Weaving the Fabric of the Cosmos

By Allen J. Christenson

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Go to page: In the traditional theology of many contemporary Maya in highland Guatemala, the world must undergo periodic renewal or it will lose its power to sustain life. In this presentation I'd like to describe a series of renewal ceremonies carried out among the modern Tz'utujil Maya of Santiago Atitlan, a community on the southern shore of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

Go to page: Although the introduction of Protestantism and the resurgence of Roman Catholic orthodoxy has significantly influenced much of the religious life of the community, traditional rituals continue to be observed in the town's sixteenth century church which reflect centuries' old forms of worship.

Go to page: For many Maya inhabitants of Santiago Atitlan, the community church represents a microcosm of the universe. In the center of the church's nave is a small hole called the R'muxux Ruchiliew (meaning "navel of the earth") which traditionalist Tz'utujils conceive as a portal leading to the underworld realm of their sacred ancestors (Carlsen and Prechtel 1991:27; Carlsen 1997:152).

Go to page: The navel hole at Santiago Atitlan is only uncovered once a year at midnight prior to Holy Friday during Easter Week. Later that morning, the Atitecos lower into the hole a massive wooden cross bearing a life-size sculpture of Christ with moveable arms crucified to it with nails.

Go to page: The placement of the cross of Christ in the earth signifies not only his entrance into the underworld in death, but also represents the means by which the resurrected God reemerges to new life from the regenerative center of creation. One of the sacristans who participated in the ceremony told me that the cross is "planted" in the ground just like planting a seed. Christ is thus reborn on the cross just like new maize plants.

Go to page: Beyond the elevated altar east of the world navel hole are three monumental altarpieces that dominate the central apse as well as the side chapels to the north and south. All three are visible from the principal entrance at the west end of the nave and are meant to be seen as a group.

Go to page: Originally constructed at an unknown date during the early Spanish Colonial period, the altarpieces fell into severe disrepair and collapsed during an earthquake in 1960, particularly the central retablo behind the main altar.

Go to page: The disarticulated pieces were left in storage until 1976 when the parish priest, Father Francisco Rother, commissioned a local Maya sculptor named Diego Chavez Petzey to initiate repairs and carve replacement panels for those portions of the altarpiece which were too damaged for reuse. Diego was later joined in this project by his younger brother Nicolás Chavez Sojuel. The two brothers carried out the renovation of the altarpiece over a five year period, prematurely abandoning work with the death of Father Rother in 1981 at the hands of political assassins during the Guatemalan civil war.

Go to page: Throughout the project, Father Rother permitted the Chavez brothers a remarkable degree of freedom to modify the altarpiece's European vision of the sacred domain of God and the saints. By adding certain motifs and modifying the interpretation of preexisting ones, the artists subtly transformed the central altarpiece from a representation of heaven with the saints emerging as if from clouds, to one that envisions the altarpieces as sacred mountains.

Go to page: The vegetal scrolls and volutes at the extreme edges of the first tier of saints, the stylized trees flanking God the Father, and the maize plant or tree at the crest are all innovations which Diego Chavez designed to give the impression of the verdant surface of a mountain. To further emphasize the effect he added two Maya cofradía members in traditional dress climbing upward along a rocky path of decorative beads. Instituted during the early Colonial period, Atiteco cofradías are a system of religious brotherhoods independent of the Catholic Church and in many respects function in direct conflict with it by practicing elements of traditional Maya religion.

Go to page: To maintain the impression of a sacred mountain, the artists did not need to alter the structural design of the altarpiece or use motifs that would clash with its overall Euro-Christian style. It already had the basic shape of a mountain peak, or more specifically, a volcano. Other elements are easily reinterpreted along Maya lines to maintain consistency of theme. The result is an amalgam in which Christian forms and images are shaped in such a way that they reveal uniquely Maya meaning, while Maya motifs and rituals are harmonized with Roman Catholic orthodoxy. Similar processes took place in the early colonial era when native artists and architects worked with Spanish missionaries to construct and decorate Christian churches in the New World.

