it is not
difficult to find its derivation. "_Chilan_," says Bishop Landa, the
second bishop of Yucatan, whose description of the native customs is an
invaluable source to us, "was the name of their priests, whose duty it
was to teach the sciences, to appoint holy days, to treat the sick, to
offer sacrifices, and especially to utter the oracles of the gods. They
were so highly honored by the people that usually they were carried on
litters on the shoulders of the devotees."[7-*] Strictly speaking, in
Maya "_chilan_" means "interpreter," "mouth-piece," from "_chij_," "the
mouth," and in this ordinary sense frequently occurs in other writings.
The word, "_balam_"--literally, "tiger,"--was also applied to a class of
priests, and is still in use among the natives of Yucatan as the
designation of the protective spirits of fields and towns, as I have
shown at length in a recent study of the word as it occurs in the the
native myths of Guatemala.[7-+] "_Chilan Balam_," therefore, is not a
proper name, but a title, and in ancient times designated the priest who
announced the will of the gods and explained the sacred oracles. This
accounts for the universality of the name and the sacredness of its

The dates of the books which have come down to us are various. One of
them, "The Book of Chilan Balam of Mani," was undoubtedly composed not
later than 1595, as is proved by internal evidence. Various passages in
the works of Landa, Lizana, Sanchez Aguilar and Cogolludo--all early
historians of Yucatan,--prove that many of these native manuscripts
existed in the sixteenth century. Several rescripts date from the
seventeenth century,--most from the latter half of the eighteenth.

The names of the writers are generally not given, probably because the
books, as we have them, are all copies of older manuscripts, with merely
the occasional addition of current items of note by the copyist; as, for
instance, a malignant epidemic which prevailed in the peninsula in 1673
is mentioned as a present occurrence by the copyist of "The Book of
Chilan Balam of Nabula."

I come now to the contents of these curious works. What they contain may
conveniently be classified under four headings:

Astrological and prophetic matters;

Ancient chronology and history;

Medical recipes and directions;

Later history and Christian teachings.

The last-mentioned consist of translations of the "_Doctrina_," Bible
stories, narratives of events after the Conquest, etc., which I shall
dismiss as of least interest.

The astrology appears partly to be reminiscences of that of their
ancient heathendom, partly that borrowed from the European almanacs of
the century 1550-1650. These, as is well known, were crammed with
predictions and divinations. A careful analysis, based on a comparison
with the Spanish almanacs of that time would doubtless reveal how much
was taken from them, and it would be fair to presume that the remainder
was a survival of ancient native theories.

But there are not wanting actual prophecies of a much more striking
character. These were attributed to the ancient priests and to a date
long preceding the advent of Christianity. Some of them have been
printed in translations in the "_Historias_" of Lizana and Cogolludo,
and of some the originals were published by the late Abbé Brasseur de
Bourbourg, in the second volume of the reports of the "_Mission
Scientifique au Mexique et dans l'Amérique Centrale_." Their
authenticity has been met with considerable skepticism by Waitz and
others, particularly as they seem to predict the arrival of the
Christians from the East and the introduction of the worship of the

It appears to me that this incredulity is uncalled for. It is known that
at the close of each of their larger divisions of time (the so-called
"_katuns_,") a "_chilan_," or inspired diviner, uttered a prediction of
the character of the year or epoch which was about to begin. Like other
would-be prophets, he had doubtless learned that it is wiser to predict
evil than good, inasmuch as the probabilities of evil in this worried
world of ours outweigh those of good; and when the evil comes his words
are remembered to his credit, while, if, perchance, his gloomy forecasts
are not realized, no one will bear him a grudge that he has been at
fault. The temper of this people was, moreover, gloomy, and it suited
them to hear of threatened danger and destruction by foreign foes. But,
alas! for them. The worst that the boding words of the oracle foretold
was as nothing to the dire event which overtook them,--the destruction
of their nation, their temples and their freedom, 'neath the iron heel
of the Spanish conqueror. As the wise Goethe says:

    "_Seltsam ist Prophetenlied,
    Doch mehr seltsam was geschieht._"

As to the supposed reference to the cross and its worship, it may be
remarked that the native word translated "cross," by the missionaries,
simply means "a piece of wood set upright," and may well have had a
different and special signification in the old days.

