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K’ekchi Mayan Paganism

Author: Bob Makransky
Posted: November 20th. 2011
Times Viewed: 4,018

In contrast to the Abrahamic religions (which include rationalistic-materialism: the pseudo-science practiced in capitalistic academia) , paganism isn’t a matter of beliefs, but rather of cognition. Paganism seeks to operate on an altogether different guidance system than thinking – namely, feeling; intuition; direct knowing. Paganism isn’t learned from books, but rather from relaxing, turning off the thinking mind, and tuning in to the messages of the plants; the wind; and the world around us.

Direct knowing is a more functional operating system for hunter-gatherers than is thinking (which became predominant when agriculture was invented) . As the earth continues to turn against us humans; and our materialistic society collapses as its short-term profit- (rather than long-term survival-) oriented mechanisms are increasingly unable to adequately respond to the crisis; this original form of cognition will revindicate itself. Either we humans will relearn how to rely upon feeling (direct knowing) rather than thinking to make our moment-to-moment decisions; or else we won’t survive as a species. We will either relearn how to listen to what the earth, our mother, is telling us; or else she will spit us out. This is what the much-vaunted coming transformation in consciousness is all about. The survivors of the coming holocaust (if there are any) will be the witches; and the new society they rebuild will be formed along pagan lines.

In this regard it can be fruitful to take a look models of present-day pagan societies (of which a few remain on the earth) , for indications of the possible forms and directions which can be taken by societies which emphasize feeling and intuition over thinking and believing. Although the Mayan Indians of Central America are, for the most part, subsistence maize farmers (i.e., agriculturalists) ; and for over three millennia their noble and priestly classes have evolved one of the most complex and sophisticated intellectual systems (mathematical, astronomical-astrological) which the human race has ever devised; nonetheless their everyday cognition is decidedly pagan (not materialistic) .

Anyone trying to make head or tail of Mayan stories (such as the Mayan “Bible”, the Popul Vuh) ; or trying to interview Mayan priests with a view towards understanding the taxonomy of their systems of deities and worlds and astrology; soon runs up against a wall: there is no way of classifying anything. You can’t get the same answer about anything from two different Mayan priests; nor the same answer from the same priest on two different days. When performing ceremonies Mayan priests recite sing-songy litanies which don’t really mean anything per se, but instead have a lyrical, evocative, poetic quality rather than any kind of literal meaning. In other words, to the Mayans thinking is not really the point.

In making major decisions, Mayans rely upon one form or another of what we would call channeling spirits. Everyday life in a Mayan home is governed by a set of ritualized behaviors which serve to remind people that everything – plants, animals, rocks, mountains, possessions – have feelings which must be respected in order to live in harmony with Ahau (The Spirit of the Universe) , of which everything that lives is a manifestation.

There are at least two dozen Mayan tribes in Guatemala, who speak related but mutually unintelligible languages, and who possess differing cultural and religious traditions. In this article we will examine some features of K’ekchi Mayan (north-central Guatemalan) paganism; but K’ekchi traditions are similar in kind to those of their neighboring tribes.

To the Mayans, everything is alive; everything is watching; everything cares. A person’s health, wealth, and well-being are very much dependent upon maintaining a correct balance in this world of living entities, many of whom are malevolent, or at the very least super-sensitive to being slighted. Some entities must be scrupulously avoided; others worshipped or propitiated.

Although there is a host of spirits – mostly malevolent – in the Mayan worldview, the principle deity of the K’ekchi Maya is Kawa Tzul Taka (Lord Mountain Valley) , who has power over – and takes care of – the earth, trees and plants, rocks, animals, and humans. Although usually referred to in speech as a male being, Mayan priests, if pressed, will aver that Kawa Tzul Taka has no sex; or perhaps is a dual deity partaking in nature of two of the nine Mayan gods of the earth (namely the Creators-Formers Gucumatz, the feathered serpent; and his consort Tepeu, the Conqueror) .

Kawa Tzul Taka can mete out punishment to those who offend him; and he confers blessings upon those who worship him. He is invoked at ceremonies which take place several times yearly, at the times of the planting (April) , cultivating (July) , and harvesting (October) of the maize crop.