Go to page: In her study of the sixteenth century mural decorations in the monastery church at Malinalco, a Nahua-speaking town in central Mexico, Jeanette Peterson characterized this type of collaborative project as a dialogue involving continual feedback between artist and patron, subtly incorporating the world view of each into a new and powerful art form:

"Such joint native-friar projects...demonstrate not only the sustaining power of older indigenous views, but their viability, capable of effecting subtle transformations from the Nahua to the Christian and back again. As active participants, native scribes and artists helped to shape Christian texts and imagery to reflect their own world view and belief system" (Peterson 1993:7).

Go to page: In the past few years, I've had the opportunity to work closely with both of the Chavez brothers and discuss at length their vision of the altarpieces' role in the life of the community. While describing the arrangement of the altarpieces around the altar, Nicolás pointed to a very old and smoke-stained painting on the left-most retablo which serves as the backdrop for a life-size crucifix.

Go to page: Behind the base of the cross is a crudely-drawn village representing Santiago Atitlan with the familiar façade of the church and its domed belltower. Surrounding the village are three volcanoes and the jagged shoreline of Lake Atitlan. Heavy clouds above the town emit lightning bolts. In Atiteco myth, lightning is the force that breaks open the germinating maize seed and helps it to grow out of the earth. In addition, lightning charges the earth with its life-giving power so that whatever is buried within it can rise from the dead. As such, lightning functions in a manner similar to ancient Maya theology in which it cracks open a portal into the underworld to allow the world to emerge (D. Tedlock 1996:65; Schele and Mathews 1998:410).

Go to page: Nicolás Chavez told me that the three altarpieces of his community's church represent the volcanoes that surround Santiago Atitlan as depicted in the altarpiece painting and related the following creation myth:

"Before the world was made, only Lake Atitlan existed at the center of everything. Everything was covered with water. Then the three volcanoes grew out of the lake and lifted up the sky to support it. Today, when our town is threatened with disaster or enemies try to attack us, these volcanoes come together and form a barrier that protects us from harm."

Go to page: For the Tz'utujils, Lake Atitlan represents the most important body of water because it was the place where the world first emerged. It is the "true master, the first of all things; the ocean comes second" (Mendelson 1957:445). The ancient Maya version of the creation contained in the Popol Vuh parallels Nicolás's assertion that the world came into being when mountains rose out of a primordial expanse of water at the beginning of the present age:

Go to page: "THESE then are the first words, the first speech. There is not yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, or forest. All alone the sky exists. The face of the earth has not yet appeared. Alone lies the expanse of the sea, along with the womb of all the sky in the darkness, in the night.

"All alone are the Framer and the Shaper, Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent, They Who Have Borne Children and They Who Have Begotten Sons. Luminous they are in the water, wrapped in quetzal feathers and cotinga feathers....

"Then came forth the mountains from the water. Straightaway the great mountains came to be. It was merely their spirit essence, their miraculous power, which brought about the creation of the mountains and the valleys" (Ximénez 1701, folios 1v-2r, translation from K'iche' by author).

Go to page: According to the Annals of the Kaqchikels, the ancient highland Maya associated Lake Atitlan with these first waters of creation. When the Kaqchikels first arrived in the region, their king threw himself into the lake and changed himself into Gucumatz ("Quetzal Serpent"), the god who initiated the creation from within the waters that once covered the earth (Recinos 1953:76-77). Immediately the lake became dark. Then a north wind came up and a whirlpool formed in the water reminiscent of the darkness and chaos of the primordial world. According to the text, the Tz'utujils were so impressed by this demonstration of power that they ceded the northern shores of the lake to the Kaqchikels.

Go to page: It is likely that the Tz'utujils chose the setting of their ancient capital as a sacred place, reflecting Maya cosmology which describes the emergence of life centered at a great body of water from which three mountains grew under the direction of the gods at the time of creation. Like the left altarpiece painting, a map of Santiago Atitlan painted in 1585 for the Relación Geográfica also depicts a simplified model of the town nestled between the massive peaks of the three volcanoes, each marked with one of the cardinal directions. The emergence of three great mountains from the primordial sea closely parallels the mythic history of the ancient Maya creator deity, Hun-Nal-Ye, the god of maize.