By way of a specimen of these prophecies, I quote one from "The Book of
Chilan Balam of Chumayel," saying at once that for the translation I
have depended upon a comparison of the Spanish version of Lizana, who
was blindly prejudiced, and that in French of the Abbé Brasseur de
Bourbourg, who knew next to nothing about Maya, with the original. It
will be easily understood, therefore, that it is rather a paraphrase
than a literal rendering. The original is in short, aphoristic
sentences, and was, no doubt, chanted with a rude rhythm:

    "What time the sun shall brightest shine,
    Tearful will be the eyes of the king.
    Four ages yet shall be inscribed,
    Then shall come the holy priest, the holy god.
    With grief I speak what now I see.
    Watch well the road, ye dwellers in Itza.
    The master of the earth shall come to us.
    Thus prophesies Nahau Pech, the seer,
    In the days of the fourth age,
    At the time of its beginning."

Such are the obscure and ominous words of the ancient oracle. If the
date is authentic, it would be about 1480--the "fourth age" in the Maya
system of computing time being a period of either twenty or twenty-four
years at the close of the fifteenth century.

It is, however, of little importance whether these are accurate copies
of the ancient prophecies; they remain, at least, faithful imitations of
them, composed in the same spirit and form which the native priests were
wont to employ. A number are given much longer than the above, and
containing various curious references to ancient usages.

Another value they have in common with all the rest of the text of these
books, and it is one which will be properly appreciated by any student
of languages. They are, by common consent of all competent authorities,
the genuine productions of native minds, cast in the idiomatic forms of
the native tongue by those born to its use. No matter how fluent a
foreigner becomes in a language not his own, he can never use it as does
one who has been familiar with it from childhood. This general maxim is
ten-fold true when we apply it to a European learning an American
language. The flow of thought, as exhibited in these two linguistic
families, is in such different directions that no amount of practice can
render one equally accurate in both. Hence the importance of studying a
tongue as it is employed by natives; and hence the very high estimate I
place on these "Books of Chilan Balam" as linguistic material,--an
estimate much increased by the great rarity of independent compositions
in their own tongues by members of the native races of this continent.

I now approach what I consider the peculiar value of these records,
apart from the linguistic mould in which they are cast; and that is the
light they throw upon the chronological system and ancient history of
the Mayas. To a limited extent, this has already been brought before the
public. The late Don Pio Perez gave to Mr. Stephens, when in Yucatan, an
essay on the method of computing time among the ancient Mayas, and also
a brief synopsis of Maya history, apparently going back to the third or
fourth century of the Christian era. Both were published by Mr. Stephens
in the appendix to his "Travels in Yucatan," and have appeared
repeatedly since in English, Spanish and French.[10-*] They have, up to
the present, constituted almost our sole sources of information on these
interesting points. Don Pio Perez was rather vague as to whence he
derived his knowledge. He refers to "ancient manuscripts," "old
authorities," and the like; but, as the Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg
justly complains, he rarely quotes their words, and gives no
descriptions as to what they were or how he gained access to them.[11-*]
In fact, the whole of Señor Perez's information was derived from these
"Books of Chilan Balam;" and, without wishing at all to detract from his
reputation as an antiquary and a Maya scholar, I am obliged to say that
he has dealt with them as scholars so often do with their authorities;
that is, having framed his theories, he quoted what he found in their
favor and neglected to refer to what he observed was against them.

Thus, it is a cardinal question in Yucatecan archæology as to whether
the epoch or age by which the great cycle (the _ahau katun_,) was
reckoned, embraced twenty or twenty-four years. Contrary to all the
Spanish authorities, Perez declared for twenty-four years, supporting
himself by "the manuscripts." It is true there are three of the "Books
of Chilan Balam"--those of Mani, Káua and Oxkutzcab,--which are
distinctly in favor of twenty-four years; but, on the other hand, there
are four or five others which are clearly for the period of twenty
years, and of these Don Perez said nothing, although copies of more than
one of them were in his library. So of the epochs, or _katuns_, of Maya
history; there are three or more copies in these books which he does not
seem to have compared with the one he furnished Stephens. His labor will
have to be repeated according to the methods of modern criticism, and
with the additional material obtained since he wrote.

