Mayan Cultivation of the Human Heart

Lake Atitlan in Guatemala is called “Nahachel” in the Quiche Mayan language. It is the southernmost of four sacred lakes that mark the boundaries of the Quiche world.

The traditional Mayan today lives by the metaphors inherited not only from their forebears’ poetic imaginations. They are also guided by intense and prolonged study of the night sky.  The Quiche Mayan “Council Book”, the Popol Vuh,  recounts the first dawning of our Sun, the coming of light, following the appearance of the “daybringer” star Venus in the heavens. 

But it is not only celestial events and events in the natural world that take on metaphorical depth and meaning in ancestral Mayan thought.  Topographic features of a landscape are, in Christian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words, “charged with the grandeur of God”. A mountain or a lake is not just seen in geological and geographic terms.  It is first and foremost a manifestation of the divine.  Pilgrimages are made to a mountain or a people’s abandoned city to honor and enter into dialog with the presence of the ancestral spirits and the divine there.

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains where my help comes from; help comes to me from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” declares Psalm 121 of the Hebrew Bible.  As in the ancient Hebrew scriptures, the Lord is referred to with multiple names by the Mayans.  As the name Yahweh gains precedence in the oldest Hebrew passages, “Heart of Sky and Heart of Earth” is favored by the Mayan faithful.  There is also agreement in the Mayan and Hebrew traditions that the purpose of human beings is to give honor and praise to the divine presence around and within them.

When the “daybringer” Venus ascended from the underworld to the morning sky, the “Council Book” tells us that human beings had gathered “in unity” to await the sun’s first appearance.  They  celebrated and gave thanks with lighting of copal incense and with feasting on the sacred mountain and they still do so when the diviner’s reading of the calendar directs. Humanity had to be created, out of water and corn meal, to be present and give thanks and praise for the first light of the sun. According to the Popol Vuh, such praise and thanks fulfill our purpose as a species.

For many Mayans today, every night still reenacts the sowing of seed in the earth, the “Underworld”,  when the sun sets to be reborn as a sprout and a new day.    Dawn takes on another metaphorical meaning in the human context.  Conception of a human being occurs with the planting of seed in the womb and a child’s birth and subsequent growth.  While there may be other dawnings in human existence, the dawning of the first sun and subsequent suns, of the plant sown and of a human being are the foremost events in human life and given the most attention in Mayan thought and religion.

Thanks for these “dawnings” are expressed to the Heart of Sky and Earth with offerings of incense and blood, usually deer and bird blood today, at a shrine or sacred site or community altar.  In the ceremony of building an altar described in the last blog, incense and smudging also help prepare heart and spirit of the participants with purification and clarity.  According to the INESIN handout on the altar’s significance to the community, the copal (or alternatively ocote, heart of pine) “harmonizes the integrity of the individuals and group”.

In the altar ceremony, in Mayan prayer and worship in general, there is special attention to the state of each person’s feelings, or “heart”,  as well as to the harmony of the community. The building of the altar, the preparation of the setting, accompanies a self diagnosis focused on our heart, “like when we feel our pulse”.  The altar experience aims to enable the heart of each individual to be guided in selecting a personal intention on which to focus in coming days.  In concluding the ceremony, candles of a particular color (see the last blog for the colors’ symbolism) are chosen and “planted” around the periphery of the altar.  The various intentions may then be shared verbally with the group, with another individual or kept to oneself. They may include a better harvest, healthy relationships in a new house, a safe and worthwhile journey.

Native to Mayan ancestral lands, the ceiba tree can reach a height of 200 feet and is the most sacred tree to the Mayans. The top represents for them the world above us, sky and the heavens, the trunk is humanity and living creatures and the roots are the underworld, the earth below us. The tree is thus a living metaphor for the inter-connectedness of the divine, the human, and the darkness we all live through.

The revolutionaries of the Zapatista movement found their defense of the Mayan land and human rights in Chiapas on the hearts of their followers. In one of their manifestos, they include a message to foreigners who are likely to ignore or misunderstand this principal tenet of their position, “The ancestral philosophy of the Zapatistas which declares -without shame or fear- that the place of knowledge, truth and speech is in the heart”.  It might be said that their attention to the heart of followers and the opposition has enabled the movement to continue to organize villagers and improve education, health and harmony in rural settings under their control today.  In so doing they follow the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu who said, “there are many paths to enlightenment.  Be sure to take one with a heart.”

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 May 22, 2023, in Interfaith Relations and Politics, Theology and Mission and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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