Maya spirituality, as practiced in the highlands of western Guatemala, includes a vibrant tradition of ritual typically practiced outdoors, in nature.
Altars, both private and public, indoors and outdoors, play a prominent role in Maya spirituality. They are sites of ritual practice–worship, meditation, and celebration–and places thought to hold special power. Offerings are commonly made at altars. These offerings are made with a reciprocal expectation of receiving. Just as humans are capable of offering the lords of the days, or nawales, things that they cannot otherwise provide for themselves, so do humans expect nature to be bountiful with its food sources and other blessings. It is a kind of gift exchange cycle. But gift in the sense of giving, not as a simple present, because these gifts are actually the very “stuff of life.” Both parties provide each other consistent sustenance, made using a variety of offerings, accompanied with a deep sense of gratitude, and, most essentially, infused with beauty and hope.
Figure 1: Personal altar of a Kaqchikelajq’ij (ritual specialist), Xajaxac.
Photo by author.
|Figure 2: Personal altar of a K’iche’ajq’ij (ritual specialist), Chichicastenango.|
Photo by author.
|Figure 3: Pascual Abaj, Chichicastenango. Photo by author.|
|Figure 4: Altar near a sacred lake, Chicabal. Photo by author.|
|Figure 5: Chutisabal, Momostenango. Photo by author.|
|Figure 6: Cuevas de Candelaria. Photo by author.|
|Figure 7: Tzanjuyu, San Pedro La Laguna. Photo by author.|
|Figure 8: Iglesia Santo Tomás, Chichicastenango. Photo by author.|
|Figure 9: Mural on the house of a K’iche’ajq’ij, Zunil. Photo by author.|
|Figure 10: Sculpture comemorating December 21, 2012, San Juan La Laguna.|
Photo by author.
This impressive sculpture, approximately 10m long by 3m high, is dated to commemorate the end of the 13th b’ak’tun, thought by academics to have been on December 21, 2012.
Figure 11: K’iche’ ajq’ij making offering to a ceremonial fire, Momostenango.
Photo by Dimitris Xygalatas.
|Figure 12: K’iche’ajq’ij beautifully organizing offerings to be burned|
in the ceremonial fire, Momostenango. Photo by Dimitris Xygalatas.
|Figure 13: Ceremonia Maya, Antigua. Photo by Mark Huising.|
The ceremonia Maya is known by a few names throughout the highlands, the Spanish ceremonia or ceremonia Maya being the most common. Other names include xukuleem and mejeleem, both referring to kneeling or being on one’s knees, and kotz’i’j, the most common word for flower and “adornment” or, one might say, “pageantry.”
|Figure 14: Altar in front of a Catholic church, Sololá. Photo by author.|
Catholicism has often had a chummy relationship with Maya ritual, at other times not so much. This congregation of ajq’ijab’ (pl.) was able to celebrate a ceremonia Maya at a special altar, made just for the purpose, in the courtyard of a Catholic church.
|Figure 15: Altar at archaeological site, Q’umarkaj. Photo by author.|
Ceremonies are celebrated in places thought to be holy for a variety of reasons. Archaeological sites, ruins of the ancestors, are uniformly taken to be very holy places. Traditionalists visit these places for rituals and other celebrations.
|Figure 16: Music and, in this case, dance are common at rituals|
San Pedro La Laguna. Photo by author.
|Figure 17: A nice arrangement of offerings for the fire, San Juan La Laguna.|
Photo by author.
|Figure 18: Materials for a ceremonia Maya, San Juan La Laguna.|
Photo by author.