Another valuable feature in these records is the hints they furnish of
the hieroglyphic system of the Mayas. Almost our only authority
heretofore has been the essay of Landa. It has suffered somewhat in
credit because we had no means of verifying his statements and comparing
the characters he gives. Dr. Valentini has even gone so far as to attack
some of his assertions as "fabrications." This is an amount of
skepticism which exceeds both justice and probability.


The chronological portions of the "Books of Chilan Balam" re[TN-1]
partly written with the ancient signs of the days, months and epochs,
and they furnish us, also, delineations of the "wheels" which the
natives used for computing time. The former are so important to the
student of Maya hieroglyphics, that I have added photographic
reproductions of them to this paper, giving also representations of
those of Landa for comparison. It will be observed that the signs of the
days are distinctly similar in the majority of cases, but that those of
the months are hardly alike.


The hieroglyphs of the days taken from the "_Codex Troano_," an ancient
Maya book written before the Conquest, probably about 1400, are also
added to illustrate the variations which occurred in the hands of
different scribes. Those from the "Books of Chilan Balam" are copied
from a manuscript known to Maya scholars as the "_Codice Perez_," of
undoubted authenticity and antiquity.[14-*]

The result of the comparison I thus institute is a triumphant refutation
of the doubts and slurs which have been cast on Bishop Landa's work and
vindicate for it a very high degree of accuracy.

The hieroglyphics for the months are quite complicated, and in the
"Books of Chilan Balam" are rudely drawn; but, for all that, two or
three of them are evidently identical with those in the calendar
preserved by Landa. Some years ago, Professor de Rosny expressed himself
in great doubt as to the fidelity in the tracing of these
hierogylphs[TN-2] of the months, principally because he could not find
them in the two codices at his command.[14-+] As he observes, they are
_composite_ signs, and this goes to explain the discrepancy; for it may
be regarded as established that the Maya script permitted the use of
several signs for the same sound, and the sculptor or scribe was not
obliged to represent the same word always by the same figure.

In close relation to chronology is the system of numeration and the
arithmetical signs. These are discussed with considerable fulness,
especially in the "Book of Chilan Balam of Káua." The numerals are
represented by exactly the same figures as we find in the Maya
manuscripts of the libraries of Dresden, Pesth, Paris and Madrid; that
is, by points or dots up to five, and the fives by single straight
lines, which may be indiscriminately drawn vertically or horizontally.
The same book contains a table of multiplication in Spanish and Maya
which settles some disputed points in the use of the vigesimal system by
the Mayas.

A curious chapter in several of the books, especially those of Káua and
Mani, is that on the thirteen _ahau katuns_, or epochs of the greater
cycle of the Mayas. This cycle embraced thirteen periods, which, as I
have before remarked, are computed by some at twenty years each, by
others at twenty-four years each. Each of these _katuns_ was presided
over by a chief or king, that being the meaning of the word _ahau_. The
books above-mentioned give both the name and the portrait, drawn and
colored by the rude hand of the native artist, of each of these kings,
and they suggest several interesting analogies.

They are, in the first place, identical, with one exception, with those
on an ancient native painting, an engraving of which is given by Father
Cogolludo in his "History of Yucatan," and explained by him as the
representation of an occurrence which took place after the Spaniards
arrived in the peninsula. Evidently, the native in whose hands the
worthy father found it, fearing that he partook of the fanaticism which
had led the missionaries to the destruction of so many records of the
nation, deceived him as to its purport, and gave him an explanation
which imported to the scroll the character of a harmless history.

The one exception is the last or thirteenth chief. Cogolludo appends to
this the name of an Indian who probably did fall a victim to his
friendship to the Spaniards. This name, as a sort of guarantee for the
rest of his story, the native scribe inserted in place of the genuine
one. The peculiarity of the figure is that it has an arrow or dagger
driven into its eye. Not only is this mentioned by Cogolludo's
informant, but it is represented in the paintings in both the "Books of
Chilan Balam" above noted, and also, by a fortunate coincidence, in one
of the calendar-pages of the "_Codex Troano_," plate xxiii., in a
remarkable cartouche, which, from a wholly independent course of
reasoning, was some time since identified by my esteemed correspondent,
Professor Cyrus Thomas, of Illinois, as a cartouche of one of the _ahau
katuns_, and probably of the last of them. It gives me much pleasure to
add such conclusive proof of the sagacity of his supposition.[15-*]


[Illustration: SIGNS OF THE DAYS.

