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Article ID: 14316

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Modern Maya Rituals

Author: Janice Van Cleve
Posted: February 6th. 2011
Times Viewed: 7,824

By great good fortune, I was recently invited to join a tour through Guatemala as a guest lecturer. The major focus of our itinerary was to witness and participate in a number of modern Maya rituals.

The Maya developed a very sophisticated civilization, which flourished in Central America for almost 1, 500 years – from 250 BCE to the Spanish Conquest in the 16th Century. The classic period of Maya history when they build their most famous temples and cities was between 250 CE and 850 CE. They mysteriously abandoned their southern cities to the jungle in the 9th Century, which is fortunate for archeologists because, unlike Athens or Rome, these ruins were not recycled into later cities. Except for the impacts of weather, roots, and time, they are very much as the Maya left them.

Today the lands of Yucatan, Chiapas, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador are home to some seven million Maya. Lands communally held by native farmers in ancient times were gobbled up by the Spanish during the conquest and the Maya were forced to work in near slavery for their new masters. That pattern has continued in modern times in which the Ladino urban elite has dominated politics and the economy at the expense of the rural Maya. But the Maya have often rebelled. The whole second half of the 19th Century saw the Maya almost succeed in overthrowing Mexican control of the Yucatan. There were rebellions in the 20th Century in El Salvador and Chiapas, sparking a sanctuary movement in the United States for refugees of the conflicts. Guatemala convulsed in a bloody civil war that ended only in 1996.

The peace treaty ending that war allowed the Maya, among other things, to practice their religion again. A visitor to Tikal or one of the many other sites in Guatemala today may be surprised to see new altars in the old ruins blackened by recent sacrificial fires. We burned some of those sacrificial fires on our trip to see and participate in modern Maya rituals.

Eight Batz Ritual

Momostenango lies in the heart of Quiche country. The Quiche Maya live in the rich fertile highlands of western Guatemala where they grow maize, vegetables, and beans just like their ancestors did 2000 years ago. And just like their ancestors, they mark the turning of their almanac calendar in a ceremony called Eight Batz. Eight Batz is the beginning of the next 260-day ritual cycle. The Maya also follow the annual Haab calendar of 18 months of 20 days each and one unlucky month of 5 days duration. Still another calendar called the Long Count tracks the number of days since the Fourth Creation. This is the one that begins the inscriptions on most of the classical dated monuments. It is the Long Count calendar that turns over on December 21, 2012. The Maya don’t use this calendar anymore and could care less about the so-called end of the world that fascinates some non-Maya groups in the United States.

We gather on a hilltop outside of the city. This is one of five or six hilltops on which worshippers are coming together to burn offerings and make their petitions to the gods for the coming cycle. It is 4:00 am and pitch dark. The stars shine brightly overhead. We easily pick out the turtle constellation, which is how the Maya classify Orion’s belt. We see the triangle of the three stars – Alnitak, Rigel, and Saiph – which form the hearthstone or place of origin for the Maya. They believe that this is where creation began.

The shaman prepares the fire very carefully. First he makes a circle of sugar about three feet in diameter. He quarters the circle with sugar and makes a small circle in each of the quarters. Then he places a ring of copal incense nodules around the outer rim and four large cones of copal in the center. The space between the cones he fills with charcoal. Atop that he carefully arranges a pyramid of sticks, herbs, and cigars. He alternates thin taper candles around the top – white for the ancestors and yellow for healing. Each of us is given two candles of each color, which we hold tightly in our hands in anticipation for what follows.

The shaman prays in Quiche. We don’t understand what he is saying, but we have paid money in advance for this ritual to cover the cost of materials, etc. Since money is a form of energy in our modern society, our contributions help to transform us from being merely spectators to active participants. Our donations are a realistic and efficient way to demonstrate our respect for the shaman who is praying on our behalf and to join our energies with his.

Four other shamans join us. They call the four directions in this order: east then west, north and finally south. East is red for the dawn. West is black for the night. North is white for the clouds and south is yellow for the noonday sun. The shamans do not cast a circle. The hilltop is apparently already holy ground that needs no clearing, casting, or consecrating. When the fire gets going, they invoke each of the 20 day signs in all 13 of their aspects: one Imix, two Imix, three Imix, and so on. Now we are grounded in both space and time. When all 260 days of the cycle have been invoked, the chief shaman invites each of us to put our prayers and wishes into the candles and one by one step up to the fire and throw them in. Fire is the catalyst that converts offerings into smoke, which the gods can consume. In classical times they burned blood soaked papers and beating hearts of victims the same way for the same reason.

Every so often the shaman splashes alcohol on each of the four quarters to flare up the flames. He dumps a healthy scoop of granular copal into a charcoal fired censer and walks around behind us liberally bathing us in the sweet smelling incense. Afterwards we approach the fire individually a second time to smudge ourselves. We scoop the smoke over and around our bodies in 13 repetitions. Then the shaman’s wife takes a bouquet of flowers and after infusing it with smoke, strokes everyone’s aura with it front and back. At the end of the ceremony, there is no devocation of the day signs. Instead, the shamans line up and we pass by them giving each a double hug. The fire is left to burn out of its own accord when we leave.