During the prayers at these ceremonies the altar will sometimes appear to “light up” – a palpable presence fills the room – and a group of female channels are ready to receive Kawa Tzul Taka’s messages, and then pass them on to the attending priests. It is normal for Kawa Tzul Taka to appear in the dreams of leaders of religious brotherhoods to tell them whom to appoint to which offices in the brotherhood (appointments should not be made in the absence of such dreams) .

Unlike the ceremonies of other Mayan groups (which take place in daytime, around an open fire) , K’ekchi ceremonies take place at night or in caverns (k’ek means dark or night, and the word K’ekchi means “of the darkness”) . These ceremonies go on all night long, prayer alternating with dancing to slow, rhythmic, haunting son music accompanied by musicians on homemade harp, guitar, violin and drum. After the prayers conclude at 2:00 am, everyone shakes hands and eats. At dawn the men (who have already been awake for 24 hours) scatter to nearby caves to invoke Kawa Tzul Taka’s blessing on the maize crop and the community. The following noon the participants gather again for a luncheon and prayer session.

Kawa Tzul Taka is associated with the mountains, and the thirteen principle peaks in the K’ekchi area are regarded as especial manifestations of Kawa Tzul Taka (and they are considered to communicate with one another through the lightning and shooting stars) . All mountain tops – and also cave entrances, crossroads, and entrances to villages – are marked by wooden crosses, which represent the presence of Kawa Tzul Taka. To the K’ekchi’s, many (but not all) man-made objects are considered to possess souls; but crosses (Mayan crosses which, unlike Christian crosses, are equilateral) are unquestionably the most sacred of man-made objects. When people come to one of these crosses they must give offerings of incense, candles, flowers, or pine boughs as a sign of veneration for Kawa Tzul Taka. A slow son dance might also be dedicated to the deity, and a prayer made thanking Kawa Tzul Taka for his protection. A stone is often left at a cross as a substitute for the person’s soul. Before continuing on their journey, people will switch their legs and feet with small branches to ensure that their feet do not get tired.

Before cutting a tree, moving a boulder, or clearing a site for planting or building, permission for injuring the earth must be sought from Kawa Tzul Taka at a cross or in a mountain cave. This often involves sexual abstinence, and observance of food taboos, for a period of thirteen days prior to the ceremony. As in most K’ekchi ceremonies, Kawa Tzul Taka is propitiated with offerings of turkey soup, cacao, candles, flowers, and copal pom incense, as well as prayers of petition. At especially important rituals, such as planting ceremonies, or planting the corner post of a house, a chicken might be sacrificed as well, and its blood sprinkled on the seed maize and the cross.

If permission is not sought or is not properly requested (if sexual or food taboos were not observed) , then Kawa Tzul Taka will retaliate: hunters are punished with a dearth of game, or are bitten by snakes; farmers find their crops attacked by animals or destroyed by winds and rain; or the people might suffer illness or lose their souls. Besides fulfilling ceremonial requirements, it is necessary to propitiate Kawa Tzul Taka by leading a good life. Arrogance, marital fighting, and lust can bring punishments or soul loss. Whenever an offense against Kawa Tzul Taka has been committed, counteracting rituals must be performed.

Soul loss can either be permanent (resulting in death) or temporary (manifesting by physical or mental illness, or being struck dumb) . The souls of the dead are considered dangerous to the living, since they are considered to linger on, and can steal the souls or frighten the survivors with noises and manifestations if they are not propitiated. Candles or maize stalks are placed in the coffin as substitutes for surviving relatives, so that the dead soul doesn’t return to take its loved ones with it; and when the family leaves the home for the cemetery, an old woman remains behind to sweep the house and bid the dead soul to depart with the body.

It must be pointed out by someone who has experience in both societies that the reason we don’t experience such manifestations – we don’t intuitively sense and pick up on such things – is because our decadent, materialistic society has completely desensitized us to feeling – to feeling what is REALLY going on. We are robotic automatons, programmed to goose-step and “Sieg Heil!” We have lost our ability to feel and respond to our feelings. However, the K’ekchi’s – at least the few who are left who have not fallen under the spell of Evangelical Christian materialism – have not. When I began attending the ceremonies described in this article a decade ago, perhaps 70 or 80 people in my village attended these ceremonies. Now (in 2011) , they are down to 15 or 20.

