Don Ignacio

 

 

The church of Santo Tomás was built shortly after the Spanish Conquest on the site of a Mayan temple-pyramid and perhaps more than any other monument in Central America it illustrates the confusion that Catholicism fostered in the New World. The Spanish padres directed their religious zeal into delivering the greatest number of souls from purgatory rather than wasting valuable time in instructing them accurately in the new doctrine.

 

When Aldous Huxley visited Guatemala in the early nineteen-thirties he found communities who, in their misguided fervour, actively worshipped Judas Iscariot as a god. Huxley also described a bizarre local festival based upon the belief that, on the night of the Crucifixion, Saint John and the Virgin had a love affair. To prevent a repetition of this shameful event the Indians locked images of the ‘lovers’ in separate cells of the town prison on Good Friday. The next morning the two fraternities would come and pay a fine to bail them out of captivity until next year!


The religious beliefs of many of the faithful at Santo Tomás have (to the eyes of an outsider at least) always been hopelessly confused. Nobody has ever been certain where pagan idolatry ends and Catholicism begins. On the church steps you can frequently see Indians burning incense for their ancestors and chanting prayers in honour of the Mayan calendar - just as their forefathers did on the steps of the old pyramids.

 

I was back in Chichicastengo to visit an old friend I had last visited about fourteen years ago. Don Ignacio is one of the leading shamen in the Quiche community and has complete knowledge of tribal religion, blessings, offerings and curses (although he tells me that, unlike others in the village, he refuses to work black magic).

For generations Don Ignacio's family at Casa de las Mascaras have carved and painted the masks for most of the region’s festivals. His 'house of the masks' is at the base of a sacred hill on which sits the ancient stone god they call Pascual Abaj. About three feet tall and resembling one of the uglier Easter Island heads, Pascual Abaj is believed to be over a thousand years old.

 

Approaching from the shade of the eucalyptus forest, Pascual Abaj's hilltop always seems to possess a powerful atmosphere. The last time that I had visited the shrine, I had been travelling with a girlfriend and we had arrived just before dusk to see wisps of smoke curling from a small fire. Five Indians were in attendance at Pascual Abaj. So, staying amongst the trees, we circled them and sat down quietly. An older man with a strip of tasseled cloth around his head and the scuffed clothes of a farmer appeared to be blessing - or cleansing – another, younger barefoot man, by stroking him with the flat edge of his machete. Three women sat nearby, patient but apparently disinterested spectators.

The older man began swinging a censer, made from a punctured tin can. Heavy blue-black smoke gathered in clouds, evoking spirits, around the idol. His face looked strained as he begged blessings for the earth’s fertility. I noticed that even to the Mayan god his conversation was peppered with words that had been imported from Spain.  The younger man bowed low and held out two eggs. Whilst the shaman-farmer shuffled forward and broke them onto the mouth of the stone idol his assistant hurried (it seemed important not to keep Pascual Abaj waiting) to their bundle of possessions.

 

My girlfriend gasped as he dashed back into the centre of the clearing swinging a fat brown hen by her feet. Between them, the two men struggled to pour some clear liquid into the struggling chicken’s throat (probably corn liquor, to calm it). Then, chanting under his breath, the farmer started to saw off the hen's head with his machete. When the last tendons were severed the assistant dashed, with the body still twitching in his hands, to rub the gushing stump across the idol’s mouth.

 

They seemed to be physically force-feeding their god. The two uneven hollows that were Pascual Abaj’s eyes seemed to stare icily and the jagged gash below them was soon hideously streaked with scarlet. Rivulets of blood ran onto the ground. I realised that we were seeing a ceremony that is perhaps twice as old as Christianity. If a poor campasino family today will sacrifice a fat, healthy chicken, then it is it is easy to imagine that the great Mayan Empire once regularly honoured the gods with the blood of their greatest warriors.

 

To us, sitting in silent fascination amongst the trees, things became almost surreal when the old man stooped forward again to rinse the blood from Pascual Abaj’s pouting lips...with two bottles of ‘Gallo’ beer.

 

Since the arrival of the ‘true faith’ the Mayan religion had been consistently persecuted and suppressed. For centuries Christian fanatics have periodically ransacked the shrine of Pascual Abaj. Each time his devotees wait until the trouble has passed before they return to patch up the idol.

The Indians of Chichicastenango have had to learn to roll with the punches. But now, after almost five hundred years underground, their true beliefs have re-emerged and they are free to worship as their ancestors did.

 

Pascual Abaj is once again king of the hill.