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The Jaguar and the Priest

The Jaguar and the Priest
An Ethnography of Tzeltal Souls
Foreword by Roy Wagner

This pathfinding ethnography investigates how Indian concepts of the soul offer a new way of understanding personhood and historical memory in highland Chiapas, Mexico.

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

January 2010
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283 pages | 6 x 9 | 18 b&w photos |

In contrast to western notions of the soul as the essence or most native part of a human being, the Tzeltal-speaking Indians of Chiapas, Mexico, regard the soul first and foremost as an Other. Made up of beings that personify the antithesis of their native selves—animals such as hummingbirds or jaguars, atmospheric phenomena like lightning bolts or rainbows, or spirits of European appearance such as Catholic priests or evangelical musicians—Tzeltal souls represent the maximum expression of that which is alien. And because their souls enfold that which is outside and Other, the Tzeltal contain within themselves the history of their relationship with Europeans from the beginning of the Spanish conquest to the present time. Thus, to understand the Indian self opens a window into the Tzeltal conception of culture and community, their notions of identity and alterity, and their interpretation of interethnic relations and types of historical memory.

In this pathfinding ethnography, which was originally published in Spanish in 1996 as Ch'ulel: una etnografía de las almas tzeltales and is now extensively rewritten and amplified in English, Pedro Pitarch offers a new understanding of indigenous concepts of the soul, personhood, and historical memory in highland Chiapas. Exploring numerous aspects of indigenous culture and history—medicine and shamanism, geography and cosmology, and politics and kinship among them—he engages in a radical rethinking of classic issues in Mesoamerican anthropology, such as ethnicity and alterity, community and tradition, and change and permanence.

  • Foreword by Roy Wagner
  • Preface
  • 1. Introduction
    • What Are the Souls?
    • The Self as European
    • Conversations about Souls
    • The Town of Cancuc
  • 2. The Ethnography of Souls
    • The Bird of Our Heart
    • The ch'ulel
      • The ch'ulel in ch'iibal Mountain
      • The ch'ulel inside the Heart
      • Dreams
      • Death and the ch'ulel
    • The lab
      • Lab That Are Animals
      • Water lab
      • Meteor lab
      • The "Illness-Giver" lab
      • The lab as Personal Power
      • Complete Human Beings
      • The Internal lab
      • The Transference of lab
    • Further Interpretations
  • 3. Souls and Signs
    • Signs in Gestures
    • Signs in Dreams
    • "Comparing, Harmonizing like Voices"
    • The Person
    • Words
    • Fostering Knowledge
  • 4. The European Within
    • The Magic Mountain
    • A Perpetual Fiesta
    • Castilian Features in the lab
    • The Ethnic Contrast between Heart and Head
    • Loss of the Senses and Exposing the Heart
  • 5. Animism as History
    • Birds of the Heart, Livestock, Metal Tools
    • Priests
    • Scribes and Writing
    • Cattle Ranchers
    • Christian Music
    • The lab "Mothers-Fathers" and Coffee Cultivation
    • Soul History and the Body
  • 6. Narrative, Ritual, Silence
    • The Past in Narrative
    • Exceptions to Neutrality
    • Ritual
    • Christian Rituals, Indian Simulation
    • Difficulties of Dialogue with the "Castilians"
    • Crosses
    • New Religious Identifications
  • 7. The Mirror in the Saints
    • The Body of the Saints
    • Saints in Narrative
    • Images of Origins in the Mirror
  • 8. A Case of Healing: Text and Ritual
    • The Ceremony
    • The Text
    • Commentary
  • 9. Conclusion: The Fold
    • Person, History, and Memory
    • The Counterpoint between the Indigenous and the European
    • The Redoubling of the Other
  • Appendix: An Outline of Tzeltal Souls
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Pedro Pitarch is Professor of Anthropology at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid and Invited Researcher at the Instituto de Estudios Indígenas in Chiapas. He has edited or coedited several books, among them Human Rights in the Maya Region: Global Politics, Moral Engagements, and Cultural Contentions.


What Are the Souls?


The Tzeltal people of Chiapas, Mexico, claim that human beings hold a heterogeneous combination of souls in the heart, from a minimum of four to a maximum of sixteen. One of these souls, known as ch'ulel, takes the form of a human body; it resides in the heart and, as a double, also lives inside a mountain where, together with the rest of the souls from the same lineage, it forms a society parallel to that of humans. In contrast, other souls called lab have a nonhuman form. They may be animals of any species, such as hummingbirds, butterflies, jaguars, rodents, or creatures of the river, or atmospheric phenomena like lightning bolts, winds, or rainbows; others are spirits of European appearance, such as Catholic priests, Castilian scribes, schoolteachers, or evangelical musicians. Human beings may have up to thirteen of these beings.


Nevertheless, although in appearance these souls embody beings that for the most part may be found in the ordinary natural world, in reality they are other beings; they are not of this world but come from the "other side." Some come from heaven and enter the embryo at the moment of conception; others are transmitted to the fetus by a relative from the generation of the grandparents at the time of their death—in other words, they come from death. This "other side" represents an existence that is different from that of our ordinary world. We could call this state "sacred," as understood to mean that which is "the other." In the Tzeltal language, this state is known as ch'ul or ch'ulel, the same words that are used to designate the souls, a state that is the opposite of the jamalal state, the everyday plane of existence. The Tzeltal cosmos can be divided into these two realms. However, the difference between one and the other is not so much physical or geographical but ontological.


