prev - home - next

One day, in between ceremonies, we were taken by Atiteco friends to the place in the hills above the town where the Mam was born: carved from a palo de pito or coral tree, which also supplies the red seeds used by shamans for divination.

Stories of the Mam's origins and his complex nature are legion, and versions of some can be read in Vincent Stanzione's book Rituals of Sacrifice or in Nathaniel Tarn and Martin Prechtel's Scandals in the House of Birds.

The remaining tree stump is clearly a focus for rituals. Draped with the remnants of scarves and with a cigar butt inserted in a knot-hole, it seems a simulacrum of the figure of Rilaj Mam in the town. Perhaps this can tell us something about the nature of the Mam and even about the very idea and nature of sacred images.

We were told that a former telinel might employ aj'itz (shamans who cast cursing spells) to enfeeble his incoming successor. As we would see, the telinel needs all his moral and physical strength to fulfil his obligations to the Mam, and his right to the office is regularly tested.

As I was filming the tree, I attempted an involved camera movement: a shot keeping tight on the original stump of the tree and then moving up the newer growth of branches. Each time as I panned up and the image of the highest green shoots filled the lens, a strong gust of wind would suddenly set the leaves dancing against the sky. I took this as a good sign.