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Contemporary Maya Spirituality

Contemporary Maya Spirituality
The Ancient Ways Are Not Lost

A perceptive ethnography that describes the present-day practice of spiritual beliefs and rituals that have formed the core of Maya identity and worldview since prehistoric times.

January 2006
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
223 pages | 6 x 9 | 28 b&w illus., 26 line drawings, 3 charts |

Since the mid-1980s, when Guatemala returned to civilian rule and achieved relative peace and stability, the Maya have begun openly expressing their spiritual beliefs and practices. Jean Molesky-Poz draws on in-depth dialogues with Maya Ajq'ijab' (keepers of the ritual calendar), her own participant observation, and inter-disciplinary resources to offer a comprehensive, innovative, and well-grounded understanding of contemporary Maya spirituality and its theological underpinnings. She reveals significant continuities between contemporary and ancient Maya worldviews and spiritual practices.

Molesky-Poz opens with a discussion of how the public emergence of Maya spirituality is situated within the religious political history of the Guatemalan highlands, particularly the recent pan-Maya movement. She investigates Maya cosmovision and its foundational principles, as expressed by Ajq'ijab'. At the heart of this work, Ajq'ijab' interpret their obligation, lives, and spiritual work. In subsequent chapters, Molesky-Poz explores aspects of Maya spirituality—sacred geography (the reciprocal relationship between the earth and humans, sacred places, and the significance of the cross or quatrefoil map), sacred time (how the 260-day sacred calendar is "the heart of the wisdom of the Maya," the matrix of Maya culture), and ritual practice (the distinct way and method of ancestral study, with special attention to fire ceremonialism). She confirms contemporary Maya spirituality as a faith tradition with elaborate historical roots that has significance for individual, collective, and historical lives, reaffirming its own public space and legal right to be practiced.

  • Foreword by Daniel Matul Morales
  • Preface. Portal: At the Dawn
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part 1. The Florescence of Maya Spirituality
  • Chapter 1. A New Cycle of Light: The Public Emergence of Maya Spirituality
  • Chapter 2. Maya Cosmovision and Spirituality: Selecting, Examining, and Stretching Out Filaments of Light
  • Part 2: A Cultural Inheritance
  • Chapter 3. Ajq'ijab': "To Enter the Mystery Is Our Reality"
  • Part 3: The Aesthetics of Space, Time, and Movement
  • Chapter 4. Sacred Geography: Reciprocity, Ritual Sites, and Quatrefoil Mapping
  • Chapter 5. The Calendar: Unbundling, Interpreting, and Appropriating the Chol Q'ij
  • Chapter 6. Ceremony: The Fire Speaks
  • Part 4: Thinking, Contemplating, and Acting into the Future
  • Chapter 7. The Ancient Things Received from Our Parents Are Not Lost
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Jean Molesky-Poz was formerly a Lecturer in Ethnic Studies and Native American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. She is currently a Lecturer in Religious Studies at Santa Clara University in California. She holds a Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.


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The highlands of Guatemala and of southern Mexico, a predominately indigenous region, are unique in terms of relationships between religion and indigenous populations. These communities, with legacies of traditional Maya beliefs and practices for tens of thousands of years, have been the objects of many religious projects in the past five centuries: the long tyrannical shadow which passed from the north in Pedro de Alvarado's invasion in 1524; the imposition of Spanish Catholicism during the colonial period; the introduction of Protestantism during the anticlerical liberal years of 1870-1926; projects of Catholic Action in the 1950s; and the more recent U.S.-exported missions, which have ushered in an expansive growth of evangelical Protestantism since the 1970s. The political and religious trajectory of each endeavor has attempted to inscribe its own construction of knowledge and power on indigenous people. Religious discrimination and conflict have marked the history in distinct, and sometimes extreme, ways. The responses of indigenous communities to these projects have been varied, and deeply complex.