The jamalal, or ordinary state, is fundamentally the world of the sun. Gary Gossen (1974) demonstrates at length how, from the Indian perspective, the present-day world is a product of the appearance of the sun. Its heat and light gave rise to the coordinates of time and space, and with these the fundamental discriminations governing society. In this solar world, living things and objects formed from solid opaque matter have a stable identity regardless of circumstances. By contrast, beings and things are permanently unstable in the sacred ch'ul state, where boundaries and categories are not clearly distinguished, and where anything is liable to change into something else. It is not so much that the categories that bestow order on the ordinary world become muddled here as that identities fluctuate and beings can either be themselves or their opposites.


The state of ch'ul is equivalent to what the Barasana people of the Vaupés rainforest in Amazonian Colombia call the He. According to the excellent synthesis by Stephen Hugh-Jones (1979), He, in its broad sense, refers to a state of being that predates present-day society but continues to exist as another dimension of everyday life. In the beginning, everything was He, and the human-animal characters that appear in myths are prehuman beings in which the present humans have been transformed. Life existed in an undifferentiated state of He in the form of a primordial sun, located out of this world or the "cosmic house." He people and the state of He are situated in a distant past, but at the same time they form part of an unchangeable present that exists as another reality parallel to this world. The Barasana enter into controlled contact with the He state through ritual, but they also experience it during dreams, illness, childbirth, and the death of others.


Returning to the Tzeltal of Chiapas, what is essential, nonetheless, is that this sacred state is found not only "outside" but also inside every human being in the shape of what are conventionally known as "souls." Souls are no more than fragments of the sacred state encapsulated in the body. This circumstance of the sacred being contained within the body—in the heart—can be described by the figure of the fold. While the fetus remains in the maternal womb—in a situation of transition between the sacred and ordinary states—its body is turned inside out on itself: what will be inside it after birth—the souls—are still "outside," in contact with the placenta. At the moment of birth, the body folds in on itself to capture inside it the souls that will form part of that person for the rest of his or her individual life, until death—the moment of unfolding—when, with the end of the body, these fragments are restored to the sacred state.


As a consequence of this folding, we human beings carry the other world within us. But this other world is also an "other" world. This is the starting point of the argument of this book: an Indian soul is first and foremost an "other." The souls of the Tzeltal are made up of beings that personify the antithesis of their native selves. Instead of expressing cultural identity and continuity with their own past, souls represent, in its maximum expression, that which is alien: not a pole of identity but of alterity.


At this point, my interpretation differs fundamentally from the common perspective of Mesoamerican anthropology, where the description of souls has tended to be formulated in the language of collective identity and personal socialization. In this view, the soul represents the core of social morality. The quintessence of Indianness would be deposited in the soul. The key issue, however, is that in the indigenous anthropology, the positions held by body and soul differ from those of the European. In the former, the body is thought of as belonging to the realm of the "cultural," of what human beings can and should morally do, and thus to be fabricated through human intervention, while the soul belongs to the realm of the "sacred," and comes to this world as something already given.


In The Invention of Culture (1981), Roy Wagner has shown how most non-Western cultures (par excellence, tribal peoples and peasants) distribute the content of what is perceived as "innate" and what is perceived as the realm of human responsability ("the artificial") in a way that is essentially the reverse of the Western rationalist tradition. If for "us," convention ("the rules, laws, traditions, and other conventional regularities of society" [Wagner 1978, 27]) pertains to the artificial domain of the universe, for "them," in this case Mesoamerican Indians, convention is considered to be what is innate and belonging to the immanent principles of the universe. And conversely, invention, which for us pertains to the innate, for them is part of the artificial dimension. In other words, that which is perceived as innate and that which is considered artificial switch positions. Thus, the body becomes the variable element of existence, the responsability of human action, while the soul or spiritual principle becomes the invariable element, that which is not susceptible to being substantially modified by human action—the innate, and thus "given."


Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (1998) deals with the question of the naturalization of culture and the culturalization of nature in a particularly lucid contribution to the field of Amerindian studies. If the Europeans, observes Viveiros de Castro, have a multiculturalist cosmology based on the concept of the unity of nature and the plurality of cultures, the Amerindians, in contrast, have "multinaturalist" cosmologies based on the idea of spiritual unity and bodily diversity. The first "postulates a physical continuity and a metaphysical discontinuity" between humans and all other living beings: the body integrates natural beings into one category; the soul or the spirit (or the mind) is what differentiates us from other living beings. On the other hand, Amerindian cosmology "postulates a metaphysical continuity and a physical continuity between the beings of the cosmos. . . . The spirit or soul integrates while the body differentiates" (1998, 479). As a consequence, in Indian terms, the body has to be fabricated because, contrary to European common sense, it is not conceived as something innate or inherited biologically but as a social object belonging to the domain of invention and the artificial.


In short, if we are the body and do the soul, indigenous peoples are the soul and do the body. As Wagner (1981, 98) remarks: "Whereas error and excess are expectable tendencies of an individual self, to be 'corrected' by discipline and education, the soul, as a comparatively 'passive' quality of discernment, can only be 'lost.' And when the soul is lost, the only recourse is to restore it, to 'find' it, rather in the way that a perspective or insight is 'found,' and not to constrain or educate it. A soul is not disciplined." In effect, Tzeltal souls are not susceptible to transformation or domestication; they are a requirement for the process of personal socialization, but they themselves cannot be instructed in cultural conventions. In fact, as we shall see, this idea is actually expressed by the Tzeltal in one of the names they give to the group of souls: jtaleltik. Formed from the verb tal, meaning "to come," its literal meaning is "what is already given to us," that is, the part of us that, unlike the body, is inherited.


Mesoamerican ethnography has nevertheless tended to place the soul in a position similar to the one it occupies in Christian anthropology. From the Christian point of view, the aspect in a person that must be molded and disciplined in order to attain an appropriately moral condition is the soul, which is where ethical substance resides. The "path to perfection" is of the soul, and although the body doubtless intervenes, it does so only to the extent that it enhances or hinders what is par excellence the Christian telos: salvation of the soul. Moreover, in the Christian view, the soul represents the essence of individual identity; the flesh will disappear after death, but the "self" will remain in a vertiginous vision, whether it be hell or everlasting glory.


