Mayan deities, rituals and indigenous beliefs: the customs among the farmers identified with the Yokotan culture

13/05/2021

The ancient Maya dominated, among other territories, what are now the basins of the Grijalva, Usumacinta, and Tonala rivers. Their territory included a vital geographic extension for the commercial relations between the Central Highlands and the communities settled in the coastal plain, the peninsula, and the highlands; in addition to the maritime and fluvial commerce with other nations.

A historical event will mark the beginning of a process of religious fusion that some anthropologists have called "syncretism" or "hybridization of cultures": the battle of Centla -that is how it is known in Nacajuca by its current residents- took place in the delta formed by the crossing of the Grijalva, Usumacinta and San Pedro rivers, in the region named Potonchán by the Spaniards -from the indigenous word potam, that is to say, lands of water.

It was the year 1519, on the Day of the Virgin of the Assumption; Hernán Cortés and the Chontal-Mayas battled fiercely. On the verge of losing his life, the conquistador was saved by the action of a soldier on horseback who wreaked havoc among the Mayan warriors, which turned the confrontation in favor of the Spaniards and, of course, obviously thanks to the lethal firearms and armor of the Spaniards.

Transcendental events were derived from this triumph: the foundation in continental lands of the first Hispanic village, which in honor of the Virgin was called Santa María de la Victoria; the gift to Cortés of Malinche, a Nahuatl woman born in what is now Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, and who would play an important role as an interpreter in the Conquest and initiate the mestizaje, together with the sailor Gonzalo Guerrero who became Nacom -Warrior Chief-, having children with a Mayan woman and who died fighting against the Spaniards.

Likewise, the incorporation of the horse as a mythical element among the Chontales took place. The Danza del Caballito (Dance of the Little Horse) that is currently performed in the towns of Nacajuca and Tamulte is a testimony of this. With these events and the culmination of the Conquest by the Spaniards, the Yokot'an began to forcibly assemble the Novo-Hispanic and indigenous cultures, the Catholic and Mayan religions, which over the centuries has been historically reworked and is still present today, without ruling out sometimes irresolvable contradictions that, to avoid conflicts, have been adopted by both the indigenous society and the priests of the Catholic Church.

The main Mayan deities included Culklchan, Ikchaua, Ix Chel, Tabay; Feathered Serpent deity of the wind and rain, god of cocoa, goddess of the moon, and god of hunters, respectively.

At present, regardless of urban expansion, the development of the oil industry, and the growth of the commercial sector, agricultural activities such as the cultivation of beans, squash, yucca, corn, chayote, fruit trees, and vegetables; those related to the production of handicrafts; animal husbandry, hunting, and fishing, are activities that persist as options that complement the family economy.

Given these socio-environmental circumstances, the peasant economy, depending on the seasonal cycle, especially the cultivation of corn, is linked to a cycle of Catholic-indigenous rituals and festivities that allude to this environment, in which the symbolism of the Christian saints and those referring to the Mayan cosmovision are articulated.

One of these nodal magical-mythical beliefs is the conviction that the forest (read, jungle, land, hill, or mountain) and the water (rain, rivers, floods) have supernatural owners, who are popularly known as Yumkas (according to the people themselves, yum is equivalent to owner and kab to land, in Spanish). They are the owners of the mountain and the water.

These mythical beings, besides, have the task of controlling rain, lightning, and telluric movements; good harvests, health, provisions, and that the earth does not tremble to depend on their will. They are also called chu-jilbá, the master or sorcerer of the mountain; other names are chekiok, chibompan, coshii: goblins, chanekas: little devils, among the most used. They are short beings with banana or cocoa leaves as clothing, they wear a bejuco hat, their feet are upside down, their heads are bald and they have a malicious and irritable character.

Everything has its owner [and spirit] and in all places, there are owners: the owner of fire (and of the sun): Uyum Kak; the owner of the air: Uyum Ik; the owner of the water: Uyum Ha; the owner of the land: Uyuka' (Uyumkaj); the owner of the mountain (jungle): Uyum Tee.

Within the framework of these mythical-religious beliefs that survive in the Yokot'an culture of Tabasco, it is perceived that to the yumka'ob or yumka belong the mountains and swamps; the rivers, wells and streams, acahuales, jungles, and mangroves. As rain entities, they are key to fertilize and make plants germinate. Such attributes have been transferred to the saints and virgins of the Catholic saints' calendar.

In fact, this role of the Yumka as true owners of natural resources has been taken up again for the defense of the territory and its associated natural wealth, so that they can challenge the industrial model of hydrocarbon extraction by invoking these extraordinary entities: "the earth is weak and it does not rain because the genius of the earth is upset by the oil that is being extracted and asks for lives in payment".

