Chinantec - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Chinantec religion after the Spanish/Catholic Conquest had many syncretic elements (e.g., a bisexual "Father and Mother of Maize"). Chinantec cosmology posited two worlds, day and night, in eternal struggle. Creation myths varied but most were based on humans descending from monkeys or monkeys as the ancients. Deference, respect, and gratitude are shown to prominent features of the natural environment and the creatures inhabiting it; failure to do this is punished by sickness. Although the Chinantec are still nominally Catholic, there have been Protestant inroads in some communities.

The best evidence of pre-Christian expressive culture is the sizable Chinantec collection of folklore about the sun and moon, animal "tricksters," and "owners" or "kings" of animal and fish species, prominent mountain peaks, the earth, and other natural phenomena. There are divining specialists who gain access to the supernatural world by using hallucinogenic psilocybin mushrooms or seeds of the Rivea corymbosa vine. Use of these substances is not restricted to specialists.

Religious Practitioners. Most Chinantec communities are served by parish priests who visit once or twice a year on major holidays. These visits are supplemented by another priest contracted to celebrate Mass on other important fiesta days. In the absence of a resident priest, communities rely on trained laypeople to perform rosaries. Particularly in the highlands, there is a long history of fractious relations with local priests; many of these conflicts persist to this day. Traditional, divination specialists still exist in some communities.

Ceremonies. Differential disposal of male and female placentas continues in some communities: a girl's is buried under the family hearth, and a boy's is hung on a nearby tree branch. Chinantec rites to assure the harvest, once common, persist in places in attenuated form. One or more elders may still undertake an annual pilgrimage to churches in neighboring villages or major towns in the Oaxaca Valley in an effort to assure the village welfare. The principal festivals are the annual pre-Lenten carnivals, organized by bachelors, which reenact the arrival of the Spanish conquerors. Also important are the annual fiestas that honor each community's patron saint and the New Year's Day ceremony marking the investiture of new officials.

Arts. No evidence of traditional Chinantec arts, crafts, drama, or other aesthetic expression has been found. In some highland communities, a well-developed complex of dances is performed for carnival. Village bands play at all ceremonial occasions.

Medicine. A rich tradition of medicinal-herb use predates the Spanish Conquest. Today, curing is by herbal, spiritual, and mechanical techniques. There are few indigenous Chinantec healers, and people are reluctant to go to either physicians or specialized curers; most health care is administered by women at home.

Death and Afterlife. A person is born with several souls. Death can be caused by kidnapping one of them. All souls leave the body at death. Among the Chinantec there is no fear of a soul or a ghost returning to haunt the living. Although never elaborate, death rites varied. The cadaver was usually rolled in a straw mat or a sheet or placed in a wooden box. In the lowlands, objects (e.g., clothing, flowers, food) were often buried along with the corpse. There was generally some form of ritual purification after burial. In the highlands, there were no grave objects or ritual purification. Today graves are prepared by municipal officials, and the body is accompanied to the cemetery by municipal musicians.

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