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The Burden of the Ancients

The Burden of the Ancients
Maya Ceremonies of World Renewal from the Pre-columbian Period to the Present

Drawing on a wealth of evidence that ranges from Pre-Columbian texts to ethnographic accounts of contemporary rituals, a leading scholar traces the extensive continuity of pre-Hispanic elements in Maya ceremonies of world renewal.

Series: The Linda Schele Endowment in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies

October 2016
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375 pages | 6 x 9 | Hardcover has a printed case, no dust jacket | 126 b&w photos, 5 b&w illus. |

In Maya theology, everything from humans and crops to gods and the world itself passes through endless cycles of birth, maturation, dissolution, death, and rebirth. Traditional Maya believe that human beings perpetuate this cycle through ritual offerings and ceremonies that have the power to rebirth the world at critical points during the calendar year. The most elaborate ceremonies take place during Semana Santa (Holy Week), the days preceding Easter on the Christian calendar, during which traditionalist Maya replicate many of the most important world-renewing rituals that their ancient ancestors practiced at the end of the calendar year in anticipation of the New Year’s rites.

Marshaling a wealth of evidence from Pre-Columbian texts, early colonial Spanish writings, and decades of fieldwork with present-day Maya, The Burden of the Ancients presents a masterfully detailed account of world-renewing ceremonies that spans the Pre-Columbian era through the crisis of the Conquest period and the subsequent colonial occupation all the way to the present. Allen J. Christenson focuses on Santiago Atitlán, a Tz’utujil Maya community in highland Guatemala, and offers the first systematic analysis of how the Maya preserved important elements of their ancient world renewal ceremonies by adopting similar elements of Roman Catholic observances and infusing them with traditional Maya meanings. His extensive description of Holy Week in Santiago Atitlán demonstrates that the community’s contemporary ritual practices and mythic stories bear a remarkable resemblance to similar cultural entities from its Pre-Columbian past.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Pre-Columbian Rituals of World Renewal in Yucatan
  • 2. New Year’s Ceremonies in the Maya Highlands
  • 3. Easter and the Spanish Conquest
  • 4. Post-Conquest Ceremonies of World Renewal
  • 5. Holy Monday
  • 6. Holy Tuesday
  • 7. Holy Wednesday
  • 8. Holy Thursday
  • 9. Good Friday
  • 10. Aftermath and Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Index

ALLEN J. CHRISTENSONProvo, UtahChristenson is a professor of Pre-Columbian studies in the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters at Brigham Young University. His publications include a two-volume critical edition of the Popol Vuh, the most important single work of ancient Maya literature that survived the Spanish Conquest, and Art and Society in a Highland Maya Community: The Altarpiece of Santiago Atitlán.



Nearly every major modern Maya ceremony is founded in one way or another on the concept of rebirth and renewal. In traditional Maya belief, everything passes through endless cycles of birth, maturation, dissolution, death, and rebirth. This includes not only the obvious life cycles of humans and the crops on which they depend, but also gods and the world itself. All have their beginnings in a creative act and ultimately weaken and die in an orderly succession of days that is both comforting in its predictability and terrifying in its unwavering finality. Traditional Maya today believe that it is the role of human beings to perpetuate this cycle through ritual offerings and ceremonies that have the power to rebirth the world at critical points during the calendar year. The most intense ceremonies of world renewal practiced by the ancient Maya took place during the final five days of their solar calendar year, a period known as the Wayeb’.

The first two chapters of this book outline what we know of these PreColumbian ceremonies of world renewal, focusing on the rituals tied to the Wayeb’ days, a ritual cycle that apparently was observed throughout the Maya world, at least in the years immediately preceding the Spanish Conquest in the early sixteenth century. Much of this information is derived from the writings of the earliest Spanish missionaries to the Maya region, particularly Fray Diego de Landa in Yucatan, Mexico, and Fray Bartolomé de las Casas in the Guatemalan highlands. Albeit for very different reasons, both attempted to record the traditional beliefs and practices of the Maya prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquerors. Both Landa and Las Casas based their writings on firsthand accounts from surviving members of the Maya royal court and nobility that they either elicited directly or derived from the writings of fellow missionary priests who were living among the Maya during this period. Wherever possible I have supplemented these early Spanish accounts with those written by the Maya themselves, both before and soon after the Conquest. These indigenous texts describe many of the same ceremonies and refer to the actions of deities that clarify the theological underpinnings of world regeneration at important crisis points during the year. Chapter 3 addresses the impact of the Spanish Conquest on the Maya region. Its violence came to be interpreted by the Maya as a type of world death followed by rebirth, replicating in a tragically real way the type of world renewal that had previously been observed only conceptually through ritual. Chapter 4 attempts to reconstruct the process of syncretism in the early centuries of the Spanish colonial period whereby the Maya identified important elements of their ancient world renewal ceremonies with Roman Catholic observances, particularly those connected with the death of Christ at the Easter season, a period known as Semana Santa (Holy Week). This blending of traditional Maya beliefs and practices with those of European Christianity is an ongoing process that continues today in many Maya communities. The second half of the book is devoted to a detailed description of Holy Week observances in Santiago Atitlán, a traditional Tz’utujil-Maya community in the highlands of Guatemala, as a living example of this type of syncretic process.

