Apr. 4, 2014

Mayan Religion and Catholicism

Religion and Racism

Two topics of lifelong interest to me. Both are themes in Candyman’s War. I understand the racism interest as rooted in childhood participation and observation. But religión is another matter. In spite of my several serious runs at it, I am, as someone said about Reynolds Price, "an unorthodox, non-churchgoing believer," of God's presence. Interest in religion has been around since at least age eight (confirmation) and age 11, when I read, “The Bible as History.” It was my mother’s Book Club selection and at that age, fascinating. Then in 1962, I saw something else that lingered.

 Outside Monterrey Mexico

 Our cab was stalled in traffic one Sunday afternoon and my friend yelled, “Hey! Look a that!” About 15-20 southwestern Indians arrayed themselves, rank and file, in a rectangle and danced, with gourd rattles and feathers in front of a glass case sitting on a chair. At first it reminded me of the shows put on by Indian dancers on my childhood trips to the four corners area of the Southwest U.S. The shock came as the cab moved on and we could see the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child inside the case. It was my first observance of–I think—“syncretic” religion.[1]

 Syncretization happens, especially in the Americas. The Maya have something of a reputation for accomodating their conquerers and religion is a good place to see that. As a religious and political tool for managing the indigenous, the conquistadors imposed the concept of cofradía (religious lay organizations in Spain), on the self-governing lineages. These were extended family groupings, usually headed by shamans. There was usually enough outside blood to avoid the incest taboo but if not, spouses were sought in other lineages.  The shamans were responsible for many things—healing for example, as curanderos—and also for ensuring that the universe continued to spin. “Spin” meant that the sun came up and went down daily but it also meant the rain came, the crops grew then died in a predictable cycle of life and death and life again. And so it was with humans.

 Human life was predictable as well. Using the shorter crop cycle as a model, Mayans were sure that humans would be reborn—perhaps even as gods or the near-mystical corn. It led to the higher-social-order religious practices of human sacrifice, ensuring rebirth. The shaman’s (and higher ranking priests), no-small-task was to keep life predictable. At lower levels in the order, the practice of sacrifice was limited to animals.

 The Mayans used drug induced mollification to calm their human victims before death. Nonetheless, when Jesus showed up with the conquistadors, his bloody body hanging from the cross with a Crown of Thorns, he resonated with the Indigenous. And they noted, then he was reborn. The concept was real familiar. And it helped that Jesus hung from a cross. The wooden cross was easily transfereable to the cross-like “Tree of Life.” The major difference, depending on the strain of Mayan doing the observing, was that the “Tree” was often depicted with branches. But it was an easy transition; aided by the fact the conquistadors were just that. They surely had something going for them that the Indigenous lacked.

 It’s a heck of a story but this is enough for one posting. If you like this thread I may continue later. (BTW, some of you may know more about this than I; critical feedback welcome.—Mike)

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[1] Although, I understand that Halloween is also an example.