Dancing Within The First Mountain of Creation

October 6, 2001 @ 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm

The 2001 Lewis K. Land Lecture

Dr. Allen Christenson
Brigham Young University, Provo, UT

Reviewed by Michel Quenon

This year’s Land lecture took place in the Gould Auditorium of the Palace of the Legion of Honor, a new venue for this annual event. Following in Dr. Christenson’s footsteps, we journeyed to the Highlands of Guatemala and back through time in search of a Mayan pre-Columbian past.

A former student of Maya specialist Linda Schele, Dr. Christenson spent several years of anthropological research among the Tz’utujil Maya of Lake Atitlan, focusing on the town of Santiago Atitlan. Thus he was well qualified for interpreting and analyzing the links between present-day rituals and the pre-Columbian belief system. Trained as a first level ajq’ij or daykeeper — one who can perform rituals and divinations —  he believes that many of the modern-day Tz’utujil rituals are rooted in ancient Mayan civilization.

In this lecture, Dr. Christenson highlighted a set of modern-day rituals that have deep connections to the emergence and renewal of life. The pre-Columbian framework was provided via several excerpts from the Popol Vuh, a sixteenth century Quiche manuscript written in the Roman alphabet which describes the creation of the earth, the animals, and the human race. According to this text, at the beginning of creation, only the sky and the primordial sea existed. Invocations from the gods caused the earth to emerge and its features, to take shape. Next came the animals. But because of their inability to speak and to honor their creators, they were condemned to be eaten. Several attempts were necessary before a version of human beings acceptable to the gods was finally arrived at, their flesh being made of corn.

For the Atitecos, the inhabitants of Santiago de Atitlan, Lake Atitlan and its surrounding three volcanoes represent the navel of the earth with the lake being the primordial sea at the dawn of creation. With this awareness of the sacredness of their surroundings, the Atiteco’s ritualistic life takes on a cosmological dimension. Essential to the renewal of all life in the community is the dance ritual of San Martin observed on November 11th, the feast day of Saint Martin in the Roman Catholic calendar. This ritual has very little resemblance to Christian liturgy and its very likely source is in the distant past of Maya ritual. The latter involves a sacred bundle made of red cloth kept in a chest inside the San Martin cofradia house, and is actually a metaphor for the life cycle of the maize.

On the evening prior to the San Marti day ritual, the bundle is removed from the chest by the nab’eysil, the priest-shaman in charge of all the rituals associated with the San Martin bundle, and deposited on the altar. As part of the ceremony, the nab’eysil undergoes a ritual death and his body is carried to the altar of the confraternity house as a sacrificial offering. He then rises from death and starts dancing to the four cardinal directions, arms outstretched, to the encouragement of the audience. By dancing to the four cardinal directions, the priest centers the ritual in the primordial axis of the cosmos, the place of creation. His outstretched arms recall the stance of the World Tree on Classic Maya monuments and the dance is that of the reborn Maize god as depicted in numerous ceramic iconography. The dance of San Martín thus parallels the Popol Vuh’s account of the death of the Maize god at the hands of the Lords of Xibalba and his subsequent rebirth and emergence.

Dr. Christenson used a set of slides and a short video showing the ritual dancer in action. A lengthy questions/answer session followed, demonstrating the interest of the audience in a way of life that is fast disappearing.