In Santiago Atitlán the most elaborate ceremonies of world renewal take place during Holy Week, the days preceding Easter on the Christian calendar. In Guatemala Holy Week falls at the critical point in early spring when the long dry season finally comes to a close. Due to the extreme lack of rain in the months preceding Holy Week, the earth becomes barren and incapable of germinating new crops. Traditionalist Tz’utujils believe that the world dies during Holy Week and a complex cycle of ceremonies, processions, ritual offerings, and prayers must be carried out to give the sky the strength to generate rain so that it can sustain new crops and human life. If these actions are performed properly, the first heavy rains will fall soon afterward and farmers can plant their maize seeds in anticipation of a successful harvest. Significant elements of these world-renewing ceremonies during Holy Week echo those once carried out by their Pre-Columbian ancestors during the Wayeb’ period.

The Tz’utujil Maya people of Santiago Atitlán believe that they occupy sacred land, the place of first creation, the navel of the earth and sky, and the very heart of the world. They are fiercely proud of their language, costumes, and traditions. The town is built on a narrow promontory of land at a point where the lower skirts of three great volcanoes come together to form a rocky and uneven foundation for its winding streets and buildings (fig. 1). On its southern, western, and northern sides, it is surrounded by a large bay of Lake Atitlán whose principal shores lie close by to the north. The Lake Atitlán area of highland Guatemala is reputed to be among the most beautiful places on earth. Far more important than the beauty of their community’s location, however, is the profoundly held conviction on the part of traditionalist Tz’utujils that they live in a sacred place. The volcanoes and surrounding mountains are the abode of gods and powerful semideified ancestors. The lake contains the primordial waters of creation, suffused with power capable of regenerating and sustaining life as well as the capacity to destroy it.

Despite centuries of pressure by outsiders to abandon their ancestral traditions, sometimes through well-meaning persuasion but often through unthinkable violence, a significant number of Tz’utujils continue to practice centuries-old ceremonies whose core elements are often directly related to those once carried out by their ancient forebears. This religious and social conservatism may be explained in part by their history following the Spanish Conquest in 1524. The territory now occupied by Santiago Atitlán was once the capital of the ancient Tz’utujil kingdom, one of three great Pre-Columbian powers in the region, the others being the kingdoms of the K’iche’s and the Kaqchikels. The highland Maya lords who ruled the major K’iche’ and Kaqchikel lineages resisted Spanish dominion. These efforts at resistance were ruthlessly crushed, resulting in the torture and execution of the K’iche’ and Kaqchikel kings. The capital of the K’iche’s at Q’umarkaj was burned and its population depleted by warfare and enslavement. In contrast, the Tz’utujil ruling dynasty capitulated to the Spaniards after a brief battle and never rebelled openly against Spanish political authority once it was established. As a result, the Tz’utujils were subsequently allowed to administer their affairs much as they had done prior to the Conquest. The Tz’utujils undoubtedly considered this a sign of divine favor and were thus less susceptible to radical shifts in their indigenous worldview. In contrast to the fatalistic acceptance of defeat found in K’iche’ and Kaqchikel accounts of the Conquest, most legends told by Atitecos about the arrival of the Spaniards emphasize the supernatural power of their ancient kings and gods in escaping the destruction that befell other highland Maya kingdoms. Even today the Tz’utujils consider themselves to be distinct from other highland Maya groups because their kings were never killed and their ancient communities were never destroyed.