Over the centuries, ancestral practices, often masked or shrouded in secrecy, have continued to sustain highland people. Due to their geographical remoteness and high altitudes, they were relatively inaccessible to colonial Spaniards, the liberal reforms of the 1870s, and pastoral visits from Catholic priests. The highland communities developed religious teachings and rituals relatively free from control of the Catholic hierarchy (Earle 1995; Falla 2001; Lovell 1992; Oss 1986). Compared to areas of intense Spanish activity, such as the eastern lowlands, where the process of syncretism may better explain religious developments, Maya in these relatively neglected zones were able to construct and maintain distinct theological systems and spiritual practices. The Maya strategy of resistance was to appropriate when necessary Catholic icons, rituals, and social organizations as well as to maintain a religious-based civil authority system in order to ensure at least some cultural autonomy (Earle 1995). Today, indigenous communities, cultural workers, ethnographers, and educators, as well as Western scholars, recognize that elements of Maya belief and their public expressions in the form of ritual dances, calendar keeping, prayers, and ceremonialism have never been completely suppressed (Oakes 1951; Gossen 1974: Bricker 1981; B. Tedlock 1982; Farris 1984; D. Tedlock 1985; Freidel et al. 1993; La Farge 1994; Alvarado 1997; Earle 1995; Carlsen 1997a; Cook 2000; Christenson 2001).

Maya spiritual leaders say that 40 to 50% of the indigenous population practice some form of indigenous ritual, but only 10% do so openly. Observance varies. In some highland communities, 45-80% of the people follow traditional practices; in other communities only 5-10% have conserved Maya practices (Molesky-Poz 1999, 2004). And, while there are uniform underpinnings of belief, upon a closer look, there is much diversity in the particular beliefs, with distinct genealogies and practices in which religious inscriptions are embedded. That is, there are differences between villages as well as within the same village in the maintenance of traditional beliefs and practices. Further, there have been periods in history when communities have concealed or publicly practiced their ancestral worship.

This work, which examines the contemporary public emergence of Maya spirituality, is situated in the western highlands of Guatemala, a country of 12 million inhabitants, approximately 60% of whom are Maya of twenty-two distinct language groups. From its inception, this ethnographic project sought through dialogues with Ajq'ijab' (keepers of the 260-day calendar) to comprehend contemporary praxis, perceptions, and theological underpinnings of contemporary Maya ancestral beliefs and practices. The inquiry grew to an investigation of archaeology, anthropology, political history, mythology, and hieroglyphics. Coincidentally, this study concurred with Guatemala's burgeoning pan-Maya movement, in which some indigenous women and men are reclaiming ancestral spirituality and worldview as the basis of their cultural and political renaissance. This chronotope, then, opened a venue to examine its distinct theological system and praxis, but also how Maya are reappropriating, generating, and shaping contemporary forms of Maya spirituality.

In addition, creative dialogues with scientists, philosophers, and theologians regarding the surfacing paradigm of Emergence have influenced me to view this faith practice as a variation of human experience which over generations has developed a specific sentient, ecological, religious consciousness with its own distinct spiritual, aesthetic, and ethical activity. This work intends to contribute visibility, understanding, and respect for these indigenous religious traditions, to contribute to efforts for legal recognition in Guatemala, and to encourage interreligious dialogue.

Genealogy of This Work

In a sense this ethnographic work has been "the start of a different journey." Calixta, a young Kaqchikel woman who assumed the name "Eugenia" in exile in the United States, first introduced me to Mayan thoughts, worldviews, and ceremony in 1980 (see Chapter 3). A year later, in San Francisco, she introduced me to Martín, a K'iche' from Zunil, to whom I am now married.

On my first trip to Guatemala in the mid-'80s, I was particularly anxious to meet Martín's brother, Roberto, as Martín had spoken of him so often. I knew of his attempted arrest and murder by village rivals in 1980, and that he had gone into hiding for two years. I knew that he was married to Lesbia, a woman from the neighboring village of Cantel; that they were parents of two daughters and one son. What I came to know on that first visit was that after recurring dreams, illnesses, and problems from 1980 to 1983, Roberto had decided to become an Ajq'ij (calendar keeper). When I first met him in 1985, he was deeply devoted to understanding the 260-day sacred calendar.

