Many of the
Mopan and Q´eqchi´ Maya practice the traditional ways
that have been in existence for many generations. A sampling of
these practices is described on this page. For a comprehensive examination
of the traditional lifestyle of the Maya, order The Living Maya.
To the Earth
What does it mean
to have a spiritual connection to the land? For the Maya it means
that they think about their natural environment in a certain way,
they interact with nature in a certain way, and they engage in rituals
that offer respect to the forces of nature. The Maya are one of many
indigenous cultures around the world that engages in what is known
as a nature-based religion.
When the Spanish
arrived in Central America they forced the Maya to become Christians.
The Maya were called pagans and mistreated if they did not adhere
to the Christian doctrine that Spanish friars required them to follow.
As the Maya converted to Christianity, they developed a blend of
beliefs that included the Roman Catholic Church and their ancient
religion. With the exception of the Maya who are part of the Protestant
denominations that were brought into the area in the 1970s, many
of the ancient beliefs and rituals are still practiced today.
Spiritual significance is found in all living things. The Maya revere
each animal and plant. One tree - the ceiba or cottonwood tree -
holds special significance as the Maya use it as a symbol of the
power of nature. Symbolically, the branches hold up the sky and
the roots keep the earth together. The copal tree is sacred as well,
as it produces the resin and the bark that are burned in censers
during spiritual ceremonies.
"four corners of the earth" or the earth's cardinal points
are also important to the Maya; they are even associated with specific
colors. The colors of blue and green are also important as they signify
the sky and the environment.
The four corners are important when praying; for example, a man may
look to or turn to all four corners as he prays in his milpa prior
to planting his corn.
The Maya are
sustained by their use of the land for agriculture. The land where
their sustenance is cultivated begins right outside their front
door and expands over a very broad area of their village. Herbs
used in cooking are often grown in pots next to their homes. Orchards
of oranges and fruit trees may be close to the residence or closer
to farmland. Farmland begins outside the center of the village and
may be as far away as a two-hour walk.
There are several
types of farmland that involve different crops and cultivation methods.
A milpa is a plantation that has been cut from the bush and burned
before it is planted, a technique known as slash-and-burn. The fire
releases nutrients back into the soil.
For the Maya, agriculture represents a cultural connection to the
land as important as traditional languages, arts, and ceremonies.
Key to that connection is corn.
of corn is connected ecologically, socially, and spiritually to
Mayan culture. Sacred spiritual rituals specifically concerning
the burning of a milpa, selection and use of seeds, and the actual
planting of the corn have existed since the time of the ancient
There is also a cultural significance to the cacao (cocoa) bean. In
ancient times cacao beans were used as currency. Today the drink made
from the ground bean is served regularly during family and community
gatherings. Finally, cacao trees are of such importance that they
are passed from one generation to the next as part of a family's inheritance.
and Community Events
are part of the traditional way of life for the Mopan and Q´eqchi´
Maya. These activities can be categorized into festivals and dances,
religious observances, and family/community celebrations. It is
common for events in any of these categories to be related in some
manner to the Maya's spiritual or religious beliefs.
and festivals are taken very seriously by the Maya. There is a great
commitment to engaging in these cultural celebrations in an authentic
manner. Each costume, mask, and the dance looks the same as it did
many years ago. The spiritual essence of events has also been kept
intact over the years.
Rituals of blessing items associated with the dances and personal
activities of those who are part of the dance, such as abstinence
from intimate personal relations on the part of dance participants,
is strictly followed as it has been for many generations.
teach other interested family and community members how to perform
the same dances or play the same musical scores that they were taught
in their youth. It is a wonderful example of how cultural knowledge
is passed through the generations in the Mayaland. In addition,
musical instruments are not only played but also made by local craftsmen.
family, and community events are plentiful in villages.
- Catholic Maya, rather than evangelical Maya Christians, are
more involved with events considered traditional. These events
include celebrations of their village's patron saint and All Soul's
- Events that include all aspects of the lifecycle are celebrated
through family gatherings that sometimes involve music and dancing.
- Communal activities involve the larger "village family"
in celebrations, such as wedding feasts as well as events, such
as fajinas and village meetings.
