The Sacred World of the Maya

Costumbre and Religion in Guatelmala

By: Ruben E. Reina

Originally Published in 1988

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Dedicated to my friend and former student, Edwin C. Buxbaum

Nothing is more real than the real; and that is why it is well for men to hurt themselves with the past—it is one road to tolerance. (L. Eiseley 1971:85)

In the 15th century adventurous Iberian men crossed an unknown ocean, guided only by the faith that there was a destiny to be found. After years of exploring island and mainland beaches, the Iberians went inland. By 1524 they were in the central highlands of Goathemala among socially and politically well-organized Maya people. Soon all Mayan-speaking people became subject to the Spanish king.

Iberians and Native Americans had well established ways, and al­though some aspects of their cul­tures could be shared, each group possessed other truths, which en­dured the turmoil of the conquest. With our knowledge of European history, we view the rich cere­monialism of today in Guatemala as either pagan or as Christian. Rituals presided over by Maya knowledge­able men in mountains, forest, homes, and churches are known as costumbre (Fig. 1). A procession or mass led by a Catholic priest is religion (Fig. 2). Today these are important cultural markers of the two groups.

Mayan and Christian beliefs have remained in opposite camps, fre­quently overpowering each other. In tumbre and religion. Because I have witnessed them a number of times, and happen to be reasonably familiar with these behaviors, I choose to write about these acts because they disclose for us much of the universe as experienced by Maya men and women. Emotions are involved in each act but they are different and separate in nature.

Thirty years ago I witnessed for the first time costumbre. Humans entered a room, their faces expres­sionless, and stood motionless before an altar with Catholic sym­bols. Each one “spoke” to the altar; it was not a Christian prayer. As are many other aspects of life, this mo­ment was another daily task.

An old Maya gentleman respond­ing to one of my questions said in almost poetic phrases:

“Oh…some of us are praying to the saints, others are speaking to the saints

Some are with costumbre in the delicate mountains with strong belief in the ways of our ancestors

Some are in churches with religion.”

This might have been a casual remark on his part but it opened up a world unknown to me. He was introducing a basic distinction be­tween two components in their life: costumbre and religion. They were in this case not so much two aspects of life in opposition but two stages in the same road of life. The problem was then to understand each one in its own right as well as the intercon­nection between the two, because Western religion, for many oc­casions, has become costumbre.

Costumbre and religion constitute systems of knowledge which in general serve to nurture those creative chest level; faced each other while bowing their heads; moved back­ward; arose to sit rigidly on the benches and remained there, reverent and stoic figures.

The next two apostles proceeded in the same manner, followed by the others. This ceremonial behavior was repeated continuously through the day and night. The hierarchical rank of the apostles was never dis­turbed. Next day, with painful knees, they were guided by the trumpeters and drummer to their respective homes after a visit in the First Apostle’s home. People in their homes knew that things had gone well and the amount of security for their existence had increased. “Se cumuli, es obligation,” stated a person of the pueblo in satisfaction; the pueblo had fulfilled an obligation. Something of the earth had been regenerated, the community would receive the rains soon and maize would grow.

As with many other performances of the costumbres there were no explanations, no speeches, only ac­tions; each movement brought a message. Costumbre in this com­munity spoke of continuity of a code of correct behavior and thought; tostumbre brought order and strength.

There is more. A man of costumbre does not con­trol the process of change. He is not to undertake to make a future dif­ferent from the one that he has in­herited from the past. The apostles, as well as the lonely man in the forest visiting the stone carving, are ready to continue their existence with those elements of nature that have been made available to them by the Creator Spirit. The challenge is to recreate the future as the imme­diate past. In costumbres they know how to feel and how to relate to each other and to all elements in nature needed for the continuity of life (Reina 1966).

Christianity was forced on the Maya in the early days of the Con­quest; left alone and to their own resources, this people transformed Catholic rituals for Easter in an act of costumbre with the meaning of those Mayan rituals performed before the Europeans came. It was a time of much concern because the dry season had been long and the rains should have come but ‘would they come as usual’ was an ever present question…

In 1976 the earthquake destroyed the church but not the place of cos­tumbre. With the same thoughts and in the usual way the designated apostles performed the act of cos­tumbre

Not very far from the pueblo with its apostles, people engage in an elaborate public celebration which lasts for one week. It takes place during the same days as the acts of costumbres by the Apostles of Chinautla: it is Easter in Antigua, the colonial capital.

