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Holding the Gods to Account

A Rare (and Forbidden) Interior Shot of the Chamula Religious Observances

My brother and I visited the Tzotzil village of San Juan Chamula in 1979. We stood in the back of a stake truck from San Cristóbal de las Casas along with dozens of Chamulas. In the village, we requested permission to visit the church, which was at one time Catholic until the Tzotzil threw the priests out and took over the churches for their own syncretic observances. In the alcalde’s office, we had to sign a promise that we would not take any photographs inside under pain of the severest punishment. (During the 1980s, at least European tourist was killed by an angry mob for just such a transgression).

I found the following description in Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, which I have just finished reading:

On the way to Oventic I stopped at the town of Chamula, famous for its weird church observances, where the interior of the basilica of San Juan Bautista was ablaze with flames. Worshipers crouched on the floor arranging candles, fifty or a hundred in symmetrical patterns, then lighting them and, in the candlelight, drinking Coca-Cola and ritually burping—eructation believed to be salutary—and splashing libations of Coke on the church floor, which was covered with sand.

The Church at San Juan Chamula

There were no pews, there were no priests, there was no Mass or formal service. It was a gathering of curanderos—medicine men—and those wishing to be cured. Other solemn groups were chanting, passing hens’ eggs around the the faces and bodies of prayerful pilgrims in a limpia—a purification—or holding a squawking chicken near a kneeling devotee, and a moment later the chicken’s neck was wrung, and the softened, drooping carcase placed near the candles.

As I watched, a man approached me holding a bottle and a glass. He said, “Mezcal,” and poured me a slug and offered it. I drank it, blinked away the dazzle in my eyes, thanked him, and kept looking.

It was a fusion of pre-Hispanic traditions and Christian dogma, the result an observance involving a mass of candles, throttled chickens, and soda pop. (But sheep are sacred, never harmed or eaten: the town of Chamula is full of grazing sheep.) Added to these rituals was a chance for retribution, because if the chosen saint did not grant the supplicant’s wish, the deity could be punished, just as the Zapotecs and mayans punished their gods and saints, lashing their images with whips. In this church, the statues of saints, which had been ceremonially draped, with an uttered prayer, could be stripped of their robe if the prayer was not answered.

Check out the above YouTube video, which gives a you a feeling of life in this Tzotzil village.

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