For many Tz’utujils, the Spanish Conquest was not a catastrophic event that ended Maya culture but a kind of temporary death followed by rebirth that is not different in kind from other periodic world renewals that took place prior to the Conquest and continue to some degree today. Santiago Atitlán is somewhat exceptional in preserving a rich tradition of ritual practices that follow ancestral precedent, although they have certainly been adapted and altered to fit the changing needs of Tz’utujil society as it adopted elements of Roman Catholicism and other foreign influences over the next five centuries. The Spanish Conquest and subsequent evangelization efforts suppressed many of these traditions in other highland Maya communities.

René Acuña argues that the violence of the Spanish Conquest and subsequent imposition of Roman Catholic doctrine on the Maya populace of Guatemala effectively subsumed indigenous culture and belief. He contends that those remnants of Maya culture that survive today are primarily those chosen by the Spaniards themselves, who adapted them to help in their conversion efforts. As a result, he suggests, highland Maya religion is more a kind of Folk Catholicism with little if any authentically Maya components (Acuña
1975, 1983).

It is the more common assertion among scholars today that important elements of Maya belief and their public expressions in the form of ritual dances, prayers, and ceremonialism were never completely suppressed (B. Tedlock 1982; D. Tedlock, 1986; Farriss 1984; Watanabe 1992; Carlsen 1997; Cook 2000; Cook et al. 2013). Previous researchers have noted the prevalence of objects and practices in Santiago Atitlán that preserve significant elements of ancient Maya theology. E. Michael Mendelson described the Atiteco bundle ritual as one of many examples of fundamentally Maya practices that have no counterpart in orthodox Roman Catholic worship (Mendelson 1958a, 121). Robert S. Carlsen finds that a defining characteristic of Atiteco society is a “distinct and identifiable continuity with the pre-Columbian past” (Carlsen 1997, 5).

A certain degree of disjunction in meaning must be expected with regard to religious practices in Santiago Atitlán considering the lengthy time since the Spanish Conquest and the convulsive changes in Atiteco society, particularly in the twentieth century. Nevertheless, it is apparent that modern Tz’utujil Maya continue to practice many rituals and relate mythic stories that bear a remarkable resemblance to similar cultural entities from their Pre-Columbian past. It is also probable that modern Tz’utujils are influenced to one degree or another by the original meaning of these practices. The Tz’utujils are a modern people—not a lost civilization somehow rediscovered from the ancient past. Like any living society they are well aware of the world beyond the borders of their community and readily adopt aspects of Western culture, art, and language that fit the needs of their people. The colonial Spanish past as well as the political and social turbulence of the present are integral to Atiteco ceremonial practices because they are at least as much a part of the Tz’utujil world as their Pre-Conquest heritage. How recognition of these ancient concepts and motifs in the religious life of the Tz’utujils informs the cultural heritage of Santiago Atitlán has only begun to be addressed. This book is an attempt to approach the problem of identifying possible Pre-Columbian and early colonial Maya antecedents to contemporary Tz’utujil Maya practices in a systematic way based on documentary evidence.

Brief references to the Tz’utujils appear in the writings of many of the early Roman Catholic missionaries in Guatemala, particularly Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, Fray Domingo de Vico, and Fray Luis Cancer. While valuable, these writings often describe the highland Maya in general terms without distinguishing one group from another. There are no extensive colonial period descriptions of early Tz’utujil ceremonialism that can compare with the wealth of ethnographic material on Yucatec Maya culture compiled by Fray Diego de Landa or on the Mexica culture in the extensive writings of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún and Fray Diego Durán. Further significant references to Tz’utujil history and society may be found in the writings of later colonial Spanish writers, particularly Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzmán (1932–1933 [1699]), Fray Francisco Ximénez (1929–1931 [1722], 1967 [1722]), Fray Francisco Vásquez (1937–1944 [1714]), Pedro Cortés y Larraz (1958 [1770]), and Francisco de Paula García Peláez (1943 [1851]).