In contrast with the pueblo streets, those in Antigua are filled with hundred of people who, of their own will, participate in the Easter pageant and, as an act of faith, take different roles. Men dressed as Roman soldiers guard the streets, while “Palestinians,” as people of Christ’s homeland, walk in the streets accompanying processions and carrying saints. In contrast again with the small pueblo, they are these moments of suffering is the thought of those who prepare the streets. But after the passing of those bearing this platform the destruction is dramatic, as all motifs vanish (Fig. 12). He alone has the power to destroy as the hour of his crucifixion nears.

People stop to reflect; a moment ago beauty suddenly turned into dust. Crisis is at the roots of religion as symbolized by the physical destruction of man’s worldly things.

The old gentleman I quoted earlier said, “Who knows, who knows…,” as he contemplated the destruction and tried to process the event through his still-strong Mayan un­derstanding. There was crisis reflected in this portrayal, and seen from his position as a Maya man, it would seem that those participating were asking for destruction by replicating it.

Sixteenth-century Christianity brought new symbols to replace those created by Naturales from this land. Acceptance has separated those who were of the land, the Naturales, and those who came from across the sea. Ethnic identity has been maintained by acts of religion and of costumbre, as each group maintains their own cultural boundaries. Costumbre speaks to the Maya people for the continuity of a code of correct behavior; it brings peaceful order and integration with nature. It brings strength to the Mayan culture of today.

There is a Natural way, the first one; tostumbre bespeaks the Mayas’ intimate thoughts. The Ladino way is that of religion, meaning to be in and of the civilized world. The philosophical underpin­nings that support the basic socio­political orientations of national culture (Ladino) and the commun­ity culture (Mayan) are in religion and costumbre.

“Who knows, who knows” were the words of the old gentleman as he observed a past in the sawdust left scattered over the streets, remind­ing him of man’s bad nature. What he knows is that tostumbre con­stitutes a way of his community; while religion is highly structured, tostumbre is a way of life (Fig. 13).

His thoughts recall words in the native Chilam Balam book of Yucatan. The Maya author wrote: “Before, it was written, everything was good…there was no sin…there was then no sickness…the course of humanity was orderly…The foreign­ers made it otherwise when they arrived here. Then with the true God came the beginning of our misery.”

There is no god or salvation in costumbre; all unique elements in nature are “gods,” sacred. Cos­tumbre is there to insure the renewal of life in everything (Fig. 15). The clear demarcation between Man and God in religion does not exist under costumbre. The death and resurrection of a man named Christ is a miracle in religion; costumbre has no miracleSocial philosophers and scientists would argue perhaps that both cos­tumbre and religion are religion in our Western sense; this may be seen as a problem of definition. From the Naturales’ viewpoint this intellectual level is not and perhaps will never be part of Mayan cognitive structure. Costumbre and religion respond to the nature of societies and their histories; each mobilizes a different cultural program. While rituals of costumbre comply with myths, legends, and informal beliefs (treentias), rituals of religion dictate dogmas to the believers and present beliefs as compartmentalized aspects of the whole.

And so nowadays people of this land have a choice either to be part of established costumbre or religion, or they may be part of both as they become conscious of their own mor­tality. But to pass totally from one to the other implies the change of oneself to Ladino clothing and thoughts. This requires forgetting those ways of the Naturales, their language and costumbre, and learn­ing a new philosophy base on prin­ciples held by the people of European descent.

The decision remains difficult; it is whether to enter a world where men destroy “rugs”…

Maya elders are still wishing that religion would change into tos­tumbre, so the Mayan ways will con­tinue, but “who knows”!


Cite This Article

Reina, Ruben E.. "The Sacred World of the Maya." Expedition Magazine 30, no. 2 (July, 1988): -. Accessed June 17, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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