Walden World

The wacky and wonderful tales of Beth's and Catherine's global adventures. And all things Walden too.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Chichicastenango: The Fantá´s in the Fire

Just before Christmas the Mayan highland town of Chichicastenango holds the fiesta for the patron saint of the town: Santo Tomas. All the Maya from the countryside flock to the town for this week long festival. As in most Mayan areas, it is a sacred Christian event melded with and often overwhelmed by paganism.

To begin with, the Church of Santo Tomas has a Christian altar at the front but four large stone altars run down the middle. Here the Maya light candles and worship the ancient pagan gods representing earth, sky, sun and moon. The family kneels in front of the stones and places candles chanting prayers and incantations in Quiche or whatever Maya language they happen to speak. The oldest appears to be responsible for speaking on behalf of the family. Shamans burn incense in large empty tins which resemble paint cans waiving them in front of the images of Saints who are in fact a cover for the gods.

At the front people will pray the appropriate Catholic saint giving offerings of bottles of Coca Cola which the worshipper rotates in front of the effigies in a particular pattern. Other supplicants crawl back and forth on their knees deep in fervant prayer, dressed in tradtional Mayan dress clutching white candles.

Outside of town, up a very high hill is a place among pines where an ancient Mayan god is worshipped without reference to Christian symbols. Whole families stood around the altar where shamans built fires for each clan. The people made offerings to the god: of liquor, flowers, Coca Cola and even bottles of Fanta. We watched as the shamans tended the fires and poured the libations on the flames. One family had sacrificed a chicken which sat cooking in the flames. While the family shamans made incantations, family members stood by eating,drinking and laughing like anyone on a summer´s picnic.

Down in the town, thousands of Maya lit fireworks, all dangerous and illegal in Canada. Some, the big booming ones that didn´t have any colour, were to call people to mass. Outside the church thousands of mini dynamite fire crackers were lined along the steps of the 500 year old church and lit repeatedly by shamans, young men or Catholic confradis who stood on the steps dressed in Maya finery in front of enormous effigies of Saints, decorated with feathers, mirrors, weaving of apples and other fruits. The firecrackers shot shrapnel through the throngs and you had to stand back and cover your face lest you get shrapnel burns. The paper from burnt firecrackers is almost knee deep at places, the scene always obscured by smoke from incense or fireworks.

When the Saint´s are paraded through the town, they are followed by Mayan women with burning white candles. Mid-way down the street, they meet with a shaman who has covered the ground with a carpet of large fresh green pine needles. In the middle he has made magical patterns out of rose and flower petals. The saints must be blessed by him and he waves incense from his paint can before they can cross the sacred ground.

At the base of the steps celebrants virtually all men, completely hammered on moonshine danced dizily almost falling at each step to marimba music while the austere shamans, in Maya clothing wearing Apache like headwear, looked on. Fallen on the ground lay men and women so drunk and passed out they looked dead. Sometimes this could in fact happen on moonshine. As Josh a guide commented, the streets on fiesta days can resemble a massacre.

During the fiesta, a number of Maya dress in astounding gold, silver and black costumes, with masks adorned in gold, representing blond European men. They are playing the part of conquistidors and do dances. In some they rattle angrily at each other, in others they dance with a Toro or maybe a jaguar.

The few tourists there, like me, stand open mouthed and take photo after photo. The Maya themselves, look through you. No interest in us except for the occassional little child who giggles at my glasses, my blond hair or my tattoo. You could be a ghost. A gringo is of no importance. You are not the world just something by the wayside.


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