One evening on that first visit, I sat across the wooden table from Roberto in the soot-walled kitchen. Lesbia, attentive and listening, stirred the atole (corn drink) over the wood-burning stove, one child on her back, another tugging at her corte (woven skirt) while gray kittens scampered underfoot. What attracted my attention to Roberto was his open, intense, yet calm countenance. When he spoke, he guarded his broken teeth with his thick right hand, his dark brown eyes reflected his openness and kindness, and his words resonated a deep reserve of wisdom. I asked him about Maya spirituality. Roberto was at first silent and meditative. He cleared his throat, then said, "Among the Maya, there is no theological doctrine, just an encounter with the cosmos." For long hours into the night, and on many other evenings, we conversed. He mapped the Maya calendar, unlocking meanings and complexities of specific days and illustrating their interrelationships. Our discourse traced his decision to become an Ajq'ij and went on to explanations of circuits of energies from his increasing perception of the motions that ran through his body. In sharing, we were traversing similar inner geographies; yet our words, maps, calendars, rituals, myths, and icons were different. I was situated in Catholicism, formed in particular by ten years in a Franciscan religious community, he within a Maya paradigm.

This story, then, begins through specific relationships with Calixta, Martín, and Roberto. It extends primarily to women and men in Komon Tohil, an informal group of thirty Ajq'ijab' founded by Roberto in Zunil, to a wider circle of contacts in Quetzaltenango as well as to multilocal ethnographies in the greater highlands. I have talked with Guatemalan scholars and cultural workers as well as several Catholic priests in whose parishes members are actively working to reconcile historical fractures and hatreds. These friendships initiated and deepened as we returned to the Guatemalan highlands for summers between 1988 and 2003 and for seven months in 1997.

I have come to understand that Maya spirituality is not a conservative, static survival of the past nor a syncretic Catholic development. I understand and interpret it as theologically distinct, with its own logic and processes. Maya women and men establish a relationship to the world, unique in time, space, and culture. Those who embrace Maya cosmovision and their obligation as Ajq'ijab' are living aesthetic and ethical lives, shaped by their own "field of vision" or "horizon of being." Again, this ancestral practice is but one of many faith expressions undertaken in Guatemala today; the religious diversity is very visible.

Of course, the "I" who writes here must also be thought of as itself "enunciated." We all write and speak from a particular place and time, from a history and a culture, which is specific. What we say is always "in context," positioned. I came to the Maya as an insider/outsider: insider through marriage and friendship and outsider as a non-indigenous North American woman, attentive to religion, culture, and spirituality in its various expressions. Many aspects of Maya cosmovision and spirituality are attractive to me, particularly situating and engaging ourselves as persons within the physical universe.

My position as an ethnographer, then, is unique to this project. Through friendship, marriage, and thus family ties, I have been brought into the Maya community. Over seventeen years, I have developed relationships through which I have cultivated a unique perspective and voice. Further, as mother to our children, Joanna and Joseph, I have a stake in understanding the religious heritage from which they, in part, will understand their capacities and potentials and thus navigate their lives.

At a foundational level, the aim of intrareligious dialogue is to understand. When seen against a wider and common horizon, divergences and common perspectives appear. Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin writes that dialogue is a matter of "communication between simultaneous differences." His notion of the "dialogic imagination" holds that discourse or conversation--the enlargement of consciousness through the dialogic engagement with alterity--provides a most appropriate model of human experience. What issues from dialogue, he says, is creative understanding, which explores the surplus of seeing, in terms of both interpersonal and intercultural relationships (Morson and Emerson, 1990, 52-56). In this work, I hope to provide what Bakhtin calls the excess of seeing and sympathetic understanding (1990, 25).

