Talking about the Mayan religion today forces a conversation about syncretism. After the Spanish conquistadores arrived in Latin America, the Mayans were quite forcefully exposed to Catholicism. While some converted, others maintained their traditional religious beliefs, and others still managed to build an understanding of Mayan and Catholic beliefs that accomodated both. Exaclty how this works is up for debate–some scholars believe that the Mayans simply took on Catholic names and rituals, cloaking their own beliefs in Spanish terms that would protect them from danger. Others think that Mayan beliefs truly shifted over time with exposure to the monotheism of the Spanish Catholics. It’s extremely difficult to determine which way is which (This paper, by a college student whom I don’t know, does a very nice job of explaining some of the debate, if you’d like further information).
On my travels to Mexico in 2011, I visited a town called San Juan Chamula de Chiapas. This town is a prime example of the facade of Catholicism being maintained simply as a cover for preserving Mayan tradition. In the church, San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist), a Catholic priest comes once a year for baptisms. We were told that while he presides over the sacrament of baptism in Spanish, many Mayans continue with their own practices in their local language. It’s easy to imagine this when you are there; the interior of the church looks unlike any other Christian church I have seen. There are no pews, and the floor is covered with long pine needles, the melted wax of colored candles, empty bottles of Pepsi-Cola, and, depending on the day, there may be chickens squawking. Those chickens still squawking are the lucky ones.
While images of Catholic saints line the walls and the air is thick with incense like some cathedrals, the primary ceremonies going on are led not by priests, but by Mayan curanderos, or healers. They commit sacrifices (including the chickens mentioned before) and cure illnesses of the soul. Pox, a type of liquor was traditionally drunk, but now sodas are commonly used in its place. Pictures are strictly forbidden inside the church, and discouraged in Chamula in general. I share a few images from my travels with my students, but mostly talk about my experience. I have them read this article for more details about the town and its inhabitants’ beliefs.
There are other examples of traditional Mayan understandings and practices dominating in today’s world. In my research, I came across stories of Maximon, a Catholic folk-saint based on the Mayan god Mam, whose devilish attitude differentiates him from that of the traditional Catholic saints. His bad-ass qualities appeal to many teenagers, although the Catholic Church clearly distances itself from his character. Other examples of syncretism? There are some that argue that the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who appeared to Juan Diego on a hill outside of Mexico City, was really just a version of the appearance of Mayan earth goddess Tonantzin, whose temple also happened to be located on that hill. (Here is a quick overview of some of the symbolism of images of the Virgin of Guadalupe). The Mayan cross, or world-tree that plays a crucial role in the creation story, was happily recognized by Spanish priests who brought crosses of their own. In every case, its hard to say which understanding prevails.
Such syncretism also reminds of us of the many common threads binding religions together. Yes, the Mayans had a cross based on the world-tree or tree of life, just like many other trees-of-life that emerge in other religious traditions: Judeo-Christian, Norse, Persian, Egyptian, Bah’ai, and so on. As I have my students assess these different examples and try to parse out the influences of Mayan or Christian belief, it occurs to me (and them, hopefully) that some beliefs may emerge separately but reflect the same fundamental ideas and symbolism–that we are all connected, that we need help reaching the supernatural, that gods and other supernatural figures can bring us help and hope, that the cardinal directions are important and earth and sky represent different realms. One likes to imagine that a few Spanish priests worked with this same understanding and connected with the indigenous through their commonalities. Perhaps, in this imagined scenario, syncretism could be viewed not as a loss of traditional beliefs, but as a dynamic where both sides gain?