There are specific
rituals attached to the planting and harvesting of corn, hunting
and fishing, the blessing of a structure, and the use of ceremonial
items. During these spiritual occasions the Maya may be:
permission to engage in an activity that will in some way effect
the environment. (planting, hunting, fishing)
a special favor they need from the spirits
the spirits are benevolent to them; that no harm comes to those
who engage in a certain activity or reside/work in a new structure
their reverence for the spirit that lives in an object such
as a ceremonial mask, a musical instrument, or a residence
are solemn and filled with ritual. Each generation of Maya has passed
to the next the specific way that spiritual practices are to be
carried out. Rituals may involve a certain order of activities,
the voicing of specific prayers, and the involvement of particular
people in the ceremony.
may last for several minutes, hours, or days depending on the ritual
that is being performed. One family, a small group, or a whole village
may be included in the activities. A time of reflection or meditation
may be involved as well as a period of abstinence from physical
are elements of a spiritual ritual that are common. Most spiritual
ceremonies involve prayer, burning of copal incense in a censer, and
the burning of candles. If the spirit of an item is being revered
then in addition to actions noted above, the item may be given some
food, the blood of an animal, or cacao drink.
For example, when a house is built, prior to the placing the main
structural posts in the ground, a chicken may be killed and its blood
dripped into the holes where the poles will be placed. After the structure
is built the house may be "fed" once again by sprinkling
blood on the rafters or main structural poles. In addition, food or
drink and candles may be placed next to ceremonial masks, or blood
dripped on masks, while a group prays and moves the censer back and
forth over the items.
some spiritual rituals there may be a designated time of celebration
where food and alcoholic beverages are served. Music may also be part
of a spiritual ceremony. After some ceremonies, however, an activity,
such as hunting, fishing, or planting simply begins.
Mayan elders have
always respected the land. They conserve natural resources not out
of fear or lack, but rather out of respect for the land and the spirits
that inhabit every living element. They understand their connection
to the land. In fact, they see themselves as being part of the natural
environment. To hurt the land would be to hurt themselves.
of natural resources is the traditional approach used by villagers
as they interact with the land. The wisdom of village elders is
an important aspect to consider when discussing conservation in
a historical context because elders grew up with respect for their
environment and the spirits connected to the natural elements. According
to their spiritual beliefs, theirs is a partnership with the land
and the spirits, as opposed to a need to have control over these
act of conserving natural resources is an outgrowth of who the Maya
are and what they believe. Their prayers ask permission to plant "on
the back" of the land or hunt "the animals of the gods."
Their celebrations focus on giving thanks for their harvests and hunting
bounties. Out of respect, they take only what they need and no more.
The concept of environmental waste is not part of their lives. If
it is taken, it is used. Conservation is therefore a natural and
traditionally includes spiritual practice. This practice connects
the person who is sick, the healer, and the spirits of nature. Healers
feel that cures will not work unless both the healer and the patient
are "thinking as one." Very few traditional healers simply
grow herbs and dispense them to friends and family without there being
a spiritual element involved.
come to traditional healers for problems they themselves cannot
cure. Most village elders have a working knowledge of the herbs
for common health problems they have experienced over the years.
A trip to a traditional healer - commonly called a bush doctor -
occurs when a family member does not get well after a period of
A healer is usually one who:
has the knowledge
of how to use herbs to effect positive change in the body
has a deep reverence for nature and practices traditional spiritual
apprenticed with a village elder in his younger years
healers spend time gathering herbs that grow wild in the rainforest.
Some herbs grow near rivers and streams while others grow near hilly
areas. A traditional healer has a keen eye for the plants he intends
to gather. Prior to cutting the plant he says a prayer requesting
permission for the plant to be cut.
A traditional healer may use several diagnostic techniques, including
investigating an individual's symptoms, prayer, and using a stone
- a sastun - at which the healer gazes during a period of meditation.
The most famous contemporary Mayan healer in Belize, Elijio Panti
of the Cayo District, also used a patient's pulse to form a diagnosis.
Treatments include the use of herbs in either a tea or a poultice,
instructions to engage in a particular behavior (such as staying
inside or saying certain prayers), or a combination of the two.
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