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Religious Syncretism and its Consequences in Mayan Society

When Spaniards first set foot on Mesoamerican shores in the early sixteenth century, they encountered not the godless mass of natives they believed they found, but a people whose rich spiritual traditions shaped and sustained them for thousands of years. These diverse spiritual practices legitimized nearly every aspect of Mesoamerican daily life, from science and architecture to art and politics (Carmack 295), in many of the same ways Catholicism did in Spain. The collision of these cultures in the Great Encounter and the resulting Spanish colonial state mixed not solely two different peoples—Indian and Spanish—but thousands of variants: elites and slaves, peasant farmers and traders, priests and traders, organized and local spiritual customs, all with different degrees of diversity in their respective religious practices. This diversity set the stage for the syncretic religious traditions that emerged in Mayan society and remain a vital part of that culture today.
Syncretic refers to the "nature of ideas, deities, and practices that derive from historically distinct traditions that become reinterpreted and transformed in situations of a cultural encounter" (Carmack 303). The cultural encounter between Mesoamericans and the Catholic Church was a natural result of mutual needs. The Indians needed protection from the cruelties inflicted by Spanish colonists, and the Church in many ways fought for their basic human rights; the Church needed land and support for their missions, and the Indians provided provisions and labor in much the same fashion as they had been giving tribute to ruling elites for thousands of years (Fash). This arrangement gave missionaries access not only to the Indians’ bodies—in the form of sweat and labor—but also their hearts and souls.
The introduction of Christianity to native Mesoamericans, however, expressed itself in ways unexpected to the Catholic missionaries. For example, the concept of Jesus Christ—both in colonial Mesoamerica and today in thousands of Indian communities—became one of the several manifestations of the sun god (Carmack 304). The Virgin of Guadalupe, today the patron saint of Mexico, was and is embraced by Indians who interpreted her and the myth surrounding her 1531 appearance to Juan Diego in traditional spiritual custom: she is depicted as a dark-skinned Earth Mother; she spoke Nahuatl to Juan Diego; she appeared on a sacred mountain; and she appeared to an Indian, not a Spaniard. To the native people, "Christianity appeared to be primarily a set of practices, many of which resembled their traditional practices of prayer, offerings, processions, dramas, fasting, and the use of sacred images" (Carmack 166).
In Mayan areas, cofradías became a central part of Christianity in the New World. Cofradías—religious societies instituted and overseen by the Catholic Church and dedicated to a particular saint—were "intended to facilitate the Indians’ integration into the Church and to serve as a mechanism for the collection of revenues from the indigenous population" (Carlsen 93). The spiritual leap to acceptance of saint societies was not a great one. Each Mesoamerican town or city already worshipped a patron god; with the introduction of Catholicism, the indigenous peoples merely traded one icon for another (Fash). As Church leaders became increasingly dependent on the funds generated by the cofradías as a major source of income, Mayan leaders recognized the bartering power they held and used it to gain a degree of autonomy in their worship practices (Carlsen 94). This tacit agreement allowed Mayans to include their own deities in their flourishing idol worship, and many of these practices remain in place today as such figures continue to line the walls and altars of many parishes. In Santiago Atitlán, for example, a stone image of Aklax (or San Nicolás), the patron deity of aj’kuna and associated with bloodletting, was an integral part of the worship practices in Cofradía San Nicolás until it was stolen by Catholics. (Carlsen 95).
Another Christian concept that has deep roots for the Maya is the resurrection, or the creation of new life from death. Just as the Bible tells the story of Christ’s death and rebirth, the Popol Vuh—the Maya creation tale—is abundant with images of resurrection. In the underworld and in a state of death, one of the Hero Twins—in the form of a skull on a tree—impregnates a woman by spitting into her hand (Carlsen 57). She then moves to the earth’s surface and gives birth to twins; the Hero Twins later in the tale die and are reborn in their grandmother’s garden as maize (Carlsen 57-59). This "recycling of life," or jalog k’exoj, remains integral to Mayan life in a number of forms: anthropomorphized life cycles of plants; the belief that a person is complete only when they have children; the naming of children after grandparents; and the cofradía prayers of Santiago Atitlán that portray people as the fruit and flowers of the earth (Carlsen 54-56).
In the Popul Vuh, the Mayan World Tree forms the shape of a cross, thus providing another point of reference between Indian and Christian religious practices. Christianity’s cross is a major, if not the most important religious icon as a representation of the Christ story. The World Tree, a central icon in Palenque’s Temple of the Foliated Cross, serves traditional Mayan beliefs in much the same way. It sprouts the skulls of deities and leaves, a symbol of generations (Carlsen 61). The tree itself grows out of a "sacred flowering mountain" (Fash), a symbol that repeatedly surfaces in Mesoamerican spirituality, from the birthplace of Huitzilopochtli to the great temples of Teotihuacán and El Mirador.
The concept of journey through time and space—historically expressed through the cyclical nature of the ritual calendars or the Popul Vuh—is an important Mesoamerican theme that found a voice in modern Mayan society through the pilgrimage. Modern pilgrimages unite people of different cultures for economic and religious exchanges and function in much the same way as the journey of the Popul Vuh’s Hero Twins. Such features include: abandonment of everyday life; a liminal experience; and the return to natural life with a memento of the journey and a story to tell (Fash). It is important to note that modern ceremonial processions always move counterclockwise—representing a journey back in time—just as time is written in historical documents such as Altar Q at Copán and the codexes.
Other religious practices that resulted from the blending of ancient Mesoamerican and Catholic cultures in the diversity of colonial life include: the construction of churches and cathedrals on or near ancient temple sites; the ritual use of a fermented drink in spiritual practices (pulque and wine); public worship; incense; bundle cults; and many other "little traditions" (Carmack 304).

Myriad syncretic spiritual forms evolved during the era of colonial Mesoamerica, expressing both public devotional practices and private household rituals that many times were veiled from Church scrutiny (Carmack 308). These rituals, born in indigenous culture and adapted to the drastically changed socio-economic and political landscape of colonial life, represent some of the few remaining links to the region’s spiritual and historical past.

Carlsen, Robert. The War for the Heart & Soul of a Highland Maya Town. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997. Carmack, Robert, Janine Grasco, and Gary Gossen. The Legacy of Mesoamerica: History and Culture of a Native American Civilization. New York: Prentice Hall, 1996.

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