The Huaves' Culture: Their Religions, and Their Mythology

Examine the beliefs and practices of the Huave people, who place emphasis on such elements as rain, religion, and mythology.

The Huaves' Culture: Their Religions, and Their Mythology
The Huave adhere to a lifestyle centered on water. Credit: INPI

Even though they don't know why the Huaves have to deal with the effects of a coastline where it rains little and stays dry for long periods. Between these two extremes, the Huaves have made water, in all its different forms, the center of their economy and their mythology. While most Mesoamerican natives have made corn the center of their beliefs and art, the Huaves have made water the link between the saints, the winds, and the naguals.

The word "yow," which means "water", is at the heart of many place names, weather conditions, and rituals. It is also at the center of many myths. So, when the rain cycle changes, it affects the timing and intensity of economic activities. This is why the Huaves have a ceremonial cycle whose goal is to make it rain.

The pattern of the rains has become the most important part of the ceremonies, to the point where the main rituals are more or less directly aimed at appeasing the rains, which fill the ponds and lagoons and help shrimp reproduce. At the same time, they try to avoid the dangers of cyclonic disturbances, which can cause terrible floods.

For Huaves of San Mateo del Mar, the regularity of the rain depends on the gifts that the leaders of the community give to Cerro Bernal every year. Cerro Bernal is a mountain southeast of the coast in the state of Chiapas. Archaeological research has shown that the site of Cerro Bernal was an important stop on the ancient salt route that went from the central Altiplano to the Maya area.

Among the stelae at the archaeological site, one that stands out is a representation of Tlaloc. It shows a contrast between two types of water: in his left hand, he holds a cup from which water pours down as rain, and in his right hand, he holds a snake, which represents "walking water".

In the context of local beliefs, petitions to Cerro Bernal have a direct link to the Huave word for lightning, "monteoc", which is used in petitions to the mountain. In everyday speech, lightning is called teat monteoc, which means "father lightning". This is the male equivalent of müm ncherrec, which means "mother south wind".

The Huave monteoc are in charge of rain and lightning, move as fast as lightning, and can turn seawater into rainwater. They are also inseparable from the female entities called ncherrec, which means "south wind" and look like their wives. So, for the Huaves, Cerro Bernal is a place where supernatural marriages happen, which are mostly the same as regular marriages you can see in San Mateo del Mar.

The Huaves and the Tradition of the Trinity

Even though the Huaves have been nominally Catholic since the 1600s, a process of non-continuous evangelization has made it possible for Christian and native gods to work together uniquely. Between God and people, there will have to be a long chain of saints, virgins, and soul entities who act as middlemen and lead rituals.

So, even when the Christian roots of the saints are acknowledged, they are given traits that are similar to those of the soul entities. This is done through a system that divides the deities along the two axes of the hemisphere. This system can still be seen in the altar of the church of San Mateo, which has changed over the years.

The Virgin of Candelaria is on the south side of the altar and is thought to be a representation of the south wind. The patron saint is on the north side of the altar and is thought to be a representation of teat monteoc, also known as "father thunderbolt", who is in charge of the rain.

The Huaves use terms like "south" and "north" to help them navigate space. These terms are also used to classify the universe. The south wind is feminine because it comes from the sea, from the waves that the Virgin of Candelaria made when she stepped on the ocean. The north wind is masculine because it comes from the interior of the region and is not different from the characteristics of the patron saint.

In this system, the difference between right and left is like the difference between man and woman. This means that the north will be linked to the right-man binomial and the south will be linked to the left-woman binomial. Gender differences, which are based on the four cardinal points, are shown in places that socially bring together the male and female sectors. This can be seen in the house, the cemetery, and the church, which all have their spatial codes.

The act of burying the placentas of the children in the north of the house matches the act of burying the bodies of the men in the north of the cemetery. In the same way, the placentas and bodies of the women will be buried in the south of the house and the south of the cemetery, respectively. In the church, the women are at the southern end, which is where the Virgin of Candelaria is, and the men are on the other side, where St. Matthew the Apostle stands at the altar and watches over them.

By putting Jesus Christ in the middle and the other gods on the sides, the iconographic arrangement of the altar reflects symmetrically the order of the celebrations, which go from Candlemas to St. Matthew, passing through a "virtual center" that occupies the same place on the altar as Corpus Christi does in the year. By being in the middle of a female celebration and a male celebration, Corpus Christi can do two things at once: it separates the two poles and it shares the attributes of the two poles it separates.

The two halves of the year can be seen as a contrast between a "masculine" season and a "feminine" season. This is because both seasons follow the path of the north wind and the south wind, whose arrivals signal the end of the rainy season and the start of the dry season.

The north wind comes on September 19, when the rainy season ends and San Mateo Apostle takes over as steward. It blows from the interior of the region towards the ocean and fights against the south wind, which blows in the opposite direction during the first few months of the year and is associated with the virgin of Candelaria.

