don’t worship here any more…
The village of San Juan
Chamula, in the mountains of Chiapas, is a Mayan village, masking as
a Christian community… but Christian it isn’t…
are alive… and our mind will wonder away to what we envision as
a small village, no doubt in a forest somewhere in the Yucatan, no doubt
not too far from Chichen Itza or Cancun, so that it can serve as a tourist
attraction, in which a local community is dressed as one would expect
the original Mayans to dress. It is highly unlikely that we would imagine
a market town, where the locals dress quite normal, and where a constant
military force monitors you… for your own protection.
This is the town of San Juan Chamula, outside of San Cristobal, in the
state of Chiapas. In the mid 1990s, the region made headline news, as
it was the stage for the Zapatista rebels, many of whom come from villages
around Chamula. Today, the rebels are calm, but soldiers nevertheless
remain close to tourists… just in case. It is therefore reassuring
to know that our guide Roberto is the nephew of the bishop of San Cristobal,
who negotiated between both parties, resulting in a peace that the military
presence betrays as less secure than the outside world might suspect
– it seems people liked the bishop, for his picture is sold as
a postcard in San Cristobal and hence our presence with his nephew could
possibly be a good omen, in case something goes wrong...
at first would appear to be just like any other mountain village. If
you did not enter the church, you would never notice anything bizarre
about it. But anyone who has entered the church, realises there is nothing
normal about this town. In most churches, it is now illegal to use flash;
in Chamula, it is illegal to take photographs at all. Cameras need to
be carried in their case – just in case candid filming is occurring.
Photography is illegal in the church, and it is a serious offence. Inside
the church, guards monitor the tourists and if caught, the tourist will
go straight to jail. Normally, it does not come to this, provided the
roll of film is immediately handed over to the “policeman”
– in the case of digital photography, I assume showing that the
image is deleted is its equivalent. Still, outside of the church, a
vendor sells postcards with an image from the inside of the church…
Those familiar with Mexican law will argue there is no law that prohibits
filming – but Chamula has its own laws. And its own customs. It
is considered sacrilege to enter the church with a hat on, but entering
it with an opened can of beer in one hand and a lighted cigarette in
the other is not offensive at all. If anything, the locals might appreciate
the outside, the church looks typical. Once inside, that impression
changes quickly. There are no pews, there is no altar. Instead, the
walls are lined with glass cases, each containing a saint, resting on
tables. These saints may seem to be Catholic saints, but really represent
Mayan gods. In front are sometimes other tables, on which flowers stand.
On the ground, rows of candles are burning, often with a worshipper
behind it. In the background plays music, which is apparently a Christmas
cassette the locals once received with the new Christmas lighting. Christmas
music is not just for a season – it is for all seasons…
On the right hand side is the shrine of the Virgin of Guadelupe, illuminated
with a type of lighting you would expect on a strip in Las Vegas or
Broadway, beckoning people inside. The scene looks otherworldly, though
neither hellish nor divine… just very weird.
The floor of the church is normally covered with pine needles, but this
is a Monday, when the floor has just had its weekly cleaning. One young
man is still removing all the wax from burnt candles from the floor.
a worshipper will light about twenty candles, placed in three rows,
in front of one of the saints. Each row is a different height, with
the highest furthest away. These candles are lit first, followed by
the middle, then by the final row. The hope is that all three rows more
or less extinguish together. Worshippers often bring a bottle of beer
or Coke. Some tourists have noted the preponderance of Coke adverts
and it does sometimes feel that the entire village may be sponsored
by Coca Cola. The Coke or beer is often drunk during chanting, sometimes
spat out over the candles – mimicking the Holy Water of the Christian
service. A side effect of Coca Cola is burping. As expelling gas is
believed to release evil spirits resident in the body, it was an effective
church of San Sebastian, destroyed, for which the resident saints
Coca Cola is not the Holy Water; that is Pox – pronounced posh
– a cane-alcohol beverage containing 38 percent of alcohol. Mexicans
are not notorious drinkers – that is to say: they get drunk quite
easily, with little alcohol actually being consumed. Many thus state
that three small glasses of Posh will knock you senseless – it
rarely happens to tourists, but it happens to them. Still, senselessness
– being drunk – is believed to aide communication with the
Otherworld, and talk to the saints.
