Chuj - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. A few families in San Mateo and Nentón have become Protestant. In San Sebastián, the town is split between traditional religious beliefs and the robust doctrinalism of Catholic Action. The traditionalists in San Sebastián maintain the 260-day calendar and celebrate the rituals of planting and harvest, new fire, and new year. The Catholic Action sect refers to all these beliefs as "lies" and to the practitioners as sorcerers.

In San Mateo, Catholicism is much more syncretic. There is a thoroughgoing identification of Meb'a' (Orphan), a culture hero, with Jesus. Mary is both Meb'a''s mother and the moon. God incarnates the sun.

Most natural features—hills, rock outcrops, streams, and caves—have spirits. The spirits in caves, who are often ancestors of the townspeople, may be approached for aid and advice. A petitioner brings an offering, usually candles and liquor, and writes his or her question or request on a small piece of paper, leaving this at the cave entrance. The following day she or he returns and picks up the written answer.


Religious Practitioners. There are several religious specialists. Prayer-makers can petition for health, sobriety, good crops, and strong animals. Each town should have a principal prayer-maker who sets the ritual calendar for the year, does global petitioning for crops, and assigns dates for agricultural and town maintenance tasks. There are also diviners, herbalists, bonesetters, masseurs, midwives, curers, and sorcerers. When a sorcerer becomes too strong or too rich, the community may decide to immolate him or her.


Ceremonies. The life-cycle ceremonies are: at birth, purification of mother and child in a sauna, burial of the afterbirth, and burial of the belly-button stub; in the first year, "leg-spreading," in which gender roles are assigned; in the first three years, baptism/naming, whereby children acquire godparents, and first communion, which is seldom celebrated; at first menses, hair washing and purification by sweat bath; boys' passage to youth, which is less noted than that of girls; marriage; deathbed instructions; burial; postburial purification; and death anniversaries and communion with ancestors.

Annual-cycle ceremonies are: beating of fruit trees and children; blessing of seed and fields; harvest; thanksgiving; warding off evil during the five "bad" year-end days; and new fire (annual housecleaning).

Ceremonies are held to inaugurate any structure or any major acquisition (e.g., a truck, stereo, or raised hearth), and to open and close public events. Each town has an annual festival for its patron saint.

Medicine. Illness is a function of balance between the spiritual and physical worlds. Western medicine, especially patent remedies such as aspirin, antihistamines, and antacids, accompanied by herbal tonics, are used to treat microbiotic disorders, allergic reactions, and indigestion. A lesion or break will be cleaned, disinfected, set, bandaged, and later massaged. A spiritual disorder ( susto ) may accompany an illness or result from the shock of an injury or near-. "Fright" is cured by a ritual specialist. Envy, anger, alcohol, holiness, and light skin, hair, or eyes make a person "hot." When someone "hot" looks at a child or a pregnant woman, they may cause the child to lose its soul or the woman to become ill and possibly abort. Elders or diviners can perform the necessary curing ritual. Illness may also be sent by ancestors or witches and must be cured by other religious healers. Minor illnesses are classified as "generic, nonhuman"; major diseases, such as whooping cough, smallpox, and cancer, are classified as "adult males."

Death and Afterlife. Traditional Chuj belief holds that death is the transition to "ancestorhood." Deathbed instructions are binding obligations, and spirits enforce them with sanctions of illness and misfortune. The spirits maintain an interest in the affairs of their families and can be approached for advice and aid, either at family altars, cave entrances, hilltops, or, in San Mateo, at cross-sites and accesses to the Classic Maya structures underlying the modern city. On All Saints' Day graves are cleaned and bedecked with flowers. Families bring feasts to the graveyard and picnic on the graves, leaving portions for the deceased. Marimbas play, and children fly kites. The kites' tails often have the names of dead relatives written on them, together with prayers or petitions.

Life after death is much like life before death. Grave goods typically include clothes, food, dishes, and implements that served the deceased in daily activities. One special task of the dead is to keep volcanic necks clear of debris; many spirits from San Mateo go to work in the Santa María volcano, overlooking Quetzaltenango. They have a market day on Sunday, when they go to a special plaza in Quetzaltenango and sell their wares. Living relatives may visit the dead there but may talk to them only via interpreters. Evangelical and Catholic Action Chuj affirm the doctrine of their faiths regarding death and the afterlife.


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