June 11, 2005 Allen Christenson "From the Dark Waters: Creation Imagery among the Highland Maya."

Drawing on his training as a K'iche' daykeeper in Momostenango and Totonicapan, and his art historical work in the Tz'utujil village of Santiago Atitlan,  Dr. Christenson deftly traced the continuity of creation mythology, and the centrality of maize through out Maya ceremonial beliefs and practices. Only approximately 10-15% of present day Guatemalan Maya consider themselves traditional. Within this group, Dr. Christenson has found that  much of their ritual, art and even clothing seems to echo practices and mythology depicted in  ancient Maya monuments, pots, and  the colonial era Popul Vuh.  In the Popul Vuh,  gods created man
because the animals could not speak their names. Their first creation, the mud people, were unacceptable because they had hidden faces. Countenance appears to
remain important, as a traditional Maya greeting is, " Is it good, your face?" and an expression  of disfavor is: "Your face is painful to me."  The second race, those made of wood, could not remember. Today's traditional practitioners do not learn their rites, but remember the knowledge of the Gods and ancestors that is within them.  True man was, of course, fashioned from maize, and maize remains central in the language and  religious rituals.

In ancient Maya mythology, it was the maize god who broke the turtle carapace of the earth, floating on the primordial sea, and raised the first mountain, paralleled today in the corn hill. To the Maya of the Lake Atitlan region, their lake is that primordial sea and the three volcanoes that surround it represent the three stones of creation, mirrored in the three stones of the Maya hearth. The K'iche' call themselves the "True People" who eat maize, and therefore can speak Maya, and remember their ancestors.  For both the K'iche' and Tz'utujil traditionalists, it is important to eat locally grown corn to retain the link to one's ancestors.

Dr. Christenson discussed divination, planting, pregnancy and birth rituals in homes, fields, caves, mountains and churches.  The rituals of Holy Week in Santiago Atitlan exemplify the continuity of traditional beliefs within Roman Catholic  practices.  During this week a large crucifix is planted in a square hole, or navel of the world, which is found in the floor of the village church. The huge altarpiece of the church, which is both Christian and a symbolic "first mountain", is covered, for the week, with a scaffold of wood and twisted cords topped with a green tree/cross to which is affixed offerings and the Mam, the ancient one who oversees the death and renewal of Christ.  All of the cleansing, rededication and ceremonial activities and processions of Holy Week  and other ritually important days, must be carried out reverently and precisely in order to ensure the correct rebirth of the Universe each year.

For those who want to explore Dr. Christenson's work in depth, please avail yourselves of the excellent website "Weaving the Fabric of the Cosmos",
complete with wonderful photographs at: http://www.mesoweb.com/features/fabric/fabric00.html, as well as his highly-regarded 2003 two-volume translation of the Popul Vuh from John Hunt Publishing and Art and Society in a Highland Maya Community,  published by the University of Texas Press in 2001. Both can be ordered from Amazon, or Barnes and Noble.

Dr Christenson is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature and of Art History at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT.  He received a BS in Zoology from Brigham Young and a DDS from the UCLA School of Dentistry.  He worked for over ten years as a dentist before turning to the University of Texas at Austin, where he received a PhD in Precolumbian Art History in 1998.  His dissertation on the altarpiece of Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala won the departmental award for the most outstanding dissertation of the year.

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