Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bad dentistry and daykeepers

By most people´s standards today was a ¨wasted¨ day. Not that I didn´t do anything, but I didn´t do anything I could have only done while I´m in Guatemala. In the morning I was writing -- rewriting actually, the scene where the Hero Twins kill the demon Seven Macaw with bad dentistry. This is one my favorite scenes in the Popul Vuh, and one of the scenes that inspired me to write this trilogy. So naturally I want it to be really good in my book as well.

As an utter bonus, I have discovered that fancy artificial teeth are quite popular in Guatemala, especially among the Highlands Mayans. I assume this is partially because of the dreadful state of dentistry (along with any other modern medical care) for the people in small towns in the Highlands. I have seen a number of pairs of gold front teeth with golden crosses or other symbols in the middle of the white enamel. It is not much of a stretch to imagine someone replacing the enamel of the teeth with brite green jade, as Seven Macaw did in the PV. Since this is in the PV this was presumably a normal part of dental care even in pre-Columbian times. I wonder to what degree they still use the same methods?

I might have gone out, but I stopped into ¨Bus Stop Books,¨ and English-language bookshop and coffee shop here. I was just going to buy a couple of scifi paperbacks as I always do when I find an independent bookshop I want to support. But then in the ¨library¨ section I saw a book called ¨Breath on the Mirror¨ by Dennis Tedlock. Tedlock wrote the most authoritative translation of the Popul Vuh, and he is the only non-Mayan I know of who has learned enough of the language and culture of a Mayan tribe (the Quiche, in this case) to earn the title of daykeeper.

The Mayan ceremonial system is centered around the counting of days. This is not on the 360+5 day calender that´s part of the ¨long count¨ system that has everyone freaking out unreasonably about 2012. (If anyone asks you, tell them that not even the Maya believe that year represents the end of the world.)

But the daykeepers focus on the ceremonial 260 day calendar. There´s disagreements about where the 260 days come from: it could be connected to the growing cycle of corn, or the orbit of Venus, or the gestation period of a human pregnancy, or some combination of all of them. But mathematically it´s pretty clear: 260 is the product of two important numbers, the 13 ¨day numbers¨ and the 20 ¨day names.¨ The day names are things like Deer and Marksman and Cane, and they confusingly move backwards while the day numbers move forwards, giving each day a name like Seven Wind or One Yellow. Each day has a meaning which can also change depending on how far along in the numbers it is. For example Yellow means ¨ripeness¨ but while One Yellow represents something just coming into its ripeness, 13 Yellow, being at the end of the number cycle, means something that´s going rotten. Daykeepers can count the day numbers and names together and know what each combination means. This means they can say something about you based on the day you were born, sort of like a horoscope (I was born on the day ¨E¨ or ¨Ey,¨ which can mean ¨tooth¨ but also means ¨path¨). But more importantly they make predictions by a system of tossing and counting ceremonial beans.

And the predictions of the daykeepers, called aj´chun (at least in the language of the Chuj that live in San Mateo), are still central to the lives of the Maya. Angela´s Mayan husband Alberto uses their services routinely. Among other things, he told us, he told us he talked to an aj´chun to see if she was being truthful to him. She was sitting right there when he said that, so maybe he was being playful.

One important role of an aj´chun is when you get sick. Not that an aj´chun can cure you, since their only job is to see fortunes. But if you get a swelling in your leg or a mysterious sickness in your stomach, the most likely explanation is that you have been curse by a bruja, or witch. Specifically this kind of witch is known as an aj´lep, someone who puts sicknesses on the body. Since the only one who can really cure the curse is the person who cast it, the aj´chun can tell you who the aj´lep who cursed you is. From there, presumably, it´s up to you.

Then there are the men that kill the snakes. If you get a snakebite, it will continue to hurt if you are still alive. The ¨snake-killer¨ (Alberto didn´t give a Chuj name for this profession) will give you a treatment that involves drinking tobacco juice and massaging and blowing on the place where the the snakebite happened. If the treatment works, it will kill the snake and cure the bite.

The nearest hospital to San Mateo is a bumpy 5-hour dirt road bus ride away. There is a small pharmacy that sells some prescription medicines, and some medicines are sold randomly out of boxes on market days. But even if there is a doctor there that can prescribe what you need, most Chuj couldn´t afford an appointment. And if they could, the pharmacy might not have the right prescription anyway. So for many people finding the witch that cursed you is as effective a treatment as modern medicine.

Alberto´s an intelligent and sophisticated guy, who also knows a lot about his people´s traditions. He also enjoys talking about them, and is a natural storyteller. A person like me is tempted to want to press such a person, to find out exactly how much of what they´re saying they really believe.

But I don´t think questions like that can ever have a simple answer. Mayans have been forced for a very long time to live in two (or more) worlds, balancing their old faith with Christianity and traditional practices with modernity. And really, don´t the rest of us do the same thing? Nearly everyone I know mixes some ¨alternative medicine¨ practice with modern medicine.

Mostly I am just thankful to Alberto for opening up and sharing as much as he did, which helped me connect the beliefs in the books I was reading with what I was seeing around me. It´s amazing how many connections I have found.

That´s why I had to read the Tedlock book right then. Tedlock has an incredibly useful section describing the exact day name and number connected to the various events in the Hero Twins´ battle with the Lords of Xibalba, or Death, and what each of those days mean. That´s perfect for me, as I will be writing that book in about 6 months, which is exactly as long as a piece of research needs to sink in before you can really use it in your fiction.


kmari03 said...

Hi Jim!

I have really loved reading all of your entries about your trip and I can't wait to read the book. I remember getting to read a little snippet of a version of this project and finding it really cool and vibrant and full of potential. I'm so glad you're working on it and I'm inspired by the fact that you're jumping in to extensive research. In class tonight, we were talking about generativity and how people choose to go after their accomplishments and categorize what they do with their life. I thought how happy I am to have friends like you who take risks and go on adventures to do the things they care about.

Happy travels! Can't wait to hear more at the reunion!

- Kira

Jim Stewart said...

Thanks, Kira, glad you´re enjoying it!