The village of San Juan Chamula, in the mountains of Chiapas, is a Mayan village, masking as a Christian community… but Christian it isn’t…
by Philip Coppens

Mayans are alive… and our mind will wonder away to what we envision as a small village, no doubt in a forest somewhere in the Yucatan, no doubt not too far from Chichen Itza or Cancun, so that it can serve as a tourist attraction, in which a local community is dressed as one would expect the original Mayans to dress. It is highly unlikely that we would imagine a market town, where the locals dress quite normal, and where a constant military force monitors you… for your own protection.

This is the town of San Juan Chamula, outside of San Cristobal, in the state of Chiapas. In the mid 1990s, the region made headline news, as it was the stage for the Zapatista rebels, many of whom come from villages around Chamula. Today, the rebels are calm, but soldiers nevertheless remain close to tourists… just in case. It is therefore reassuring to know that our guide Roberto is the nephew of the bishop of San Cristobal, who negotiated between both parties, resulting in a peace that the military presence betrays as less secure than the outside world might suspect – it seems people liked the bishop, for his picture is sold as a postcard in San Cristobal and hence our presence with his nephew could possibly be a good omen, in case something goes wrong… Chamula at first would appear to be just like any other mountain village. If you did not enter the church, you would never notice anything bizarre about it. But anyone who has entered the church, realises there is nothing normal about this town. In most churches, it is now illegal to use flash; in Chamula, it is illegal to take photographs at all. Cameras need to be carried in their case – just in case candid filming is occurring. Photography is illegal in the church, and it is a serious offence. Inside the church, guards monitor the tourists and if caught, the tourist will go straight to jail. Normally, it does not come to this, provided the roll of film is immediately handed over to the “policeman” – in the case of digital photography, I assume showing that the image is deleted is its equivalent. Still, outside of the church, a vendor sells postcards with an image from the inside of the church…

Those familiar with Mexican law will argue there is no law that prohibits filming – but Chamula has its own laws. And its own customs. It is considered sacrilege to enter the church with a hat on, but entering it with an opened can of beer in one hand and a lighted cigarette in the other is not offensive at all. If anything, the locals might appreciate you more… From the outside, the church looks typical. Once inside, that impression changes quickly. There are no pews, there is no altar. Instead, the walls are lined with glass cases, each containing a saint, resting on tables. These saints may seem to be Catholic saints, but really represent Mayan gods. In front are sometimes other tables, on which flowers stand. On the ground, rows of candles are burning, often with a worshipper behind it. In the background plays music, which is apparently a Christmas cassette the locals once received with the new Christmas lighting. Christmas music is not just for a season – it is for all seasons… On the right hand side is the shrine of the Virgin of Guadelupe, illuminated with a type of lighting you would expect on a strip in Las Vegas or Broadway, beckoning people inside. The scene looks otherworldly, though neither hellish nor divine… just very weird. The floor of the church is normally covered with pine needles, but this is a Monday, when the floor has just had its weekly cleaning. One young man is still removing all the wax from burnt candles from the floor. Normally, a worshipper will light about twenty candles, placed in three rows, in front of one of the saints. Each row is a different height, with the highest furthest away. These candles are lit first, followed by the middle, then by the final row. The hope is that all three rows more or less extinguish together. Worshippers often bring a bottle of beer or Coke. Some tourists have noted the preponderance of Coke adverts and it does sometimes feel that the entire village may be sponsored by Coca Cola. The Coke or beer is often drunk during chanting, sometimes spat out over the candles – mimicking the Holy Water of the Christian service. A side effect of Coca Cola is burping. As expelling gas is believed to release evil spirits resident in the body, it was an effective Holy Water.