Go to page: In this cycle of myths, the maize god descended into the watery underworld prior to the creation of the earth where he confronted the lords of death who sacrificed him. With the aid of his two sons, the maize god was able to rise to new life through the cracked carapace of a great turtle, representative of the earth floating on the surface of the primordial sea. Having emerged from the underworld, the maize god traveled by canoe to the center of the sky where he oversaw the setting of three great stones in the constellation of Orion (Freidel et al. 1993:80-85). This was the great hearth of the universe where new fire was first kindled, quickening the cosmos and allowing life to emerge.

Go to page: Today many Maya still have three-stone hearths in the center of their houses. It is around this hearth that the family spends much of its indoor time, gathered at the place where maize, the main staple of the Maya diet, is prepared and cooked to sustain life. The three volcanoes surrounding Santiago Atitlan are analogous to these three stones as the first masses to emerge from the primordial sea. Just as the three volcanoes grew out of the waters of Lake Atitlan, the three church altarpieces rise above the floor of the church as if emerging from the world navel hole in the nave with its watery tunnels below. Diego Chavez pointed out that the niches of the central altarpiece represent sacred caves through which the saints emerge from their mountain home.

Go to page: Caves and shallow rocky recesses are rather common in the mountains surrounding Santiago Atitlan. Many are heavily stained with incense smoke and littered with the remains of candles, flower petals, alcohol bottles, and other ritual offerings. Caves serve as liminal places in which individuals may access the world of the spirit where ancestors and mountain deities may be approached directly. This practice follows ancient precedent. According to the Título Totonicapan, the gods of the various highland Maya lineages called on the first men to place their carved images in mountain caves before the first dawn, and that there they could be consulted (Carmack and Mondloch 1983:184).

Go to page: On special occasions, the deity images were carried in procession to the temples where they were placed in sanctuaries (Las Casas 1967:II.clxxvii.216). It is likely that the ancient temples themselves were effigy mountains and that, like the Santiago Atitlan altarpiece, the sanctuaries represented their cave-like homes (Bassie-Sweet 1991; Schele and Mathews 1998:417).

Go to page: Both Diego and Nicolás Chavez suggested to me that while there are several important cave shrines around Santiago Atitlan, the niches on the altarpiece refer to the most sacred of local caves called Paq'alib'al, meaning "at the place of revelation or appearance," located in the mountains to the southwest of town. Nicolás described the cave in this way:

"All the great saints and nuwal ancestors live in Paq'alib'al. Their spirits live there in the center of the mountain. This is also where the south wind is born. Strong rains come from this cave because that is where the clouds are formed. There is always the sound of wind coming out of the cave because this is where the ancients live. The entrance is guarded by two pumas and two jaguars and is adorned with abundant fruits such as corozos, bananas, melacotones, plantains, zapotes, cacao and pataxtes to show that the sacred ancestors are present inside and that they have power to give life and much fruit. Inside Paq'alib'al is a gigantic snake one meter thick and fifty meters long that watches over the saints.

"Near the cave in a small ravine is a great tree where angels rest when it rains and inside the branches are clouds. The branches are covered with squirrels and birds. A peccary circles the trunk when it is about to rain because clouds and the first rays of dawn begin at this tree. Tremors shake the earth every five minutes there because this is where the ancestors live when they leave Paq'alib'al. My great grandfather didn't believe in this tree and wanted to use its wood to build a canoe and for firewood. When he began to cut the tree, it bled. Immediately he had a stroke and he remained half-paralyzed for the rest of his life. Another man who didn't believe in the tree tried to climb it and became a monkey."

Go to page: The tree near Paq'alib'al recalls the pan-Maya notion of a world tree that grows out of the underworld to center creation (Miller and Taube 1993:57; Freidel et al. 1993:55). Myths concerning Paq'alib'al and the tree nearby are widely known in Santiago Atitlan although almost no one but ajkuns (Tz'utujil "shamans") go there. This is partially because of the distance (it is approximately 17 kilometers up a steep trail) and partially because it is considered a very dangerous place. An ajkun-shaman who visits the cave periodically gave me a description which agrees for the most part with Nicolás's account and adds some important details:

Go to page: "Ajkuns go to Paq'alib'al to ask for rain and to speak to the old ones that live there. When you go inside you may be gone for three days, but it only feels like a few minutes. The entrance to the cave is half a meter high, but when an ajkun goes there he knows how to ask the mountain to make the hole large enough to walk in without stooping over. Inside are five pumas who guard the cave. These are the animal substitutes for the ancient ones. When the cave opens, they roar but if one is pure of heart and holds up his hand, they allow him to enter without biting him. For the first few meters, the cave is dark and cramped, but then it opens into a large chamber that is brightly lit as if in daylight and it is never cold or hot. Inside is a room with a throne guarded by two giant snakes with limitless length because there is no end to their tails. Sometimes a man is there wearing Atiteco clothes and an old straw hat like Atitecos used to wear a long time ago and asks what the person wants. This is one of the nuwal ancestors. There is always incense and smoke coming out of the cave and candles burning at the entrance even when there is no one there. Clouds are born from the cave and light rain falls constantly at the entrance because rain comes from the deepest part of the mountain. Did you notice that it rained all last week even though it is the dry season? That is because two ajkuns went to Paq'alib'al to ask for rain."

Go to page: Both Nicolás Chavez and the ajkun agree that a giant serpent guards the interior of the cave. In the latter account, the body of the serpent is "endless," extending deep into the cavern's interior. It is possible that the serpent is a zoomorphic metaphor for the winding passageway of the tunnel itself which leads out of the underworld. In Classic Maya iconography, ancient kings and other elite individuals opened a portal into the underworld by conjuring a gigantic snake, called a "vision serpent" (Stuart 1988:183-185; Freidel et al. 1993:207-210; Miller and Taube 1993:150).

Go to page: Through the open maw of this monster individuals descended into the underworld, as in the scene depicted on the lid of Lord Hanab-Pakal at Palenque.

Go to page: Alternatively, ancestral spirits could reemerge from the serpent's jaws to communicate with mortals or bestow tokens of power as seen on Lintel 15 from Yaxchilan.

Go to page: After describing Paq'alib'al, Nicolás took out a copy of a drawing that I had made of the altarpiece and pointed out that the monument represented the mountain of Paq'alib'al and that the saints are to be understood as emerging from the cave:

"The men climbing the sides of the altarpiece are going to pray at the mountain shrine of Paq'alib'al. The trees, plants and flowers along the sides of the altarpiece and around each niche represent the miraculous fruit and trees left by the nuwal ancestor Francisco Sojuel. The twisted columns are the snakes that guard the inside of the cave. The tree at the top of the mountain is the sacred tree that stands nearby where clouds rest before rising into the sky. The pots on either side of the upper tier represent the earth and the sun may be seen rising out of it on one side of the mountain and setting on the other. The pinecones above the second tier of saints are the teeth of the jaguar that stands at the entrance of the mountain and guards it."

In traditional Tz'utujil cosmology, the creation of the world is not a singular event in the distant past. Like the agricultural cycle of maize and the movement of the sun, the cosmos goes through orderly phases of birth, maturity, death, and rebirth. If life-sustaining rituals are not performed at appropriate times tied to the calendar year the cycle would be broken and existence would cease.

Go to page: For many Atitecos, the central altarpiece at Santiago Atitlan is not merely a symbolic representation of the mountain of creation. It is a focal point for regenerative power, charged with the same animative presence that gives the saints in their niches the ability to bestow divine blessings. Ceremonies conducted before it related to rebirth are not therefore symbolic, but genuine creative acts in which time folds inward on itself to reveal the actions of deity in the primordial world.

Go to page: The need to recreate the world anew, however, runs counter to the fixed and static nature of the monumental altarpiece. The removable saints may be taken out and processed, their clothes washed and changed as a token of renewal. But the altarpiece is far too massive to be moved or altered in any appreciable way.

Go to page: Instead, Atitecos construct a temporary altarpiece called Monumento (Spanish for "monument") of nearly identical form and material immediately in front of it at the crucial point of the year when important life-forces in the world are perceived to die--during Easter Week.