In contrast to the scarcity of material from the colonial period, the twentieth century offers a wealth of information concerning the modern Tz’utujil Maya thanks to the efforts of anthropologists and ethnographers. The first published documentation of Santiago Atitlán’s ceremonial life was made by Samuel Lothrop following a two-month stay in various highland Guatemalan villages in the winter of 1927–1928 (Lothrop 1928, 1929). Lothrop’s description of public rituals, including Holy Week, formed only a minor part of this report and was admittedly “superficial in nature,” because the Maya people tended to be “suspicious and uncommunicative” around strangers (Lothrop 1929, 1). He urged that further work be carried out by observers who could remain longer in residence so as to win the confidence of the local population. Various travelers and ethnographers since that time have observed public ceremonies at Santiago Atitlán (McDougall 1955; Mendelson 1956, 1957, 1958a, 1958b, 1959, 1965; Termer 1957; Douglas 1969; O’Brien-Rothe 1975, 2015; Orellana 1981, 1984; Tarn and Prechtel 1986, 1990, 1997; Prechtel and Carlsen 1988; Carlsen and Prechtel 1991, 1994; Carlsen 1996, 1997; Christenson 2001; Stanzione 2003), making it one of the most intensively studied communities in Guatemala.

E. Michael Mendelson was the first to spend a significant amount of time in Santiago Atitlán, residing there a full year from 1951 to 1952 while conducting fieldwork for his doctorate under the direction of Robert Redfield. His dissertation (Mendelson 1956) and voluminous field notes available on microfilm (Mendelson 1957) contain a wealth of information concerning all phases of Atiteco culture, society, religious organizations, and worldview. Although Mendelson’s work focused on contemporary Atiteco society, he suggested that many Tz’utujil religious practices may have had Pre-Columbian antecedents (Mendelson 1958a, 124–125). Sandra Orellana attempted to reconstruct ancient Tz’utujil culture from the pre-Hispanic era through the early colonial period based on archaeological and documentary sources as well as her own anthropological fieldwork in Santiago Atitlán (Orellana 1981, 1984). Her work suggests that the Tz’utujils preserved significant elements of their native culture despite enforced accommodation to European culture, particularly in the ritual cycles of the local confraternities. More recently, the anthropologist Robert Carlsen spent much of the 1990s investigating the social organization and political history of Santiago Atitlán, including the development of confraternities and their system of worship (Carlsen 1996, 1997).

My own experience in Santiago Atitlán began in 1977 when I was working in Guatemala as a linguist, preparing a dictionary of the K’iche’ language. I paid a brief visit to Santiago Atitlán to determine the feasibility of writing a similar dictionary for Tz’utujil. While nothing ultimately came of this, I was struck that most men and nearly all women at the time still wore their traditional dress on a daily basis and most preferred to speak Tz’utujil rather than Spanish. This was somewhat unusual, as men in most communities, even traditional ones like Momostenango, tended to wear nonindigenous clothing. I returned to Santiago Atitlán in 1988 when I saw their celebration of Holy Week for the first time. From 1996 to 1998 I lived for extended periods in Santiago Atitlán for my doctoral work. My dissertation focused on the central altarpiece of the town’s sixteenth-century Roman Catholic church, a remarkable work of art that was reconstructed in the 1970s by traditional Tz’utujil sculptors who carved new panels that combined both Maya and European Christian motifs. Much of the iconography of the altarpiece refers to Holy Week observances (Christenson 2001). The artists saw this as the critical period when life is renewed through ceremonies that had been practiced in much the same way as far back as the oldest people in the community could remember. The altarpiece is to a certain extent a synthesis in monumental form of the kind of cultural interaction that has evolved over the centuries since the Spanish Conquest. I have since returned to Santiago Atitlán for Holy Week numerous times, often accompanied by Andrew Weeks, a British filmmaker and colleague who documented this important ceremonial cycle in a film called Balancing the Cosmos, completed in 2010.

The world of Santiago Atitlán has changed dramatically in the years since I first visited the town. Robert Carlsen (1996, 1997) as well as Nathaniel Tarn and Martín Prechtel (Tarn and Prechtel 1997) have documented sweeping shifts in nearly all aspects of Atiteco society. Santiago Atitlán has little room to grow, being wedged into a small area bounded on three sides by water and on the other by steep mountains. Lacking sufficient arable land to support their growing population, the people of Santiago Atitlán have tended to move from an agriculturally based economy toward an emphasis on mercantilism, with many Atitecos traveling each day into the capital and other cities to work as tradesmen or in other business ventures. Improved roads and increased boat traffic on the lake in the second half of the twentieth century brought an influx of tourists and non-Maya businesses into the community. This contact with outside influences has had a tremendous impact on the traditional life of the community. The ever-increasing popularity of evangelical Protestantism and orthodox Catholicism have steadily eroded older Atiteco religious beliefs to the point where traditionalists now constitute a small minority of the overall population. The relatively peaceful town that I first encountered in 1977 has given way to a bustling commercial center under nearly constant siege by the din of rumbling trucks and buses, Protestant services amplified to ear-splitting volume, and the ever-present sound of radios turned up as high as they can go.