In Indian terms, however, morality is in the body, and to the extent that we may speak of a main personal identity, this is the body; in normal conditions, the "I" is the body. Perhaps because of its volatile nature and because it is placed within the human body, the Indian soul has tended to be defined in Mesoamerican studies as an "essence" or a "co-essence" to the extent that it is shared with other beings. But it is not difficult to slot the Christian idea into this first sense, the idea of the soul as the essence of the self, defined as what is permanent and necessary in the person, the principle of identity, that is, essence as opposed to appearance (Gutiérrez Estévez 2002). From the Indian viewpoint, however, appearance is the locus of personal identity and morality. One is what one shows to others. The birth of the body is what initiates the process of differentiation, that is, humanization and, ultimately, Indianization. The body gradually takes its shape through nurture and the development of bodily gestus. If the Christian moral imperative is cultivation of the soul, then the indigenous imperative is cultivation of the body.


The Self as European


The internal distinction to the person between the artificial and the innate, between body and soul, translates into a self/other polarity. The indigenous self is permanently subject to this complementary dialectic, which, to take Paul Ricoeur's (1990) formula, may be expressed as the tension between the self as oneself and the self as "other." This internal dialectic has two major implications for the way the Tzeltal think of the person, which represent the main aspects of the argument of this book.


In the first place, if, as I have suggested, an Indian soul is an "other," what sort of "other" is it? Basically, it is that of a European. It is true that souls form a heterogeneous collection of beings, like animals of all species and atmospheric and other phenomena. We should focus, however, on the fact that in reality we are not dealing with these beings as such, but with their "other" sacred side. A soul that is a jaguar is not an ordinary jaguar but the ch'ul version of this animal, its reverse. And it is precisely this other side of existence that is characterized by having a European culture. To the extent that they are found in the realm of the sacred, these animals that are Indian souls form collectivities with European characteristics in which members behave like Europeans—in a similar vein to what happens to the Indians when they show their "other side" (for example, when they get drunk) and adopt European or Mexican attitudes. There are cases of certain souls, such as those of Catholic priests or schoolteachers, for which European identity is very evident; they are European figures both in a physical and qualitative sense. However, as we shall see, this happens with both the ant and the jaguar, lightning bolts and rainbows, sheep and mermaids.


In other words, Indian/European polarity is the privileged figure of difference. Animals, spirits, the dead, and other forms of "otherness" that make up the array of Indian souls are subsumed in a more fundamental plane of difference related to interethnic relations. What is more, the distinction between body and souls reproduces the contrast between the Indian and the European: if the body, which is outermost, public, and ordinary, is culturally Amerindian, the hearts (and souls), which are its antithesis, are distinguished by their European qualities.


At this point, I should specify that by "European" I am translating the Tzeltal term kaxlan. In all probability, it is a loan word from the Nahuatl castilian (Castilian), the term by which the Nahua named the Spaniards in the sixteenth century. Nowadays, both in Tzeltal and in other Mayan languages, kaxlan has a wide semantic range that describes the Spanish-speaking population in the Indian regions and, in more general terms, Mexicans, Guatemalans, and people of European origin, as well as products considered to be exotic, such as plants, livestock, and objects of urban or industrial origin. It also means "strength" as understood by brute force or uncontrolled sentiments. Thus, kaxlan may be summarized in the abstract as "stranger" or "non-Indian." The stranger is the European, and the European is, par excellence, the "other."3


Returning to our argument, the second implication of this dialectic within the person is that if the Indians have the European inside them, they also contain the history of their relationship with Europeans. The fragments of the sacred state that, as a consequence of the folding of birth, are internalized in the heart, not only have a European character but also reproduce the Indian colonial past. As we shall see, included among Indian souls are Catholic priests, scribes of the Crown of Castile, schoolteachers, Mexican cattle ranchers, metalic instruments, goats, sheep, and chickens, as well as other beings pertaining to the Old World. The Indian heart contains, all in the form of souls, the history of the relationship between Indians and Europeans from the beginning of the Spanish Conquest to the present. In reality, we could imagine Tzeltal souls not so much as "beings" in themselves but as events, experiences, institutional processes, financial practices, categorical definitions of reality. They are rather like a representation of the power relations of European origin to which the indigenous people were once subjected—relations that, in the form of ghosts now, give no peace to Indian bodies.


The Tzeltal carry their history inside them, and this is surely at its most evident in the Indian experience of illness. To a large extent, illness is a consequence of the European past, and shamanic treatment of the same essentially consists of working with history. In the shamanic songs of healing rituals, the European world is omnipresent. The spirits that inflict illness or steal one of the souls are also Indian souls: Dominican friars singing morbid liturgical songs, Jesuits uttering lethal sermons, the king's scribes noting down the names of their Indian victims, and so on. It is not just the diseases that are closely associated with the European past and culture, but the shaman, too, as well as his medicinal substances and supernatural helpers. Each time an Indian patient is subjected to a shamanic healing ritual, he actively gets involved in an exercise in historical memory.


This quality, whereby souls are able to function as social memory internalized in the self, seems to me to be a good example of the Indian inclination to express in the language of the body and the person those narratives that, like History, have an external character, so to speak, in the Western tradition. From this point of view, an ethnography of Tzeltal souls should also be a study on native historicity.


