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The Role of Stones in Maya Spirituality

Thomas Hart presents an excerpt from The Ancient Spirituality of the Modern Maya regarding the role of stones in Maya spirituality. Below he introduces the excerpt, contextualizing these practices within traditional forms of spirituality in the western highlands of Guatemala. In his book, Hart draws from interviews with ritual specialists and other practitioners he has conducted since 1993.

MLA citation format:
Hart, Thomas
“The Role of Stones in Maya Spirituality.”
Web blog post. Material Religions. 6 May 2015. Web. [date of access]

When I worked in an indigenous Maya K’iche’ [i] village, market day was the day to process papers or requests with the municipal mayor and his corporation. After waiting in line, I was ushered in to the salon, where a dozen or so members of the local government council sat at a single long line. The protocol was to walk from one end to the other, shaking hands with each, before sitting and stating my business.
The table was bare of papers, documents or files. The only things on it were the varas, the staffs of office of each member of the council; in front of the varas, there was always a lit candle: without it, the staffs would be blind and couldn’t advise the politicians on their reply to requests.

Contemporary spirituality of the indigenous Maya in Guatemala is a complex landscape, filled with competing visions and practices. Here I will use the term “faith”, well aware that “spirituality” is now a much more common term, many practitioners having worked for the last few years to distinguish their belief and practice from the institutionalization and the codification of belief and creed of Christian Churches. They have argued for a more direct experience of the sacred, and a more universal one, than that limited to membership of a Church. Indeed, it’s common for Catholics, and to a lesser extent Protestants, to request divinations or Maya ceremonies when they feel they have the need, without feeling they lose their basic identity as Christians.

Here, though, we’re discussing material manifestations of the faith: and in this context, the burdens of “spirituality” to denote the unseen, the intangible, might prove difficult, so we’ll stick, for now, with “faith”.

The lack of a formal document outlining the tenets of faith of Maya Religion has been suggested by some as a weakness. To my mind, it’s quite the reverse. Some outsiders want to see a doctrine, or a Ten Commandments, or a catechism to help them define the beliefs and the practices of Maya Traditionalists; anything else, they feel, means that anyone can do, or think, as they please. But this is an oral culture, not a written one; and the role of direct revelation with the “cosmos” – the stars, the wind, the cries of animals; or in dreams, or the sparks of the ceremonial fire – is an important element which would be removed by such a codification. Moreover, there’s a remarkable degree of agreement among its practitioners regarding values and regarding a description of the world.

One thing on which everyone would agree is the complementary nature of the world. People can generate endless lists of how this works: female and male; day and night; sun and moon; young and old; heaven and earth. The ideal state of complements is balance, harmony, equilibrium. In illness, for instance, a “hot” illness such as fever, should be treated with “cold” medicine or food, and vice versa. Following delivery, a new mother has lost blood (which provides heat), and has become too cold; she’s given steam baths regularly to re-heat her body, and thus regain her equilibrium.

And one of the most fundamental sets of complements is the idea that body and soul, the material and the spiritual, the tangible and the intangible, need and complement each other. For the Maya, every physical object has soul, and every soul roots itself in something physical. The implication is that the world is alive: every tree, every hill, every road, every chair has soul.

From this comes another principal, that of respect. Things should be respected for their fundamental nature, for what they are: if a table is for eating meals, then it’s not for putting your feet up on. Pots and pans have their work to do, but they cry and scream if a pot’s left on the fire and no longer has water in it to boil. Such offenses are “awas” in the K’iche’ language, translated as “taboo,” or more commonly as “sin.”

There can, then, be spiritual consequences of mistreating physical objects: someone stepping over a woman’s discarded belt can lead to the woman’s next baby being strangled by the umbilical cord. One man tells me how a child picked up one of his sacred stones on his altar without asking its permission, and the next day the child broke his wrist.

But it’s not just negative effects that are noticed. Babies and small children often wear round their wrist or within the clothing a small bag of seeds, or some other protective charm against mal de ojo (“eye illness”, rather than “evil eye” which implies malevolent intent.) The same form of protection may be offered by hanging garlic over the door of a shop or a home.

The physical can also help to manifest and allow us to recognize the spirit of the material object. Faces and forms can be distinguished in stones, helping us recognize their “work,” or which kind of spirit is embedded within them.

The following excerpt is from my 2008 book, The Ancient Spirituality of the Modern Maya. In the excerpt, stones are discussed as an essential part of this tradition.

