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September 18, 2013 at 7:24 AM

Sacrificing chickens and pleasing the saints in Mayan Chiapas

Two young women in San Juan Chemula, Chiapas, wear typical garb for their Mayan town. Behind them is the church where shamans practice healing and rituals involved everything from colored candles to killing chickens to drinking Coca-Cola so as to burp out evil spirits. Taking photos inside the church is strictly forbidden. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

Young women in San Juan Chemula wear typical garb for their town. Behind is the church where rituals involve everything from killing chickens to drinking Coca-Cola so as to belch out evil spirits. Taking photos inside the church is strictly forbidden. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

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.

A pine bough, commonly used in spiritual rituals in Mayan Chiapas, is part of decorations at the church entrance in San Juan Chemula.

A pine bough, commonly used in spiritual rituals in Mayan Chiapas, is part of decorations at the church entrance in San Juan Chemula.

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.

0 Comments | More in Mexico, Trip reports | Topics: Chiapas, Mayan town, Mexico visit

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