Back to top

Renewing the Maya World

Renewing the Maya World
Expressive Culture in a Highland Town

In this richly detailed ethnography, Garrett Cook explores how festivals of Jesucristo and the saints derive from and reenact three major ancient Maya creation myths, thus revealing patterns of continuity between contemporary expressive culture and the myths, rituals, and iconography of the Classic and Postclassic Maya.

October 2000
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
Add to cart
304 pages | 6 x 9 | 22 photos, 1 figure, 3 maps, 4 tables |

Each year in the Highland Guatemala town of Santiago Momostenango, Maya religious societies, dance teams, and cofradías perform the annual cycle of rituals and festivals prescribed by Costumbre (syncretized Maya Christian religion), which serves to renew the cosmic order. In this richly detailed ethnography, Garrett Cook explores how these festivals of Jesucristo and the saints derive from and reenact three major ancient Maya creation myths, thus revealing patterns of continuity between contemporary expressive culture and the myths, rituals, and iconography of the Classic and Postclassic Maya.

Drawing on fieldwork conducted in the 1970s and renewed in the 1990s, Cook describes the expressive culture tradition performed in and by the cofradías and their dance teams. He listens as dancers and cofrades explain the meaning of service and of the major ritual symbols in the cults of the saints and Jesucristo. Comparing these symbols to iconographic evidence from Palenque and myths from the Popol Vuh, Cook persuasively argues that the expressive culture of Momostenango enacts major Maya creation myths—the transformative sunrise, the representation of the year as the life cycle of anthropomorphized nature, and the erection of an axis mundi.

This research documents specific patterns of continuity and discontinuity in the communal expression of Maya religious and cosmogonic themes. Along with other recent research, it demonstrates the survival of a basic Maya pattern—the world-creating vegetative renewal cycle—in the highland Maya cults of the saints and Jesucristo.

  • List of Narratives
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
    • Santiago Momostenango
    • In the Time of the Great Earthquake: The Fieldwork and Its Setting
    • A Collection of Texts
    • Organization of the Work
  • Part 1: The Institutional Context
    • Chapter 2: Religious Sodalities of Momostenango: The Communal Cult Institutions
      • Saints and Sodalities
      • The Sodalities and Ritual Complexes
      • The Cofradías
      • The Dance Teams
      • Serving Jesucristo and the Saints
    • Chapter 3: Traveling Saints
      • Niño San Antonio
      • Patrón Santiago
      • Replication in Momostecan Cult Institutions
      • Maya Themes in the Cult of the Saints
  • Part 2: The Ritual Symbols and Their Meanings
    • Chapter 4: Cosmogonic Tree Raisings and Sunrises
      • World Trees and Momostecan Cosmogony
      • The Conquest and the Spanish Sunrise
    • Chapter 5: Secrets and Ordeals of Holy Week
      • Costumbrista Holy Week
      • San Simón
      • Corpus and Santa Cruz
      • Serpentine Flowers from the Coast
      • The Tzulab
      • The Flowering Cross and Quichean Tradition
    • Chapter 6: Continuity in the Quichean Expressive Culture Tradition
      • Continuity
      • Sodalities, Saints, and Cabawils
      • A Complicated Quichean Tradition of Idolatry
      • World Trees at Momostenango and Palenque
      • Continuity in the Central Rite of Renewal: The Holy Week Complex and Quichean Tradition
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Garrett W. Cook is Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology at Baylor University.


Browse the book with Google Preview »

