Mam - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Most Mam consider themselves nominally Catholic, although local heterodoxies abound. Traditional Mam religion focused on Catholic saints in the local church and spirit "owners" of nearby mountain peaks. Mam saints embody powers in their own right, not Christian exemplars, which Mam domesticated by dressing their images in local Mam attire and "feeding" them candles, rum, and pine-pitch incense. Conversely, mountain spirits appeared as greedy Ladinos who enslaved Mam souls after death. Both saints and mountain spirits could send misfortune or illness to punish ritual neglect or offense; ritual specialists would then have to divine the cause and determine the restitution. Cosmologically, the paths of "Our Father Sun" and "Our Grandmother Moon" encircled "Our Mother Earth," and the twenty day-names of the Maya calendar held divinatory significance. Since the 1950s, Catholic missionaries, mostly of the North American Maryknoll order, and fundamentalists of the Central American Mission have won sizable, if shifting, Mam congregations. Not all ex-traditionalists, however, accept formal baptism into a church, and many say they now live "without religion."

Religious Practitioners. In the past, all Mam men knew the rudiments of costumbre, literally "custom" in Spanish, but used by Mam to refer to their prayers and offerings to God, the saints, and mountain spirits. Religious specialists called chmaan, "grandfathers"—a reference to their status as elders—contributed both a greater eloquence to their costumbre and esoteric knowledge of the twenty-day Maya calendar to divine and protect Mam health, crops, and destiny. Particularly powerful chmaan could even bargain directly with mountain spirits in matters of illness and sorcery. Mam men also gained ritual knowledge through rotating service in the cofradías, or religious brotherhoods, dedicated to care of the saints in the local church, which often constituted an integral part of the municipio's cargo hierarchy. Religious specialists today include Mam catechists who preside over Catholic congregations in towns without a resident priest and Mam preachers in local evangelical churches.

Ceremonies. Mam celebrate Holy Week (Easter), All Saints' Day, Christmas, and the feast days of local patron saints. Celebrations generally include a holiday market, Catholic Mass, and processions of local saints' images through the streets of the town. Some Mam municipios still practice reciprocal saint exchange, in which local religious officials carry their saint to "visit" neighboring saints on their feast days.

Arts. In addition to weaving, Mam enjoy the marimba—a large xylophonelike instrument with wooden bars suspended over resonators, which is played by three or four musicians with small wooden mallets; its complex, liquid rhythms pervade all public celebrations.

Medicine. Herbal cures are often administered by female herbalists who double as midwives. Since the late 1960s, an almost magical faith in Western pills and injections has augmented the Mam pharmacopoeia. Health normally depends on the blood, which Mam view as the seat of physical strength and sensory perceptions. Curing restores the requisite "heat" to the blood through "hot" medicines and sweatbaths.

Death and Afterlife. At death, Mam hold a wake for the deceased, then bury the body in the local cemetery. During All Saints' Day (1 November), Mam remember the dead by decorating their graves, offering them food and drink, and having a marimba played at the graveside. Concepts of the afterlife remain unelaborated: Mam formerly said that the dead worked for Ladino spirits inside nearby peaks and distant volcanoes; today they speak of being with God in heaven or burning in hell, or perhaps of wandering the earth as a ghost.

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