Religious Beliefs. There is great diversity in current religious practices and beliefs among ethnic Ch'ol, ranging from traditional Maya-Christian syncretism of various degrees, to mainstream Catholicism, to fundamentalist evangelical Protestantism.
Traditional syncretic Maya-Catholic beliefs, as manifested in the Ch'ol area, have merged the Sun with Christ and the Moon with the Virgin Mary, in accordance with pre-Columbian mythology, in which the Moon is the mother of the Sun. Tila is the center of a syncretic tradition featuring a Black Christ, the Señor de Tila (Lord of Tila), whose image is preserved in a cave, a center of worship, as an anthropomorphic stalagmite. Worshipers come to annual festivals in great numbers, making Tila a major pilgrimage site in southern Mexico.
The name "Tila" derives from the Gulf Coast Nahuatl tillan , "place of (the) black (one)," and Black men who live in caves figure prominently in highland folklore. Caves are also the domain of the principal earth deity (the Earth Owner of the Tzotzil and other Mayan groups), owner of earthly goods who must be petitioned for reasonable use of his plants and animals. Two elements of the overriding Ch'ol philosophy are that gifts must be repaid and that evil will turn back against its agent. Offerings in caves for success in hunting and other pursuits continue to be made.
Religious Practitioners. Apart from priests and pastors serving mainstream Christian churches, shamanistic curers are the principal religious practitioners. Summoned to their responsibility in dreams, curers visit caves to solidify their powers. Curing practices involve invoking supernatural powers; petitions to supernaturals are accompanied by offerings of candles, incense, and liquor. An essential element is the "promise" made by the interlocutor—a pledge of offerings and good behavior in return for divine assistance. Most shamans are male, but a similar position is held by female midwives, who likewise draw their powers from the supernatural and are destined to serve from birth.
Ceremonies. Tila is the site of a major round of religious ceremonies tied to the Christian calendar but retaining elements of pre-Columbian and colonial beliefs and practices. The festival honoring the Señor de Tila occurs in mid-January and features masses and processions of images of the Lord. Carnaval (from the weekend to Ash Wednesday) is the occasion for replacing cargo holders in office, public dance performances (Black Men and Marias), and ritual combat between bulls and jaguars (symbolizing Hispanic versus indigenous cultures). All Saints' is mainly a family occasion, with house altars prepared to receive the family dead. Tumbala, whose patron saint is Saint Michael, celebrates a similar series of festivals, on a smaller scale.
Arts. Verbal arts are respected, and the Ch'ol have a rich body of traditional folktales and sacred myths; they are skillful at joking and narrating ordinary events. Creation stories involve the Moon and her sons, who account for the origin of the animals as well as agricultural practices, and symbolize conflict between male siblings. Other common topics are pursuit by underworld beings, transformation (people changing into animals, and vice versa), and encounters with Earth Owner, who sometimes appears in the guise of a man named Don Juan.
Medicine. Major illness results from souls being imprisoned by earth powers (caves, rivers, and the like). Shamans cure with a combination of herbal and spiritual treatments (prayers, offerings, and threats). Some illness may result from witchcraft, which is accomplished through pacts with earth powers. Principal illnesses are caused by fright, envy, and wrong thoughts, all of which involve disharmony with the spirit world. Curing techniques include ritual bathing, herbal remedies and diets, and prayers and offerings. Midwives care for pregnant women and assist in deliveries.
Death and Afterlife. Death is considered to be a natural process; people must die to make room for others. Burial is with Christian rites. A wake features prayers and offerings on behalf of the soul of the departed. Gifts of food and candles are received by a designated family member of the same sex as the departed, and money, candles, and incense are ritually presented to the cadaver.