How many people who consider themselves Orthodox Christian still order their horoscopes or at least read them in popular magazines? At the very least everyone enjoys eating pancakes at Maslenitsa! To find out the reasons behind this phenomenon we should pack our bags and head to Guatemala with ethnographist and traveler Mikhail Rezyapkin.
Voodoo in Paris
Last winter in Paris a black gentleman in the street handed me a flier. The picture on it amazed me so much that I resisted the reflex of tossing into the bin right away. In the right corner there were some cowry shells, in the left one there was the eerie face of an African sorcerer. The text on the flier offered solutions for all love- and health-related issues, promised high earnings, and settlement of arguments guaranteeing a 100% success rate. I asked my French friend Pacrette:
– Are they serious about this?
– Of course they are! It’s very popular around here!
– How does it work?
– They buy a chicken next to the mosque and use it for a ritual.
– Is it voodoo?
– It is indeed! Would you like to see it for yourself?
Obviously I would! What could be better for a passionate ethnographist than witnessing an ancient voodoo ritual in XXI century Paris? A mosque, voodoo, Notre Dame de Paris, how do all of them coexist? Eclecticism or, to be precise, religious syncretism is the answer. Combination of the incompatible.
Religious syncretism is quite commonplace. Burning effigies (or at least eating pancakes) before fasting until Easter comes is another example of religious syncretism as a pagan ritual is mixed with a Christian tradition. Similar things happen in many nations but I reckon the most striking one happens in Central America, and it’s no surprise. The region’s history has seen Indians, sorcerers, conquistadors, pirates, and Catholic priests. If you love adventures you should experience this incredible cultural cocktail by yourself.
Islands of the Caribbean as a centre of syncretism
Syncretic cults are present in Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad and Tobago. These traditions were brought in by black slaves who were transported here to work on plantations. Their beliefs are a curious mix of Christianity (Jesus and the disciples are usually depicted black), sorcery, black magic, and sacrifices. Some of the locals consider themselves genuine Catholics while initiated sorcerers don’t like telling the truth. Syncretism is present not only among the black population bu also among native tribes.
In the heart of the Mayan world
I have seen it for the first time in Guatemala, in Chichicastenango or “the centre of the Mayan world” as the road sign puts it.
A taxi driver helped me find a small hotel owned by a kind Indian named Emilio. The owner had extraordinary teeth encrusted with gold end gemstones, a technique known to the locals since Pre-Columbian times. Archeologists have found many skulls with teeth decorated in the same style.
After unpacking at the hotel I left for the market. That was more than cultural immersion; that was more like a high dive to its very core. People carrying their goods were running about. Local people were mostly of a low stature, heavy-set, their noses had a characteristic crook while their earlobes were elongated. The famous rock pylons portray their ancestors just like this. Men wear broad-brim cowboy hats, horse-riding boots, and wide belts with oval silver buckles. Most women wear colourful home-made woolen skirts and huipil dresses. Few things about the national garment have changed in the last 200 years. Local women prefer bright colours like orange, red or light brown. They carry their goods on their heads and their kids behind their backs.
Among countless touristic souvenirs a few really interesting items may be found at the market. Knives, ponchos, blankets, spmbreros, jade necklaces, and old coins caught my eye. Women make corn flour tortillas with their puffy handsall while talking lively and loudly. The claps merge into an applause that leads me to the famous Santa Cruz del Quiche church. The claps are soon overpowered by dreary music coming from a tannoy. Is that a funeral procession? No, just church music. It is Sunday, and Mayans believe this kind of soundtrack is appropriate.
The bloody temple
I get closer. This Catholic church was built on the steps of a destroyed pagan temple where human sacrifices used to take place some 500 years ago. The sight is quite chilling. It is a beautiful church but there something eerie about it.
The funeral-like music is really getting on my nerves. Two Indians are sitting on the porch smoking cigars next to a campfire. I had to step over some candles burning on the floor right at the entrance. The priest who was blowing smoke on the visitors from a tin looked more like a sorcerer.
It was quiet inside. Some kids were playing on the floor.
‘Oye, gringo!’ someone shouted at me. ‘Want to know more about Mayan traditions? Pay five dollars!’ I looked at the guy. Americans are clearly seen as a good income source.
‘I’m not a gringo, and I’m not paying!’ I respond with the same degree of arrogance.
Descendants of ancient Mayans told me about local traditions: people still sacrifice chickens at the church by cutting off their heads and squirting blood on the altar. This is a grim compromise between Christianity and paganism. Apart from that, local icons are encrusted with ancient Mayan stones. While praying to the Immaculate Virgin an Indian also worships the ancient spirits. Most interestingly popes have visited this church several times. The pontiff is well aware of the way Christianity is practiced here. However, chicken sacrifices are not the cruelest things this place has seen.
Some 500 years ago Christianity had to literally conquer the local people’s appeal. They wouldn’t give up their blood-thirsty idols. However, after witnessing the power of believing in Jesus Christ they started worshipping their new saviour just as fiercely. They sacrificed their children. Babies were crucified right at the church to glorify Christ. Catholic monks had a hard time persuading their new parish to abandon the old tradition.
Too many impressions or maybe the incense got me dizzy, and I got out.
The building of the National Municipality stands nearby. Its walls are decorated by local artists. Here is a beaten and bleeding globe; here is the rendezvous between Indians and their spirits. Locals clearly remember their past. It’s no coincidence that the holy book of Popol Vuh written in XVI was found in Chichicastenango. This is one of the few remaining pieces of Mayan mythology as the Spanish did their best to destroy the pagan heritage of the native people.