Go to page: Early in the morning of the Monday prior to Easter, a large group of Atitecos arrive at the church to thoroughly clean it. A large cloth is draped across the left altarpiece where the most important images of Christ are located as a symbol that he is no longer accessible, having descended into the underworld. The cloth remains in place for five days, analogous to the five delicate days that fall at the end of the traditional Maya calendar.

Go to page: All of the other saints are removed from their pedestals along the sides of the church and laid on mats in the center of the floor while the walls are thoroughly swept with long brooms.

Go to page: Some of the men climb rickety pole ladders to chip away loose bits of paint and plaster which crash to the floor. When I asked why they did this they said that when the plaster separates from the wall it means that it no longer wishes to work for God and must be taken away. Young men climb into the rafters to remove all traces of dust and cobwebs, filling the air with so much debris that it becomes difficult to breath.

Go to page: At the same time women fill the fountain in the convent with lake water which has been specially gathered to mop the floor until it shines. Similar lustrations take place throughout town in the cofradía houses as well as private homes. Atitecos believe that dust and other debris attract demons from the underworld. Cleansing represents a spiritual as well as a physical renewal as it prepares the way for the world to be reborn.

Go to page: Once the church has been thoroughly swept and washed clean, a select group of Atitecos assemble to construct the huge temporary Monumento. Like the altarpiece, Nicolás Chavez said that it represents the "entryway into the home of the ancestors at Paq'alib'al." It consists of a framework of roughly-hewn horizontal wood planks supported by Colonial-era twisted columns of the same age and type used on the central altarpiece. The Atitecos then loop twisted ropes around this framework to create an immense gridwork, with a green cross or symbolic tree affixed at the top.

Go to page: The monument remains bare until Holy Wednesday when a powerful priest-shaman carries the image of a carved wooden image called Mam (meaning "grandfather, or ancient one") to a domed sanctuary adjacent to the church plaza. There he is placed in the branches of a tree and given copious offerings of liquor, cigars, incense, fruit, and money. The Mam figure symbolically oversees the death of Christ and his descent into the underworld. In this role he is sometimes addressed as Judas Iscariot or Pedro de Alvarado, both archetypal god-destroyers. For most Atitecos, however, he is simply addressed as Mam ("grandfather" or "ancient one"), because he is believed to be older than Christ and the saints having been born before the first dawn. Tz'utujils believe that for Jesus Christ to be renewed, he must undergo sacrificial death.

Go to page: The Mam can hardly be blamed for fulfilling a necessary role that ultimately benefits everyone. As Fernando Cervantes writes, "European notions of good and evil, personified in the concepts of god and devil, implied a degree of benevolence and malevolence that was totally alien to Mesoamerican deities" (Cervantes 1994:42). Both death and life must dance together on the world's stage or neither could exist for very long. The Mam image represents the transformative power of death to engender new life.

Go to page: While the Mam image receives his devotions, other Atiteco elders oversee the decoration of the Monumento from which the world will be reborn. Young men in two processional columns carry baskets of ripe fruit brought specially from the coast and blessed for this purpose into the church.

Go to page: There the fruit is hung from the twisted ropes of the Monumento along with cypress boughs and scarlet bromeliad flowers. Two other long wooden frames decorated with cypress and flowers are tied to the sides of the monument to create a diagonal slope, mirroring the shape of the altarpiece behind it. The decoration of the Monumento is sufficiently heavy that it obscures the altarpiece behind it other than the summit and crestal tree, although a portal is left open at the lower center directly in front of the niche of Santiago so that the saint can be seen. As a result, the saint may conceptually have the power to come and go as he pleases. The Monumento thus represents a foliated version of the altarpiece as the home of the saints.

Go to page: Throughout the process, an elderly woman representing an ancestral grandmother figure presides over the work and directs the young men where to hang the fruit and other decorations. She constantly waves a censer of incense to create a cloud of smoke that Nicolás likened to the rain clouds that are born out of the sacred cave of Paq'alib'al. Her presence places the event in mythic time.

Go to page: She is one of the oldest living members of the family of the great ancestral culture hero Francisco Sojuel and wears an older style of Atiteco costume used only by the principal women of the community on ceremonial occasions. This includes a simplified version of the winding headband which Atitecos identify as a "rainbow serpent." Diego Chavez said that the headdress was first worn by the Atiteco deity Yaxper as patroness of the moon, weaving, childbirth and midwives, who participated in the creation of the world.

