Saturday, February 19, 2011

A chance encounter: Ofrendas en Chiché

Today being Saturday, I went to the market in Chiché, planning just a quick stop to get some yerbas (greens), chicken and some gifts to bring back when I return to the U.S. for a brief visit next week. I told myself sternly before leaving to not allow myself to get seduced and buy too much, so that I don't end up with a puddle of brown mush in the fridge upon my return. Last week I ended up giving away a couple of things (small quantities) so they didn't rot and go to waste. 

On the way back, as I was snaking my way out of town, I passed in front of the church, a simple but lovely structure. I've never stopped there, but today my eyes and nose were grabbed by the sight and smell of three men on the plaza in front of the church, wielding metal cans filled with pungent incense, the smoke of which spiraled through the air in great clouds: sacerdotes Mayas (or aq'iqs).  

I greeted them (they nodded their acknowledgment of my presence even as they continued their prayers and their labors with the incense) and motioned towards my camera; they nodded again (which I took to mean that it was okay to take photographs), and I did my best to not impede their work.

One stood in front of the entrance, on the steps; I noticed that at his feet he had a small burlap sack with candles, a plastic bag filled with what looked like popped corn, and a small flask of aguardiente or rum.  

I do not know a lot about Maya religious practices -- that is, I don't know the details of prayers and the specific meaning of each of the offerings. But my previous experiences with Afrocuban religions (and the few discussions I have had with Maya friends about religion) have given me a basic conceptual scheme. Like in Afrocuban religions, the Catholic Church provides a locus or a shelter. I don't think people think of what they are doing as "syncretic"; they are simply doing what they do. So it didn't surprise me that the church was open, and that people in the community were using it for their own purposes -- and although I didn't speak to anyone today about what they were doing, I would imagine that they did not see any contradiction between today's offerings and perhaps going to Mass tomorrow.  Although the Catholic Church has not always been hospitable to Maya religion (or "spirituality" as it might be called), and certainly not at all levels, there have been priests (and nuns) who have been tolerant or welcoming; in 2009, I attended a community worship led by a Franciscan sister in a remote rural community, and the floor was decorated with traditional offerings: candles in four colors, pine needles, and before the Catholic prayers began, everyone knelt and saluted the four cardinal directions with prayers in K'iche'. 

When I entered the church building I was momentarily blinded: the sun's rays refracted through a thick cloud of incense smoke. There were three low flat stone tables in the center of the church -- that is, in the middle, an equal distance from the side walls, and leading in a line towards the altar.  Each was partially covered with thin white candles, brightly flaming, arranged in evenly spaced rows.  As I stood and watched, two other priests tended the tables: saying prayers, lighting more candles, and placing the end of each newly-lit candle in the flame of one already standing, softening the wax so that the candle could stand upright, eventually filling the space on top of each tables. Each one worked slightly differently and I didn't stay long enough to analyze what each did, but they lit candles, sprinkled flower petals, and then rum on top, reciting prayers all the while. 

One man worked alone, his wife kneeling quietly alongside or slightly behind him. Another, younger man, was accompanied by a friend, assistant or another priest. There were a few women seated on the side of the church, and when I arrived one woman was kneeling alongside the altar at the front, which was already nearly filled with candles. I again motioned to the priests when they looked at me, with my camera in hand, and they indicated their assent. The air was sweet and heavy with incense and although I don't know enough K'iche' to understand the prayers, and I didn't know the specific details of why this offering was being made, I tried to imagine what it might be about.

Two young women dressed in jeans came in while I was there, and few elderly men wearing morales (crocheted shoulder bags) and straw hats. A young girl wearing a Chichicastenango-style huipil over a pair of maroon or purple sweatpants with a white stripe down the side and sneakers scampered in and out. 

I moved back to the entrance, and saw that the spaces on either side of the open doors had been filled with candles placed on the floor.  Back outside, one of the priests was standing in front of a small house-like structure on the plaza in front of the church. It had three arched openings in the front, and he placed round globe of incense and candles on the ground inside each of the arches -- starting on the right, lit the candles, and then stepped back and swung his censer around as the candles burned and then the incense inside caught fire. 

A friend who saw the photos on Facebook says that this would have been an offering to Tojil; he didn't offer more details but in looking through a few sources, I found references to Tohil as either a fire deity or a jaguar deity, who was especially important to the K'iche' and Kaqchikel. According to some sources he is the patron deity of the K'iche', or at least the patron deity of Q'umarcaj, which was the ancient K'iche' capital (the remains of which I visited a few weeks ago).

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