Myriad ingredients go into the ceremonia Maya (fire ceremony). Typically, practitioners offer more elaborate, and expensive, offerings in proportion to the importance of the request. Above are pine pitch brickets, known as ensartes, compressed into aromatic disks and stored as cylinders in maize husks, as another form of food.
|Figure 19: Candelaria, Tecpán. Photo by author.|
In every major town (~3000 or more people) between Guatemala City and the Pacific Coast, one can find a candelaria. While this is translatable as a candlery, these stores specialize in distributing the variety of goods and offerings required for Maya ritual.
|Figure 20: Candelaria, Momostenango. Photo by author.|
|Figure 21: Aguas floridas and other sweet-smelling items are requirements|
for the ceremonia Maya, San Pedro La Laguna. Photo by author.
|Figure 22: Balls of aromatic pine pitch,San Pedro La Laguna. Photo by author.|
The pine pitch material used to make the ensartes mentioned above comes in a variety of other sizes and shapes.
|Figure 23: Multicolored candles,San Pedro La Laguna. Photo by author.|
Though it is probably not a very old practice–such colorful candles only becoming available in the last few generations–the use of color has long been a central feature of highland Maya ritual. Colorful representations were probably accomplished through the use of flowers in the past rather than as seen today, as a mound of multicolored candles. Candles, though, have long been essential for private and public worship, just as in Catholicism. The four colors above are central for Maya cosmology: red represents east, black west, white north, and yellow south. Each of these directions has 5 of the 20 nawales specifically associated with it. Proper orientation is important in a number of rituals.
|Figure 24: Feria, Chichicastenango. Photo by author.|
Bailes and convites, great dances and masked processions, are imporant occasions in Maya communities throughout Guatemala. A number of tales, both mythological and historical, are enacted each year through these celebrations.
|Figure 25: Costumes for Baile del Torito, Chichicastenango. Photo by author.|
|Figure 26: Maximón, Santiago Atitlán. Photo by Mark Huising.|
|Figure 27: Procession of Rilaj Mam, Santiago Atitlán. Photo by author.|
|Figure 28: Rilaj Mam, in court, at the end of his procession,|
Santiago Atitlán. Photo by author.
|Figure 29: Maximón, San Jorge La Laguna. Photo by author.|
|Figure 30: Maximón, San Jorge La Laguna. Photo by author.|
|Figure 31: Aj Iq’,Chichicastenango. Photo by author.|
Aj Iq’, kab’awil, and other special stones are typical items on an ajq’ij‘s altar. For a post on this blog about the role of stones in Maya spirituality, click here.
|Figure 32: Row of tz’ite’ trees serving as fence, Santa Lucía Utatlán.|
Photo by author.
Tz’ite’ (Erythrina corallodendron) is a squat and hardy tree, though its wood is not especially good for construction or combustion. Many legends and tales convey tz’ite’ to be a communicative and powerful plant. Tz’ite’ is frequently thought to be linked to Rilaj Mam, especially in Santiago Atitlán.
|Figure 33: Tz’ite’ flowers. Photo by author.|
The Spanish name for tz’ite’ is palo de pito, or “whistle tree.” Its bright red flowers can be manipulated to serve as loud whistles.
|Figure 34: Tz’ite’ seed pod. Photo by author.|
Tz’ite’ produces seed pods full of bright red seeds that look remarkably like pinto beans, except for their bright hue.
|Figure 35: Tz’ite’ and other items of la vara. Photo by author.|
Tz’ite’ are the chief components in the ajq’ij‘s holy bundle, known as la vara (Spanish for staff or rod), or simply tz’ite’. These bundles typically contain a symbolically important number of seeds, quartz crystals, and a variety of odds and ends, like small bones, minerals, archaeological items, and anything the ajq’ij encounters that s/he feels was particularly meant for la vara. The ajq’ij is awarded la vara, very much like a diploma, upon completion of a lengthy apprenticeship and initiation; often this is organized to be a 260-day period.
|Figure 36: K’iche’ajq’ij consulting her tz’ite’. Photo by Dimitris Xygalatas.|
Many ajq’ijab’ have the ability and skill to consult tz’ite’ for divinatory purposes. Different techniques for consulting tz’ite’ are employed across the highlands. Clients come to these diviners with questions about their, typically grave, concerns. This divination session is most commonly known using the Spanish term consulta; seemingly, the same kind of professional consultation one might have with a doctor or a lawyer. The information, revelation, solution, or decision that emerges from one of these consultas can be enlightening, surprising, inspiring, cut-and-dried, nerve-wracking, conflict-generating, but, more than anything, opens a path where there had been none before.