If people fall into a river, their souls are considered to remain trapped in the water until they provide a ritual substitute – an image of themselves fashioned from copal pom incense, which includes bits of the people’s hair and fingernails. Incense is burned at the spot where the people fell into the river and their souls are coaxed to return.

Besides humans and spirits, certain objects possess souls, and become sad (rather than malevolent) if not treated respectfully. Some of these sacred objects are foodstuffs, particularly maize, beans, and sugar cane; and religious objects such as the cross, incense, candles, and harp. If the soul of one of these sacred objects is lost (through disrespect) then the well-being and happiness of the family suffers as a result. If maize is insulted (by being wasted, for example) then it loses its power to protect itself against mice and weevils, and it won’t germinate when used for seed. Besides disrespectful treatment, the soul of the maize can be lost by leaving a ladder standing against the house in whose rafters the maize is stored (the soul of the maize will slither down the ladder and get lost) .

As mentioned previously, special all-night propitiatory ceremonies are done to bless the seed maize, which is fed with turkey soup, cacao, and boj (fermented cane juice) , and the blood of sacrificial chickens. Besides seed maize, religious objects such as the cross, harp, and shakche (decorated arch of liquidamber boughs placed at the entrance of the house) must be ceremoniously fed with boj liquor, or else they lose their protective power (for example, the harp won’t play properly and the arch will permit disruptive people and influences into the house) .

Other objects which possess souls and can punish disrespect are trees, which must never be cut and left to rot without being used; and the house itself, which is considered to be greater than the sum of the souls of the trees which were cut down to construct it, and which can sicken and kill the family within if it is not treated respectfully. This propitiation begins when the first corner-holes for the house are dug, by feeding the holes the blood of a sacrificial chicken. When the construction is completed, candles are burned in the four corners and another chicken is sacrificed so its blood can be used to feed the rafters and door, to propitiate the spirit of the house. Bridges also have souls, and pigs (formerly, humans) are sacrificed at ceremonies to feed the spirit of a newly-built bridge so that it won’t take human victims (take the souls of people passing over it by occasioning their fall) .

A person’s walking stick is considered beneficent to the person, but malevolent for anyone else. Walking sticks are stuck in the ground at night near the pallets where they sleep to waken the owners in case a thief breaks into the house. Hammocks must not be left hanging up when not in use; nor must brooms be left outside overnight, else the spirit of the night will desecrate them and bring illness to the owner. The spirit of the night is dangerous, and indeed K’ekchi’s who go abroad at night do so in trepidation. Pregnant women avoid going out at night for fear their fetus might become sick or deformed; and men must avoid lustful thoughts when they are outside at night else they be accosted by temptress spirits who can steal their souls.

The point here is not that we modern pagans should mindlessly ape the Mayans’ particular cultural traditions (as so many New Agers seem to be doing, with their phony “2012 Mayan prophecy” bullshit) , but rather that we understand how the Maya sanctify their everyday lives; and perhaps emulate the essence of what they are doing (not the outward shibboleths) in our own fashion – and perhaps with less of the irrational fear (which is also a staple of the Abrahamic religions) . The Maya have a connection to the world about them which we moderns, in our materialistic society, have largely lost. The Maya make this connection by instilling a sense of humility (rather than self-important hubris) in people – by making people aware that they are not the center of the universe – and also by restoring a sense of the sacred to the routines of everyday life.

Our society teaches people not to care about the fate of our mother earth or future generations; and then it wonders why the earth has turned against us. We modern pagans have to point out that it is possible to feel the world rather than conceptualize it; to follow our own intuition rather to mindlessly obey societal fiat; to base our actions on the assumption that we are not the most important thing going. This is the lesson we can learn from the K’ekchi Maya.

(excerpted from Magical Almanac free monthly ezine .


Bob Makransky

Location: Coban, Guatemala


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