is the standard form of worship, but on many occasions, a chicken is
slaughtered. Tour guides sometimes scare tourists saying it will be
a bloody scene, but the trick is actually bloodless – though no
doubt some worshippers prefer the bloody solution. Normally, a live
chicken is brought in, the prayers are said and the chicken is slaughtered
as an offering to the saints. Once its neck is broken, it remains lying
on the floor, in front of the candles. Later, it is removed, normally
to be eaten by the family that made the sacrifice. That sacred meal,
however, is not consumed inside the church.
who have not visited may think that the only normal thing about this
church must therefore be the statues of the saints – even though
they do represent Mayan deities. Wrong. On entering, to the left, some
saints seem to receive less worship than others. It is Roberto who provides
the explanation. These are the saints of the church San Sebastian, which
lies in ruin in a field visible as one enters the village. The church
was destroyed almost a century ago. The statues were saved, but as the
saints had been unable to save the church from harm, the local population
decided to punish them. For several decades, they were placed with their
faces towards the wall. Furthermore, their hands were chopped off –
a sign that they had not “worked” to save the church. For
some time, they did not receive glass cases, but when new cases were
made for the resident saints, the old cases were eventually given to
the bad saints. Only in recent years were they allowed to face the congregation
and their body has been clothed, so that their chopped hands are not
visible. Still, few seem to want to worship them – who would want
to worship saints that were unable to safeguard the church, whereas
the saints of San Juan have been able to safeguard theirs.
saints also wear a mirror on their chest. Various explanations for this
are available, but the most likely one is typically shamanic –
and hence seldom told to passing tourists. When one prays to the saint,
the soul of the person praying leaves their body. The mirror helps the
soul find its way back by reflecting it back onto the body.
The usage of mirrors in a shamanic setting dates back from Mayan times.
At Chichen Itza there is a depiction of a ballplayer holding a mirror.
Mirrors were critically important to political office at Chichen Itza,
where they placed a mirror inside the bench in the Temple of the Chak
Mol and one on top of the jaguar throne that they sealed inside the
their descendents in Chamula, the Mayans believed that mirrors
opened portals into the Otherworld, through which ancestors and
gods materialise themselves. They gave rulers the special vision
of prophecy. This tool was symbolised by the Vision Serpent, also
known as the Feathered Serpent, or K’uk’ulkan. He
is seen holding a mirror, the instrument with which to penetrate
the supernatural world.
same logic seems to be behind the reason for the outlawing of photography.
Originally – and in the case of SLR cameras still – cameras
used mirrors. It is believed that taking a photograph could steal a
part of the soul. Today, most people realise that having their picture
taken will not result in disease or even death. On the square, tourists
take hundreds of photographs each day. But women will protect infants
from the cameras, covering their baby and often their own head with
a scarf whenever they are in the vicinity of photography.
It is believed that infant’s soul is fragile – it is prone
to leave the body and a photograph may just “blind” the
soul, making its return impossible. A soul is believed to be composed
of thirteen parts; photographs were believed to remove or break some
of these components. If this occurred, it was up to the shaman to do
his “soul retrieval” and restore a person’s soul.
In a guidebook to the church, the people of Chamula explain that they
worship the Father Creator – directly. They do this by using natural
and supernatural forces around them, which is why the shamans, both
female and male, can heal both body and soul.
shaman still exist, but are now transformed into caretakers of a specific
shrine. The town also has its own religious leaders, the position of
which is normally filled for one year. The job is unpaid and many people
– men – save for many years in order to be able to afford
a year of service.
Still, San Juan Chamula is nominally Catholic. Very infrequently, a
priest comes out to do baptisms, the only sacrament observed in the
church – and no doubt a proper sacrament as the church is dedicated
to John the Baptist. His feast day is June 24, the summer solstice.
