Nov 21, 2011

Mayan Courtship, Shawl-Pulling, & Dancing with the Saints

In Santiago, the Mayan women, young and old, wear shawls, and the shawls are an intrinsic part of courtship. If a young Mayan male wants to let a Mayan girl know he is interested, he expresses it by pulling on her shawl. The girl, if she is to protect her honor, holds on to her shawl and doesn’t let the man take it away. In this first courting gesture, the young Mayan should be careful not to pull too hard and the Mayan girl doesn’t want to let him take her shawl away. If she wants to let him know she is interested, she can do so by not pulling away immediately. The little tug of war indicates the degree of interest of both parties, and it is important for young Mayans to develop the necessary social skills to perform the ritual correctly, as in a kind of dance.

If the girl’s response is encouraging, the next time the young Mayan holds onto the shawl a while longer or pulls a little harder. If the dance reaches a point where neither party lets go of the shawl, a bond has been established between them.

If the man pulls too hard and takes the shawl away from the woman, her family is obliged to visit the young man’s home and demand its return. Men who commit this error repeatedly become known as shawl-snatchers, and Mayan girls are careful to keep their distance from them. The other side of the coin is when a young girl has her shawl taken too many times. Then her family collects the shawl more apologetically, word gets around, and less and less Mayan males want to pull that particular girl’s shawl.

Last week, I went to a local ceremony at the shrine of San Miguel, where a shaman danced with his bundle. There were five travelers, all dressed up in local garb: a gay man, a lesbian couple, an old lady, and a beautiful girl named Jenna, aged twenty. The group—who had all met up while in Guatemala—had run into Dolores several times by chance, and she took it as a sign and introduced them to an American psychotherapist, Ileana, who lives in Santiago. Ileana offered to organize a “spiritual retreat” for them (for a sum), and they agreed.

I met the group at the San Miguel shrine, where I was filming the ceremony. Nicholas, a Mayan versed in local history, had been hired by Ileana to provide the group with historical information. Ileana also paid Las Confradias (the shaman brotherhood) to let the “gringos” dance with the saints (wooden figurines of San Juan, San Miguel, Jesus, and the Jaguar) as part of their spiritual retreat. At a given point, the doors and windows were closed, the marimba music stopped, and candles were handed out to everyone present. The shaman honored the four directions and then used a candle to light everyone else’s, moving slowly around the room until all the candles were burning. The dancing then began, culminating when the shaman danced alone with his mysterious bundle.

By that time everyone’s candle had burned almost all the way down, and they were blown out and the stubs handed to the shaman, one by one, who placed them in a small container. Everyone then lined up to kiss the scarves of the saints and the ceremony was over. People continued dancing, however. Nicholas danced with Jenna for more or less the whole time, and I danced with Debbie, one of the lesbians. At one point, the button of my sleeve caught on the fringe of her shawl, and I realized I was pulling it off her without meaning to. “That means I like you,” I said, and laughed. Debbie seemed puzzled so I told her it was a tradition here. She asked Dolores if it was true. Dolores told her that it was: “That’s how they do things here in the village,” she said, and explained the curious ritual of the shawl-pulling. Debbie’s partner caught the end of the conversation, and feigned jealousy at my “courting” her woman.

Nov 10, 2011

Chutinamit ceremony Nov 2011

It was 9 dog day (Tz’i) on the Mayan calendar when we did the ceremony on Chutaminit at the base of the San Pedro Volcano. Dolores Ratzan had been hired to conduct a purification ceremony for a group of seventeen  travelers . A local shaman performed the ceremony and I was there to film it. Underneath the spot where the ceremony was to take place were two buried Mayan temples, invisible to the eye. The shaman lit the coals and burned copal incense, lit candles for the four directions, and laid out chocolate, sugar, and rum as offerings, all the while intoning an ancient Mayan prayer which Dolores translated for the group.  Towards the end of the ceremony I struck up a conversation with a woman I had been introduced to and whom I knew to be a doctor.  I made asked her how the ceremony compared to western medicine. She gave a curt and dismissive response, so I dropped it. Cleary she wasn’t open to the idea of shamanic healing, which caused me wonder why she had volunteered for the experience in the first place.
Four days later, on the boat across the lake to Panajachel, I met another woman, and during the course of our conversation I discovered that she was also a doctor. She told me that a hundred physicians were being flown in from Canada the following day in order to perform free hysterectomies for Guatemalan women. The woman, whose name was Eve, was concerned about how to communicate with the indigenous women. She was aware of the cultural divide and that the difference in worldviews might prove problematic. She asked me about Maximon and the kind of shamanic healing that went on in Santiago, hoping to gain a more rounded  perspective. I told her how the Mayans believe that diseases are the result of subtler kinds of energies entering into the body that eventually manifest as physical symptoms. They believe that, even if the damage caused by these foreign energies is too severe to be healed, it is still important for the energies be taken out. Removing such foreign energies—invisible to modern medical instruments—was the shaman’s job—and also Maximon’s. Unlike the first doctor I had met, Eve was open to my words; her mind was a parachute, in fact, making her the exact opposite of the other woman. It was a strange symmetry, and it brought home to me how much being in Guatemala is like walking simultaneously in two different worlds.
I believe in western medicine. I also believe in shamanic healing. There are times when a shaman cannot help you, and there are times when a professional doctor cannot heal you. Yet there is a practical, material basis for energy work (even if it’s little understood), and there is an element of faith healing (the placebo effect) to modern medicine. So the two fields overlap.
It was a relief to run into Eve, because after that first encounter, it reassured me that the two points of view (those of Mayan and western culture) could be bridged. Maybe even this was part of why I was here—to mediate between those two worlds, or weltanschauungs.
As a Westerner experiencing total immersion in Mayan culture, I get to be equally in both worlds, and enjoy the best of both.