These "idolillos" or "demons" (cizin, in Maya) can manifest themselves under elements or phenomena of nature: water, wind, rainstorm, or take the form of a "small animal or insect of the mountain". For their powers and influence over the phenomena of nature, health, or human welfare; either out of fear, respect or to ask permission to use and obtain benefits from their "properties" (nature) they are still subject to offerings in their various dwellings: popales, ceibas, bush or lagoons. But their powers extend even over the man-made infrastructure of the land.

One of the deities still present in the Chontal imaginary is Ix Bolon, the Goddess or Virgin of the sea, associated with the lunar star, childbirth, medicine, weaving, and fertility.

In the context of religious interbreeding and the exchange of attributes between the Christian saints and the Mayan deities, the Virgin of the Assumption, as an invocation of the Virgin Mary, and Ix-Bolon, have ended up merging. According to the natives of Centla, Ix Bolon or Doña Bolon is the one who takes care of the waters, lagoons, rivers and streams, and the sea itself.

Her dwelling is located at the bottom of the sea built with chapopote or concrete. In the process of Christianization, Ix Bolon (Ix-Chel) ends up being incorporated into the Virgin of the Assumption. In her dwelling, she is visited by flying beings: the famous "tiger men" and "mecaguas".

Linked to the winds and the caves, and who also visit grandmother Bolon, are the sut'sbálum or Aj Zutz'Balam: the bat-jaguars, but who can also be transfigured men or nahuals who adopt these strange entities, as is noted in an oral narration collected by anthropologist Carlos Incháustegui in Centla.

It is possible, as it happens with other ethnic groups, that these winds when linking them with the bats and caves favor the crops when having, on the one hand, the bats, whose excrement was used as fertilizer, and on the other hand the jaguar, a symbol of rain and fertility, whose dwelling are the caves and to which it is also named "Heart of the Hill". Therefore, these nahuales transfigured into "Tigers-Bats-Flying men" are associated as bearers of wealth, since they are winds that come from the south.

Antonio Hernández, who works as a guide in the Pantanos de Centla Biosphere Reserve, affirms that the manatees that inhabit the lagoons, rivers, and wetlands of Tabasco are the pigs, the cattle of the Goddess.

Regarding the observation and calculation of the weather applied to sowing, there are still those who know how to forecast the weather of the humid tropics by means of the "pintas" or cabañuelas. Also, the Yokot'anob farmers, who still preserve their traditional knowledge, are aware of the phases of the moon to see when it is convenient to sow. Also fishing and floods.

These observations help to understand that the persistence of certain rituals and cults, mythical-religious beliefs, also implies knowledge of their ecosystems and climatology, which allows Chontal peasants to take better advantage of their resources by having a "calculating" observation of nature. Thus, there is a connectivity between the mythical-religious forms of representation (cosmovision) and productive activities, especially in agriculture, fishing, and flood management.

One of the celebrations that demonstrates how the farming mythical-religious elements derived from the Mayan cosmovision are incorporated or fused is the celebration to commemorate San Isidro Labrador on May 14, who is recognized by the farmers as the Patron Saint of sowing and harvesting, especially for those who cultivate corn, to the extent that "in March the first cornfields are called San Marcos".

Particularly noteworthy are the so-called enramas, offerings donated by the community using agricultural products grown in the region, mainly decorated with banana, cocoa, coconut, and corn, and animals are also offered, for example, a calf or a bull. San Isidro Labrador is venerated in the Yokot'anob Mazeteupa community as the patron saint of the farmers, to whom prayers and offerings are dedicated for the good of their crops.

Antonio Hernández believes that the "sea cows" are brothers of men and women because of their anatomical resemblance; if they are killed it is like killing a man or a woman. That is why these mammals deserve to be respected and cared for.

Also of importance is the patronal feast of the Virgin of the Assumption, which is commemorated on August 15. This virgin is heir to the Mayan-Chontal deity Ix Chel or Doña Bolon. All these celebrations of popular Catholicism, maintain -each day to a lesser extent- links with pre-Hispanic beliefs. At the same time that San Isidro Labrador can be invoked, the ancestral owners of Tabasco's territory can also be prayed to.

Thus, to work a cornfield it is necessary to perform a ritual to ask permission to the yumka and to be able to start the preparations for the cultivation of corn. They are asked for their authorization in order to be able to graze, slash and burn the land and not suffer any consequences for working the skin of the earth. The milpa acquires the status of sacredness.

To this extent, it is still the custom among the peasants identified with the Yokotan culture, that at the beginning of each planting, altars are built, prayers and offerings (enramas) of food and beverages such as pozol (a mixture of corn and cocoa) and balché (fermented corn) are made to ask or pray to the saints and virgins of the Catholic saints' calendar, such as San Isidro Labrador, the Virgen del Carmen, the Virgen de la Candelaria, the Virgen de la Asunción or the Guadalupe, but also the Santa Cruz -which symbolizes water and corn, and not only Christ in his role of the redeemer- or the chibompam, who are asked for good harvests, animal care, health, and prosperity.

By José Luis Martínez Ruiz, excerpt from the book Water in the cosmovision of indigenous peoples in Mexico