Spirits, Saints and the Art of Sacrifice – San Juan Chamula, Mexico

h1>Spirits, Saints and the Art of Sacrifice

San Juan Chamula, Mexico

Amid the rough dirt tracks that criss-cross the Mayan village of San Juan Chamula, a stark, grey building stands four storeys over the others.

“The man who owns that house,” explains Caesar, an inhabitant of pure Mayan lineage, “is the distributor of Coca-Cola.”

The building is not a testament to corporate imperialism, as one might suspect. It is a testament to local religiosity.

In San Juan Chamula, an isolated settlement in the highlands of Chiapas, southern Mexico, Coca-Cola is imbibed almost continually because belching is believed to expel evil spirits. Traditionally, this task was fulfilled by a locally manufactured moonshine called posh – a beverage that is anything but high-toned. Harsh, fiery and thoroughly inebriating, that liquor of sugar cane is an evil spirit itself. Today, amid a climate rife with alcoholism, the local Maya have adopted Coke as an alternative liquid exorcist.

“There are around one million Maya in Chiapas,” Caesar tells me. “Here in Chamula we speak Tzotzil, one of seven Mayan languages in Chiapas. In Guatemala, they speak another twenty. Every Mayan community is different. We all have different customs, languages and beliefs. Because of this, Spanish is the language of commerce.”

The Maya are one of the world’s most enduring and populous indigenous groups. Descended from a brilliant civilisation that spanned southern Mexico, Guatemala and Western Honduras, they are the inheritors of an ancient philosophy of nature, spirit and time. In some cases, the details of their archaic world-view have been lost altogether. In others, they have survived through mediums like myth, art and dance.

For the most part, their philosophy has synthesised irrevocably with that of the European invaders who conquered the region in the 16th century. In the Mayan villages that occupy present-day Chiapas, one can observe a colourful hybrid of Shamanism and Spanish Catholicism. In San Juan Chamula, it is possible to glimpse strange rituals that hint at a civilisation past.

“If you want to see Chamula’s most dramatic link with pre-Hispanic Mexico,” says Caesar, “We must proceed to the church.”

Chamula’s Catholic Church is adorned with billowing coloured flags. Market traders occupy the square before it with teeming and labyrinthine stalls of fruit, vegetables, textiles, machetes and household wares. Men stand in variously sized groups, smoking and talking, clad in black woolly ponchos called chuhs. Mimicking the brightly decorated exterior of the church; one particular group dons straw hats streaming with coloured ribbons.

“They are the elders of the village,” explains Caesar, “The Principales. The colour of ribbon on their hats symbolises which quarter of town they preside over.”

Social structure in Chamula is hierarchical, patriarchal and based on a system of duty or cargo. Low ranking cargos involve tasks like ritual dancing, while higher ones carry larger responsibilities like organising fiestas. Cargos generally last one year and are paid for entirely by the bearer. High-ranking cargos, therefore, demand a degree of financial success. The principle reward for serving a cargo is the elevated social status it delivers. The only exception is the cargo of police officer, a shameful duty that must be carried out by criminals.

As we prepared to enter the church, Caesar warns me not to take any photographs. “We believe that it captures the soul,” he says. “And we are very strict about that too. A gringo was killed once for taking pictures in the church.”

Warning taken, we enter.

The church’s interior is dim and candle-lit. Thick, sweet incense smoke rolls upward from burning cups. Pine needles blanket the floor; the walls are adorned with palms and bromeliad flowers. The room is filled with people. Some kneel before floral offerings. Some pray some sing. Some sway and swig on moonshine, strange tunes escaping harps and guitars. A crowd assembles around one of the village shamans, who holds a large, speckled chicken in his palms. As the bird makes concerned noises, the crowd begins to grin. Death comes from the shaman’s hands. And as the bird’s neck is fully wrung, its wings flap in a show of unspent, nervous energy.

The most evocative manifestations of Mayan heritage are shamanic medicine systems that involve chanting, dancing, dramatic rituals and animal sacrifice. Where the saints are worshipped in church, are merely where the old gods were made Catholic. Beyond this, ancient spirits dwell in the sacred rivers, forests and mountains surrounding Chamula. Even the symbol of the cross, so beloved to Christian theology, is merely a mask for Mayan concepts.

“In Mayan religion,” explains Caesar grinning, “the cross does not symbolise Christ. The cross is an old symbol that pre-dates the conquest. It symbolises the tree at the centre of the universe, the Ceiba tree. So you see, we did not have to accept the cross because it was already ours.”

As I haul myself out of San Juan Chamula in the back of a pick-up truck, I realise the immense cunning of the Maya. Their gift for intelligent adaptation has truly ensured a vivid cultural survival. Whether faced with 16th century Catholicism or 21st century consumerism, their ancient religion is sure to endure as long as their land and their people.

Travel Details
San Juan Chamula is reached via San Cristobal de las Casas. Buses run from Mexico City to San Cristobal and cost $40.00 and upward (1,065km, 19 hours journey time). From Cancun, 1,025km, buses are $35.00 and upward (14 hours journey time).

Good four-hour tours to San Juan Chamula and other Maya villages begin at around $10.00.

Accommodations in San Cristobal de las Casas begin at around $7.00 per person for a basic room with shared bathroom. A filling meal costs around $2.00 and up.

Photography is absolutely banned in the Church. Don’t take any pictures or you might end up with a broken camera/nose.


For more stories, visit the author’s website.

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