It is well known that this field has attracted much attention over the last few decades, partly as a result of the development of "postcolonial studies." In these, there has been an attempt to both redefine the idea of writing and at the same time blur the frontiers between this and the oral tradition, giving priority to the study of nonwritten forms of social memory in an effort to counteract the conventional perspective that was obscuring the very essence of Indian history. In general terms, this has focused on what we might call the relatively "objective" aspects of history—objective in the sense that they are outside the person: oral narrative, public ritual, sacred geography, and so on. However, consideration of the past as subjectivization, as the past incorporated in the self (as what is properly "memory"), is an avenue that has not yet been fully explored.


It is very likely that this subjectivization of the past is the most characteristic indigenous way of recording and examining history, that is, the past and present of their relationship with the European world. Viveiros de Castro (2002b) observes that if Western modernity favors an objectivist type of epistemology, in which knowing is the equivalent of objectivizing (or de-subjectivizing), then the ideal in Amerindian knowledge, especially if this is shamanistic, consists of exactly the opposite. Knowing is based on subjectivizing, converting a "something" into a "somebody," because this is what makes it possible to adopt the point of view of that which has to be known. This is precisely what Tzeltal memory consists of: personifying the history of relations with the European world. If the forces of colonial and contemporary society in Chiapas are to be comprehended and handled, they must first be subjectivized into a "somebody" from whom a point of view can be adopted. Those "somebodies" are the souls.




The book is divided into nine chapters, including this introduction and a conclusion. Chapter 2 is a description of the Tzeltal soul entities and forms the basis of the book. It is predominantly ethnographic in character, and in it I attempt to keep my interpretations to a minimum. Although I rarely cite individual names and only occasionally transcribe comments from conversations, in numerous instances in this chapter I have endeavored to reflect the concrete way things about the souls are said.


Chapter 3 is in some ways an extension of the preceding one, although with a distinct emphasis. My interest here is in the locations, circumstances, and favorable contexts in which knowledge of souls is developed, including the domestic sphere, interpretation of dreams, the subject of gossip, and the scrutiny of personal details in which signs of a specific soul's presence are sought according to how they manifest in the body and the person's character. (The other major area where knowledge of souls is elaborated upon—shamanic rituals and healing chants—is addressed in Chapter 8.)


The subsequent chapters are, generally speaking, of a more interpretative character. Chapter 4 explores the distinction between the body as the indigenous pole of the person and the soul as the pole of European culture, an antithesis that finds particularly strong expression in the dual notion of face and heart. Among other aspects, it deals with how the ch'iibal, the mountain of souls, is represented as a modern Mexican or European city where the Indians live a bourgeois lifestyle, and how the autonomy of the souls associated with the loss of bodily control—with drunkenness, for example—leads to the adoption of European ways of behavior.


Chapter 5 aims to show how the field of beliefs that revolves around souls constitutes a broad means of recording and passing on the historical experience associated with European domination. In it, I attempt to make visible the connections between certain types of souls and the history of relations between Indians and Europeans in the Chiapas highlands, and to highlight the possible reasons why set events, institutions, and forces have become incarnate in the soul repertoire of the Tzeltal.


Chapter 6 is largely concerned with narrative and public festivals in Cancuc. Here I show that, on the one hand, oral narrative is somewhat underdeveloped, and on the other hand, public ritual, although very elaborate, holds little significance for the Tzeltal. This circumstance is linked to the native attitude of silence with regard to two areas (narrative and public ritual) historically considered essential by the colonial Spanish authorities in their policy of Christianization.


Chapter 7 examines the nature of the saints found inside the church in Cancuc. What kind of beings are they? My argument is that the saints, like any other spirit that appears in the ordinary world, are only partially folded, in such a way that they show, again partially, what for human beings is hidden in the heart—in other words, souls. Examining the saints therefore makes it possible to recognize souls (and, more generally, the sacred) in the way they go around in the ordinary state.


Historical awareness and experience of illness are intimately connected spheres in Tzeltal. In some respects, shamanic treatment of illness produces reasoning power about history: long-term memory—that which exceeds the individual memory of those who were witnesses to events, and that which fundamentally concerns the historical relations between natives and Europeans—is stored and functions in the healing chants that the shamans recite in the presence of patients during therapeutic rituals. Chapter 8 presents one of these healing texts, preceded by a description of the ceremony in which it was delivered, and followed by a commentary on the text. My intention here is that the reading of a healing text will shed light on the apparent correlation between illness, experience of alterity, and historical awareness.


Conversations about Souls


At the outset of my research, the issue of "souls" was not among my main concerns. I had decided to study indigenous religion, so in those early stages I devoted all my attention to public ceremonies and formal narratives. But after the first months of fieldwork, as I listened to conversations about sundry events, details, and fragments regarding various incidents that seemed to have some bearing on views of the soul, I began to develop a true curiosity about these, which in subsequent months grew into an obsession.


I began living in Cancuc one December, which marks the beginning of the period in the annual cycle in which the majority of public ritual activity in the principal hamlets is concentrated. Between preparations and performances from then until May, the most important public festivals in the ceremonial calendar—Christmas, Carnival, Easter, San Juan (the patron saint of Cancuc)—take place. Meanwhile, markets become the bustling stage for all kinds of exchanges that bring together the inhabitants of the different hamlets belonging to the municipio. Afterward, from April to August, time is mainly filled with agricultural tasks requiring the most effort: first, the slash and burn of any vegetation in the fields, sowing before the arrival of the annual rains in May, then two or three sessions of weeding together with other necessary tasks until the end of August, when the corn is ready for harvest in the valley's temperate strips of land. Around the month of September, there is a dramatic reduction in the workload, and public rituals in the center of town come to a virtual standstill. The days become shorter as the brief, heavy downpours of summer storms give way to more regular and persistent rainfall; rivers and streams swell in volume, and paths turn into mud-filled channels. Families withdraw into their homes, sprinkled over the hilly landscape, and turn inward to tasks of home maintenance. It is also the time when relatives from other villages take advantage of the lull in activity to visit for a few days.


