Following the brutal Spanish conquest of the Americas in the 16th century the conquerors immediately set out to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism.
Violence was the preferred method of persuasion of the Spaniards so, the Indians opted to incorporate elements of Christianity into their traditional beliefs as a means of survival. Avoiding the wrath of the Spaniards, by this accommodation, they managed to maintain their native spirituality and cultural identity. The Mayas came to accept the Christian god as a supreme power but held on to their traditional deities by transforming them into saints.
There were enough similarities between the Mayan religion and Christianity to make syncretism (amalgamation of different religions) possible. Both religions had priests to guide people, used images and statues to represent holy figures and burned incense during rituals. Both Christians and Mayans worshiped a god who died for others and was resurrected, for Mayans this was the Maize god. The concept of the cross also had meaning to the Mayans as it resonated with their belief in the World Tree, the tree of life, depicted in cruciform.
This syncretic system is nowhere better observed than in the State of Chiapas in Southern Mexico. In San Juan Chamula, a small town near the lively town of, San Cristobal de Las Casas, the main church is lined with statues of Catholic saints dressed in local clothes and adorned with mirrors. Here, you’ll find no altars or pews just a stone floor covered in pine needles and thousands of candles. Worshipers, seated in groups on the floor, openly engage in unique rituals involving animal sacrifice (usually chickens) led by the Curandera (healer) and, rather bizarrely, the drinking of Coca Cola or the strong local beverage . Bodily expelling gases fuelled by these drinks is the final symbolic stage in ridding the body of the impurities thought to be causing emotional distress or ill-health.
The Virgin of Guadelupe, the Roman Catholic title for the Virgin Mary, is the revered patron saint of Mexico and depicted with a brown skin. Myth has it that she appeared to an Indigenous peasant, Saint Juan Diego, in 1531 and told him that a church in her name should be built on the site. The place where she chose to appear was Tepeyac the site of the temple to Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess . The name Tonantzin translates from the native Aztec language of Nahautl to mean ‘Our Mother’. Another example of the blending of the imposed Catholic beliefs with Maya religious traditions.
These days the Basilica of our Lady of Guadelupe in Mexico City has become the most visited Catholic pilgrimage in the world and the third most-visited sacred site.
Interested in learning more of the fascinating culture and traditions of the Maya? Then join us in February 2019 as we explore Chiapas, its towns, villages, artisans and spectacular hidden Mayan ruins? A stunning and unforgettable destination physically and culturally.