The first column on the right is from Landa. The second is from the
"_Codex Troano_." The remaining four are from the Book of Chilan Balam
of Káua.]

There is other evidence to show that the engraving in Cogolludo is a
relic of the purest ancient Maya symbolism,--one of the most interesting
which have been preserved to us; but to enter upon its explanation in
this connection would be too far from my present topic.

A favorite theme with the writers of the "Books of Chilan Balam" was the
cure of diseases. Bishop Landa explains the "_chilanes_" as "sorcerers
and doctors," and adds that one of their prominent duties was to
diagnose diseases and point out their appropriate remedies.[18-*] As we
might expect, therefore, considerable prominence is given to the
description of symptoms and suggestions for their alleviation. Bleeding
and the administration of preparations of native plants are the usual
prescriptions; but there are others which have probably been borrowed
from some domestic medicine-book of European origin.

The late Don Pio Perez gave a great deal of attention to collecting
these native recipes, and his manuscripts were carefully examined by Dr.
Berendt, who combined all the necessary knowledge, botanical, linguistic
and medical, and who has left a large manuscript, entitled "_Recetarios
de Indios_," which presents the subject fully. He considers the
scientific value of these remedies to be next to nothing, and the
language in which they are recorded to be distinctly inferior to that of
the remainder of the "Books of Chilan Balam." Hence, he believes that
this portion of the ancient records was supplanted some time in the last
century by medical notions introduced from European sources. Such, in
fact, is the statement of the copyists of the books themselves, as these
recipes, etc., are sometimes found in a separate volume, entitled "The
Book of the Jew,"--"_El Libro del Judio_." Who this alleged Jewish
physician was, who left so wide-spread and durable a renown among the
Yucatecan natives, none of the archæologists has been able to find

The language and style of most of these books are aphoristic,
elliptical and obscure. The Maya language has naturally undergone
considerable alteration since they were written; therefore, even to
competent readers of ordinary Maya, they are not readily understood.
Fortunately, however, there are in existence excellent dictionaries of
the Maya of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which, were they
published, would be sufficient for this purpose.

A few persons in Yucatan have appreciated the desirability of collecting
and preserving these works. Don Pio Perez was the first to do so, and of
living Yucatecan scholars particular mention should be made of the Rev.
Canon Don Crescencio Carrillo y An cona,[TN-3] who has written a good,
and I believe the only, description of them which has yet appeared in
print.[19-*] They attracted the earnest attention of that eminent
naturalist and ethnologist, the late Dr. C. Hermann Berendt, and at a
great expenditure of time and labor he visited various parts of Yucatan,
and with remarkable skill made _fac-simile_ copies of the most important
and complete specimens which he could anywhere find. This invaluable and
unique collection has come into my hands since his death, and it is this
which has prompted me to make known their character and contents to
those interested in such subjects.


[5-*] Read before the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of
Philadelphia, at its twenty-fourth annual meeting, January 5th, 1882.

[5-+] Of the numerous authorities which could be quoted on this point, I
shall give the words of but one, Father Alonso Ponce, the Pope's
Commissary-General, who travelled through Yucatan in 1586, when many
natives were still living who had been born before the Conquest (1541).
Father Ponce had travelled through Mexico, and, of course, had learned
about the Aztec picture-writing, which he distinctly contrasts with the
writing of the Mayas. Of the latter, he says: "_Son alabados de tres
cosas entre todos los demas de la Nueva España, la una de que en su
antiguedad tenian caracteres y letras, con que escribian sus historias y
las ceremonias y orden de los sacrificios de sus idolos y su calendario,
en libros hechos de corteza de cierto arbol, los cuales eran unas tiras
muy largas de quarta ó tercia en ancho, que se doblaban y recogian, y
venia á queder á manera de un libro encuardenada en cuartilla, poco mas
ó menos. Estas letras y caracteres no las entendian, sino los sacerdotes
de los idolos, (que en aquella lengua se llaman 'ahkines,') y algun
indio principal. Despues las entendieron y supieron léer algunos frailos
nuestros y aun las escribien._"--("_Relacion Breve y Verdadera de
Algunas Cosas de las Muchas que Sucedieron al Padre Fray Alonso Ponce,
Comisario-General en las Provincias de la Nueva España_," page 392). I
know no other author who makes the interesting statement that these
characters were actually used by the missionaries to impart instruction
to the natives; but I learn through Mr. Gatschet, of the Bureau of
Ethnology, Washington, that a manuscript written in this manner by one
of the early _padres_ has recently been discovered.