When I write from my experience, I am engaging in what Bakhtin calls "live entering." He writes that if one's relationship with another is to be rendered meaningful--ethically, cognitively, or aesthetically--it requires "live entering," a simultaneous experience of empathy and "outsideness" (1990, 25-27). He writes that if one is to help or understand a particular person one must first "empathize or project myself into this other human being, see his world axiologically from within him as he sees this world." As one does so, "a whole series of features accessible to me from my own place will turn out to be absent from within this other's horizon." There must also be "a return to one's own place," because only from this place will one be able to "render" the other ethically, cognitively, or aesthetically.

What comes into view in Contemporary Maya Spirituality is "not a mirroring or duplication," but a fundamentally and essentially new valuation, what Bakhtin calls sympathetic understanding (1990, 102). The form, rhythm, language, and concepts of time and space of Maya spiritual practices are distinct from mine; I have found that entering into the Mayan worldview has been deeply transformative and generative. As Bakhtin writes, sympathetic understanding "recreates the whole inner person in aesthetically loving categories for a new existence in a new dimension of the world" (103).

In one of my recent interviews with Roberto Poz, he turned off his tape recorder; I turned off mine. He looked at me and said,

Juana, with open arms, come what comes. What is very important is our dialogue, so that every time we speak, we increase, with more aesthetics and ethics. Aesthetics because you can amplify; ethics because we learn to live. Like Pop Wuj, our conversation is poetic, mystical, and historical.

Interpretation and Translation

As translator and interpreter of this work, I have attempted to attune myself as accurately as possible to the speech and textures of meaning manifested in dialogues with Ajq'ijab'. I understand that in this interpretive translation, the quality and texture of Maya religious experiences are not similar to mine. All experience is processed through, organized by, and makes itself available to us epistemologically (Katz 1978, 26). Here Steven T. Katz's work on cross-cultural interpretations of mysticism is helpful. He writes, "In order to understand mysticism it is not just a question of studying the reports of the mystic after the experiential event but of acknowledging that the experience itself as well as the form in which it is reported is shaped by concepts which the mystic brings to, and which shape, his experience" (26). The issue is not the experience, but its consciousness:

The respective "generating" problems at the heart of each tradition suggest their respective alternative answers involving differing mental and epistemological constructs, ontological commitments, and metaphysical superstructures which order experience in differing ways. (62)

This interpretation of ancestral spirituality is further a translation passed through a continuum of transformations in the interplay of K'iche', Spanish, and English. We conversed in Spanish, the language we hold in common; yet Spanish was the second language for nearly all. Conversations required occasional "halts" to dialogue with one another in order to capture the cultural context, the accumulated meaning of a word. In conversations where participants spoke K'iche', Martín, my husband, facilitated the translation between K'iche' and Spanish or English, often stopping to encircle or "fill out" the word or experience with cultural qualities. This helped me to attune to the layers and textures of meaning. Even finer tuning has taken place as Martín, Roberto, and I have dialogued with one another over a kitchen table or in long-distance phone calls between Zunil and Berkeley.

With permission of participants, most interviews were audiotaped and ceremonies were videotaped. I transcribed and translated these oral accounts into written English; Martín translated the ceremonies which were in K'iche' and I transcribed them from Spanish into English. In these transcriptions, I noted that a K'iche' speaker or Spanish speaker of K'iche' descent would refer to him/herself as "we" or as "one," not directly engaging in the personal pronoun "I." I have maintained this grammatical pattern in my English translation as I feel it conveys the sense of their identity, of being "of a people," part of an "event of being." In the case of translation from a text written in Spanish to English, I am responsible for its interpretation. Further, I recognize that this ethnographic text, written in English, takes place within relations of "weak" and "strong languages" that govern the international flow of knowledge (Asad 1986, 141-146). Finally, I suspect the metaphoric, relational, and multidimensional texture of the K'iche' language is flattened and objectified in English.

