Ethnographer Krystyna Deuss, author of Shamans, Witches, and Maya Priests: Native Religion and Ritual in Highland Guatemala, has been studying traditions in remote Cuchumatanes communities for decades, focusing her attention on the prayersayers, who occupy a position parallel to that of local priests. Here she explains their role and the key rituals.

The calendar

Some of the purest Maya rituals remaining are found among the Q’anjob’al Maya of northwestern Cuchumatanes. The office of alcalde resador (chief prayersayer) still exists here and the 365-day Haab calendar is used in conjunction with the 260-day Tzolkin. The former ends with the five days of Oyeb’ ku’, when adult souls leave the body; the return of the souls on the fifth day brings in the new year. As this always falls on a day of Watan, Lambat, Ben or Chinax, these four-day lords are known as the “Year Bearers” or “Chiefs”. The Haab year begins either at the end of February or the beginning of March, coinciding with the corn-planting season.

Prayersayer duties and traditions

The duty of the prayersayer is to protect his village from evil and ensure a good harvest by praying for rain at planting time and for protection against wind, pests and disease while the corn is maturing. He’s usually a man in his 60s or 70s, and his year of office – during which he and his wife must remain celibate – begins on January 1.

In Santa Eulalia, Soloma and San Miguel Acatán, where traditions are particularly strong, he lives in a purpose-built prayermakers’ house. Here he’s visited by traditionalists and left gifts of corn, beans, candles and money.

On the altar of the house stands the ordenanza, a chest that contains religious icons and ancient village documents. This chest serves as a symbol of authority and as a sacred object, and can only be opened by the alcalde resador, in private, once a year.

The resador’s whole day is spent in prayer: at his home altar before the ordenanza, in church and at sacred sites marked by crosses. Prayers for rain are often accompanied by the ritual sacrifice of turkeys, whose blood is poured over candles and incense, which is then burned at the sacred places the following day. These ceremonies are not open to the public.

New Year rituals

Festivals more in the public domain happen on January 1 when the incumbent alcalde resador hands over his responsibilities to his successor. In Soloma, after an all-night vigil, the ordenanza is carried in procession to the middle of the market square and put on a makeshift altar under a pine arch. When the incoming group arrives there are prayers and ritual drinking, and they receive their wooden staffs of office; after this, the outgoing alcalde resador is free to leave for his own home. The new prayersayer’s group stays in the marketplace, collecting alms and drinking until 3pm, when they carry the ordenanza back to the official residence in a somewhat erratic procession. Notwithstanding a further night of vigil and ceremonial drinking, at 7am the following morning the alcalde resador sets out on his first prayer-round to the sacred mountains overlooking the town.

In San Juan Ixcoy the year-end ceremonies differ in that the new resador is not appointed in advance. Here the outgoing group carries the ordenanza to a small chapel on the night of the 31st and leaves it in the care of a committee of traditionalists. The usual all-night vigil with prayers, ritual drinking and collecting alms continues throughout the following day while everyone waits anxiously for a candidate to turn up. As the office of resador is not only arduous but also expensive, the post is not always filled. The ordenanza sometimes stays locked in the chapel for several days before a volunteer takes on the office again rather than let the ordenanza and the tradition be abandoned.

– Krystyna Deuss, the Guatemalan Maya Centre, London (w maya.org.uk)

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