It is during this period of domestic introversion, from September to December, that the Tzeltal pay most attention to their souls. The most prestigious shamans accumulate the most work at this time. They are the specialists who deal with the three main categories of medical work: pik'abal, diagnostician; poxtaywanej, one learned in medicines; and ch'abajom, recoverer of souls. In August, I began to work as an informal apprentice to one of these specialists, Xun P'in. Once I could understand the Tzeltal language and speak it to an acceptable degree, I was able to attend the healing ceremonies, record the songs, make some attempt to comprehend the distinctions made in the course of diagnoses, and recognize both what part of the body was damaged and the source of the affliction. What I was learning in the healing sessions, along with other details I heard in other contexts, rapidly began to reveal to me a dense cultural domain.


But perhaps there was a deeper reason for the gradual shift in my ethnographic focus. I was initially interested in public ceremonies and formal narrative. However, from the very start, I also intended to lend an ear to the opinions of the people about their own cultural practices, instead of striving to work out a personal interpretation or formalization of them. Little by little, I became increasingly convinced that neither public ceremonies nor narrative—in other words, public ritual and mythology—were activities that the Tzeltal had much to say about; nor, I believe, do these activities have in themselves much to tell us about the Tzeltal.


As for the former, the fiestas or religious festivals, it is easy to obtain detailed descriptions of them, above all from people who have participated in them as performers, as well as from certain ritual specialists who monitor the performances. In fact, I ended up with several notebooks and many cassettes recording the most meticulous descriptions of movements, episodes, ritual objects, offices, and so forth, dictated to me by specialists. As a matter of fact, for reasons that will later become clearer, the Tzeltal take it for granted that the kaxlanetik , the "Castilians," have an intrinsic interest in these fiestas. But as ethnographers who have worked among the communities of the region know, the fiestas do not inspire any interpretation or exegesis of their meaning on the part of the Indian participants. The answer to many of my questions about the meaning of ceremonies was almost always of the same tenor: ja' yuun te jijch jajchem te nail me'el mamaletike, "because that is how the first mothers-fathers began doing it," or more succinctly, ma jna'tik, melel ja te kostúmbre, "we don't know, it's the custom." We shall have to return later to that last word, which, although it is obviously a loan word from Spanish (costumbre) suggesting the notion of "custom" or "tradition," is used to convey an association with the Castilian world.


With respect to conventional types of narrative (tales, myths, legends, etc.), the opposite occurs, but the consequences are similar. Generally speaking, few tales are known. From time to time, a young person would accompany me on a visit to some elderly person who might live in some secluded place and perhaps know "stories" (because of his age, as well as his isolation, for story-telling, tale-telling, entails little social prestige). On these occasions, I always had to bring a gift, most often in the form of liquor, because that is the only way "the embarrassment of telling stories is lost." Yet, however interesting the interviews might be from other points of view, it was fairly common for us to leave without having heard a single tale. The Tzeltal also have the overall impression that they know few narratives. In virtually all cases, they give a similar reason: "we are only concerned with day-to-day activities, with work, with survival; furthermore, unlike the 'Castilians,' we have no writing system and have been unable to record anything that happened in the past."


Instead, the replies to many of my queries referred vaguely but insistently to soul elements and the world surrounding them: medical knowledge, curing rituals, dream interpretation, exploration of personal character, testing for physical peculiarities, and other cultural techniques that will make their appearance in what follows. Often the answer to my questions took the form of the recitation of a fragment of a shamanic healing prayer or the recounting of some happening (an event that happened to someone or to oneself) in which "something" abnormal played a role.


Indeed, souls absorb a good deal of the Tzeltal curiosity, restlessness, and reflection. Undoubtedly, there are many social and personal relationships at stake whose threads openly or surreptitiously interweave this knowledge, making it a subject of intense attraction. Yet for that very reason, it is not an easy topic to address. However sure-footedly the shamans may be believed to operate within it, it does not constitute a strictly esoteric body of knowledge. Rather, it is a sort of public secret, shared collectively; everyone knows it, and knows that everyone else knows it, yet they all must act as if they do not. The utmost discretion is required when tackling these matters, and it must be done indirectly and implicitly. In fact, whenever there is talk of souls, the entire rich repertoire of grammatical particles and rhetorical resources with which the Tzeltal language can soften a statement's force or a question's violence springs into action. This may be characterized as a vagueness that is enhanced by Tzeltal's polysemousness and further complicated by the natives' regular use of euphemisms to denote the different soul elements.


There is, of course, no canonical body of Tzeltal knowledge that defines what a soul is. For this reason, my inquiry lacked any precise method. As the kind of ethnographic testimony that I adduce in these pages will show, what I managed to learn is the result of many informal chats that normally took place under perfectly ordinary circumstances, preserving an attitude, so to speak, of "going with the flow." I also believe that the nature of knowledge about souls has tinged the overall tone of this study, which explains why its scheme is not wholly articulated and why not all the data are developed in narrative form. Akin to what the Tzeltal find interesting in a person, what I do is not so much supply a finished profile (an individual), but to underscore pieces that may be compared with other fragments and to sketch points of agreement and analogy.


Nevertheless, I was able to pursue a more systematic exploration of the field of soul elements by means of numerous recorded one-on-one talks with three people: Xun P'in, Alonso K'aal, and Lorenzo Lot. On the one hand, this procedure not only gave me deeper insight but also allowed me to identify what might be called a lowest common denominator of basic concepts. This served as a kind of sieve for capturing and sifting through the bits of data that I had been recording and that otherwise would have finally come to rest in that limbo of ethnographic data with no fixed abode. This is the minimal framework I abide by in the following chapter on ethnographic description.


