Education Equals Empowerment

Mayans meld ancient worship with new

By Caitlan and Luke Smith


Traditional Mayan beliefs and an overlay of Christianity
meet in the person of these priestly representatives, who
carry decorated staffs during the saints’ procession to the
Catholic church in Santiago, Guatemala.

The religion of the ancient Maya boasts a rich mythology still practiced by the Maya living in Guatemala today. It centers around the ceiba tree, which the Maya believed connected the three dimensions, the underworld (xibalba), the earth and the heavens (Michael Coe, The Maya).

The ceiba tree itself is incredible to see, and it is easy to imagine why the Maya view it as sacred.

The trees have a distinctly branchless trunk with pale white bark. The branches sprout far above the ground and perpendicular to the trunk. Furthermore, the ceiba’s roots protrude from the trunk at sharp angles above the ground, frequently pointing in the cardinal directions. The Maya viewed each of these directions as sacred and designated a color for each: white for the north, where the rains come from; red for the east, where the sun rises; black for the west, where the sun sets; and yellow for the south, "the ‘sunniest’ point of the compass" (Lonely Planet, "Guatemala," p. 48, 2007).

This tree would later act as a foundational image for the cross in the conversion of the Maya, along with other Christian elements that meshed with the Mayan religion. Another piece of Mayan mythology that played an enormous role in conversion was the myth of the Maize god. In Mayan mythology, after the great flood which destroyed the third set of human-like beings that the grandfather (Xpiyacoc) and grandmother (Xmucane) gods created, Hun Hanahpa was born of Xpiyacoc and Xmucane. Hun Hanahpu, the Maize god, was then killed by the gods of the underworld, but as a daughter of the underworld looked upon the Maize god’s head, which was hanging in a tree, she was spontaneously impregnated.

She gave birth to the hero twins who would eventually free their father from the underworld gods (Michael Coe, The Maya). This resurrection myth was superimposed onto the image of Christ.

This blending of indigenous religion with a newly imposed one is called syncretism. Syncretism almost always occurs to some extent when a new religion is introduced.

Because of similarities in symbolism and myth, the religion of the ancient Maya blended easily with Christianity. The ceiba tree meshed symbolically with the Cross, and the story of the flood destroying an evil race of humans fit easily with the Old Testament.

Perhaps the most puzzling manifestation of syncretism in Guatemala is Maximón (pronounced Mah-she-mon) who is a combination of "Mayan gods, Pedro de Alvarado (the Spanish conquistador of Guatemala) and the biblical Judas" (Lonely Planet,"Guatemala," p. 140, 2007).

Maximón’s shrine is in Santiago de Atitlan. However, he moves frequently between the homes of the cofradía, members of the Mayan Catholic brotherhood. This is why one of the only ways to find him is to tip a child to guide you to the home where he currently resides. Unfortunately, on the day of our pilgrimage to Santiago, Maximón was not seeing visitors and would not be for several days.

I was disappointed. Seeing the shrine with the cigar-smoking effigy was one site I had been looking forward to for years.

We did not leave Santiago without witnessing a pretty interesting religious ceremony though. The "parading of the saints," as one of the few local men who spoke Spanish called it, began with several effigies on small altars with handles.

A huge crowd stood before the saints. After several minutes female counterparts of the cofradía lit candles, and then an ear-popping explosion from a mortar shell signaled the beginning of the procession.

First, however, the men designated to carry the altars of the saints took swigs of grape soda and shots of vodka.

A shorter procession of child-sized saints carried by children followed the women with candles as an ensemble with the skill of a junior high marching band played a lively march to carry the procession down the streets.