[5-++] "_Se les quemamos todos_," he writes, "_lo qual á maravilla
sentian y les dava pena._"--"_Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan_," page

[7-*] "_Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan_," page 160.

[7-+] "The Names of the Gods in the Kiche Myths of Central America."
Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. XIX., 1881. The
terminal letter in both these words--"_chilan_," "_balam_,"--may be
either "_n_" or "_m_," the change being one of dialect and local
pronunciation. I have followed the older authorities in writing "_Chilan
Balam_," the modern preferring "_Chilam Balam_." Señor Eligio Ancona, in
his recently published "_Historia de Yucatan_," (Vol. I., page 240,
note, Merida, 1878,) offers the absurd suggestion that the name
"_balam_" was given to the native soothsayers by the early missionaries
in ridicule, deriving it from the well-known personage in the Old
Testament. It is surprising that Señor Ancona, writing in Merida, had
never acquainted himself with the Perez manuscripts, nor with those in
the possession of Canon Carrillo. Indeed, the most of his treatment of
the ancient history of his country is disappointingly superficial.

[10-*] For example, in the "_Registro Yucateco_," _Tome III._;
"_Diccionario Universal de Historia y Geografia_," _Tome VIII._ (Mexico,
1855); "_Diccionario Historico de Yucatan_," _Tome I._ (Merida, 1866);
in the appendix to Landa's "_Cosas de Yucatan_" (Paris, 1864), etc. The
epochs, or _katuns_, of Maya history have been recently again analyzed
by Dr. Felipe Valentini, in an essay in the German and English
languages, the latter in the "Proceedings of the American Antiquarian
Society, 1880."

[11-*] The Abbé's criticism occurs in the note to page 406 of his
edition of Landa's "_Cosas de Yucatan_."

[14-*] It is described at length by Don Crescencio Carrillo y Ancona, in
his "_Disertacion sobre la Historia de la Lengua Maya_" (Merida, 1870).

[14-+] "_Je dois déclarer que l'examen dans tous leurs détails du 'Codex
Troano' et du 'Codex Peresianus' m'invite de la façon la plus sérieuse à
n'accepter ces signes, tout au moins au point de vue de l'exactitude de
leur tracé, qu'avec une certaine réserve._"--Leon de Rosny's "_Essai sur
le Déchiffrement de l'Ecriture Hiératique de l'Amérique Centrale_," page
21 (Paris, 1876). By the "_Codex Peresianus_," he does not mean the
"_Codice Perez_," but the Maya manuscript in the Bibliothêque[TN-4]
Nationale. The identity of the names is confusing and unfortunate.

[15-*] "The Manuscript Troano," published in _The American Naturalist_,
August, 1881, page 640. This manuscript or codex was published in
chromo-lithograph, Paris, 1879, by the French Government.

[18-*] "_Declarar las necesidades y sus remedios._"--"_Relation de las
Cosas de Yucatan_," page 160. Like much of Landa's Spanish, this use of
the word "_necesidad_" is colloquial, and not classical.

[18-+] A "_Medicina Domestica_," under the name of "Don Ricardo Ossado,
(alias, _el Judio_,)" was published at Merida in 1834; but this appears
to have been merely a bookseller's device to aid the sale of the book by
attributing it to the "great unknown."

[19-*] In his "_Disertacion sobre la Historia de la Lengua Maya ó
Yucateca_" (Merida, 1870).

Transcriber's Note

The following misspellings and typographical errors were maintained.

        Page  Error
  TN-1   11   re should read are
  TN-2   13   hierogylphs should read hieroglyphs
  TN-3   19   An cona should read Ancona
  TN-4   fn. 14-+   Bibliothêque should read Bibliothèque

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we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.