The devastating civil war in Guatemala, particularly the period in the 1980s known simply as la violencia (the violence), has had the greatest recent impact on the social fabric of Santiago Atitlán. Atitecos suffered disproportionately among neighboring highland Maya communities during these years. The Committee of Campesino Unity (cuc) estimates that as many as 1,700
Atitecos were killed between 1980 and 1990 out of a population of approximately 20,000 (Carlsen 1997, 18). Those perceived as promulgating traditional Maya culture and religion were targeted specifically as dangerous threats to social stability by some factions of the military.

The violence culminated in an incident on December 2, 1990. The day before, the garrison commander and a group of his soldiers had terrorized the community, raping the daughter of a local store owner and committing numerous thefts and acts of vandalism. When several thousand unarmed Atiteco men and women, some with their children, gathered the next day to complain about recent abuses, soldiers from the nearby garrison opened fire. Thirteen died instantly and scores of others lay wounded. The incident drew immediate international condemnation, forcing the Guatemalan government to take the unprecedented step of withdrawing its military presence from the community.

Despite the treaty of peace that officially ended the civil war in early 1997, political and religious conflict still plagues Santiago Atitlán. That same year a dispute between political factions resulted in the destruction of the mayor’s offices, which included the town’s library and archives. A lingering atmosphere of religious and social tension within the community has created a level of mutual mistrust among many Atitecos that periodically erupts into open violence and even murder. Nevertheless, the town has enjoyed something of a population explosion since the war and now approaches 50,000 inhabitants, spilling out into new subsidiary communities to the north and south of the traditional municipal boundaries. Santiago Atitlán is now an affluent, vibrant community with a rapidly growing youthful population that knows little about the horrors of the civil war. The center of town has witnessed the recent appearance of trendy boutiques, beauty salons, and electronics superstores with the latest flat screen televisions and hand-held gadgets, sprouting up alongside the more traditional shops of the older generation.

Traditional Maya Practices and Roman Catholicism

The ceremonialism of Holy Week in Santiago Atitlán is a complex blend of Roman Catholic and traditional Maya ritual practices. The fundamental belief underlying the ceremonies of Holy Week is that all things, both animate and inanimate, require periodic renewal through ritual performance to reenact the origin of the world. This is a core Maya principle. But although the message it expresses is predominantly Maya, it is not a fossil of the PreColumbian past with a superficial gilding of Catholicism to hide its “true” nature. The Catholic components are integral to the overall message of Easter observances. E. Michael Mendelson, who worked as an anthropologist in Santiago Atitlán in the early 1950s, observed that the Tz’utujil people of Santiago Atitlán celebrate the death and rebirth of their old gods in the history of the Christian God (Mendelson 1965, 138). This is not because Atitecos perceive Maya gods as equivalent in all respects to Jesus Christ and the Roman Catholic saints but because the two sets of deities carry out similar roles in their society. It is these similarities that Tz’utujils choose to emphasize rather than the differences. Atitecos seldom consider whether the components of their myths or ritual actions are Christian or Maya. They believe that their traditions have existed much as they exist today since the beginning of time, as ordained by all the gods and saints, and must be continued according to the patterns set by their Tz’utujil ancestors.

The introduction of Spanish rule and Christianity in Guatemala in the early sixteenth century resulted in the abrupt suppression of many of the more public indigenous Maya ceremonies as they were practiced prior to the Conquest—particularly those linked with the worship of their ancient deities and human sacrifice. Christian missionaries systematically destroyed Pre-Columbian temples as well as the carved and painted images they contained in an effort to prevent the Maya from returning to their former beliefs and practices. European deities and saints replaced the older Maya gods. The Maya adopted these new deities as essential members of their community but gave them many of the attributes that once belonged to their ancestral gods.

