Portals of the Maya
In Mexico, age-old rituals live on under the guise of Catholicism
ASMALLfamily group is kneeling on the floor behind a row of candles. In the middle is the shaman; before him are the tools of his trade: a living but possibly drugged hen, a bottle of the local firewater known as pox, and a couple of bottles of Coca-Cola.
It is the child who is afflicted: she has an illness of the animal spirit that the shaman has detected through a reading of her pulse and for which the prescribed cure is the sacrifice of the bird. The shaman takes the chicken and rubs it over the child’s body, all the while whispering an incantation in the sibilant Tzotzil tongue.
Then he twists its neck until it snaps and leaves the animal twitching on the floor before pouring pox into a glass for himself and the whole family, including the child, to consume. To my surprise, he then offers some to us.
We are in the church of San Juan Chamula, a small, indigenous town in the Mexican state of Chiapas. It is clearly no ordinary church. There are no pews. The floor is strewn with pine needles and covered with hundreds of burning candles. Rendered almost solid by the dense smoke of burning incense, shafts of light stream through holes in the wooden roof and several small, plain windows high on the right-hand wall. It is otherwise quite dark.
Just inside the door a group of musicians is playing a slow, hypnotic refrain over and over, the notes of their guitars and accordions drifting into the smoky, pungent air.
Catholic though they may be in name, the local religious practices would make your old Sunday school teacher weak at the knees. In front of the candlelit shrines that line the church walls, people sit on the floor toasting the saints with pox and Coca-Cola, which is used to encourage burping, thought to rid the body of evil spirits.
In the centre of the church, another shaman is using an egg to absorb the effects of a witch’s evil eye before cracking it on the floor to break the curse. And, looking to my right, I see a second chicken lying alive but motionless on the floor, unaware that the hand stroking its feathers will soon be wringing its neck. The saints are dressed extravagantly, their shrines decorated with flowers, gaudy lights and pine branches.
From each hangs a mirror for the Maya, portals through which the spirit travels to otherworldly realms.
Perhaps even more worrisome for your parish priest is that St John is el jefe (the chief) here and stands above Jesus on the altarpiece. The story, according to some, is that Dominican missionaries showed the Maya a painting of St John baptising Jesus, with Jesus kneeling obeisant before him. Others point out that St John’s Day falls on the summer solstice, one of the most important dates in the Mayan calendar.
Despite the appearance of conversion, this was more a case of Catholic rituals being adapted to the beliefs of the Maya than vice versa. Even now, the Chamula worship St John not merely as St John but as the Mayan sun god under a different name; indeed, all the saints represent a Mayan deity.
The adaptation was easy: the Maya already practised baptism and even used the cross as a religious symbol, causing some early missionaries to believe they had discovered a lost tribe of Israel.
They also worshipped patron deities and much of their economy and social system was based on donations to religious authorities. The church transformed this practice into the veneration of the saints, ensuring themselves a flow of revenue, a priority in the colonies where unconverted populations provided no tithe to the church.
This system is now the framework of the local economy. To see it at work, Alex, our guide, takes us to the house of Mariano, a local religious authority or mayordomo, the temporary caretaker of a shrine. Leaving the church, we walk slowly up the street, the air around us crackling with the skyrockets that are a ubiquitous accompaniment to local religious celebrations here.
We follow Alex and Mariano under a doorway strung with green branches into a small room almost entirely occupied by an altar decorated with foliage and lined with many candles.
We sit and chat to Mariano as several worshippers enter the shrine — which is dedicated to Tojtik Vinajel, the keeper of the sky — to perform their devotions. They drink the pox that is on offer, light candles and pray to the deitysaint. It is the responsibility of the mayordomo to supply all the necessities of worship and the position involves a considerable financial outlay; Mariano has had to leave his land in the surrounding mountains to rent the house in town (the Chamula are still primarily farmers). He estimates that he will spend the equivalent of $16,000 just on supplies over the course of the year. Still, he assures us, the prestige he will gain will more than compensate.
With so much at stake, the Chamula fiercely protect their religious autonomy. A priest is allowed into the church once a month to perform baptisms, but the Catholic mass has not been held here since 1968, when the confessional was burned in a symbolic rejection of religious intermediaries. Moreover, about 30,000 Chamula have been expelled from the area for converting to evangelical churches. Those banished now live on the outskirts of the nearby city of San Cristobal de las Casas, selling handicrafts in the tourist markets.
These communities also have ties to the Zapatista movement, which briefly captured San Cristobal in 1994 before being defeated by government forces and turning to political means in its pursuit of indigenous rights.
Alex warns us the Chamula are equally vigilant with strangers. Taking photographs inside the church or of the town authorities is prohibited and the town hall has a room filled with confiscated cameras. There are reports of visitors being beaten with sticks or spat on and it is futile to complain as even the police have no authority here.
Nonetheless, we find the locals to be welcoming — especially, and somewhat surprisingly, inside the church. While we are not exactly encouraged to participate, we are not shunned or ignored either. When we take only a sip of the pox the shaman offers us, he sends it back, telling us to finish the cup.
It’s fiery stuff, especially at 10am, but keen to avoid being beaten with sticks, I do as I amtold, though not altogether reluctantly, it must be said, as the liquor is actually quite tasty.
Later in the day we drink a variety deliciously flavoured with hibiscus flowers.
Back in San Cristobal, where lovely cobblestoned streets and balconied colonial buildings nestle in the picturesque valley below, many visitors limit their experience of the Mayan culture to perusing the markets or local cooperatives, where you can buy magnificently woven and embroidered textile products.
Yet barely 30 minutes away in the mountain villages, the unique results of a centuries-old cultural encounter make for a far more fascinating experience.