Update: I wrote and published this post on 3/15 but it seems to have been some sort of hallucination because it doesn’t exist anymore. I’m rewriting it, because I liked it a lot. It might not be the same.
On Thursday 3/9, one week ago, my work group moved from the house site in Santa Lucia Utatlan to a little homestead in the aldea of La Cuchilla. The other group had been there earlier in the week, building stoves in the homes just above our site on the hill. They told us about a large shrine that they’d noticed in the room where they’d eaten lunch on Tuesday, and that it was different than many of the shrines we’d become accustomed to seeing in these rural Mayan houses. Usually, there’s small stylized prints of Jesus or the Virgin of Guadalupe, pictures of ancestors or family members that are off working elsewhere in the world or that have passed away. Coins and candles on the table, nothing too out of the ordinary. While Manuel’s shrine had many of these components, it also held a great many surprises.
Kevin, a member of the other work group, had noticed a pile of arrow heads on one corner of this particularly large shrine; the table that held it stretched across the entire wall of this rectangular room. Manuel was there and explained the meanings of nearly everything on his shrine to the group when they expressed interest. Manuel is seventy two years old but looks ninety, speaks no Spanish at all, and still wears the traditional traje jacket and pants that are quite rare on modern Mayan men. His daughter translated his words from Kaqchikel into Spanish for the group. As we picked up and set down the objects that Manuel and his family held sacred, his granddaughter followed behind us and gently moved them back into their proper places.
On the far right corner of his shrine was the pile of arrowheads. He and his fore-bearers had found all of them in their fields, some of which were an hour’s walking distance from the home. They believed that they were from the ancient Maya who had hunted in these hills when they were still covered in trees instead of cornfields.
On the far left were ceramic figurines, obviously quite ancient. Manuel’s daughter encouraged us to pick them up and look more closely at them, which I did quite enthusiastically and nervously. Holding something of this level of of religious importance to this family, not to mention of this age and historical value… It was extremely humbling. Manuel told us that grandfather had found them in his own cornfield in his time.
Several of our group members wondered, why aren’t these in a museum? This family has been on this land for generations. The statues are potentially of ancient Kaqchikel origin, and this family is Kaqchikel. Instead of behind a protective sheet of glass in some foreign museum that a Kaqchikel Mayan person might never see, having the literal artifacts of your ancestors in your home just feels much more powerful. I am thinking about sending the pictures that I have of them to an actual trained archaeologist just so I’ll be able to know what they were for my own edification and to satisfy my curiosity.
Surprisingly, the coolest thing about this alter was the corn. There were four different colors of corn laid out very carefully in the center of the alter underneath the pictures of Jesus and the Virgin. Corn is extremely important to the Mayans, so I was not surprised to see it here, but I was fascinated by Manuel and his daughter’s explanation.
In the K’iche Mayan creation myth, as written in the Popol Vuh, humans were made out of masa, or tamale dough made from corn. To Manuel, the different colors of corn grown in his fields represent the different colors of humans that inhabit the Earth. Though we look different, we are all made from the same dough.
“Our Creation Story teaches us that the first Grandparents of our people were made from corn. Maize is sacred to us because it connects us with our ancestors. It feeds our spirit as well as our bodies.” Juana Batz Puac, K’iche’ Maya, Day Keeper
Though we look different, we are all made from the same dough.
Now that’s a creation myth I can get behind.