This same ritual is performed at two other altars on our hilltop and on four other hilltops in the area. Momostenango means “place of many altars”. By this time the sun is risen and we can see smoke rising from the other hills. Some shamans and their initiates stay up all night and make a pilgrimage to each of the five hilltops. This ceremony will be repeated after another 260 days have passed.

Maximon Ritual

Santiago lies on the south shore of Lake Atitlan, which is itself the deep throat of a huge ancient volcano, filled with water. It has no spillway, but rather empties through cracks in its floor caused by earthquakes centuries ago. Santiago is one of the centers of the Kaqchikel Maya who were a main target of government oppression during the civil war.

The men of Santiago centuries ago created a god they called Maximon. They freely acknowledge that they created him – no star in the east, no divine revelation, no initiated tradition handed down. This is important because it shows that at least in some instances the Maya understand that they have the power to create gods, as they need them. In this case, this god was supposed to protect the women of the town while the men were away on business, because Santiago is on the main trade route from communities on the Pacific coast to the highlands.

However, the story goes that the men discovered that their women were getting pregnant anyway and they suspected Maximon. They cut off the idol’s arms and legs (and the other appendage) and they converted him into a deity from whom they ask favors. I did not witness any prayers or actions that showed worship of the god for his own sake, at least as far as I could grasp. They appear rather to focus upon him their prayers and supplications. I’m not sure if he is supposed to be an intercessor and to whom, or if they believe he has the power himself to grant their wishes. We learned that they trot him out on parade during Easter week and otherwise house him in a shabby backroom shrine on a side street.

Our path to Maximon seemed at first to have all the earmarks of a scam. First our guide said not everybody could visit Maximon, especially tourists. You have to know where he is (scam sign #1 – create mystery and exclusivity) . Then the guide took us on a winding path through the dank warrens of the city to a narrow dim alley (scam sign #2 – take your marks on a journey. This invests them in the mystery) . Then just before you go in talk about offerings but be very vague about how much is enough (scam sign #3 – shake down for cash.) By this time the marks will figure “Oh well, we’ve come this far, we may as well pay.” It really wasn’t all that much, actually, and it is an effective way of contributing our energy to the ritual.

The shrine is in a dim dusty back room in a rambling barrio of similar rooms. It has a tin roof and no windows. The ceiling is decked out in a checkerboard of cheap plastic doilies interspersed with colored balloons. Two of the checkerboard squares hold circular fluorescent lights for illumination. Leaning against the walls on either side of the entrance are painted statues of saints carved of wood like you’d expect in an old village church. Among them is a statute for death and several images in coffins decked with plastic flowers. Votive lamps flicker before them.

In the center of the room is a table with a bench behind for visitors and the idol of Maximon propped up in front. About 12 votives flicker in front of him. He smokes and drinks so a lighted cigarette is constantly in his mouth. This creates the image of movement and life in the statue. He is clothed with various hanks of cloth and on his head are two cowboy hats, both with pink and purple veils hanging off the back.

On either side of the idol are stools on which sit the acolytes. The one on the left tends the cigarette, occasionally catching the ash in a pan or inserting a new one and lighting it. The one on the right assists the deacon. He counts out the donations very openly as part of the ritual, he keeps the censer burning, and he helps the deacon with communion. Communion, by the way, consists of beer and 150 proof rum. Alcohol is a key ingredient of Maya rituals. Bishop Landa in 1566 noted that the natives got drunk during their religious ceremonies and Evon Vogt noted in his anthropological study (1970) of the Zinacanteco Maya in Chiapas that rum is an essential ingredient of their religious practices.

Then the priest arrives with his client. They kneel before Maximon and line up more candles in front of the votives already there. The priest prays on the client’s behalf. The prayers were in Kaqchikel, which I did not understand, but they seemed to say that the client is a good person and please grant her request. At one point the priest removes one of the cowboy hats off of the idol and places it on his client’s head with the veil hanging down in front covering her face. He says some more prayers and then has her kiss the hat on all four of its sides before returning it to the idol. This may have been a symbolic way of bonding the client and the god.

The acolyte hands the priest a crude censer made out of a large tin can that is filled with burning charcoal. It has a handle fashioned out of a coat hanger. The priest heaps generous scoops of copal into this censer producing thick clouds of sweet smoke. He censes the idol, his client, and himself. Then he passes it around so we can all smudge ourselves. The tightly crowded room, billowing smoke, flickering candles in the dark, and tacky decorations are almost overpowering. Our vision blurs and breathing is difficult. The mind gets a little dizzy. The combination actually does work to transform the dingy little room into an otherworldly place.

Toward the end of the ceremony the client makes her personal prayers to Maximon. She seems not at all shy that she is asking for very personal things in front of all these visitors. In fact our role there lends support to her pleas and she gratefully asks Maximon to include our wishes with her own. Finally the deacon pours the beer and passes the cups around. Then he pours shot glasses of the rum and passes them as well. After he repeats this several times, we’re all thinking this religion is looking pretty dang good! The acolytes even tilt back the idol so they can pour beer and rum into his mouth as well. After the first ceremony, a second priest came in with his client and the whole rite was repeated.

