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Catholicism and the Maya

What we think of as Catholicism, is not what the Mayas practice.

Christ on the wall in the church in Santiago Atitlan
"Conquistador" dancers at a village festival.
A shoulder bag with a double headed eagle.
Dancers, encased in what are called "Torros", (bulls;) you can make out a bull mask on the upper left) are covered in streamers and fireworks. The firecrackers are lit and the dancers run though the screaming crowd.
Women in a procession.
A Mayan woman from the village of Joyabaj.
A Mayan family.
Seated in front of the church

The Spanish Crown with the Catholic Church ruled the New World by removing the old indigenous ruling-priest class and installing themselves in their place. Conformity to Church doctrine and ritual was rigidly enforced and to all outward appearances the indigenous cultures were Catholic.

However few natives spoke Spanish, much less Latin. Likewise, few Spanish priests spoke local languages. Nor did the Church encourage them to do so. The Spanish clergy and their new parishioners couldn't even speak to one another. As the centuries passed little effort went into improving communication.

As far as the Vatican was concerned, if the native population acted Catholic and went through the motions of being Catholic, they were Catholic. What the indigenous people of the New World actually thought it all meant simply did not signify.

For example, the double-headed eagle is a common motif in Mayan weaving and wood carving. In the Catholic Church it symbolizes the Hapsburg branch of the church. No doubt they introduced the image to the Mayans. However every Mayan I have asked said that there were double headed eagles in Guatemala before the Spanish came. As far as they are concerned it isn't Catholic at all.

To this day the Mayans have little real understanding of the Catholic faith as the Vatican would prescribe. Nor, with notable exceptions, does the church have much cognizance the Mayan's needs, spiritual or worldly. The Mayans are still essentially a pagan people under a thin veneer of Catholicism.

Perhaps the most visible legacy of Catholic domination has, ironically, evolved into that most distinguishing Mayan trait; their wonderful and unique tradition of weaving. For centuries the Church enforced a strict dress code.

The inhabitants of any given village were required to weave and wear a style of clothing unique to that village. While no longer mandated, Mayans still wear clothing particular to their village. Few visitors to Guatemala realize that the bright, distinctly ethnic clothing one sees everywhere evolved out of an edict from a most non-Mayan source; the Roman Catholic Church.

Little effort was made to reach the hearts and minds of the natives under Catholic rule. The result, logically enough, is that New World indigenous cultures under Spanish colonial rule, such as the Mayans, were Catholic in name alone. To this day their cultural core; their unique Mayan essence is still very much intact behind a thin veneer of Catholicism.

I originally posted this to the site in 2002.

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