Sunday, June 26, 2011

Ixmucané Peten comes to visit: Ceremony of 7 Kat

Last week, we hosted a two-day visit of a group of women from a kindred women's association in the Peten, the largest and most sparsely populated department of Guatemala. Probably due in large part to its dispersed population and proximity to international borders (Mexico and Belize) Peten has become home to many narcotrafficking operations. A few weeks ago there was a brutal massacre of 27 peasants who were working on a finca that was apparently owned by a big trafficker. It is also home to many archaeological sites from the Maya past; the most famous is undoubtedly Tikal. 
Las compas del Peten y su piloto
/the women
from Peten

The visit had been arranged as an exchange of experiences between two women's organizations that were formed independently of each other. There is no overarching national Ixmukané association but five or six groups in different regions of the country that are autonomous. All, I would imagine, chose the name for a similar set of reasons: Ixmukané (also spelled Ixmucané) is the grandmother of all humans in the Popol Vuh, and so her name and figure are resonant with symbolism for Maya women throughout the country.

Ixmucané Peten arrived after an 11-hour drive (one of the women's husbands works in the tourist industry and has a van, so that facilitated their travel).  The women were nearly all dressed in pants and t-shirts, a sharp contrast to the women from Ixmukané Quiché, who were all dressed in traje típico.  There was one older woman in the group from Peten who, by the sound of her conversation, spoke Spanish as a second language, but the others all clearly spoke Spanish as a first (and perhaps only) language.

After initial greetings and a few photographs and an initial round of introductions, the day started out with a fairly long and elaborate ceremony led by Don Felipe, an aq'iq' (day keeper) from Tecpan.

We had created an altar at the edge of the property that Ixmukané Quiché uses (the property actually belongs to the state, but it was given to the organization as an "integrated center for women's development". There are several small concrete bungalows, and a large hangar-like building that you can see at the left hand side of the picture.  When the altar was created, over a month ago, Don Felipe said that this would be a place of reflection and strength. Everyone who was at that inaugural ceremony had to bring a rock, and those rocks were left in place after all of the offerings had been placed and some of them burned.  Preparing for the ceremony is a bit laborious. The women who were attending helped carry the items that had been purchased -- eggs, herbs, flowers, incense, candles, sugar, flowers, some cigars, and a small bottle of alcohol.  

Preparing the herbs for the
Only a select number of people from Ixmukané Quiché were invited to participate; holding any sort of meeting is a costly undertaking for the association since few of the women can afford to make the trip without assistance (although it was interesting to hear a discussion a week or so later, when some of the women in Ixmukané Quiché who were longtime activists told about going to meetings years ago, during or just after the war, paying their own way and bringing their own food since there was no sponsoring organization to provide meals, and bringing blankets to sleep on).  Travel and meals have to be provided, and so only about two dozen women from Quiché participated in the exchange.

After everything was carried to the altar the women worked under Don Felipe's direction to prepare things. He was assisted by Doña Matilde, who is also an aq'iq' (although Matilde commented that because of machismo, she did not have as much opportunity as she would have liked to develop herself in this area).
Doña Mati, flanked by Gustavo
and Doña Josefa
 Doña Matilde was one of the founders of Ixmukané Quiché, and was at the time of this ceremony the president of the executive board of the organization.  There was a bit of a scramble at the start because when Don Felipe had arrived the grass and plants around the altar hadn't been cut and he said that everything needed to be leveled off some. I tried to get the man who had come to help "clean up" the site to turn his attention to the ceremonial area (he was busy cutting grass elsewhere) but he wanted authorization from someone higher up than me. So I raced back to the main building and found that Doña Maria, the director of the organization, was about to lead all the women up to the ceremonial site. I explained quickly that Don Felipe wasn't quite ready, that the man who was cutting the grass wouldn't move his operations on my say-so. So the women had to stand around a little bit while the grass was quickly cut down with a machete to what Don Felipe considered an acceptable height. 