The church of San Sebastian, destroyed, for which the resident saints were punished. Still, Coca Cola is not the Holy Water; that is Pox – pronounced posh – a cane-alcohol beverage containing 38 percent of alcohol. Mexicans are not notorious drinkers – that is to say: they get drunk quite easily, with little alcohol actually being consumed. Many thus state that three small glasses of Posh will knock you senseless – it rarely happens to tourists, but it happens to them. Still, senselessness – being drunk – is believed to aide communication with the Otherworld, and talk to the saints. This is the standard form of worship, but on many occasions, a chicken is slaughtered. Tour guides sometimes scare tourists saying it will be a bloody scene, but the trick is actually bloodless – though no doubt some worshippers prefer the bloody solution. Normally, a live chicken is brought in, the prayers are said and the chicken is slaughtered as an offering to the saints. Once its neck is broken, it remains lying on the floor, in front of the candles. Later, it is removed, normally to be eaten by the family that made the sacrifice. That sacred meal, however, is not consumed inside the church. Those who have not visited may think that the only normal thing about this church must therefore be the statues of the saints – even though they do represent Mayan deities. Wrong. On entering, to the left, some saints seem to receive less worship than others. It is Roberto who provides the explanation. These are the saints of the church San Sebastian, which lies in ruin in a field visible as one enters the village. The church was destroyed almost a century ago. The statues were saved, but as the saints had been unable to save the church from harm, the local population decided to punish them. For several decades, they were placed with their faces towards the wall. Furthermore, their hands were chopped off – a sign that they had not “worked” to save the church. For some time, they did not receive glass cases, but when new cases were made for the resident saints, the old cases were eventually given to the bad saints. Only in recent years were they allowed to face the congregation and their body has been clothed, so that their chopped hands are not visible. Still, few seem to want to worship them – who would want to worship saints that were unable to safeguard the church, whereas the saints of San Juan have been able to safeguard theirs. All saints also wear a mirror on their chest. Various explanations for this are available, but the most likely one is typically shamanic – and hence seldom told to passing tourists. When one prays to the saint, the soul of the person praying leaves their body. The mirror helps the soul find its way back by reflecting it back onto the body.

The usage of mirrors in a shamanic setting dates back from Mayan times. At Chichen Itza there is a depiction of a ballplayer holding a mirror. Mirrors were critically important to political office at Chichen Itza, where they placed a mirror inside the bench in the Temple of the Chak Mol and one on top of the jaguar throne that they sealed inside the Castillo-sub.

Like their descendents in Chamula, the Mayans believed that mirrors opened portals into the Otherworld, through which ancestors and gods materialise themselves. They gave rulers the special vision of prophecy. This tool was symbolised by the Vision Serpent, also known as the Feathered Serpent, or K’uk’ulkan. He is seen holding a mirror, the instrument with which to penetrate the supernatural world. This same logic seems to be behind the reason for the outlawing of photography. Originally – and in the case of SLR cameras still – cameras used mirrors. It is believed that taking a photograph could steal a part of the soul. Today, most people realise that having their picture taken will not result in disease or even death. On the square, tourists take hundreds of photographs each day. But women will protect infants from the cameras, covering their baby and often their own head with a scarf whenever they are in the vicinity of photography.

It is believed that infant’s soul is fragile – it is prone to leave the body and a photograph may just “blind” the soul, making its return impossible. A soul is believed to be composed of thirteen parts; photographs were believed to remove or break some of these components. If this occurred, it was up to the shaman to do his “soul retrieval” and restore a person’s soul.

In a guidebook to the church, the people of Chamula explain that they worship the Father Creator – directly. They do this by using natural and supernatural forces around them, which is why the shamans, both female and male, can heal both body and soul. The shaman still exist, but are now transformed into caretakers of a specific shrine. The town also has its own religious leaders, the position of which is normally filled for one year. The job is unpaid and many people – men – save for many years in order to be able to afford a year of service.