The Mayans were solar worshippers before – and the entrance to
the church is dedicated with the sunflower. It is now accepted that
the church’s dedication to John the Baptist is no coincidence.
At first, it was thought that the locals tricked the Dominicans into
this saint, so that his festival could mask the festival of the summer
solstice. Today, anthropologists generally accept that the Dominicans
realised what was going on, and went along with it; the appearance of
conforming to Christian doctrine was apparently all they really were
after. In fact, the cult of the Dominicans, often centred on the Virgin
Mary and their founder Dominic Guzman may have been helped by a remarkable
linguistic coincidence: Dominic in Spanish is Domingo, the word also
used for Sunday. A veneration for Domingo thus could mask a veneration
for the sun. Noon, when the sun is at its highest point, continues to
be the most important time for religious worship.
It may be a linguistic play of words, but there is a possibility that
the early contacts also resulted in some misunderstandings. One bizarre
aspect of the local worship are the dressed crosses: large crosses are
clothed. In Spanish, the Holy Cross is Santa Cruz. “Santa Cruz”
could also mean “Saint (female) Cruz” and perhaps the locals
thought it was a saint, and hence the cross was dressed like all other
saints. It is a possibility, but perhaps the explanation is a bit too
Mayans have ingeniously adapted Christianity to make it work for them.
The market square in front of the church is lined with crosses. They
look typically Christian, but again, appearances can be deceiving. The
Mayans used the cross as a religious symbol before the arrival of the
Dominican friars bent on converting them. Allegedly, the first missionaries
to the area even thought they had stumbled upon a lost tribe of Israel,
because of the presence of the cross. But even though all crosses look
the same, the Mayans have a different interpretation. To them, the four
points of the cross symbolise the sun, the Earth, the moon and the people.
They usually appear in sets of three, which represents the Calvary,
but actually symbolises the three holy mountains of this area. Like
so many other cultures, the Mayans consider mountains to be gateways
The Maya believe that First Father propped up the sky with huge ceiba
trees at the four corners (north, south, east and west) and in the centre
of the world. The crosses are normally green and are the symbol of the
ceiba tree, their “World Tree”. They are decorated with
carvings of bromelias and pine boughs and are often "dressed"
in real flowers and pine boughs. It has carvings of four petaled flowers
that are similar to real ceiba flowers.
As a consequence, the legend of Jesus has been “abridged and adapted”
to suit their religious framework. The story thus goes that there was
the Old and the Young Jesus. They came upon a tree, which had bees wax
on top. The young one climbed the tree, and dropped the wax to the bottom.
With this wax, the old one makes a wax army. But when the Young Jesus
continues to drop the wax, the old Jesus gets upset and through magic,
has the wax army bite off the trunk of the tree. As a consequence, the
tree falls and the Young Jesus still in top is killed. The Old Jesus
goes to his mother, Mary, who then tells him to go to a mountain top.
There, he finds an umbilical cord, which he climbs, and which takes
him to heaven. There, he becomes the sun, whereas the Virgin Mary becomes
the moon. The story is far removed from Jesus dying on Golgotha for
the sin of Mankind, betrayed by his own apostles.
the true importance of the Mayan origins of the town is easily overlooked:
the stones at the bottom of the crosses. They might seem simple stones,
but they represent something else: sacred stones. The local population
worshipped sacred stones, who were able to prophesize. They were the
voice of the gods, who aided the shamans in directing their people.
The stones were said to have fallen from Heaven. When the Dominican
friars came, they took the magical stones from the local shamans, which
thus denied them of their possibility to prophesize. The stones lining
the square are believed to be replica, void of any magical charm, but
a visible reminder of what once was – and was lost – taken,
That is, in essence, what Chamula is: it is not Mayan. It is something
that is a mixture of indigenous beliefs, whose core was taken by the
Christian missionaries, whereby the local population nevertheless continued
to hang on to what they could. In recent decades, Western civilisation,
tourism and new technology have invaded this town, with an altogether
complex outcome. That is what makes Chamula unique and intriguing.