On the other hand, as I was a stranger to the network of local interpersonal relations and ignorant of the proper way to broach these matters, it seemed permissible for us to discuss souls more freely. As it happens, the three individuals mentioned above were not informants in the conventional sense of the term. The interviews—usually conducted in their homes, in private, and with a lot of time on our hands—became rare opportunities for us to talk, to open up, to ponder a cultural domain about which they felt genuine curiosity, but which they would have been unable to deal with explicitly under any other circumstances.


The outcome was a series of single-subject conversations that created, to a certain extent, a novel result. There is no need, then, to insist that the elemental scheme that I follow in the next chapter does not exist as such. It is, rather, a virtual script, a compromise solution between, on the one hand, my need to find sufficiently firm ground to maintain a level of understanding, and on the other, what the three people with whom I sustained discussions were prepared, to differing degrees, to sacrifice for the sake of simplification. Without their highly valuable collaboration, I would have been unable to carry out an ethnography of souls; needless to say, I am fully responsible for the resulting ethnography.


Xun P'in, the shaman (ch'abajom) I worked with, was over fifty years old. As a young man, he had lived for a year or two in an Instituto Nacional Indigenista boarding school for Indians in San Cristóbal de las Casas (the main Spanish-speaking city in the Chiapas highlands region, sixty kilometers from Cancuc as the crow flies, and about a nine-hour walk from there), where he picked up a smattering of Spanish and also managed, apparently, to learn to read. He remembered having once been taken to Salina Cruz, in the neighboring state of Oaxaca, so that he might see the ocean, although he was most impressed by the railway there. Once back in Cancuc, he held some political post until, due to a bout of factional infighting that he preferred not to discuss (at one point, he was even jailed in Ocosingo), he had to renounce his political aspirations. Some years later, and after several crises, including separations from two wives, he had a dream during the illness of one of his daughters and thus discovered that his true vocation was to be a shaman. His former contact with the Mexican world imbued him with an aura of eccentricity (further enhanced by my close collaboration with him) that he himself cultivated with care, for example, in the way he dressed: he wore the traditional Indian knee-length white cotton tunic, embroidered with red wool yarn, but on top he used to sport a threadbare waist-length jacket; also, unlike most men in the community, he favored a mustache and beard. He was a taciturn character, and spent almost all his time in healing activities, for which his patients payed him with corn, money, or labor. He died in 1997.


The second person is Alonso K'aal. He must have been somewhere between forty or fifty, and he possessed the title kawilto, which is to say, "cabildo" or head elder, a rank reserved for those who have carried out a certain series of religious offices, above all that of mayordomo to one of the saints in Cancuc's church, and other posts of a political-ceremonial character. Like Xun P'in, he, too, was "master of his house," for, in accordance with the ideal norm, he lived in the same residential complex as his male offspring, their wives, and children. This high status allowed him to talk to me about souls without too much fear. He, too, had grown, although with some difficulty, a bit of a mustache and beard. Over his white cotton tunic, he sometimes wore a long black woollen jacket, a garment regarded as an exclusive prerogative of principales (community leaders) like himself. He had never been to school and, when sober, did not speak a word of Spanish.


The third person was Lorenzo Lot. Roughly thirty years old, he lived in his parents' home with his wife and four children. For all practical purposes, he had never occupied any post, apart from a minor role in the celebration of Carnival, and another of quite a different kind in a new honey producers' cooperative. At that time, he was mulling over the possibility of affiliating himself with the Catholics or with one of the evangelical groups that had begun to spring up in the Cancuc Valley some decades earlier. That would have saved him from having to continue to take part in the fiestas around Carnival and the collateral liquor intoxication. He had completed his primary school studies in Cancuc and spoke and wrote a little Spanish. From my very first months in Cancuc, he was my Tzeltal teacher in exchange for writing lessons in Spanish. Unlike P'in or K'aal, Lorenzo Lot had scarcely any authority with which to speak of souls. I remember him glancing nervously around us from time to time, afraid that someone or something might be listening to our conversation; yet he was one of the people with whom I could speak most freely about that world, due in part to the fact that, from early on, I felt comfortable when raising my personal doubts and conjectures over method with him. One of his major contributions may be considered the very form in which our conversations developed.


For the truth is that conventional forms of Tzeltal conversation are among the principal impediments for an outsider to understand the domain of souls and self. Rarely are such opinions expressed in terms of opposition, and there is no such thing as a discussion constructed on the basis of linked, mutually opposing arguments—nothing that bears any resemblance to any kind of dialectic argument. Typically, it is the person with the most authority who does most of the speaking and answering, while the others present largely take turns backing up the opinion expressed, at most adding a finishing touch or some interesting detail, even though the corroborating evidence occasionally seems to be saying quite the contrary. Much to my despair, my questions almost never received a straight answer, a difficulty that also plagued my conversations with Xun P'in and Alonso K'aal. More often than not, I was regaled with a long account of some event, described in minute detail, at the end of which I was left baffled as to its relevance to my initial question. (It turns out these stories of events usually do contain small details that operate as clues; but for anyone with difficulties in understanding Tzeltal and ignorant of its idiomatic resources, finding them is like looking for a needle in a haystack.) In contrast, Lorenzo Lot had learned to sustain an "accumulative conversation," and he always made a great effort to elaborate on what he was explaining to me.


The Town of Cancuc


Cancuc is a municipality or local administrative district with roughly 22,000 inhabitants (in 1990), all speakers of Tzeltal Mayan, a language that at present has around 350,000 speakers throughout the region. It is, consequently, an Indian community (there is no Spanish-speaking population) and exceedingly conservative culturally, even by Chiapas highlands standards. Its territory crosses a tract of a long, deep valley, running east-west, and the slopes of another valley that runs parallel. It is a cramped area, 18 km by 12 km, with staggering differences in altitude, ranging from the strip of "cold land," covered with pines and oaks, that rises to 2,200 meters, to the valley bottom and the Tanateel River at 600 meters, where, despite intensive deforestation, some patches of tropical forest still remain.