  • Origin of the Comunidad Chanchabac by an anonymous Chanchabac elder
  • Santiago and the Parcialidad Herrera by an anonymous Herrera elder
  • Entering the Service by Pedro Contreras
  • Tradition and Politics in the Cofradía of Santiago by Juan Ixc'oy
  • The Danger of Being of Two Hearts by Pablo Itzep
  • The Conquest Dance by Miguel Castillo
  • The Tzulab by Juan Ixc'oy
  • The Monkeys by Florentino Ixbatz
  • The Fiesta of the Niño by Pablo Itzep
  • The Image Gives Signs by Pablo Itzep
  • Signs at the Fiesta of Santa Isabel by Florentino Ixbatz
  • Problems at the Fiesta by Juan Ixc'oy
  • The Fiesta in Pueblo Viejo by Juan Ixc'oy
  • Apparel for Santiago by Juan Ixc'oy
  • Santiago Teaches a Lesson by Florentino Ixbatz
  • The Patrón Gives Signs by Juan Ixc'oy
  • Patrón Santiago in Dreams by Florentino Ixbatz and Son
  • The Patrón's Women by Juan Ixc'oy
  • The Origins of the Native Altars by Florentino Ixbatz
  • Origin of the Altars by Domingo Castillo
  • The Story of the Monkeys Dance by Florentino Ixbatz
  • Dance Ritualists and Costumbre by Florentino Ixbatz
  • Calling the Animals from the Stone by Florentino Ixbatz
  • Erecting the Tree by Florentino Ixbatz
  • The Story of the Conquest Dance by Miguel Castillo
  • The Aj Itz by Miguel Castillo
  • The Meaning of the Conquest by Miguel Castillo
  • San Simón by Juan Ixc'oy
  • Visits to Maximons in Other Towns by Juan Ixc'oy
  • The Service of Corpus by Pedro Contreras
  • The Coastal Pilgrimage by Pedro Contreras
  • The Tzulab by Juan Ixc'oy

Santiago Momostenango

The bus clanks and grinds down from the cold and barren finger of alpine prairie above San Francisco El Alto, a mountain fastness, a juyup, where flowering bunchgrass is collected each year to construct the body of San Simón during Holy Week. The rutted dirt road winds down through a misty forest of giant pines and ancient twisted oaks bearded with Spanish moss. Heading north, the bus breaks out of the forest into sunlight, into a world of maize fields, scattered homesteads, and wood lots, a cultivated world or takaj. Here Momostecan settlement begins on the southern edge of a great basin dipping gently to the north and northeast. Streams, muddied from milpa runoff, erode gullied shoulders of exhausted land and combine in valley troughs to form the northern drainage of the Chixoy, or Black, River (see fig. 1.1).

The Chixoy, a tributary of the great Usumacinta, defines the Quiché country. Its ancient valley, holding the oldest-known Quichean sites near the salt deposits of Sacapulas (Fox 1976, 1987), is the gateway to the mountains from the Western Rivers Region of the lowland jungles where a regional variant of the great Classic Maya civilization flourished. The Usumacinta flows between shaded banks in the jungles defining the Petén/Chiapas frontier. It glides past the ruins of Yaxchilán and Piedras Negras as it drops from the hilly Maya country onto the Gulf Coast plain.

Back on the bus, at the southern end of this great watershed, the ground falls away on the left. Across the valley is a cluster of tan adobe houses with reddish tile roofs straggling up the hillside and along the ridge crest. This is a paraje, a tiny settlement amid stepped fields and islands of trees. In the parajes a house encloses a patch of earth with mud-brick walls and roofs it over with silvery thatched bunchgrass or fired red tiles. When a house is abandoned, the roof tiles are salvaged and the timbers fall in. The walls are eroded by rain. Milpa lives in the house again. The house is made of earth, and the earth is made of many houses. The parents and grandparents who lived in the house are melded into the common dead, a community of the dead counted and measured in generations and centuries of the dead, a world of the dead that vastly outnumbers its living children.

From up on that ridge back, one could see the church of Momostenango, vague and soft with distance, where the valley broadens to the north. It is large and cold inside. It is a house of cold, often filled with murmured prayers. It is the home of faded wooden saints lining the walls in niches and glass cases. Little clumps of supplicants in poor ragged clothes, bare callused feet padding along the cold concrete floor, raise candles before the glass cases, tapping lightly on the glass doors. Shoulder bags of cracked vinyl or woven brown and white wool, sweat-stained straw hats or narrow-brimmed gray or brown fedoras, and colorful cloth-wrapped bundles wait for them on the pews. The church, built on the old cemetery after the original church collapsed in the earthquake of 1906, is said to cover catacombs. Sacramento, the main altar, is located "above the hair," over the heads of the dead. If the priest allowed it, the floor would be carpeted with pine needles, a forest of glowing candles and flowers, whenever certain holy days arrived.

