Awakateko - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Present Awakateko religion is a mix of Catholicism, Protestant religions, native elements, and ancestor worship. In addition, there are many gods representing natural features, such as mountains and springs, that are sites for their supernatural owners. Celestial bodies are gods in themselves. Traditional (but disappearing) ancestor worship (the cult of the dead) acknowledges power beyond the grave. Deceased parents and grandparents continue to play an active part in the lives of the living, helping when the Awakateko have resided harmoniously and punishing when animosity and jealousy occur. The dead communicate with the living through the divination of shamans and through daily natural occurrences that are taken as messages from the dead. The dead influence Awakateko public ritual life. When an Awakateko is mistreated by another, a shaman is hired to contact the dead ancestor of the offended individual and to file a complaint. The dead elders send a close dead relative of a wrongdoer to a "jail." The jailed, suffering ancestor then sends a mantar (punishment) to the living wrongdoer. To rid themselves of this punishment, the Awakateko call upon a shaman to free the ancestor by paying fines to the ancestor elders.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans lead both magical and public rituals ( costumbres ). They question the dead ancestors and relay the conversations back to the families. Spiritual cleansing is achieved by scattering beans on the ground and picking them up while reciting the days of the week from the ancient Mayan calendar. Mediums are also involved in conversations with the dead.

Ceremonies. Prior to 1960, regular festivals called k'ej (fiestas) lasted seven days and involved parades, music, dancing, and much drinking. During these festivals, shamans performed ceremonies and rites. There were three ritual-dance groups—two Eastern (Tz'Unum and Muztec) and one Western (Moros). Dance obligations were inherited from father to son and from mother to daughter; minor rituals were the duties of certain families.

Medicine. In the traditional religion, dead ancestors play a prominent role in illness and curing. The dead may heal through shamanic intervention. Shamans are hired to call upon the dead for spiritual consultation, healing, and advice. Morality is mixed with medicine in Awakateko society. Wellness or health may depend upon the actions and behavior of the individual.

Death and Afterlife. The Awakateko do not conceive of the afterlife as a heaven or a hell, but a place where the dead ancestors reside and are active in the lives of the living. The afterlife once had such a strong hold on the people that their daily lives were consumed by ancestor worship.


Religious Change. The traditional Awakateko practice of ancestor worship was supplanted by new religions in the 1950s, when Protestant and Catholic missionaries came to Aguacatan and offered the Indians a secularized alternative to their religious system. As a result, the Eastern Indians were the first to abandon the political-ritual system; the Westerners followed suit shortly thereafter. Missionary involvement drastically changed Awakateko society. Young Indians who based their prestige on the new religious organizations emerged as the new community leaders. Internal unity in each ethnic group was destroyed, as some were converted and others retained the traditionalist practice.

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