The construction of the altar starts with drawing a symbol on the ground using sugar. Don Felipe explained what he was doing as he went along, on the supposition that perhaps the women from Peten might not be as familiar with Maya ceremonies as some of the women from Quiché.  They said that they had been to ceremonies before, but he continued to give explanations throughout, mostly in Spanish (he is Kaqchikel, not K'iche', although the languages have some similarities, and he knows some K'iche'); sometimes Matilde or Maria from Ixmukané Quiché translated into K'iche' for those who didn't understand Spanish.

Felipe explained that this particular day in the Maya calendar was 7 Kat, and that Kat was a day for communities and people coming together.  After the circle was drawn, it was filled in: first incense and some pine needles, and then later piled with flowers and candles. Everyone in the group had been given a flower and a stalk of rue to hold, and we stood in a 3/4 or 2/3 circle around the altar. 

After some prayers, Felipe asked that we place our flowers and the stalk of rue on the altar, which was now piled pretty high with ingredients. He next instructed that candles be distributed to everyone. I think we were given yellow candles first, and then white candles. We held the candles to our foreheads while more prayers were said, and then one by one we put the candles down on the altar as well.

Then eggs were distributed, and Felipe explained that these were to draw out the negative energies (in this respect, the ceremony really reminded me of Afrocuban religious ceremonies, where one uses a symbolic object (fruits, a pigeon, a coconut) and passes it over one's body (or has someone else pass it over), and that item is then either ceremonially discarded, or else sacrificed. At the end of a tambor or drum ceremony, one is supposed to take some fruit from the altar, and cleanse oneself with it, and then leave the fruit at the crossroads for Eshu.

So, we each took our egg and passed it over our bodies. Women did this differently; most started at the top and worked down, front and back, arms, belly, legs. I made sure to do the bottoms of my feet as well.  Felipe then instructed us to put the eggs on the altar -- but we had to find the flower and stalk of rue that we had placed earlier, and place our egg on that flower, that stalk of rue. 

There was some laughter and jostling as everyone tried to remember where she had placed her flower and sought to line up her egg in the right place. Felipe then explained that the candles would be lit, and that we would then watch to see if the eggs exploded. Ideally, the eggs should explode or at least crack. 

That would mean that whatever bad energies that we had been holding in had been released. However, if some of the eggs didn't burst, then we would have to do something else. We stood around the fire and watched as the flames spread through and ate up the candles and the flowers. Soon we started to hear some cracking and crackling sounds, and the shells of some of the eggs turned brown and cracked, and few exploded somewhat more dramatically. The smell of sulfur rose from the fire, along with the thick sweet scent of incense and pine needles.  Felipe poured more sugar on top of the fire, saying that we wanted to give the ancestors some sweetness, and then there was a caramel glaze over the other scents of sulfur, incense and pine.  Periodically, he poured a small amount of alcohol over the flames as well.  After a while, when the flames had mostly died out, he examined the eggs carefully and located the ones that had not burst, and asked whose they were. Mine had exploded quite forcefully, but there were quite a few that hadn't burst. He seemed a bit puzzled, and said this didn't usually happen. I don't exactly remember what he put on the fire, but he put more of something and added more sugar and alcohol and eventually, I think, all of the eggs exploded. 

I was not the only taking photographs. The women from Peten had brought a camera, and Nancy (the one in the red shirt to the left) was the group's photographer. Plus there was someone shooting video for a short documentary that Ixmukané wanted to have made.  In addition, several other women snapped photos from time to time with their phones.  Media -- documenting,  recording and then sharing -- have become as much a part of organizing and educational work, to say nothing of social and cultural events, in the highlands as the events themselves. Felipe seemed nonplussed; later in the day he gave a presentation on the Maya cosmovision aided by powerpoint slides. Necessary adaptations to the times.

Finally, toward the end of the ceremony, Felipe and Matilda did additional cleansings for those who wanted them. We had to go pick leaves of a certain plant; I don't know what the plant is called but it has some medicinal properties as well as spiritual ones. Matilda had a big cigar clenched in her mouth and vigorously puffed so that the air clouded with tobacco smoke. The individual handed her handful of leaves to Felipe, and then knelt down and Felipe vigorously swiped the leaves over the person's head, shoulders, back, hands, and then she could stand and go.

I'll stop this entry here, and then start another one about the exchange and the rest of the visit. 

No comments:

Post a Comment