The Heart to Heart Spirituality of the Mayans

The practice and significance of a Mayan community creating a sacred altar is described in what follows.  It is based on a handout provided visitors to the Institute of Intercultural Studies and Research (INESIN) in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. All quotations are from the handout written by the Institute’s Mayan staff members.

“The altar begins to take shape as the community gathers” the handout tells us.  Most of us have read it before making our group’s altar following INESIN staff member jPetul’s instruction.  “Each brings his or her offering from the fruits of their gardens or other labor” the handout continues.  Our church group from Kansas City bring our desire to experience at a deeper level the Mayan culture and religion of forty percent of the population of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas where the Institute is based.  

So we read in preparation that “In the Chiapan Highlands, we often begin by spreading a bed of pine needles as a base that marks the ritual space with color, sound and smell….”  Adorning the altar with their “flowers, fruits, seeds and symbols” the participants create “a representation of the whole community”.  Candles of a variety colors are placed at the four compass points on the altar.

“The Mayan altar represents the cosmos and the universe” the handout relates.  So the colors’ association with the four directions of our world are a crucial element in the symbolism of the altar ceremony. After the Spaniards brought wax and candlemaking to the New World, the candles’ colors were matched to their location in the “vision of the universe as seen by our grandparents”.

The completed Mayan altar after we lit and placed the white candles. Note the sea conch on the North, the censer bowl on the West, the seed rattles above the black (purple) candle in the Center.

The red candle on the altar’s east side “represents sunrise, the birth of life, strength, love and the color of blood.” It also represents “the birth of God”. Incense is burned on the east side where red flowers, red beans and corn and red fruit are also placed.  A guardian of this side is dressed in red.

On the West, a black (or purple) candle “represents sunset, darkness, rest and death”.  In the Mayan worldview, darkness and night occur when the sun dies, passes toward the underworld, walks in other worlds and finally is “born again as a new, radiant sun.”  This passage and its color signifies “the death of God, who dies to give us life”.  For us humans the passage enacts whatever we do to nurture life and “leave behind that which destroys life”. In concrete terms for us humans, the passage signifies sowing seeds “when we bury these in the belly of the mother earth”.  Purple flowers, black beans,  corn and black soil are placed on the westside of the altar where a guardian would be dressed in black.

In Mayan belief, the colors of the altar also reflect our unity as human beings.  Red is the color of our blood; black is our hair; white is our teeth and bones and yellow is the color of our skin.  The Mayan tradition affirms that we humans share common traits while every person is also different.  Our handout further states that the altar’s colors “represent the diversity of languages, thoughts, beliefs and ways of seeing the world of peoples and cultures”.  Participation in the creation of an altar invites us to “ respect and appreciate our differentness and our oneness, our uniqueness and our sameness”.

We learned that the passage from red to black, from East to West, is the way of God.  The passage from North to South “is the way of humankind”.  The white candle of the North represents the “side of the sky, the wisdom of our ancestors, the peace and tranquility of the heart, the search for truth and clarity in thought and feeling”.  The North also tests us: “cold rain and wind, the winter freezes, sickness and death also come from the North”.  Bones, white beans and corn, white flowers, shells and seeds, a sea conch may be placed on the North side of the altar.  The guardian “and protector” is clad in white.

The yellow candle of the South is associated with the feminine, and the direction from which comes good crops and abundant harvests.  “Yellow flowers, yellow seeds and corn, yellow fruits, and water” are found on the South side with a guardian dressed in the same color.

A human’s life passage to maturity and fullness is symbolized in the altar’s depiction of movement from North to South. Intersecting with God’s path from East to West, the Center is where “humankind participates in the divine and the divine in the nature of humanity”.  The two paths are also seen as the passage for God and for humankind from life to death and death to life.

In the Center is a blue candle, symbol of the “heart of the sky” and the eternal, “that which does not end”.  Water is sometimes placed in the Center and someone may be assigned to wear blue and serve as guardian of the sky’s path.  The green candle in the Center stands for the earth, for nature, for life that continues.  Along with nature, men and women make up “the community of divine creation”.  We, like all of nature, are divine “because we have the ‘ch’ulel’, the spirit that comes from the Sacred, ‘Ch’ul’ (or) the divine breath”. Earth or soil may be placed in the Center.  Symbolic elements of the Center remind us that “our grandparents taught us that all that exists has ‘ch’ulel’, spirit and heart”.

In the Mayan view, our spirituality is cultivated and grows from the heart.  Before each person plants one or more candles on the altar’s periphery, we were instructed to diagnose the present state of our heart.  We were to ask ourselves, “how is your heart or how has your heart arrived in this place?” Our handout notes this question is “asked from the heart to the heart, for we as Mayans speak from there.”

Global Ministries Co-Worker Elena Huegel, in white jacket, comments as we conclude the altar experience. Our leader in making the altar, jPetul, is in cinammon sweatshirt on right.

In some villages of the Chiapan highlands, residents greet one another by asking “how is your heart seen or what is your heart feeling?” The response can be “my heart is blooming” or “my heart is full of flowers”.  Harmony and good will reign when Mayans say they are of one heart or, in one of the leading Mayan languages, when they say “jun o’tonal”.

The significance of incense and smudging in the altar ceremony, the prayers and significance of placing the candles before concluding will be described in the next and final article on the Mayan sacred altar.  It too will be based on the handout “Theological Perspectives on the Mayan Altar” written by jPetul and other Mayan workshop leaders of the Institute for Intercultural Studies and Research (INESIN) in San Cristobal de las Casas. A community’s periodic creation of a sacred altar has contributed significantly to the survival of five million Maya for three thousand years as a people and culture.

The fine Institute website in Spanish and English is at http://inesin-mx.org/

About erasingborders

This blog is dedicated to the conviction that love is stronger than hate, that trained non violent resistance is stronger than weapons of violence and that as human beings we rise and we fall as one people.

Posted on April 16, 2023, in Interfaith Relations and Politics, Solidarity, Community and Citizenship, Theology and Mission and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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