The Land of Corn
The indigenous Mayan presence permeates Guatemalan culture. The Mayan name for Guatemala is Iximulew, meaning "Land of Corn." Hundreds of ancient sites, most of which are still in the process of being uncovered, exist throughout the land. Even Guatemala City lies upon a settlement the Mayans called Kaminaljuyú. In a Guatemala City park, I saw people lighting ritual fires in spaces set aside for making offerings. Families large and small were participating in what they described to me as an ancient tradition. In this same park, one group of people were standing around the fire praying and speaking in tongues rather than making offerings; when I asked, they told me these people were the evangelio (non-Catholic Christians). And yet, all were welcomed into the melting pot of Guatemalan culture.
In traditional Mayan fire ceremonies, as I learned, the fires were made using balls of resin called raxpom, on top of which were thrown seeds, bread, candles, and anything else that might produce a sweet scent. The point of the ritual is to communicate with the gods and ancestors and through harmony with them increase their health, wealth, and happiness. (I'm sure I have simplified it quite a bit). Families get together once a week (or more) in order to keep this tradition alive, often in public parks. The family in the photo below gave their permission for me to take the photo.
For the Mayans, mountains were ideal places to commune with the gods, since they were closest to the stars. Lakes and rivers were gateways for reflecting and communing with the underworld. A lake in the mountains, therefore, would be an exceptional place for doing both. One such place I visited was Laguna Chikabal, which can be accessed via a lovely hike up the mountain and down into the lake valley. The sign below asks that visitors ask permission from their ancestors to visit the lake.
Around the lake were twenty areas sectioned off where one could perform a fire ceremony. Each area had a sign with an image of one of the twenty nawales, or spirit guides that govern a person's life based on the day they were born. The day I visited was hot and sunny, until a sudden fog poured into the lake valley without any warning. The Mayans say that this is a very good omen, perhaps a sign that the gods and ancestors are giving us an aswer.
The K'iche' are the largest of Guatemala's 28 different Mayan ethnic groups, each of which has its own language and traditions. San Andrés Xecul is one of the most notable K'iche' villages, probably due to its famous yellow church. The designs on the church are a quintessential example of religious synchretism; for example, in addition to catholic crosses and saints, there are images of the jaguar, which is one of the Mayan nawales. The top level of the church, they explained to me, used to be connected by rope to the top of a tall wooden pole across the way; during a yearly festival, each person in the village would ascend to the top of the church, climb across the rope, and slide down the pole.
Zunil was another village, though not one for tourists. K'iche' was the only language I heard spoken in public. I even took a chance and greeted a stranger with the greeting "Xeq'ij," which is used for "hello" during the mid-day. This made for a wonderful conversation starter (though I quickly had to switch to Spanish), which taught me a little about the local culture. For a tiny village, the people of Zunil seemed very globally and geopolitically aware. Some locals even mentioned having family in the United States, though they hadn't been there.
I had read that Zunil was possibly the location of the secret holy idol called Maximon, which is shaped like a life-sized person and is passed clandestinely from household to household representing a kind of celebratory god-friend of the village that everyone must feed and entertain. I did not find Maximon, though I did see a similar kind of thing in a museum in Guatemala City (photo above). But it's probably a good thing I never encountered the real Maximon; unlike the more abstract and mystical spirituality of the Mayans, which I connected with profoundly, the idolatry did not resonate with me.
Because I was so interested in Mayan spirituality, my K'iche' teacher took me to a shaman's house outside of Momostenango, where the shaman performed a traditional fire ceremony indoors. Everyone in attendance sat on pine needles covering the floor; the fire made the room very hot, though there was ventilation above. It was more elaborate than the kind I described above, since, being a shaman, he was able to use incantations and invoke the nawales with an impressive series of incantations. He spoke K'iche' during the whole ceremony, and the only things I could understand were the numbers and the name of my own nawal, the crocodile, for which the symbol is shown below.
The Mayans believed numbers were sacred and that the universe was literally counted into existence, which explains why the Mayan calendar was the basic framework for all cultural traditions. When I gave my teacher my birth date information, he used it to teach me about my nawal and also gave me a Mayan name, which I may tell you if you ask :)
This YouTube video gives a pretty good sense of what the outdoor ceremonies looked like.