SAN JUAN CHEMULA, Mexico — I spent time in a whole other world yesterday, wandering among shamans practicing their healing arts with sacrificial chickens and clouds of incense, and taking part in a ritual to make corn liquor to be consumed during a celebration this week of Jesus Christ and the autumn equinox — the “son” and the sun, as only a Mayan town in Chiapas could meld two ancient religions.
It was a short drive from the bustling city of San Cristobal de las Casas. The shamans were in the Iglesia San Juan Bautista, the town church in a municipality officially known as San Juan Chemula, but which the indigenous people call Mishik Banamil, or “navel of the world.” It’s ostensibly a Catholic church, and looks from the outside like many churches in many small Mexican towns. But a Catholic priest comes to this church only once a month for baptisms, and inside there are no pews, no seating of any kind, just aromatic pine needles spread thickly on the floor, and thousands of candles burning as a part of rituals aimed at everything from wooing more rain to curing depression. Supplicants prostrate themselves on the floor.
Across town, a guide and I perched for a while on tiny wooden chairs inside a windowless cinder-block bunker with a smoldering bonfire on its floor as a spiritual leader and his assistants oversaw the making of the ceremonial spirit. To please the saints — “gods,” they might have said in olden days — dour-faced men in a dark corner played sweetly melancholy music on homemade instruments including a harp, a guitar, a drum and an accordion, while a woman in another corner stirred a pounded corn paste into the brew she was concocting in a garbage-can-like vat. To ensure the convivial tone of the hours-long ritual, everyone took shots of a locally made sugar-cane liquor called pox (pronounced “posh”) from glasses with a cross painted in red on the bottom.
For me it was a day like no other. I’ll tell more in a future Seattle Times article.