Were You at Chichi in December?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Guatemala
I EASILY could have missed you if, between the 17th and 21st of December, you were in Chichicastenango. This is that unusual Indian town in the mountains of Guatemala. So many visitors were there to watch the unique religious festivities that it was impossible to see everybody. And what went on in and around the church was so unusual, yes, even shocking, that my attention was focused mainly on that.
No matter what your religious beliefs may be, if you reflect on what occurs in Chichicastenango, I think you can appreciate why it has been spoken of as a place where pagandom and Christendom blend.
Though sometimes shortened to “Chichi,’’ the full name is Chichicastenango, meaning “Nettle Town.” It became the cultural center of the Quiché Indians (descendants of the ancient Maya) back in 1524, after the Spanish conqueror Pedro de Alvarado burned the fortress of Utatlán eleven miles (18 kilometers) to the north.
In Chichicastenango, after four centuries, we still find the Quiché following the traditions of their Indian forefathers. They have kept their pride of race, they speak their own dialect and, though called Christians, they practice religious rites that reveal pagan roots. This religious blend, seen in the 435-year-old Saint Thomas Catholic church, is what attracts and intrigues many. As I did, you may wonder just how much of the ritual is for the old Mayan gods and just where the Catholicism begins—something that leaves many visiting Catholics quite disturbed.
I visited Chichicastenango for the first time twenty years ago. Based on what I have seen as well as read in books by archaeologists and historians, I must agree with the renowned Mayanist, Sir Eric Thompson. He wrote: “It is interesting to reflect that the Maya . . . accepted Christianity, but not as a substitute for their old gods. Instead, they quietly amalgamated the two religions to their liking. Maya gods and Christian saints were welded into a smoothly functioning pantheon.” He concluded that “very few Maya could tell you which are the Christian and which the pagan elements in his religion.”
The visitor might hear part of the religious activity before actually seeing it. This was my experience. As I threaded my way down the narrow cobbled streets toward the plaza, I heard an eerie, high-pitched sound, accompanied by rhythmic beats on a small drum. Turning a corner, I faced a group of somber-faced marchers in their bright Indian garments. It was one of the fourteen cofradías (religious brotherhoods) carrying their image to be put in the church.
Each brotherhood is dedicated to a different saint, the principal one being Saint Thomas. The appointed officials of the brotherhoods are identified by the turbans they wear. These chiefs have the privilege of carrying the silver icon belonging to the brotherhood. The icon is about a foot (30 centimeters) high, in the form of a sunburst, with a small cross on top. It represents a fusion of pagan sun worship and Catholicism.
Once you reach the plaza, your attention is quickly drawn to the white church of “Santo Tomás.” The plaza or marketplace spreads out before it, throbbing with people and activity. And there is no way of overlooking what begins on the church steps.
Supplicating the Gods
On the steps of this Catholic church, the Quiché begin their religious rites. There is an altar on the bottom step where they burn pom, or incense. From the altar they slowly proceed upward, a step at a time, swinging their incense burners. Kneeling on one knee on the top step, they continue praying, while gesturing with their hands, as though in conversation with a close friend. They believe that the rising smoke of the incense takes the prayers to their ancestors and, through them, to the gods. The worshipers abandon their incense at the church door and disappear inside.
Since the main door is crowded with Indians, I enter through the side door, as most visitors do. Even if you have been in other churches, you would probably be startled as you enter. It is so dark that it takes your eyes time to adjust. The walls and ceiling, darkened by centuries of smoke, add to the eerie effect. And you know immediately where the smoke comes from.
Down the center of the church are wooden pallets ablaze with candles. White and red rose petals are profusely scattered among the candles, white representing the dead and red the living. The oldest male of the household kneels at the pallets, praying. A woman may pray if no male accompanies her. In some instances, a priest or wise man is hired as a go-between to supplicate the gods.
In the flickering candlelight you can see the intensity, the facial expression and gestures with which each person prays. We hear no Spanish, only the Quiché dialect. To what god or gods are they praying inside this Catholic church?
“Our Father in the heavens,” the patriarch of a small family may begin his prayer, “we ask your direction now in the name of Saint Thomas. Listen to me, Saint Thomas, now that it is your day when you are going to go forth in procession. Also, would you help us, Saint Joseph, Saint Sebastian, Pascual Abaj, god of the air and sky, god of the hills and valleys. O Jesus, protect us from evil spirits who would cast a spell upon us. We ask you to give us beans and corn, clothing and health. We also need a house and money and wealth. We need chickens, cows, sheep and cats. Saint Thomas and the other apostles, protect our animals. Do not let them get sick. And protect us from the civil authorities. May the mayor, the police and the courts not unjustly bother us.”
Often the pagan gods outnumber the Catholic saints. Why do the Quiché, who profess Catholicism, address these many gods? The ancient pagan Maya worshiped their ancestors, as well as the sun, moon and other celestial bodies. They gave importance to the rain gods and the earth god. But what happened when the Spanish brought them Catholicism? Sir Eric Thompson explains: “They [the Maya] have Mayanized Christianity, blending it with native concepts.” And the shocking fact is that, though the Church has strongly exercised its influence in this community for centuries, most of its Indian members are still as much pagan as Catholic.
A Pagan Shrine
But who is Pascual Abaj, mentioned in the prayer? He is the most important local god of Chichicastenango. Rites are performed before his primitive image atop a nearby hill. To the ancient black stone idol the people offer rose petals, incense, candles and occasionally sacrifices of decapitated chickens, dripping with blood. Native priests adorn him with pine branches and flowers. There he stands—three feet (about a meter) tall, with no body, just an elongated head, resembling the ancient corn god.
And what of the miniature crosses surrounding Pascual Abaj? Where do they fit in the blend? They have nothing to do with Christ Jesus. When the Spanish arrived, the Maya already had the cross. Its four arms symbolize many things: The four gods stationed at the corners of the world and holding up the sky, the four directions from which the winds and rains come, and four tribal gods.
So in the church of Saint Thomas, Pascual Abaj, sun god, earth god, Jesus and others all are mentioned together in the Quiché prayers.
What do the thousands who visit this church each year think about the fusion religion they see? Some ask a priest or others about the unchristian practices. In reply, a person may be told that the Church permits the adults to carry on their pagan ways so the children will go to school and get Catholic .instruction. Thus, it is said, the next generation will be different. But how many “next generations” have there been in the four hundred years since the Spanish gained control?
Other visitors ask their tour guides, who may explain: “The Indians pray to both the saints of the Church and their old gods because they are not sure which are the true ones. They have not given up their stone god on the hill. They go to pray before Pascual Abaj and tell the idol, ‘I have already been to the church and asked the saints for many things. Now I’m here to ask you. Perhaps what they won’t do for me, you will do.’”
Listen to a Quiché priest praying for his client, a woman. “O Saint Thomas, I am here to ask you to protect Macario. His wife has brought this sacrifice.” (He holds up a handful of candles, gestures in the four directions and touches the candles to the woman’s head, and she kisses them.) “Now these candles are holy, since you have blessed them, Saint Thomas. Let nothing bad happen to Macario, the husband of this woman. He is on a business trip to Guatemala City. He is not a bad man, so do not let anyone rob him. Keep him from accidents. If any brujo [witch doctor] has put a spell or a curse upon him, would you nullify it, Pascual Abaj? Bring Macario back to his house safely.” (He then pours rum around the candles he has lit.) “This is for you, Saint Thomas. You will need it today. This is your day to walk in the procession around the town and it will give you strength.”
A guide, overheard excusing the Church’s permitting the use of rum, said: “The rum has alcohol to purify the space for his sacrifice on the pallet serving as an altar.” More accurate is an archaeologist’s comment: “Often an alcoholic drink. is poured over the petals. Even the Indians are not certain what this means, but in pre-Columbian pagan rites drinking was part of the ceremony.” The many intoxicated celebrators indicate that drinking is still part of their worship!
Saint Thomas’ Day
December 21 is Saint Thomas’ day. In Chichicastenango the day opened on Christendom’s side of the ledger. The pallets were removed from the aisle of the church and four priests were officiating at the Mass. In the rear of the church, images of the saints lined both sides. A group of chieftains entered with icons, one being Tzicolaj, the famed rider of the little wooden horse. But attention was focused on the three gaudily adorned images, Saints Thomas, Joseph and Sebastian.
Why, though, are the images surmounted by elaborate decoration in the form of huge half-moons, like halos, and adorned with many colored feathers, plastic fruit, and flashing mirrors? “To represent the Sun, the heart of the Sky,” one reference work says. It is clear that to the Quiché the Catholic saints before whom they bow and burn candles are really their old idols or gods of Mayan mythology with new names.
The Mass concluded as the priest asked Saint Thomas to bless the people, who then filed out singing “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.” Catholicism’s rites came to an abrupt end and throughout the remainder of the day paganism reigned supreme.
The cofradía officials moved quickly to the very center of the nave, kneeling to face the church altar. However, the chieftain carrying Tzicolaj positioned himself before them, his back to the altar. Who is to say whether the obeisance was to the altar of the Catholic Mass or to Tzicolaj?
Next the images were hoisted and the exodus began. Out the front door, down the steps the procession moved. The chieftains took a position in front of Saint Thomas, carrying their icons and Tzicolaj. From the church they went through the narrow aisles of the crowded plaza. Bedlam broke loose as explosive rockets were launched continuously, and firecrackers added to the noise. Finally, the procession returned to the church and the three saints were positioned atop the steps facing the plaza. There they received homage throughout an afternoon of dancing, drinking and music.
Too Much Paganism
Would you be surprised that the people of Chichicastenango know little of the origin of their religion? That is the case. Yet people of many religions are just as uninformed when it comes to explaining the doctrines and practices of their own “Christian” faith, because much paganism has been blended with what Christ Jesus taught.
Is the Church concerned about the paganism in the worship of the Quiché? This point came up in a conversation with a Spanish priest, a five-year resident of Chichicastenango, who was observing the festivities during most of the day. When asked what Tzicolaj represented, he answered, “I don’t know.” Then he added: “To the Quiché Tzicolaj is probably a symbol of the fusion of two religions.” Finally, he lamented: “The Indians have very little religion [Catholicism] in their hearts and very much tradition of the old Mayan gods.”
Looking back on my visit to Chichicastenango in December, I can appreciate why many visitors come away with memorable impressions, but somewhat shocked. Certainly, what goes on there is no accurate reflection of the worship of the true God “with spirit and truth,” which worship Jesus spoke of and encouraged.—John 4:24.
[Picture on page 21]
Incense altar on church steps
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Indian worship on church floor