Guatemalans have a strong bond with the Maya culture. During the conquests, the mesoamerican religions were banned from the continent mostly because of the humans sacrifices they made. But can one impose a religion and ask people to forget their traditions and beliefs in a couple of centuries?
For what we saw, the ancient rituals are not totally lost, they got mixed with the christian dogmas. Peoples go to church every week , but also practice offering to the Maya gods and seek help with the shamans. Another interesting trait, for them Religion seems all about suffering. Many representation of Jesus are bloodier here then what we see in Europe. Scholars thing, they associate the Passion of Jesus with ritual sacrifices.
Last week, we had the opportunity to catch a glimpse on an amazing mix of traditions, the Semana Santa. The Holy Week, is the last week before Easter. It includes Palm Sunday, Holy Wednesday, Holy Thursday (the Last Supper), Holy Friday when Jesus is crucified, and , the so creatively called, Holy Saturday.
The most popular place to see the celebration is in Antigua and for many reason; they make the biggest flower rugs, the city is only one hour from Guatemala City and it is a very touristic area. Every year, more than one million peoples come to attend this event.
Knowing that, we choose to go in the clearly quieter village of Chichicastenango. Called Chichi or Mashito, by the locals, is at three hours from Guatemala city and one hour from Lake Atitlan. This colonial style village is famous for his huge market on thursday and sunday.
Build atop of a maya platform, is the 400 year old church, Santo Tomas. The platform have 18 steps representing the 18 months of the Maya Calendar. On the other side of the main square, the Capilla del Calvario is a smaller version of the church. Locals still put candles on the steps and burn incense (sometimes trashes) in the altars in front of them.
Another place of worship there is called Pascual Abaj. It is an anthropomorphic stone surrounded by crosses, located atop the nearest hill. Here they still perform ceremonies today. They are multiples altars around they deity. each of them with particular use. Some are to ask for a cure, other to ask permission for a wedding, to get pregnant, to give a newborn a future, to remove curses. There is even one special to cure alcoholism.
Now, back on the Holy Week ceremony.
On Holy Wednesday, we weren’t very much paying attention, we only saw a parade entering the church.
On Holy thursday we were a little more careful. We crossed a small procession in the morning. A paso with a marching band and men from a brotherhood finely dressed in their most colorful clothes. After that, we went to the church, a schedule said that there will be mass from 6pm to 5am. Maybe we won’t attend… In the meantime in the village, there were different events going on, what grabbed our attention was a Christian Rock concert. As the church nearby was pumping music at full volume, they had to maxed out their PA system, leading to an awful mishmash of singing and distortion noise. But after that, we were pleased by a live-action reenactment of the Passion of Christ. At the end of the concert, roman guards started filling the crow, obviously looking for someone (Spoiler: Jesus). They soon found it, a quick trial follow, than the poor bastard is crucified. Oh, I forgot to say that it is all lip synced, and that at the end, Longinus (the spear guy) started singing. Two words: pure magic! Later on in the local theater there was another group revisiting the Passion, in Rap. No need to say, i had to change underwear two times this day.
Good Friday is probably the most impressive day.
Peoples work all day making decorating the streets with alfombras, ephemeral carpets featuring elaborated drawing made of colored sawdust, and decorated with flowers petals, and fruits. It look like most families make them if front of their houses. The sawdust carpet tradition came from Europe, but the indigenous adopted the folklore probably because it remind them the way their ancestors used to make offering to the gods. So instead of pure christian iconography, some families prefer to draw animals, traditional geometric pattern or maya deities.
The great procession start from the church at 4pm, do a tour in the village and return around 11pm. When the defilee arrive in a street, first the carpet is copiously smoked by turiferarios (the incense guys), then, as a sign of acceptance for the offering, the pasos porters steps on it, blessing the makers. When the procession is passed by, the family members clean the street as fast as they can. Some are saving parts of the blessed sawdust, maybe for shamanic use (or maybe just as fire starter).
The whole parade is followed by a marching band playing song about suffering and asking for forgiveness.
When the procession arrive at the church, you can’t help but notice some strange puppets hanged at the front door. Those are Maximon/Judas/San Simon effigies, not three differents though, all in one.
Maximon is a maya god, still venerated today, he is the guardian of agriculture and fertility, but also the rainmaker. Generally speaking he is a wealth bringer. Ancients used to hanged him in trees for view. When the spaniards arrived, they assimilated it to Judas (who hanged himself after the death of Jesus). So now, this deity is Maximon on thursday, and Judas on friday. It is a very complex god that deserve is own article. Maybe later..
Holy Saturday is the day of Jesus funeral, mostly hours long mass. We went to hot springs instead.
And Finally Easter, which we saw in Quetzaltenango, a bigger town. The cortege was a lot more colorful, shorter and accompanied by joyous singing about the King of all Zombie. “HE IS ALIVE!”.
We were really charmed with what we saw and lived in Chichicastenango. The entire ceremony was so typical, it felt genuine. You can’t draw a line between catholic religion and maya beliefs, along the years, they established a balance between old and really old traditions.