Maize Was Their Flesh: Ritual Feasting in the Maya Highlands

  • Allen J. Christenson


Recently I accompanied a Tz’utujil-Maya ajq’ij (traditionalist priest) and six of his companions on a pilgrimage high in the mountains above Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, to visit a ritual cave. The cave is considered one of the most sacred spots in the Lake Atitlán region and is seldom visited without first carrying out a series of ceremonies to petition the gods and ancestors who are believed to live there to purify the participants. This particular journey was the culmination of 6 months of preparation to determine the best day on which to visit the cave and to ensure that it was permissible to enter the cave without offending its divine inhabitants. The principal purpose of the visit was to ask for a good harvest in the coming year and for rains to return abundantly in season (that year had been a relatively poor one with regard to the maize harvest and the rains had been unusually spotty).

Through a series of divinatory ceremonies, the day chosen for the journey was November 3, the day after the Day of the Dead, a season in which the nawals (powerful ancestors) are said to be particularly close to the world of the living. Before entering the cave itself, one more major petition ceremony was required to ensure that it was permissible to approach the gods and nawals of the cave directly. All must have saq ki k’ux, kanima’ (“white hearts and souls”) or they cannot enter the cave. It is somewhat common for the gods to deny permission at the last minute, depending on the worthiness of the participants on that day. It is also possible that the gods and nawals may be busy with other affairs that came up since the last petition was granted in the same way that the town’s secular authorities often cancel meetings scheduled well in advance if some more pressing affairs come up.


Maize Field Cardinal Direction Gift Exchange Girl Child Spanish Conquest 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Allen J. Christenson
    • 1
  1. 1.Brigham Young UniversitySalt Lake CityUSA

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