In Santiago Atitlán, San Francisco watches over the souls of the dead in the underworld—a role that has little to do with the ministry of St. Francis of Assisi. The central altarpiece of the town’s early colonial church contains two images of the Virgin Mary (fig. 2). They are considered distinct individuals. On the lower right corner of the altarpiece is María Dragón (Mary of the Dragon), a chaste, protective deity who commands the winged serpent beneath her to defend the town and keep it from harm. Opposite this image on the lower left corner of the same altarpiece is María Andolor (Mary of Sorrows), described as a young moon deity associated with fertility, sexual licentiousness, and childbirth. She is symbolically impregnated by St. John the Evangelist, the saint who occupies the niche just to her left, on Thursday night during Holy Week in order to give birth to a new world the following day.

None of this, of course, would be recognizable as Roman Catholicism by non-Atitecos. Occasionally orthodox Catholic priests attempt to weed out such irregularities, sometimes violently. One Sunday I attended Mass in Santiago Atitlán in which the subject of the priest’s homily was the continued presence of “pagan idolatry” in the town. He angrily stabbed his finger at the congregation and said that if they didn’t stop these practices themselves, and help to suppress them in others, they would burn in hell and God would be perfectly just in sending them there. A traditionalist friend of mine who had also been at Mass told me afterward that this priest was just a “Protestant” (not a complimentary term, because he believes that the Protestants were responsible for most of the murders during the recent civil war) who did not understand their form of Catholicism and had no right or authority to interfere in the practice of their beliefs. He said that traditionalist Maya are the “only true Catholics” because their Catholicism was practiced by their ancient Maya ancestors long before the Spanish conquerors arrived. Roman Catholicism and the traditional Maya worldview are inextricably intertwined in Tz’utujil thought. Any attempt to distinguish between the two would ultimately lead to an artificial construct that is foreign to Atiteco thought. Mendelson noted that in his experience at Santiago Atitlán “Indians hardly ever separate the Indian and non-Indian elements in their religion” (Mendelson 1957, 497). It has been my experience in conversations with traditionalist Maya over many years that they have little interest in differentiating ancestral Maya elements in their ceremonies from Christian ones. To them their rituals are conducted as they have always been done and will always continue to be done.

This process of incorporating new gods and beliefs from foreign sources has been a characteristic of Maya society since its earliest beginnings. The lowland Maya of the Pre-Classic and Classic periods adopted elements of rituals and ideology from the Olmecs, Teotihuacanos, and other foreign cultures. Elite rulers of the highland Maya of the Late Post-Classic Period were multilingual and heavily influenced by ideas from beyond their borders, particularly those of Nahua speakers from central Mexico. Like any living society, modern Maya are also well aware of the world beyond the borders of their community and select those aspects of Western culture, art, and language that fit the needs of their people. Nevertheless, they are also proud of their ancestral heritage and tenaciously hold on to an essentially Maya view of the world.

Above the doorway on the west façade of the church in Santiago Atitlán is a red stained-glass window. Before sunset, the light passing through this window causes the saints arrayed along the side walls of the church to cast red, blood-like shadows (fig. 3). A few years ago the parish priest suggested that the window be replaced with a new one bearing the design of a white dove. There was significant opposition to this proposal in the community. As one traditionalist Maya parishioner said, “How then will the saints bleed for us each evening as they did for our mothers and our fathers?” The images of the saints are not seen as lifeless effigies but as ensouled figures capable of continuing the work of the sacred beings that they embody. Several times I have spoken with caretakers of the church who swear that they hear voices at night in the darkened nave and insist that the carved statues gather to discuss the affairs of the community after the doors are locked. The images of saints and gods are considered animate. They are a living part of the everyday lives of the people of Santiago Atitlán. They need each other in every sense of the word, particularly in times of crisis. Holy Week is the most critical of such times during the course of the year. It is during this week that gods, saints, deceased ancestors, and their living descendants work hand in hand to give rebirth to the world.