The primary goal of this book is to illuminate ancestral Maya spiritual beliefs and practices that have significance for individual, collective, and historical lives. This work is concerned with a viable spiritual tradition, the theology of which has woven itself into the fabric of Mayan life. It investigates this tradition's underpinning order and its theological constructs and processes while recognizing its distinct diversity in practical forms and methods. Marcus and Fischer write that ethnography should "continue to provide a convincing access to diversity in the world at a time when the perception, if not the reality, of this diversity is threatened by modern consciousness" (1986, 167). This ethnographic work intends to examine this "valid and significant" spirituality and treat it as seriously as we do other religious forms.

More specifically, illuminated through the narratives of Ajq'ijab', this work documents, contextualizes, and interprets the meaning of Maya spiritual practices and their public emergence since the mid-1980s. It further looks at the ways women and men are reappropriating ancestral cosmovision and logic, sacred time and place, and myth and ritual in the process of reconstructing viable identities and "practicing [their] own inventive loyalty toward self" (Minh-Ha 1991, 17).

It is my intention to create a polyphonic text, "to foreground dialogue as opposed to monologue, and emphasize the cooperative and collaborative nature of the ethnographic situation" (Tyler 1986, 126). The statements we hear come to us already dialogized, already thought and spoken about, already evaluated. Consequently each individual perspective is unique; words and forms exist in the speakers as they exist in their social world, as "living impulse," with a memory and an activity (Morson and Emerson 1990, 145). Each utterance embodies a worldview, a perspective shaped by his/her position. For clarification, I do not intend in any way to present the narratives as the Maya position nor to collapse their diverse standpoints for this emergence into one Maya view. Instead of interpreting what Bakhtin warns us is a false tendency toward reducing everything to a single consciousness (60), a unity of a world emerges that is essentially one of multiple voices and polyphonic. In this polyphony, we can hear the "living impulse" of a public emergence. This, then, is a cooperative story, one that is shaped by reflective dialogic activity. To accomplish these goals, the book is organized in the following manner:

In Part 1, "The Florescence of Maya Spirituality," Chapter 1, "A New Cycle of Light," engages the public emergence of Maya spiritual practices, discussing the cultural and political context of this emergence and addressing the question of why this florescence is happening at this particular historical juncture. Chapter 2, "Maya Cosmovision and Spirituality," identifies the foundational principles and distinct marks of Maya cosmovision, the basis of Maya spirituality. In Part 2, "A Cultural Inheritance," Chapter 3, "Ajq'ijab'," focuses on the role, capacity, and responsibility of the Aj'qijab' as a key cultural inheritance, and is in many ways the heart of this research. Here, contemporary Ajq'ijab' interpret their lives and work. This chapter explores the activity of Maya Ajq'ijab' from the perspective of the philosophical anthropology of Mikhail M. Bakhtin, who states that "the problem of the soul from a methodological standpoint, is a problem in aesthetics" (1990, xl). I draw on Bakhtin because it is clear that he was interested in religion in terms of its immanent meaning for human consciousness as one of the categories through which the self is constructed.

Part 3, "The Aesthetics of Space, Time, and Movement," provides the conceptual blueprint for understanding distinct images of sacred space, time, and ritual practice, built up over time. This section investigates ethnography, archaeology, political history, mythology, and hieroglyphs to illuminate root meanings and transformed continuities in contemporary understandings and practices. Chapter 4, "Sacred Geography," addresses the reciprocity between humans and the earth, the mappings of sacred geography, and quatrefoil cartography as inscribed in ancient and contemporary landscapes. Chapter 5, "The Calendar," presents the Chol Q'ij, the 260-day sacred calendar, as the central matrix of a culture. Chapter 6, "Ceremony," investigates one form of spiritual practice, the ceremonial fire. It identifies the centrality of fire, its legacy in Mesoamerica, and how contemporary Ajq'ijab' understand the fire as a conduit between humans and the sacred. Attention is given to the reading of the fire as a form of discernment, as one way of knowing, in this spiritual praxis. Finally, Part 4, "Thinking, Contemplating, and Acting into the Future," contains Chapter 7, "The Ancient Things Received from Our Parents Are Not Lost," which raises issues, questions, and potentialities regarding the public reclamation of Maya spirituality.