Still, San Juan Chamula is nominally Catholic. Very infrequently, a priest comes out to do baptisms, the only sacrament observed in the church – and no doubt a proper sacrament as the church is dedicated to John the Baptist. His feast day is June 24, the summer solstice. The Mayans were solar worshippers before – and the entrance to the church is dedicated with the sunflower. It is now accepted that the church’s dedication to John the Baptist is no coincidence. At first, it was thought that the locals tricked the Dominicans into this saint, so that his festival could mask the festival of the summer solstice. Today, anthropologists generally accept that the Dominicans realised what was going on, and went along with it; the appearance of conforming to Christian doctrine was apparently all they really were after. In fact, the cult of the Dominicans, often centred on the Virgin Mary and their founder Dominic Guzman may have been helped by a remarkable linguistic coincidence: Dominic in Spanish is Domingo, the word also used for Sunday. A veneration for Domingo thus could mask a veneration for the sun. Noon, when the sun is at its highest point, continues to be the most important time for religious worship.

It may be a linguistic play of words, but there is a possibility that the early contacts also resulted in some misunderstandings. One bizarre aspect of the local worship are the dressed crosses: large crosses are clothed. In Spanish, the Holy Cross is Santa Cruz. “Santa Cruz” could also mean “Saint (female) Cruz” and perhaps the locals thought it was a saint, and hence the cross was dressed like all other saints. It is a possibility, but perhaps the explanation is a bit too simplistic… The Mayans have ingeniously adapted Christianity to make it work for them. The market square in front of the church is lined with crosses. They look typically Christian, but again, appearances can be deceiving. The Mayans used the cross as a religious symbol before the arrival of the Dominican friars bent on converting them. Allegedly, the first missionaries to the area even thought they had stumbled upon a lost tribe of Israel, because of the presence of the cross. But even though all crosses look the same, the Mayans have a different interpretation. To them, the four points of the cross symbolise the sun, the Earth, the moon and the people. They usually appear in sets of three, which represents the Calvary, but actually symbolises the three holy mountains of this area. Like so many other cultures, the Mayans consider mountains to be gateways into Heaven.

The Maya believe that First Father propped up the sky with huge ceiba trees at the four corners (north, south, east and west) and in the centre of the world. The crosses are normally green and are the symbol of the ceiba tree, their “World Tree”. They are decorated with carvings of bromelias and pine boughs and are often “dressed” in real flowers and pine boughs. It has carvings of four petaled flowers that are similar to real ceiba flowers.

As a consequence, the legend of Jesus has been “abridged and adapted” to suit their religious framework. The story thus goes that there was the Old and the Young Jesus. They came upon a tree, which had bees wax on top. The young one climbed the tree, and dropped the wax to the bottom. With this wax, the old one makes a wax army. But when the Young Jesus continues to drop the wax, the old Jesus gets upset and through magic, has the wax army bite off the trunk of the tree. As a consequence, the tree falls and the Young Jesus still in top is killed. The Old Jesus goes to his mother, Mary, who then tells him to go to a mountain top. There, he finds an umbilical cord, which he climbs, and which takes him to heaven. There, he becomes the sun, whereas the Virgin Mary becomes the moon. The story is far removed from Jesus dying on Golgotha for the sin of Mankind, betrayed by his own apostles. But the true importance of the Mayan origins of the town is easily overlooked: the stones at the bottom of the crosses. They might seem simple stones, but they represent something else: sacred stones. The local population worshipped sacred stones, who were able to prophesize. They were the voice of the gods, who aided the shamans in directing their people. The stones were said to have fallen from Heaven. When the Dominican friars came, they took the magical stones from the local shamans, which thus denied them of their possibility to prophesize. The stones lining the square are believed to be replica, void of any magical charm, but a visible reminder of what once was – and was lost – taken, or stolen.

That is, in essence, what Chamula is: it is not Mayan. It is something that is a mixture of indigenous beliefs, whose core was taken by the Christian missionaries, whereby the local population nevertheless continued to hang on to what they could. In recent decades, Western civilisation, tourism and new technology have invaded this town, with an altogether complex outcome. That is what makes Chamula unique and intriguing.