Tojolab'al - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. The universe is conceived of as being composed of three levels: Satk'inal or sky, Lumk'inal or terrestrial space (divided into three concentric levels: sea, hot land, and cold land), and K'ik'inal or underworld. Each is inhabited by different beings whose intervention can effect changes in both community as well as individual harmony.

Satk'inal is inhabited by K'ajwaltik Dios (Our Lord God), Nantik Santa Maria (Our Lady Mary), and two stars that direct the cycle of daily life: K'ak'u (Sun) and Ixaw (Moon).

In Lumk'inal there reside, besides men, the "gods" or saints, representatives of God, who ordered them to found and protect the villages, and their counterparts, the allies of the Lord of the Underworld, who punishes behavior that is considered unacceptable, including that directed against the environment.

Pukuj or Niwan Winik (Great Man) is the Lord of the Underworld, of the forest, and of its inhabitants. He also holds the secrets of witchcraft, which on occasion he may communicate to some men.

Throughout his existence the individual tries to maintain an equilibrium between the various forces that populate the universe; if any of them were to dominate, this could result in drought, epidemic, flood, plague or, on a personal level, illness, defined as the loss of the harmonious equilibrium between biological and sociocultural factors, that is, between the natural and supernatural worlds.

On the individual level, this equilibrium resides, to a great degree, in the sk'ujol, an entity located in the region of the heart, but which has many of the functions often attributed to the brain; in it reside sensibleness, spirit, character, memory, confidence, goodness, happiness, sadness, genius, soul force, judgment, and the conscience.


Ceremonies. One way to maintain equilibrium is through traditional rituals that mix Christian elements with others of clear pre-Hispanic origin, for example, the cult of the dead and the community carnival (Ta an k'ou).

Myths and tales in the oral tradition speak of how the abandonment of rituals ( costumbre ) can cause trouble to the individual or the community. If equilibrium is destroyed, it can be restored by performing personal rites, such as those performed by pitachik' and sorcerers, or by family and community rituals.

According to Tojolab'al concepts, there are certain men, designated as vivos (living ones), who have received a special grace from God. Whereas some vivos—such as lightning-strike-men ( hombres-rayo ), rainbow-men, and sheet-lightning-men ( hombres-relámpagos )—use their power for doing good or simply to entertain themselves, others seek further power from alliances with the beings of the underworld and then cause harm. These vivos possess a nahual ( wayjel ), with whom they share their good and bad fortune.

Of the four pilgrimages that were of prime importance for all Tojolab'al but are nevertheless declining in significance, three are performed before the rainy season, with the objective of asking the saints to bring rain.

Conversion to Protestantism or certain sects is a phenomenon that is on the rise among the Tojolab'al, especially among those living in the jungle, and has resulted in a loss of traditional values. Some communities have even given up using their native language because the priests say that "God does not understand Tojolab'al." These religions encourage individualism and break up community solidarity.


Medicine. Local curers are also considered vivos; they have an animal companion and the gift of curing. Among them are the ajnanum, herbalist; the pitachik', a curer capable of hearing messages that the blood transmits through the pulse beat ( pita = hear, chik' = blood ); and the me'xep , midwife (lit., grandmother).


Music. As befits a culture with an oral tradition, it is music, together with language, that occupies a privileged place in all these ceremonies. Not surprisingly, the Tojolab'al are splendid performers on the drums ( wajabal ) and the flute ( aj-may ), as well as on the guitar, violin, and harmonica. The latter are used on festive, but not ritual, occasions, and they never accompany rites in which flutes and drums are used. Besides the aforementioned, other elements in ritual activities are the use of copal ( pom ), certain flowers, fireworks, and aguardiente ( snichim Dyos : flower of God), a spirituous liquor.

Just as Tojolab'al values are expressed in their language, social organization, and the continuance of attitudes, concepts, and common beliefs, there is also an auto-perception that reflects the uniqueness of this people, expressed in their interaction with other ethnic groups and the society at large, in which they are immersed and which determines their daily life as well as their transformations and their permanence.

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