Tzotzil of Zinacantan - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. The mountainous terrain that reaches into the clouds of highland Chiapas is the visible surface of the Zinacanteco world, which is conceived of as a large, flat quincunx in quadrilateral form. The center of this surface is the "navel," a mound of earth located in the ceremonial center. The world rests on the shoulders of the Vashak-Men, the local version of the "Four-Corner Gods" or "Sky-Bearers" of the ancient Maya. Below the visible world is the "Lower World," inhabited by a race of dwarfs who, along with monkeys, were made in the past when the gods unsuccessfully attempted to create real men. In the sky above the earth is the domain of the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars. The Sun, called "Our Father Heat," travels on a path that encircles the earth each day. Preceded by the "Sweeper of the Path" (Venus), the Sun appears in the morning, pauses at high noon to survey the affairs of the Zinacantecos, and disappears in the evening. The Moon, called "Our Holy Mother," travels on a similar path around the world. Under the influence of Spanish Catholicism, the Zinacantecos have come to associate the Sun with God the Father or Jesus Christ and the Moon with the Virgin Mary. The quincuncial model of the cosmos is reflected in the rites performed for houses and fields—the ceremonial circuits proceed counterclockwise around the four corners and end in the center, where offerings are made to the gods. Hills and mountains located near Zinacanteco settlements are the homes of ancestral gods, called "Fathers-Mothers," who are the most important deities of all. It is impossible to pray in Tzotzil to a male or female ancestor; the name for these gods is Totilme'il, literally translated as "Sir Father-Madam Mother," with the father image always linked to the mother image, indicating a unitary concept representing the primordial reproductive pair. These ancestors provide the ideal models for human life. Next to the ancestral gods, the most important deity is the Earth Lord. He is pictured as a large, fat Ladino living under the ground with piles of money, herds of livestock, and flocks of chickens. He owns the water holes and all the earth products used by Zinacantecos—trees and mud to build houses and limestone for lime. A person cannot use land or its products without compensating the Earth Lord with appropriate offerings in a ceremony.

In the centuries since the Conquest, the Zinacantecos have acquired over seventy sacred objects that they call "Saints," including carved wooden or plaster images of Catholic saints and pictures of saints. The images are clothed in long, flowing robes derived from colonial styles, but almost all have some item of Zinacanteco dress. The most important have distinctive personalities, and there are special myths about how they came to be in Zinacantan. Shrines composed of large wooden crosses, including one called a kalvaryo, where the ancestral gods have their weekly meetings, are also sacred.

Interaction between living Zinacantecos and their gods takes place via two types of souls that are possessed by each human being: a ch'ulel and a chanul. The ch'ulel is an inner, personal soul, located in the heart; it is also found in the blood, which is known to be connected with the heart. It is placed in the unborn embryo by the ancestral gods. This Zinacanteco "inner soul" has special attributes. It is composed of thirteen parts, and a person who loses one or more of these parts must have a curing ceremony performed by a shaman to recover them. At death, the inner soul leaves the body and ultimately joins a pool of souls that is kept by the ancestors. It is later utilized for another person. "Soul loss" is caused by fright, which can be engendered by falling down or seeing a demon on a dark night. At a more profound level, soul loss is believed to be due to the ancestral gods, who, in order to punish misbehavior, cause a person to fall down or send a lightning bolt to knock out parts of the soul; it may also be caused by an evil person who performs witchcraft in order to sell the soul to the Earth Lord for use as a servant.

The inner soul of a person, the ch'ulel, is shared with a chanul, a wild animal, which is an animal-spirit companion. Throughout each person's life, whatever happens to the animal spirit also happens to the person and vice versa. These animal-spirit companions, consisting of jaguars, ocelots, coyotes, and smaller animals such as squirrels and opossums, are kept by the ancestral gods in four corrals inside "Senior Large Mountain," east of Zinacantan Center. If the animal spirit is turned out of the corral by the ancestral gods, the person is in mortal danger and must undergo a lengthy ceremony to round up the chanul and return it to its corral.


Religious Practitioners. The religious rites in Zinacantan Center are performed by a religious hierarchy, or "cargo system," consisting of sixty-one positions at four levels of a ceremonial ladder. To ascend the ladder, men must serve a year at each of the levels— mayordomos and mayores; alfereces; regidores (not to be confused with the civil regidores at the town hall); and alcaldes (again, not the same as the political alcalde jueces). During the year he spends at each level, a man is expected to move from his hamlet into the Ceremonial Center and engage in a complex and expensive round of ceremonies. An increasing number of the first-level cargos are now being served in the hamlets, however, most of which have local chapels. Many of the ceremonies, especially those of the mayordomos, take place in the Catholic churches, two of which are located in the Ceremonial Center—the church of Saint Lawrence and the church of Saint Sebastian; other cargo ceremonies occur in the hamlets. The Center also has a chapel dedicated to Señor Esquipulas (a Christ-on-the-cross image connected to the salt trade in Guatemala and in Zinacantan), in which additional ceremonies, especially office-changing rites, are performed by cargoholders. Other ceremonial practitioners carry out ritual and political duties in the hamlets—these are the h'iloletik, or "shamans." The word h'ilol means "seer," signifying that the shamans have the power to look into the mountains and see the ancestral gods. There are now more than 300 shamans in Zinacantan, all ranked in order of the time that has elapsed since their debuts (following their dreams of being called before the ancestral gods and instructed as to how to perform their ceremonies).


Ceremonies. Two basic types of ceremonies are performed: the rituals of the cargoholders in Zinacantan Center, which follow the annual Catholic calendar of saints' days, and the rites of the shamans, which include curing illnesses, dedicating new houses, blessing maize fields, making offerings to lineage and water-hole group ancestral deities, renewing the year, and rainmaking.


Death and Afterlife. At death, the body is washed and placed in a pine coffin with various offerings, including a chicken head, representing the chicken who will guide the inner soul of the deceased to the other world. Burial takes place in a cemetery located near the hamlet. Interaction with the deceased continues for many years, as the descendants light candles and leave offerings at the grave each Sunday and on All Saints' Day.


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