Ancestral Tradition and Unity

In the late 1970s I worked as an anthropologist and linguist in the K’iche’Maya area of the Guatemalan highlands. During that time I worked closely with a number of ajq’ijab’ (they of the days/the sun—traditionalist Maya shaman-priests who use the ancient Maya calendar in divination ceremonies) over the years. Never once did I hear any of them lay out a set of theological principles concerning the nature of the gods, humanity’s place in the universe, or the symbolism behind ritual performances. These are the questions that most Western religions seek to answer. But the Maya are for the most part unaccustomed to rhetorical methods of expressing this kind of information. As Evon Vogt noted in his work with the Tzotzils of Zinacantan, “the Maya are not articulate in describing, only in doing” (Vogt 1993, 2). The focus of their work is the correct performance of ritual actions and prayers at the proper time and in the proper place, thus achieving a kind of unity with their ancestors that gives authenticity and meaning to their lives. Ruth Bunzel, who worked in K’iche’ areas from 1930 to 1932, noted that the people of Chichicastenango claimed that their prayers and ceremonies were based on ancestral precedent and that the repetition of ancient words and actions was a means of preserving the lives and knowledge of their ancestors: “And now this rite and custom belongs to the first people, our mothers and fathers. . . . This belongs to them; we are the embodiment of their rites and ceremonies” (Bunzel 1952, 232, 238). When performed at appropriate times and under appropriate circumstances, such ceremonies are perceived as a means for dead ancestors to manifest themselves among the living. To alter the actions of those ancestors would be to change the very fabric of their existence in potentially destructive ways. As mediators between this world and the world of the sacred, it is the Maya’s obligation to continue the actions of their ancestors in as authentic a manner as possible: “It is our name and destiny to repeat and perpetuate these ceremonies before the world” (ibid., 242).

I worked for nearly a year in 1979 with a K’iche’ ajq’ij named Vicente de León Abak in the mountains above Momostenango, Guatemala. He was a well-respected practitioner who was busy nearly every day conducting prayers and ceremonies on behalf of clients from all around the region. Don Vicente constantly reminded his apprentices that whenever he conducted a ceremony his heart and his thoughts had to be saq (pure, white) in order for him to be junam (united, one, same) with the gods and ancestors. He considered this unity to be essential to the successful outcome of the ceremony. On one occasion he told me that he could not do proper ceremonies if he had been involved in an argument with his wife or his son or a neighbor: “If my heart and my thoughts are red [meaning angry or envious] then the ceremony can only come out red. If my heart and my thoughts are black [tinged with death or evil] then the ceremony will come out black and I will be responsible for bringing blackness into the world.”

By the same token participants in modern Tz’utujil-Maya Holy Week ceremonies in Santiago Atitlán are encouraged to be pure of heart and in unity with each other. In practical terms this prevents embarrassing conflicts during public observances. But it is also because the ultimate goal of Holy Week is to facilitate the renewal of life and initiate the rebirth of the world. If this were done in anger or hatred, the result would be a world burdened by anger or hatred.

Among my closest colleagues and friends in Santiago Atitlán is Nicolás Chávez Sojuel, a traditionalist Maya sculptor. His wife, Magdalena, is a master embroiderer. My wife, Janet, wanted to learn Maya embroidery techniques, so she asked Magdalena if she would be willing to teach her. Magdalena immediately took out her embroidery, said a brief prayer that the work would come out well, and worked silently for a half hour or so while my wife watched. She then handed the needle and the piece she was working on to Janet and told her to continue the stitching. After half a minute Magdalena gently took the embroidery back and without a word undid all of Janet’s stitches and redid them properly. She never said what my wife had done wrong; nor did she explain how to do it right. This process was repeated again and again until Janet was able to work for ten or fifteen minutes without interruption. Though this was frustrating for my wife, who had hoped that she would get some kind of verbal instruction, it was a good lesson in how the Maya teach a skill or a principle—they do it properly according to the way things have always been done while apprentices watch until they can do it independently. After Janet did a particularly nice set of embroidered stitches, Magdalena smiled and, while pointing to her head, said: “Now we are one,” meaning that they now had the same knowledge or thoughts. She then placed her hand over Janet’s heart and said simply junam (same). For the Maya, embroidery is a sacred act in much the same way that conducting a ceremony is a sacred act—both repeat ancestral tradition in a spirit of accord and unity with the past.

Failure to follow tradition creates discord. In addition to being solicitous and benevolent, Maya deities and ancestors can be vindictive and even lethal. Each year after Holy Week is over, a common topic of conversation in Santiago Atitlán is comparing that year’s observances with those of the past. Mostly these comparisons focus on the negative—this or that ceremony wasn’t done the way it had been done in their youth. The worst laments are when a major ceremony failed to be done at all due to neglect, bad feelings among the participants, or simply a lack of money to fund it. If anything goes wrong in the days and weeks after Easter it is common to blame these oversights directly for the problems of the community. For example, the former alcalde (mayor, head) of the Cofradía Santa Cruz (Confraternity of the Holy Cross, one of ten traditionalist Maya religious societies in Santiago Atitlán) contracted a serious illness after he was charged with arranging for major portions of Holy Week in 2002. One of these was the annual procession of young men to the coast to retrieve fruit used in various important rituals. The tradition is for the young men to walk the entire way there and back, bearing the fruit on their backs in wooden pack frames adorned with flowers. Ceremonies and prayers are expected to be done along the way, and a drummer and flutist generally accompany them as they walk.