In this way, rain and drought mark the course of the ritual cycle and make the patron saint celebrations last longer. On the other hand, during the Corpus Christi celebration, there is a dance where "the lightning bolt" (monteoc) kills "the serpent" (ndiüc) and brings on the rainy season. A common belief is that the first rain of the season falls on the coast during this ceremony, which closes the cycle of petitions made by city officials all summer long.

At Corpus Christi, the montsünd naab, or "drum musicians," play different sounds that go with the different parts of the ritual, just like they do at other religious ceremonies. The music is then presented as a contrast between the sounds made by the drum, the flute, and the tortoise shells and the sounds made by the rec, which is made up of two sets of cowbells that are beaten loudly and without chords between shouts, whistles, and voices that don't go together.

This difference in sound has to do with how much the huaves value the church bell tower, which is the home of the naab drums and the cowbells. If the percussion instruments are linked to the bell tower, then the reed flutes are linked to the north and south winds. This is why they are called "ind," which means "wind" in Sanskrit.

The flutes are divided into major and minor, just like the drums, and the leader of the group is the only one who can play them. This is because the leader is the only one who knows all 36 sones that make up the musical repertoire.

The Land Turtle Poj: A Symbol of a Ceremony Cycle

One of the things that make San Mateo del Mar music unique is the use of turtle shells that are beaten with deer antlers. The tradition says that the tortoise shells should come from the females of the species, which are thought to make a louder sound.

The land turtle Poj (Chrysemys scripta), which hatches at the end of the rainy season, is the symbol of a ceremony cycle that begins on the fourth Friday of Lent, during the feast of the Green Cross of Mar Tileme, and ends on the feast of Corpus Christi.

On the night before this celebration, Poj goes from house to house in the village to find her parents and godparents. They bring her to the altar of the village in a way that is similar to how newborns are brought to their altars.

The snake is associated with heavy rain, but the turtle has learned to get along with people because it is related to them. When it drizzles, it means light rain is coming, and this is called "turtle urine" or "achel poj."

So, its growth cycle starts in the summer and ends when the first rains fall on the feast of Corpus Christi. This is when the lightning dances with the snake in a ceremony and the rainy season begins.

The Dance of Omalndiüc (The Dance of the Serpent)

The dance of omalndiüc, which is also called the "Dance of the Serpent," is based on a myth about a shepherd who has a lightning bolt and who shares the qualities of the neombasöic because of this.

Since this type of person can accurately predict when it will rain, the shepherd can figure out when the serpent will leave its faraway home in the mountains and head down into the ocean, where its golden horn will create a huge furrow of water. That's why its name "nötz weacun" means "one horn".

In the myth, the great horned serpent is a personification of the telluric waters that are in the hills and mountains. Its path to the sea is a symbol of the coming together of water from the land and water from the sea.

With his machete, the little shepherd chases the snake through the bushes that protect it until he cuts off the snake's head before it can reach the seashore and flood the village.

The Huave dance shows the main parts of the myth with some accuracy, and both the characters and the dance steps are based on the story's plot. The shepherd acts like Neajeng, "the arrowman" who holds a machete and wears black because he is a cloud of water. The twelve dancers who make up the choreography act like the bushes that serve as the stage for the fight.

The snake is an ambiguous character: it wears a hat and has long hair, and it carries a wooden head (omalndiüc) on its back. The head has both male and female features because the snake is an ambivalent animal that can be both male and female.

During the choreography, the arrowman and the snake move along a wavy path between the dancers, who are lined up in two opposite rows to avoid coming into direct contact with the other characters. After chasing the snake for a long time, Neajeng kills it. To show that it is dead, he takes off its head and holds it in the air.

Rain in the Lakes: The Huaves' Way of Life

The Huaves say that, in theory, the first rain of the year falls at the end of the execution and that the cycle of the storm will continue until the patron saint, San Mateo Apostle, takes over and the rain stops to make room for the northern wind at the end of the year.

According to a belief that still lives on among those who follow the custom, the ancient Huaves thought that the world's survival depended on the rains they brought about. The annual conversation with the rain gods helped everyone, not just the people in the community, and the responsibilities of the community leaders were proportional to the size of that project.

So, to this day, the community gives them the right and the duty to make it rain by sending annual petitions to Cerro Bernal. This means that the municipal council is in charge of making sure there is plenty of fish and that it rains regularly. In 1976, the lack of rain and the unseasonable north wind, which made it hard to fish in the lagoons, were blamed on the mayors' bad behavior. Only one day of rain, on August 16, saved the mayors from the shame of being fired.

Source: Huaves, by Saúl Millán, pages 15-24. Saúl Millán is Dr. in Anthropological Sciences. He is a professor-researcher at the National School of Anthropology and History of the National Institute of Anthropology and History. National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas)