The Fiesta of the Pinole at Azqueltán

Originally Published in 1912

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BY the first of January, 1912, I had already spent nearly three weeks in the little pueblo of Azqueltán, and had been accepted as a permanent resident. This little village lies at the bottom of the barranca or canon of the Rio de Bolaños, in the northern part of the Mexican State of Jalisco, and on the edge of the Huichol country. Here dwell the remnants of the Tepecanos, or, as I prefer to call them, the Tepehuán of Azqueltán, for they claim, and probably with justice, to be an isolated branch of this greater nation.

The little pueblo, reported to be so aboriginally clannish, so absolutely isolated, by Hrdlička in 1903, has since greatly changed. The village is now full of mixed blood, the houses are mostly of adobe; nothing but Spanish is ever heard in the houses, and most of the older customs are entirely forgotten. Only in the isolated little ranch houses, situated within a five-mile radius of the pueblo, are found the conservative persons of the older generation who still cling to the customs of their ancestors.

Three men sitting on rocks or stumps holding feathered ceremonial arrows
The Arrow Ceremony. Fig. 19. — The Cantador Mayor or Chief Singer and his two principal assistants.

Following information obtained from natives with whom I had established relations of confidence, I started out about dusk with Eleno, and following a winding trail that led toward the Cerro de la Niña Encantada, arrived an hour later at the isolated ground which had already been prepared for the ceremony.

The square or patio, according to my observations, was about thirty feet in width, the size of all patios which I noticed in this part of the country. It was a roughly circular enclosure, cleared of all plant-life and free from stones. On the northern side several trees marked the outer limits, but on the south a ring of stones was placed. Approximately in the centre was a pile of flat stones covering a heap of ashes, this being the fireplace necessary to all ceremonies. In a rough circle without were placed seven large stones partly sunk in the earth, these forming the seats for the communicants at the ceremonies. This circle of seats was approximately fourteen feet in diameter, leaving an outer circle or path about eight feet in width for the dancers. To the east the circle became elongated, like the neck of a pear, and here, just beyond the outer diameter, lay the altar. This was a rough structure of stone, five feet in width and a foot in height, roughly circular and flat on the top.

A fire was burning in its proper place in the middle of the patio and several figures were gathered around it. Without stopping to notice details, however, even without depositing our bundles, we performed the five circuits of the patio required by ceremony, pausing before the altar at the completion, where Eleno delivered one of his Tepehuan prayers. Then we were at liberty to take observations. Just outside of the patio itself was another fire, around which a group of several women and children were gathered. Within, around the central fire, were four elderly men and two middle-aged ones. Only these of all the Tepehuanes had gathered to celebrate their ancient custom. The Cantador Mayor, or Chief Singer, the highest functionary of Tepehuan religion, a simple, gentle old soul, greeted me kindly, lamenting to Eleno that so few of their brethren cared enough for the health and the safety of the pueblo to co r e and aid in the ceremonies so beneficial to them all. One of the other old men was well known to me, but the rest were strangers. It was evident that, while not invited to the function, yet, having, arrived, there was no objection to my presence. A glance at the altar showed me that it was covered with the ” chimales,” ceremonial arrows, decorated “jicaras” and other objects. The men were conversing unrestrainedly, generally in Spanish, but oftentimes in Tepehuan.

Presently the Chief Singer approached the altar, where he busied himself for a time. Though it was too dark to see, I learned afterward that he put some “peyote” in a cup of water, meanwhile reciting a prayer and offering the “peyote” water to the four cardinal points. This peyote is an object of great religious importance to the natives of the north of Mexico, the rite extending even to our own Indians in Oklahoma. It is the root of a small cactus, Lephora, and contains a narcotic principle much valued by the Indians. The cult is particularly well developed by the Huicholes, among whom the procuring of the plant constitutes a religious duty. As it does not grow in this part of Mexico, it is necessary to make a long pilgrimage far to the east, a journey of thirteen days, and during all this time, from the time of setting out from the pueblo until the last rites are performed after the return of the party, a period of forty-seven days, nothing but the peyote itself may be eaten by the “peyoteros.” This duty is still considered obligatory by the Huicholes, but in these decadent days it is permitted that the Cantador of Azqueltán purchase his peyote from the Huicholes. It is still considered, however, an object of great power, almost supernatural, and its use is everywhere hedged with custom and restriction. When it is offered to the cardinal points the Cantador must recite the formula, ná, varictö’ do’ ō’ hi va’-mörör a’midör napuivo’pmitda hö’ga navarumhi’ komak, “It—is–green beautiful lake—in whence thou—wilt—send that which—is—thy—cloud.”

Soon the Cantador came up to us and requested us to occupy the stone seats close to the fire. Producing a large bow with a tightly strung sinew string, he prepared two short sticks. Then, in response to a request from one of the elder men, he went to the altar and gave the asker a small piece of peyote, rubbing the rest on his leg where he had a bad sore. Turning to me, he requested to know the hour. Upon my replying that it was seven-twenty, he asked how many minutes to eight. Nevertheless, with a glance at the stars he remarked that it was well to commence. Then, approaching the altar; he took from there five ceremonial arrows, wound with colored yarn and with feathers of the royal eagle attached. One was placed in the ground just to the west of the fire, two others were given to two of the elder men, while the Cantador retained two. Then he seated himself on his proper seat, the one nearest the altar, facing to the east, the other two men on either side, and we others in a row a trifle behind him.

A seated man with a bow at his feet
Fig. 20. — The Cantador Mayor of Chief Singer with his bow in position.

Following the lead of the Cantador, the arrows, grasped by the pointed end, and with the eagle feathers hanging loose, were slowly raised, pointed to the east above the altar and slowly swung around to the north, the west and the south, while the Cantador slowly recited the formula, ci’ar vwö’ta, ba’barip, hu’rnip, o’gipas, vwöc ci’kōr hö’vwan, “East—beneath, North, West, South, entire horizon through.” When the initial position to the east had been reached, the arrows were held stationary there while the Cantador recited the Perdon Mayor, or principal prayer. It was recited in a low tone, almost inaudible, and in long sentences, requiring a full breath at the beginning, the tone dying out toward the end. The perdon is too long to be given here, requiring about five or six minutes to complete. At the end, the arrows were again pointed to the four cardinal points and another shorter perdon recited, followed by an even shorter one. Following the last pointing of the arrows, they were replaced on the altar and the fiesta had been opened according to ritual.

Then commenced the real work of the evening. Scooping out a little depression in the earth immediately in front of his seat, between him and the altar, the Cantador inverted over this a “jícara” or half-gourd, and on this rested his bow, holding it firm with his naked left foot. Then, striking the bow with the two sticks so that it gave a clear note, he commenced his evening of song. Thus he sang, alone and unaccompanied, except for the monotonous note from the musical bow, with but four short intermissions between songs, from eight in the evening until after daybreak. Five songs occupied these ten hours, making, with intermission, an average of an hour and a half to a song. The first song is, ta’ ta ha’ rikama cihainud’ū dukama, the song to the morning star; the second tö’ do’ ō’hi u’vikama cihaindu’ dukama, the “beautiful green woman,” now identified with Maria Santísima; the third, uf tuta’ vikama cihaindu’ dukama, the song to the water woman; the fourth, ci’ ciartio’ ‘tikama cihaindū’ dukama, the song to the sun’s rays; and finally, to’ nor so’ so’ptio’ ‘tikama cihaindū, dukama, the song to the sun bead-man. Each of these songs has a different tune, with innumerable verses. Each verse consists of two lines; the first, the line by which the song is here named; the second, differing more or less for each verse, but similar in each song. The sentiment itself is really beautiful and worthy of a poetical translation, speaking of how the great gray clouds pile up from the beautiful blue east, how the lightning begins to appear and all the heavens reply to its voice, how the welcome rain commences and the whole world is refreshed by its coming.

Meanwhile, while the Cantador was performing his task, we others were expected to aid the efficiency of the prayer by dancing the “mitote.” This is performed by dancing singly around the patio, just outside of the circle of seats, in the usual anti-clockwise direction, pausing at each cardinal point and facing out for a moment to dance to the north, the west, the south and particularly to the altar at the east. It was not required to dance throughout the entire song, but during a part of each song, and particularly during the latter part, it was expected that all male attendants should take part in the mitote. The dance is done by taking three steps alternately by either foot, the last step being stamped. Some performers took three short steps forward, others one step forward, one a trifle back, then a longer step forward, repeating with the other foot. During the intermissions between the songs, and even during the singing, we lay around the fire, smoked, dozed and chatted in a low tone. The fire was under the charge of my other old friend, the father of Eleno and son of the Nestor Aguillar mentioned by Hrdlička, who evidently saw no antagonism between his two offices of ci’ ciartio’ ‘t or Guardian of the Fire and of sexton in the little church.

As the night wore on and daybreak approached, the Cantador commenced on his last song to the sun. This had not a plaintive tune like some of the others, but a gay, happy and triumphant air almost like a song of victory or of deliverance from tribulation. Its continuous burden of tonori’, tonori’, tonori’. “the sun, the sun, the sun!” made a deep impression on me as the moon gradually gave way to the morning star and the latter to the sun. One who has experienced nights passed in the open in the rare air of Mexico cannot wonder at the joy with which the natives greet the first warm rays of the sun.

After the last song had been completed, some of the communicants, including a woman and child, approached and knelt at the altar, making certain motions in following the lead of one of the elder men who pointed with a long cane on which some decorative designs had been incised and the tail feathers of the “cuiss ” or ” aguililla” attached. All were then given “pinole” or pulverized corn to eat.

Two men performing a ceremony from behind
Fig. 21. — The purification ceremony.

Following the administration of the pinole, as the dawn brightened, the Cantador approached the altar and again removed the four ceremonial arrows. Giving one to each of the two eldest men and holding the other two in his right hand, he again seated himself on his “banco” with his assistants on either side of him and prepared to end the fiesta according to ritual. Slowly the arrows were circled from the east to the north, the west and the south, while the formula was repeated as before. Pausing on the return to the east, the Cantador recited another prayer of a minute or more in duration, giving thanks to heaven for benefits and begging pardon for sins. Then the arrows were ceremoniously circled again, replaced at the altar and the fiesta was ritually complete.

It yet remained, however, to cleanse and bless the communicants. Going to the altar, the Cantador took a basket and from it distributed to all present five or six “chuales” or tamales, made of the black corn. Then, standing at the altar, he broke one into six parts, throwing one part to each of the four cardinals and to the zenith. Another bit was thrown to the centre of the group of men. Then, standing at the altar, with the cup of water in which several pieces of dried peyote were floating in his hand, he called us, one at a time, to the altar to be cleansed of all evil and sickness and blessed and rejuvenated by the power of the arrows and the peyote. Standing there by the altar, our hats in our hands, the Cantador slowly and with a peculiarly graceful motion waved the feathered arrow over our heads, finishing the motion to each of the cardinal points and the zenith and thereby exorcizing all our troubles to the corners of the earth. Then by means of a feather dipped in the cup, water of peyote was sprinkled on our heads and in our hands; imparting to us its magic power. Then the remainder of the peyote water was sprinkled over the altar, the seats, the fire and the attendants, the last few drops being applied to the head and hands of the Cantador by the Guardian of the Fire.

At this point I asked for a delay of a short while, explaining that the sun was not yet high enough to enable me to photograph. With customary courtesy and deference my request was granted without question and I busied myself by observing the arrangement of the altar. This was decorated with all the paraphernalia requisite to the religion of this region. At the back, to the east, was a large, embroidered cloth, possibly two feet square, supported by two upright sticks with a cross stick, and directly in front of this, four “bastoncitos” or sticks decorated with cotton, arranged in two groups. In the centre of the altar, evidently merely resting there, were the “petaco ” or box in which the paraphernalia were kept, a cloth and a string of dried peyote. The principal objects of religious ceremony were all gathered at the front of the altar or on the ground immediately in front of it. Placed on the front of the altar were ten jícaras of various sizes, some decorated with beads inside and out, others plain; in these, resting on cotton, representative of the clouds, lay the little objects, archaeological, modern and natural, which are significant of natural phenomena, animals, local places or almost any conception of interest to the Tepehuan mind. With much pride the Cantador displayed to me his valuables; remarking their power for good in protecting the pueblo from sickness and all ill. Immediately in front of the altar, planted in the earth, were two large “chimales” emblematic of the face of God, large hexagonal objects of colored yarn and cotton, and to either side of these were other objects of ceremonial importance, “bastoncitos,” ” algodones,” both made of sticks and cotton and one or two ceremonial arrows. In a row in front of these, evidently to protect them, were placed the four new ceremonial arrows already used by the Cantador and his responders. Again, immediately in front of these, was placed the little china cup with its peyote water. Against the altar rested the long cane of aguililla feathers which seems to be emblematic of the authority of the Cantador.

The Cantador packed all his paraphernalia in the wooden box, except his feathered cane, which he carried in his hand; the Guardian of the Fire carefully replaced the flat stones over the ashes of the fire; all hands took up their belongings and we were ready to start. Led by the Cantador, all present, this time including the women, solemnly performed the five ceremonial circuits of the potio. On reaching the altar on the last circuit, the men reversed and retraced their footsteps, going this time in a clockwise direction to the entrance to the patio at the north. The women did not step in front of the altar this last time, but, waiting till the men had turned, fell in at the rear of the little procession.

Cite This Article

"The Fiesta of the Pinole at Azqueltán." The Museum Journal III, no. 3 (September, 1912): 44-50. Accessed February 22, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/9694/


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