San Juan Cancuc is the local administrative center for the municipality and a distant heir to the "Christian" township where the Cancuqueros' forebears were congregated by Dominican friars in the sixteenth century. Founded on a narrow promontory 1,500 meters high that offers a view of the whole valley, it is composed of a square framed by the church, the governmental town hall opposite the church, and other less important administrative buildings. Beyond this plaza, and scattered very thinly, are the homes of the township's five thousand inhabitants, built on artificial terraces where the ground slopes. The remainder of Cancuc's population inhabits thirty-two hamlets that emigrants from San Juan have gradually established since 1918; the farthest one is a nine-hour walk from the center.




Crop growing is the chief occupation. Apart from the small number of bilingual teachers who receive a Mexican government salary, all families grow corn and beans using the traditional slash-and-burn system of clearing and sowing a plot of brushland. They must live for the whole year off the harvest of corn and beans, which are prepared and combined in a multitude of ways to form the staple of their diet. As a complement, different kinds of chili peppers are grown on the riverbanks, along with a little sugarcane to produce cooked sugar, and some cotton to weave clothing on the backstrap loom. Around the houses there are hens and turkeys, an occasional pig, and fruit trees. Coffee has been grown for roughly three decades with the help of Mexican government agencies, which provide the young plants and some technical assistance, and buy up the harvest. Some families also produce honey for sale.


The soil of Cancuc is fertile, especially in the milder zones of the valley, where they manage to obtain two corn harvests a year, which has meant that since the 1930s, far fewer Cancuqueros have found themselves forced to work as laborers on the estates of the commercial plantations along the Pacific Coast or in the lowlands to the north of the state, unlike Indians from neighboring municipalities with poorer lands. Even now, when the sharp rise in population is making itself felt with a vengeance on available lands—mostly because the forest cleared for sowing and fertilized by the ashes resulting from burning brush does not have adequate fallow time to replenish itself—the Cancuqueros prefer to move their families to live in the lands farther north rather than to seek work as seasonal laborers on fincas and plantations.


The other essentials are bought in the open-air market, held once a week in a field where goods are laid out on the ground. These include handmade items sold by Indians from other nearby Tzeltal and Tzotzil towns, such as pottery from Tenango, musical instruments from Mitontic, ladies' belts from Tenejapa; industrial products sold by Indians from Oxchuc (through which a highway passes); or salted fish and vegetables sold by Spanish-speaking peddlers, who buy poultry, chili, and occasionally coffee. Also sold there are skeins of cotton, colored thread, and woolen yarn to decorate clothing; needles; machetes and other metal tools; flashlights; batteries; bottled drinks; hand cream; and aspirin and other medicine, mostly vitamins.




The Cancuc kinship system is of the Omaha type (Guiteras 1947; Siverts 1969; Haehl 1980). The Cancuqueros are divided into three major exogamous patrilineal lineages, or "phratries"—named ijk'a, chejeb, and chijk'—which are subdivided into ninety-four "clans": 31 ijk'a, 30 chejeb, and 33 chijk'. Each clan has a name, which is the surname of each Indian in that clan, for example, wol, oxom, lul, p'in, etc. The Tzeltal word that denotes the lineage unit in the abstract is chajp-pal-chajp, "groups that form a bunch" (and its members are called chajpomal or stijinalpal), and the clan unit is simply known as chajp, "group" (and its members as tajunab, "uncles," who enjoy an equal reciprocal relationship among themselves). These are not corporate units. Neither lineage nor clan is limited by territory: each hamlet has members of all three lineages, and the clans are all represented in the municipal center; however, in the smallest hamlets, there may only be members of five or ten clans. They do not own land in common or bear mutual obligations, nor do the members of each group even meet formally or informally under any pretext. In contrast, greeting each other properly is of extraordinary importance, even if merely bumping into someone on a path, when the speaker must state which lineage he belongs to.


Lesser units include the jun te kuil-mamil ("one single grandmother-grandfather"), or "sublineages," a group of agnates who descend from one acknowledged "grandfather" (mam), generally two or three generations back. The various domestic groups that compose a lineage (in reality, its male heads) do not have to be physically close to each other or even in the same hamlet, but they do share the same lands or group of allotments (jun lum k'inaltik) that have been inherited from the "grandfather." Most of the time, land is not divided up, so each domestic group works it according to its needs and capacity—an arrangement that is a never-ending source of antagonism between heads of family. "Uncles" with the most sons prefer that the land remain undivided, while those with fewer sons would rather it were carved up; and in the case of such a division (the definitive settlement of boundaries can give rise to feuds that can last for generations), the allotment's subsequent sale to any other Cancuquero becomes possible. There are times when a father, getting on in years and unhappy with his offspring's attitude, simply sells the land for money or a continuous supply of corn and beans for the remainder of his life.


On the day One pom, when offerings are made to the dead, most of the members of a kuil mamil gather before the tomb of their common ancestor, where other members of the group may also be buried occasionally, to offer candles and food as tokens of gratitude for the land that has been passed on to them. At this time, the women (though they cannot inherit either land or any other chattel, apart from certain weaving tools) leave their husbands to make offerings alongside their brothers.




The public government of Cancuc is shared between two groups of authorities. The first, a successor in many ways to the political posts of the colonial period and known in Chiapas as "traditional authorities," is a group of about one hundred and twenty-five old men called cabildos or principales who live in the municipal center and the hamlets. The principales choose from among themselves two "senior cabildos" (baj kawilto) to preside over the group for a four-year period. Each of them lives in one of the municipal center's halves, upper and lower, into which an imaginary line crossing the center from east to west divides the territory of Cancuc. The duties of principales are primarily ritual in nature. For example, they conduct the ceremonies of offerings to the Mountain Lords in order to obtain good harvests, or they say prayers to prevent epidemics from breaking out in Cancuc.