 

 

  • Which person sins gravely before God for breaking the adoration of God?
  • —That idolatrous person who adores the hill; the tree, the stone: with incense, with candle and with the burning of the blood of animals over the incense.
  • Which other person sins gravely before God for breaking the adoration of God?
  • —That person who believes in a happy outcome by keeping and adoring some painted paper, or powders, or some stone.
  • Why does that evil observer and evil adorer of painted paper, of powders or stone sin gravely before God?
  • —By his instinctive belief of the devil, great deceiver.

“On Adoration,” Catechism of the Christian Doctrine in the Quiché and Cakchiquel Tongue for the Use of Parish Curates of the Towns of Guatemala, 1680

Stones have souls too. “God sleeps in stone,” a Mayan priest once told me. “Hit two stones together and watch the spark that flies out.” There is a respect and reverence for stone in Mayan communities; as links to the past, both symbolic and actual, stones may contain secrets. Many households have a little coffer of ancient stones—pieces of actual stone, pottery shards, figures—dug from the earth, picked up by the roadside, handed down from generation to generation as the family’s suerte. [ii] These stones, called Aj Iq’ [iii] or Cabawil in K’iche’, can also be “delicate” and should be given their candle, or perhaps a drink of alcohol, on the day Tz’ikin (Bird), the day in the sacred calendar that represents money, the family fortune. If not given their present, these same stones, and their nawales [iv], can cause illness and accidents.

Tz’ikin is represented by a fortune that appears in the path of those who have the good luck to find it. It can appear as some little sheep, but golden, golden; or sometimes with deer or a cow or a bull, but always little animals. These fortunes appear in the road. They appear, but who knows how; nobody has made them out of gold, they just appear.

Because they say there was the case of my great-grandfather. He, like a lot of people, has sheep, so one day he went to see to them. He got up early in the morning, and when he was walking along the road, he saw two pieces of tamalitos [v] lying there. And he said, “Hey, what’s with these tamalitos? I’m going to take them for my dogs.” And he picked them up and put them in his bag.

He arrived home, and he went to say to his wife, “Ah, look, I picked up two tamalitos, do you want to give them to the dog or to the pig?” And he put his hand down into his bag and took them out, and now they were gold—they weren’t tamalitos, it was suerte.

And now there they are, but they won’t part with them, the children won’t sell them. Some relatives have gone there, but they won’t give them up. But the thing is that they’re Evangelicals, so who knows if they still have them or if they’ve sold them. We’ve tried to buy them from them, but they won’t give them up.

It was the Tz’ikin, like I say—with a little coin in its mouth. And this señor turned it into money—and not only money, into goods, livestock and—eeeh! A whole pile of things!
Aj Q’ij (K’iche’) [vi]

It’s on the day Tz’ikin; that’s the day small stones, little things belonging to the [ancient] Mayas are taken out. Sometimes they’ve turned out made like a bird, all sorts of things!
When I was a child, I saw my parents, and they had everything out on the table that day.

So all the little things are set out. And they chat about this, about Mayan things, the ancients. So they say . . . these are the origins: the ancients, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. They are the owners of these things.

So when the day goes, they pick them up again and put them away until six or nine months later.

It’s on the day Tz’ikin, because this is the day of money. All these things are money, if they’re sold. The old people don’t know that they’re buyable, or perhaps they do, maybe I just didn’t know because I was a child. But they have them preserved, and this day when they bring them out, it’s a special day to see, to talk about the ancient little things.

Aj Q’ij (K’iche’)

Figure 1: Large collection of Aj Iq’ in Chichicastenango. Photo by John J. McGraw.

As well as being a focus for reflecting on the past, however, sacred stones need a certain kind of treatment; if they are to have a positive effect as bringers of luck, they need some reciprocal offering. Usually this means lighting a candle to them and praying, just as a Catholic might light a candle and pray to a saint. Sometimes, too, these same stones are taken from the house to an altar to be sanctified by the smoke of incense:

Yes, this is the Aj Iq’, anybody can have it. Perhaps they picked it up, or they have it in their house; this is the Aj Iq’ . . .

Tz’ikin is the day of the Aj Iq’. When that day comes, on 6 [Tz’ikin] and 8 [Tz’ikin], the Aj Iq’ is brought to the meb’il [vii] to be passed over the smoke of the copal.

If it’s 1 [Tz’ikin], or 2 [Tz’ikin], then it’s in the house. It’s given its two or three wax candles, five or ten centavo ones. You light them, and you take out the little stones, because you’ve lit candles for the iq’ or the meb’il.

