Yukateko - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Pre-Columbian symbolic complex representing a worldview of the joined yet distinct realms of sky, earth, and underworld endures despite centuries of forced Christianization. Only recently have the Yukateko begun to call themselves "Catholics," because of the increased presence of various Protestant sects. The Catholic/Protestant division is a clear schism in the social fabric. Although from an external perspective Maya beliefs and ritual practices can be considered a syncretic mix of indigenous and European symbols, the Maya themselves make no such distinction, as they practice their religion daily.

Many pre-Hispanic deities are still significant today, although there is variation across the total population. The supreme creator deity of the past was probably a double-headed sky serpent representing the astronomical ecliptic. Today, Hahal Dios, or the "true god," is a syncretic combination of Jesus Christ and the sun. His assistants are the càak (rain deities) and the báalam (guardians), who, like all supernaturals, can punish as well as cure, "lest people forget that they exist." Punishments come to earth as illnesses in the form of "winds" and are expelled or prevented through elaborate ritual offerings.

Religious Practitioners. In response to the brutal crusades of the first Spanish priests, Maya shamans went "underground" and continued the traditional roles of curer, counselor, and diviner. Today called hmèen or ah k'ìin, this individual occupies a dual social status: mediating between humans and supernatural forces yet being an ordinary farmer.

Ceremonies. The central ritual has probably always been the rain ceremony, today called c'a càak, or "take càak," performed during the period of the summer when the maize fields are most in need of rain. The structure in time and space of this and all ritual activity is dependent on the four-corners concept, reflecting the centrality of the Maya worldview. Whether rain or a cure for an illness is being sought, the setting of the ritual—the maize field, community, house plot, or corral—is always a quadrilateral (i.e., a model of the cosmos). These hmèen-directed functions share this symbolic structure with public fiestas centered on the church.

Arts. The monumental architecture, carved hieroglyphic texts, pottery, and other aspects of Maya material culture are mainly responsible for the worldwide attention focused on the Yucatán Peninsula. Today, the huípil, or women's garment, with its embroidered floral patterns, is the most visible form of Maya artistry.

Medicine. A hmèen has a sophisticated awareness of medicinal plants. These treatments, however, are always administered in the context of ritual, and the combination of ritual healing and organic remedy has apparently proven very effective over time. Governmental clinics notwithstanding, the Mayan hmèen continue to gain recognition for their curative capabilities and are sometimes even sought out by Hispanic Yucatecos.

Death and Afterlife. It is evident from funerary remains that the rulers of the past confirmed their divine qualities through pictographic renditions of their anticipated after-life. Although the subterranean realm was a part of this spiritual domain, the flat-earth perspective and the constancy of astronomical motion within the earth and back into the sky added a celestial component to the assumed destination of souls. The contemporary hmèen still hold these beliefs, and general mortuary practices symbolically express the cosmological motion of the human soul after death.

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