The alcalde claimed that he did not receive sufficient donations to fund such an expensive pilgrimage, so he simply had a truck bring the fruit into town. It became a major scandal, and many believed that the alcalde would be cursed for this gross neglect of tradition. Sure enough he did fall ill soon afterward. Every day for a month the alcalde’s health and sanity figured prominently in conversations that I heard around town. Many discussions centered on the latest grim details of the alcalde’s illness or rumors about additional curses that had recently been added. It came as a shock to most (and a disappointment to some) when he recovered. Still, the alcalde’s relationship with the town was never quite the same again. Whenever anything bad happened to him, including a debilitating stroke and eventual death a few years later, people recalled the fruit incident during Holy Week among other breaches of tradition as the cause of his misfortunes. Tradition and unity had been violated. More ominously, the maize harvest did not turn out well that year, and the perceived failures of the Holy Week ceremonies were often blamed.

The Burden of The Ancients

In the late 1970s I had the opportunity to read through the Maya view of creation as described in an ancient Maya book, the Popol Vuh, with a group of ajq’ijab’ in Canquixaja, a small K’iche’-Maya community near Momostenango. In the Popol Vuh account, the gods made several attempts to create beings that would be able to nourish and sustain the world. One of these attempts involved the formation of people made out of dry wood. This turned out to be a failure because the wood people did not “remember” their creators and thus failed to carry out their responsibilities to the gods (Christenson 2007, 83–84). In highland Maya belief, memory is a function of the blood not the brain. The dry flesh of the wood people lacked blood, so they did not have the capacity to fulfill their obligations. As a result, the gods destroyed them for their negligence (ibid.). Ultimately the gods succeeded in creating human beings from sacred maize dough and blood, giving them the ability to remember the gods and sustain them. When we had finished reading the passage in the Popol Vuh that recounts the gratitude of the first maize people and their extraordinary vision, an elderly ajq’ij stood and said that he had a word to say:

I wonder if these words belong only to the ancient past. I think all of us pass through the various stages of creation. . . . I think Wood People are like teenagers. They can speak, they can reproduce, but they forget who they are. They do not remember their mothers and fathers or the ancient people. They don’t know their purpose in life. Wachalal [Brothers], we bear a heavy, sweet burden on our backs and our shoulders, because we remember. And because we remember we must bear the burden of carrying out our work so that the ancestors may speak to us through our blood and our flesh. This is often very hard. But if we don’t do this, who will? Everything would end.

The ajq’ij referred to his work as a “heavy, sweet burden,” one that must be borne in the same way in which his ancestors performed their ceremonies in the past. For Maya traditionalists, bearing that burden is often overwhelmingly difficult both financially and physically, but in their minds it must be done and done properly if the world is to be renewed during times of crisis.


“An important new contribution to the general study of enduring, ancient Maya traditions adapted to serve in modern times.”

“That the Maya continued to practice traditional beliefs within their Christianity is not novel, but the details, interviews, photos, and descriptions contained in this book's chapter's contribute a new and exciting window through which to glimpse this blending of worldviews. As a result, the work would be a beneficial read to all with scholarly interests in the Maya.”
Hispanic American Historical Review

“Christenson's distinct contribution lies in documenting the specific degree of blending of two entire ritual cycles rather than individual elements. For the Mesoamericanist, Christenson's book is well worth reading for his method and its content.”
Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology

“What makes this book unique and important is that it makes the argument that traditional Mayan rituals are about world renewal and that Holy Week is a rich repository of Maya renewal symbolism in convincing, point-by-point detail within the context of a very complete critical review of the conquest and colonial sources and a thorough knowledge of the Atitecan tradition.”
Garrett W. Cook, Baylor University, coauthor of Indigenous Religion and Cultural Performance in the New Maya World and author of Renewing the Maya World: Expressive Culture in a Highland Maya Town


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