You ask for abundance, abundance of money, whatever. Since it’s the meb’il, it’s asked for everything—such as the harvest, for all the pigs, domestic fowl, because the meb’il are the little animals that are raised; so it’s this—pigs, or cows—all this is asked of the meb’il. Not just money; Tz’ikin isn’t just the nawal of money, no, it’s everything that belongs to the house. This is what’s asked for.

So when it comes to the day of the Aj Iq’, you go to the burning place [viii] to ask; you put out the little stones around the edge of the burning place; while you’re burning, you’re talking.

Figure 2: Chutisabal, a “burning place” in Momostenango. Photo by John J. McGraw.

 

One Mayan priest in a Mam [ix] community has many sacred stones on his altar. Each has a name, and each has a role:

So, they’re named; for instance, if there’s a sick person, there’s a [stone called] Doctor, and others have other tasks. This one is the doctor, he cures; say someone comes to me, I start to pass it over them, and he takes away the illness, yes. And this one is the king, the biggest one. This one is King Witz’itz’il; this is Juan Toj. Saint Pedro Leb’. This one is the hawk. And this one is Saint Anthony of Padua.

Each has its work to do. This one is the savior of the world; he saves people who have some problem or other. I just ask him [a favor] and light him a candle…

Some were left by my father, and others I found. I dreamed I would find this one. And one time I went to get firewood, and all of a sudden I tripped—“Ay!” I started to dig, and what do you think? It was this! It’s one’s destiny to find them…

But you can’t just touch them. Because they’re…they look like they’re just stones, but they’re spirits. Yes, they already have strength.

One time, there was a fire. We weren’t in the house. My father was alive then, and he had his mesa [x] like this. And people came to put out the fire, and the police came. And they came into the house, and they saw the mesa. And they took hold of the stones—“Ah, lovely stone! This señor must be a brujo!” they said. So he touched the stone.
And the days passed—he swelled up! For having touched it. Until one day he came to the house, and we passed the same stone over him, and he recovered.

Aj Q’ij (Mam)

Figure 3: Mesa of an Aj Q’ij in Chichicastenango. Photo by John J. McGraw.

I was in the home of a friend when she showed her mother the stones she’d brought with her from a community where she’d been working. They didn’t look like anything special. They weren’t fragments of stone figures; they had no glyphs, nothing to suggest that they were anything other than natural rocks picked from the ground. But her mother picked up each one, admired it enthusiastically, and kissed it. Later, my friend told me why her mother had such respect for stone:

According to what my mamá says, they used to have stones—lots of stones, not just one. And there came a time when their owner, her father, died; so the stones were no longer given an offering, they were abandoned.

And when they’d been abandoned for a good while, an illness fell on my mamá; she came out in spots—until they were reconciled with the stones, until then was she cured.
But she wasn’t cured with medicine, instead, the stones were cleaned; there was a pile of stones, a little casket of stones, she says. So they were cleaned. But it wasn’t just anyone who cleaned them, no, it was a Mayan priest. And he put their candles and all for them, after he’s washed them. He left them on the table, with their candles, with a ceremony.
But the water with which the stones had been cleaned, my mamá was bathed with this. Because her whole body was covered with spots, and material came out of them, pus. And when she was washed with the water of the stones, then she was cured, then she was cured.

—Aj Q’ij (K’iche’)

Notes and References

  • [i] The K’iche’ are the largest group of indigenous Mayas in Guatemala.
  • [ii] “Luck,” in the sense of either destiny or, as here, fortune.
  • [iii] The term is usually related to kyeq’iq’, “wind,” while “aj” refers to the defining office or origin of a person; “she/he of the wind” would be a clumsy but accurate translation, based on the idea that these sacred stones appear out of thin air. However, K’iche’s, with their love of puns and wordplay, have an inexhaustible supply of etymologies; one Evangelical, ridiculing the need to give stones their food, told me that the true pronunciation is “a jik,” which would be “you glutton!”
  • [iv] Nawal refers to each of the twenty days that make up the ritual calendar. Multiplied by the numbers 1-13, each of which is paired with each of the twenty nawales in the calendar, yields a 260-day count. But nawal is also commonly used to refer to the “spirit” or “essence” of a thing.
  • [v] A tamalito is a common food item made of steamed corn meal.
  • [vi] Aj Q’ij is the most common term used for a Maya ritual specialist in the western highlands of Guatemala.
  • [vii] In Momostenango, the generic term for the part of the domestic altar that represents the family’s wealth.
  • [viii] An informal term for a Mayan shrine.
  • [ix] The Mam are the third largest group of indigenous Mayas in Guatemala.
  • [x] Mesa is the Spanish word for “table” but in this context refers to the special table where an Aj Q’ij practices divination and other rituals.

 

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