Upon inspecting the temple I stopped to haggle with the locals and buy some Indian goods. I approached a wrinkly-faced man who was selling among other items an old coin with a Mayan calendar engraved on it, just like in the ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’. These coins actually inspired the golden tag with the skull and crossbones. I was examining the coin as the vendor yanked it out of my hands, threw it on the paved walkway, quickly picked it up, put it against my ear and said: ‘Did you hear the way it plinked? It’s pure silver!’
I laughed and said I would buy it. Then I asked if I could see a poncho. The man brought a whole bunch of them but they all were too bright, a bit too touristic. I asked if he had anything older. His eyes sparked up with enthusiasm, he then disappeared in a sidestreet and came back five minutes later with a poncho with the holy quetzal bird stitched on it. ‘This one will do!’ I said gladly. I asked the vendor who had made the stitching. ‘My mom!’ he replied proudly pointing at an old woman clad in traditional clothes.
– How much?
– 400 quetzals!
– Make it 200!
– Let’s settle at 350!
– Give me these three knives, this souvenir, and the poncho for 500!
– Muy bien, we have a deal!
We shook hands happy about the deal and the conversation we had just had and then exchanged telephone numbers. The vendor’s name is Juan. He invited me to see the Easter ceremony. He assured me it would be really interesting. Juan’s relative is a priest who might invite me to see the church service. It was an exciting offer. It might shed some light onto several secrets I’ve been investigating for a few years.
Accompanied by the continuing applauses of the tortilla makers I left the market and headed straight to the famous local cemetery protected by UNESCO.
The cemetery looks impressive even from a distance. Colourful structures reminded me of Stockholm — with its blue, pink, and yellow houses covered with roof tiles — as opposed to a final resting place.
In the middle of the cemetery a shaman had burned some incense in a campfire and started a ritual. I saluted him and he nodded back. Further back kids were sitting comfortably on a grave leaning against a tombstone and eating sweets. Their mother sat beside them making a stitching. They all nodded at me.
I gave the children some more sweets and struck up a conversation. Probably in return for the sweets the mother told her skinny sevenish year old son: ‘Go on, show him!’ The boy took my hand and led me through rows of colourful graves. After several turns we got to the tallest tombstone at the cemetery. I was astonished — it was a pagan pyramid. A copy of those on which prisoners of war used to be sacrificed by having their still beating hearts ripped out of their bodies. I was still at a Christian cemetery. I thought that was the tomb of a shaman who modern Mayans don’t like talking about. The Spanish inquisition burnt most of them.
Leaving the cemetery I waved at the shaman. He already wasn’t paying any attention to this world — he was immersed in the ritual.
Easter in a Mayan city
I spent Chare Thursday in the ancient capital of the New Spain, Guatemala Antigua. The city was busy getting ready for Easter. The main day of the Easter week is Good Friday as this is when the streets fill up with massive processions. The former colony has preserved the scale of the medieval Catholic tradition. You don’t see anything like this in Spain anymore. Local temples are equally as impressive. The beautiful massive buildings give an idea about the plans of the Spanish. A nation cannot be controlled just by power; colonisers also had to outsize their cult buildings and — by consequence — their gods. However, the latter didn’t give up easily if they did at all.
The first city in the conquered land of Guatemala was founded in 1527, just 35 year after the discovery of America and right after Mexico had been conquered by Hernan Cortez. The capital didn’t flourish for a long time. In 1542 the city — just like Pompeii — was devastated by a volcanic eruption. The Mayans saw it as their gods punishing the Spanish for their sins.
The native population interpreted events like this as signs to wage uprisings or form secret cults. The Spanish didn’t give up easily either. They built a new capital in another spot. However, the new settlement never got to be an eternal city. In 1773 it was levelled by a devastating earthquake.
I stepped on the ruins of the bygone grandeur, and my imagination couldn’t comprehend the value of the former buildings beneath my feet. Column capitals, arches, curved roofs, everything used to be beyond impressive.
National guards clad in green uniforms stand around the central square leaning against the walls. I picture ancient warriors in waistcloths holding spears instead of Kalashnikovs who stood here not so long ago. The main church’s façade is carved and posh as old furniture. There is a school in its back yard where kids are playing football. This is how a school yard unites two main religions of Latin America, football and Christianity, another example of religious syncretism. In a week’s time there is going to be a carnival.
I stepped into the church. There was a composition made of coloured sand, another pre-Christian tradition. It depicts a swarm of brightly-coloured butterflies. The artwork will disappear underneath the feet of worshippers on Good Friday. Meanwhile I could enjoy the masterpiece. As long as the eye doesn’t catch the ad of the ever-present McDonald’s stretched above the altar, being in this church feels like time travelling. I did feel like being clever by saying ‘Easter. Sponsored by McDonald’s’ but then I thought if this ad was no coincidence. Maybe this is the sign of the coming of our new gods Consumerism and Oniomania?
Thoughtful, I stepped out to the sunlit square and headed further downtown hoping to catch a flimpse of the fleeting past behind every corner. Turning my head toward the sound of clatter I hoped to hear armour cling. No luck. There are no conquistadors. It was another horse carriage filled with happy Japanese tourists holding their Canon cameras.
Written by Mikhail Rezyapkin
Translated by Tony Savosin