Principales also dream. A considerable part of the Sunday meetings that are held beside the market is taken up with long interpretations of the dreams each of them has had during the week, especially the senior cabildos. At one of the sessions I attended, it was necessary to examine what must have been a recurring dream that one of the two senior cabildos had been having for some weeks before, on account of which around fifty principales from the head town and villages assembled together. His dream was about two horses (almost no one had a horse in Cancuc), one of them emaciated, the other very fat. The former was very weak and unable to stand up, while the latter, although strong, went into a sudden decline. Several cabildos, above all the oldest, offered interpretations that the dream had to do with war, sickness, or hunger; by the end of the morning, it was agreed that the lean horse portended a poor harvest of corn in Cancuc, while the fat horse meant that some Cancuqueros would have to leave the community to plant crops elsewhere, and on the way back, they would be held up, robbed of their harvest, and perhaps even killed. The meeting took place in May at a time when the rainy season was late in coming; but also some principales expressed their concern over the fact that certain families were devoting too much time and effort to coffee growing, to the detriment of corn and beans, which they bought from those families that produced a surplus of them. In the end, it was decided to make an especially lavish offering to the soil, for which, later, a house-to-house collection was arranged.


Access to the group of principales—whose terms are for life—is open to those Cancuqueros who have previously held other offices, first of all in the service of one of the saints in the church, and who then have subsequently held one of the following six chakel posts: first alcalde of San Juan, first alcalde of San Lorenzo, second alcalde of San Juan, second alcalde of San Lorenzo, first regidor, and second first regidor. Selected and trained annually by the principales, Cancuqueros generally accept these posts grudgingly (if they are accepted at all) because the duties involved—also of a ceremonial nature—require time and money, not to mention ongoing bodily restraint.


The second group of authorities are the so-called constitutional ones, and since 1989, the year Cancuc regained its municipality status, they are the posts found in any Mexican municipio: municipal president, judge, councilmember, and so forth. These positions are mainly filled by schoolteachers able to speak and write Spanish and therefore in a position to deal with legal paperwork; they also manage the federal budgets allocated to the municipio. As an adjunct to the town hall, there is a local committee of the government party, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), which obtained all available votes in the 1990 elections held in Cancuc, and the Committee of Agrarian Reform, which oversees the demarcation of municipal land and on rare occasions settles disputes over property. Before 1989, Cancuc was considered an agencia municipal of Ocosingo, and official posts were filled in the same way with Spanish-speaking Cancuqueros, called by the rest, today as then, "scribes." Some of them came to accrue great power in Cancuc and were known then as tatil lum, "father of the town," or were simply referred to with the Spanish word cacique. In fact, these Indian caciques made the most of the political backing lent to them by the Mexican federal government in the wake of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, with the probable intention of breaking up the political hegemony of conservative landowners in the highlands region. But these caciques in turn became too powerful, and since the 1960s, the Mexican government has focused on training bilingual Indian schoolteachers, by means of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista (INI), capable of standing their ground before the caciques—a policy that has been successful to date. In 1991, a proposal was made to incorporate the principales into the town hall as an "advisory council."




According to the 1990 General Census of the Nation (Chiapas 1991), the following categories may be distinguished among the population over the age of five:


  • Roman Catholic: 5,218
  • Protestant or evangelical: 3,847
  • Jewish: 16
  • Other: 154
  • None: 7,311
  • Unspecified: 303


Nominally speaking, the Cancuqueros converted to Christianity in the sixteenth century, but after the nineteenth century, when the friars abandoned the place, the Indians ceased celebrating all the sacraments, although they preserved other Christian practices, including public ceremonies. This is the large sector hiding beneath the umbrella category of "None." Catholics and evangelicals came onto the scene as groups in the 1960s and soon experienced rapid growth, which now seems to have come to a halt. Both groups are referred to in Tzeltal as "the ones with religion," while the rest of the population are called "the ones without religion" (mayuk religion).


In addition to the brief descriptions of scientific travelers who passed through the region (following the old Camino Real, or royal road, of the Spanish Crown that once linked Chiapas to the state of Tabasco) at the beginning of the twentieth century, the most valuable account on Cancuc is the ethnographic report produced by Calixta Guiteras after a stay of several weeks in 1944 (Guiteras 1946, 1992). Henning Siverts (1965) also conducted fieldwork in Cancuc for a few days. This relative paucity of fieldwork in Cancuc, in contrast to other neighboring areas in Chiapas, may be attributed in part to a general mistrust of outsiders, particularly foreigners. However, by the time I arrived, toward the end of 1989, opposition to the admittance of foreigners had largely abated. This was due in no small measure to the fact that some months before, on August 17, the recently installed president of Mexico, Salinas de Gortari, had come to Cancuc in a helicopter to restore the municipio status that had been lost in 1922. There, surrounded by Cancuqueros, the president gave a speech on what his Indian policy would be during his six-year term and promised general financial aid for the municipio (because it was "one of those that had been most overlooked in the Republic"), which, by 1992, had translated into the construction of several new buildings and the rebuilding of several existing ones in the center, as well as the laying out of an unpaved road for vehicles.



“Cancuc, the locus of this book, has proved a difficult community to study, but Pedro Pitarch has succeeded where others before him have failed. This volume, a revised version of the book first published in Spanish in 1996, benefits from the author's continuing involvement with that region of Mexico...This is an excellent addition to the literature on the area.”
Journal of the Latin American Studies