Go to page: The long winding cloth of the headdress represents the umbilical cord which ties holy women to the sky. Diego further commented that Yaxper presides over the decoration of the monument because "only women have the power to create new life, and they must be present at the rebirth of the world." Prechtel and Carlsen also noted the close association between weaving and birth in Tz'utujil cosmology, both processes being linked through the aged moon deity addressed simply as "Grandmother" (Prechtel and Carlsen 1988:123).

Go to page: The aged woman present at the construction of the Monumento also wears a special huipil (a traditional Maya blouse) consisting of a coarsely-woven white cloth with purple stripes and a quatrefoil pattern at the collar embroidered in purple thread.

Go to page: In ancient Mesoamerican iconography the quatrefoil shape is the most common means of representing portals giving access to the underworld. The Atiteco huipil collar is consistent with this concept, representing Lake Atitlan as the center through which the world emerges.

Go to page: The three volcanoes of Santiago Atitlan appear on either side of the collar as mirror images. A prominent weaver in town told me that when a woman puts her head through the neckline between the volcano designs it is as though she is reborn "like the moon."

Go to page: The moon is one of the principal symbols of Yaxper, whose principal cult image is kept in a cofradía house nearby. She is the patron deity of weavers who in Atiteco myth wove together the framework of the world. The knotting of the twisted ropes and subsequent decoration of the monument represent the weaving of the cosmos on her loom.

Go to page: The attributes and function of Yaxper suggest that she may represent a Tz'utujil version of Ixchel (meaning "Lady Rainbow") the ancient Maya goddess of the moon, childbirth, and weaving who also wears a bound serpent headdress and participates in ceremonies associated with birth and creation (Taube 1994:658).

Go to page: Nicolás placed special emphasis on the fact that the ropes used to hang the fruit are twisted like the old baroque-style columns of the altarpiece because they represent coiled snakes. Yaxper weaves them together on her loom to provide the framework on which the world is formed and decorated. The coiled serpent framework may be related to another ancient Maya precedent.

Go to page: A Classic period polychrome vessel depicts the birth of the maize god emerging through a dark underworld portal framed by twisted cords which terminate in serpent heads. These twisted serpent cords represent the umbilicus from which the world is born.

Go to page: Peter Dunham finds evidence that the modern Yucatec-Maya consider this umbilicus, or "living rope," to be the basic framework upon which both the sky and earth are organized:

"There is a suite of myths among the Yucatec, with reflections elsewhere, that describe a heavenly road connected to and sometimes contiguous with a "living rope" filled with blood that descends from the sky, often through the heart of a giant ceiba at an important site.... The living rope passes through the world tree at the center of creation. It may be connected, perhaps through the tree's roots and the cenote (the cenote is a sort of the underground equivalent of the tree), to subterranean routes that may somehow recirculate this divine celestial power through the realm of the dead and back to the world of the heavens" (quoted in Freidel et al. 1993:425, n. 60).

Go to page: Both the monument and altarpiece follow the same basic organization. A central world tree/cross stands at the top with the twisted serpent cords extending beneath to frame the mountain of creation and guard the principal access to the abode of the ancestors in the underworld. The maize god and Jesus Christ represent analogous figures who emerge from the underworld to bring life and charge the cosmos with renewed sacred power. The renewal of the earth is reenacted with the annual decoration of the Monumento with fruit, flowers, and cedar boughs.

Go to page: Once this has been accomplished, the Monumento is dismantled to reveal the altarpiece behind it. Its physical permanence reassures the community that the world will continue under the protection of their familiar saints.

Go to page: Traditionalist Atitecos believe that all things that bear power possess their own living k'u'x ("heart") which embodies the same life-sustaining presence that quickens the ancestors and saints of the community. With the construction and subsequent decoration of the temporary Easter Monumento with evergreen boughs, fruits, and flowers, the "heart" of the altarpiece is restored to its ancient original strength, just as if it were created anew, reborn as the first creation at the beginning of time.

Go to page: It thus becomes the symbolic center of a new world that extends outward to the four directions beyond the walls of the church.