Rose Petal Rituals

The end of the civil war in Guatemala not only allowed Maya shamans to construct altars and lead rituals at classical Maya sites. The people themselves gained the right in some cases to preserve and rebuild temples in the ancient cities. What they build may not be archeologically correct, but it is culturally correct and this is what they have done at Iximche, which is between Lake Atitlan and Antigua. This former Kaqchikel capital rebelled against the Spanish after earlier joining them against their rivals, the Quiche. In one corner of this sprawling complex, the native people have built a small temple with niches on all four sides for votive offerings much like the votive candle racks in Catholic churches. Before this temple is a circular concrete altar where we performed another ritual.

The ritual at Iximche and the one at Quirigua were both led by the same shaman and his family who accompanied us on our journey. The performances were both very similar so I have chosen to combine them here.

The shaman covers the altar with a graceful carpet of pinon fronds. Over this he carefully designs a four-pointed star in rose petals creating compass points to each of the four directions. In the center he constructs a circle of copal nodules with a pile of charcoal in the center. On this base he raises a pyramid of wood and colored candles crowned by a spire of candles at the peak.

The candles represent a sacrifice of all that we hold dear, including even our very bodies. Red candles signify blood, the burning of which is food for the gods and a symbolic substitute for a more sanguine offering. White is for bone. Yellow is for flesh. The Maya believe that the Fourth Creation was the fourth attempt by the gods to create worshippers who could articulate prayers and remember the rites. The result of this creation was humans made from maize, hence the yellow color for flesh. Green and blue are merged together to represent Nature. Black is for the night. They use cream-colored candles as well, but their significance was not explained. The family’s children pass out two candles of each color to each of us – except for the cream colored ones.

Over to the side at the base of the reconstructed pyramid, is laid out the shaman’s personal altar. In the center of a circle of beads are two equilateral crosses. These appear to represent the sun (like on the flag for the state of New Mexico in the USA) because where the arms intersect is molded an ahau day sign. I did not see if the one underneath had the number of the day, but it would not surprise me. There is a mask of a god above the circle of beads as well.

The shaman calls the four directions in the Maya way: east first, then west, followed by north, then south. He prays to the lord of the day and this time we all kneel and he kisses the altar in a clear sign of worship. His censer is a nice ceramic model with a ceramic handle. With it he censes the altar and then walks around behind each of us to bathe us in smoke. I think the translator said this was part of a purification rite, but I’m not sure I captured that correctly.

Then began the counting of the days. The shaman and his wife alternated chanting the 13 counts of each of the 20 days, occasionally tossing a candle into the fire. Several days before in Antigua we calculated our personal day signs which serve as our zodiac natal signs in Maya terms. According to one source, the Maya count daybreak as the beginning of the new day, not midnight, so since I was born at 1:09 am, my sign is the one from what would correspond to the previous day in Gregorian reckoning. As the count of days proceeds, we listen for our day sign. When we hear it, we step forward, pray our desires into our candles, and toss them into the fire.

The kids come round again and give us each a handful of sesame seeds. When we throw them into the flames it makes a crackling sound. We also throw in handfuls of sugar. The shaman stirs the fire one more time and stokes the censer. He walks around us to smoke us all again and sets the censer on the altar. Then we walk widdershins around the circle, stopping to smudge ourselves in the smoke of the fire and the smoke of the incense. Finally we end the ritual with hugs all around.


There are not many resources for further study of modern Maya ritual practices. Evon Vogt’s The Zinacantecos of Mexico: A Modern Maya Way of Life (Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1970) is one of the best scientific anthropological studies. The much better known Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path by David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker (Harper Collins 1993) is hugely valuable as much for the informed speculations of the authors as for their eyewitness accounts. Of course no understanding of Maya mythology can even begin without the Popol Vuh translated by Dennis Tedlock (Simon and Schuster 1985) . This is the Maya bible as it has come down from the Quiche people. There are also nine Chilam Balam books from several Yucatan towns which were compiled in the 18th and 19th centuries which contain prophesies, herbal lore, calendrics, astrology, and mythology.

However, there is no substitute for actual first hand witness and I do count it as a major learning experience to have seen these rituals and even participated in them. They ring true to their cultural roots with no reference or apologies to the veneer of Catholic religion that was imposed by the Spanish. As a Wiccan priestess myself, I appreciated the use and meaning of symbols in these rituals and the activation and movement of energy that was created. I am grateful to the modern Maya shamans and their people who are willing to let foreigners peek into this most sacred and intimate part of their lives.

Copyright: Copyright Janice Van Cleve, 2010, 2011.


Janice Van Cleve

Location: Seattle, Washington

Author's Profile: To learn more about Janice Van Cleve - Click HERE

Bio: Janice Van Cleve is the author of several research papers on the Maya as well as two books – Eighteen Rabbit – The Intimate Life and Tragic Death of a Maya God-King and The Founder – The Life of Yax Kuk Mo, Mover and Shaker in the Maya World.

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