The great portal of the church opens to the west, facing the steep slope of a high plateau that looms over the little town. A rutted track curving off toward the distant Pan American Highway runs up and over this western ridge with its feathery skyline of pruned pine trees. Each tree is scarred from the harvesting of resinous sap. A few miles from town on this road is the entrance to Pueblo Viejo, also called Ojer Tinamit, the old town, the site of the ruins of Chuwa Tz'ak. There, perhaps six hundred years ago, a valiant war captain, an ojewachi', from the Nim Jaib, the Great House lineage at K'umarca'aj, the Quiché capital, established a stronghold, a tinamit, and claimed the surrounding country as the estate for his lineage segment. From the tinamit he and his younger brother would control several local chinamits, land-based communities something like feudal fiefdoms, each of which was headed by the patriarch of a locally powerful lineage segment. The sons and brothers of the ojewachi' would marry local women, cementing the chinamits into a chiefdom, an amak centered on the tinamit. In time their sisters and daughters would marry local men.

The warriors from the tinamit would fall upon neighboring communities, screaming like jaguars and blowing conch shells. Captured warriors would feed the cabawil whose mouth was opened in counsel and prophecy when smeared with blood, a hungry god that embodied their unity and power and gave them victory in war. What happened to that cabawil? Has it been forgotten, or is it still remembered in some collective dreamworld? Is the ojewachi' remembered by his descendants, or by the descendants of his victims, the tribes that he subdued six centuries ago?

After the Spanish conquest the Franciscans came to Chuwa Tz'ak and established a hermitage. Within a few decades an earthquake toppled it. A new center was established where the town center, the cabecera known as Momostenango, is located today. For four hundred years, though, most of the population in the territory that is today the town of Momostenango lived on large multilineage communal estates, parcialidades, headed by caciques (chiefs) descended from the aboriginal chinamit lords. A parcialidad took the name of its patron saint. It maintained a god house for its patron and celebrated the saint's day. How were these parcialidades and their saints related to the chinamits and cabawils that preceded them? What happened to them, and how are they related to the cofradías (religious confraternities) of this century?

At about the same time that the new center was being established at Momostenango, an unknown native author "in this place called Quiché," the new settlement to which the population of the original Quiché capital Utatlán (K'umarka'aj) had been transferred by the victorious Spaniards, lamenting the loss of the original Council Book of his people, tried to fix the Quichean cosmogony and history in written form (see Tedlock 1985: 71). Using the characters of the new Spanish alphabet, he recorded the text that we know today as the Popol Vuh. Thus a substantial piece of the Quichean tradition, at least as it was known to the elite at K'umarka'aj, was fixed, frozen in time, recorded it seems as an alternative to the fixed, written biblical tradition (D. Tedlock 1986). Then, gradually, literacy declined, along with the power and privileges of the cacique class. Ancient documents were retained, guarded as sacred objects and evidence of status but less and less accessible to their guardians as sources of information. Yet an oral tradition continued in the Quiché mountains. History, which we might call mythology as it was not critical and was no longer written, was told around family fires, told by grandparents to their grandchildren, their replacements in this world. At births and at wakes, at weddings and at family gatherings, stories were told. Mythology was lived and enacted in initiations, rites of renewal, and dance dramas, and from time to time in nativistic uprisings. What was this mythology, the story held close to the collective heart of the conquered people? What story did they strive to live, struggling to make lives for themselves and their descendants, struggling to honor and placate the owners of nature and the generations and centuries of the dead's souls, and struggling to make sense of a world transformed by a new kind of warfare, by ethnic castes, communal labor obligations (encomienda), plantation labor, and evangelization? How did the story change?

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries local Maya cultures, adjusting to forced population movements, major epidemics, and the imposition of the Spanish colonial order, "crystallized" within the colonial order into local variants of colonial Indian culture and became traditional or conservative. What complexes from the colonial tradition have survived the destruction of the parcialidades, as well as the modernization of Guatemala's economy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as a recent or modern Indian culture emerged from the devastated colonial order in Momostenango? Are there Maya premises at the heart of late-twentieth-century Costumbrista culture? What mythos dictates Momostenango's stories about itself? These issues are addressed below in an investigation of tradition in Momostecan expressive culture.


Available for Kindle
Available on Google Play
Available on Kobo
Available for Nook
Available on the Apple Store

This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca
UPCC/Project Muse