Tzotzil of Chamula - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. The Chamula transformed imposed Christian beliefs to suit their central Maya ideas. They merged Christ and Sun into the figure of Our Father, the Sun/Christ, and they merged the Virgin Mary, the Moon, and the Earth into a single female entity, Our Mother, the Earth-Moon/Virgin. Catholic saints, imbued with Maya characteristics, are viewed as helpers of Sun and Moon. Nature and topographic features of the landscape, such as mountains, caves, and water holes are infused with a sense of sacredness: they represent sources of life and places where human beings and deities come into contact. The Earthlord, who lives inside mountains and "owns" all wild animals and water sources, must be propitiated before one partakes of his possessions. From birth, all human beings share a part of their soul with an animal. The Chamula interpret sudden death as the death of one's animal soul-companion.

Religious Practitioners. Women or men ilols (i.e., "seers") conduct private healing rituals for individuals. Ilols obtain their gift for healing in dreams, directly from Our Father and Our Mother. They also preside over annual ceremonies at the water holes to ensure the water supply. Midwives conduct several ceremonies during a woman's pregnancy and labor to safeguard her soul and that of her baby.


Ceremonies. Private curing rituals occur frequently and are held by the hearth in the patient's home or in the church in Chamula's civil-ceremonial center. Ilols entreat the deities, offering prayers, liquor, candles, and food to release their patients' souls from the hold of evil powers. Major and minor public ceremonies take place almost monthly to celebrate the day of a specific deity. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Chamula attend these long and complicated rituals, which include processions, dance, prayers inside and outside the church, and distribution of ceremonial foods at the religious official's home.


Medicine. The Chamula interpret illness as the result of the actions of an envious or ill-willed person who appeals to evil beings to seize his or her enemy's soul. The person targeted becomes "colder," loses his or her life force, becomes increasingly weak, and finally dies. "Heat," the essential component of life and health, must be restored through prayer (defined by the Chamula as "heated words"), liquor, nutritious foods such as chicken, ritual sweat baths, and coming under the life-giving influences of Our Father and Our Mother.


Arts. Most Chamula women weave their own and their family's clothing on the backstrap loom; this ancient weaving technique has deep cultural and religious associations. The gift of weaving, like that of healing, is granted in dreams by Our Mother, the Earth-Moon/Virgin, to young women.

Death and Afterlife. Like illness, death is viewed as the result of the loss of one's soul through the schemes of malevolent individuals. The souls of dead people come back to visit their relatives and partake of their food offerings once a year, during the Festival of the Dead (K'in Santo), from 30 October to 1 November. Men and women intone special prayers beseeching the deities to release the souls of their dead relatives and inviting them to come to earth and enter their home.

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