Friday, March 23, 2012

Pascual Abaj - The Sacrifice Stone

I suppose I hoped for more from the Museo de Arceologico in Chichicastenango, though that's not really fair. They have two long rows of glass cabinets filled with old pottery ranging from the pre-classic (before 300 BC) to the post-classic (1100-1500 AD) period, along with a small collection of jade artifacts. (Unfortunately photographs are forbidden). But given that this is the central collection of archeology from the Quiche region in the heart of the Quiche department, one could only wish they had more.

Nevertheless, I'm extremely glad I went, because I met Hector, my guide to the Pascual Abaj shrine. I spent a long time looking at the pieces, and Hector asked me if I wanted a guide to the shrine. Based on my experiences in Santiago de Atitlan, I've learned that when a person who seems to know something offers to show you around it's worth paying what he asks.

The road up to the Pascual Abaj wouldn't stand out if you weren't looking for it. You pass through an older part of town, down a road lined on one side with houses made of adobe instead of rebar and cinder block like most of the newer buildings, and on the other with a fence overlooking a slope filled with milpas, or cornfields. I probably could have found my way myself, but paying Hector to guide me turned out to be well worth it. We passed up a small rise with a little sign labeling the direction of the shrine, and then through a building of orange stucco. This building was labeled the "museum of masks," something I was curious about. It appeared to be closed, so I kept going. We came to a path through another small milpa.

At the top of this path is an open-faced construction with a tin roof held up by wooden posts and adobe walls in the back on two sides. In the center of this structure is a square firepit filled with coals and stained with dripping candle wax. In the back of the structure is a long platform with several rows of gray stones that are naturally shaped like tombstones.

These stones are littered with pine needles, and have candles placed all around them. They also have other offerings, including bundles of sticks and bunches of flowers. There were also offerings of tobacco in thick cigars, something I had only seen before at the in front of Maximon in Santiago de Atitlan. Candles in glass holders burn off to one side, and smaller candles drip wax down the side of the rocks and off the front of the platform.

Pascual Abaj's lower shrine from the entrance

One thing distinctly lacking in this room was the cross. This is significant because often in Mayan syncretist altars there are at least a few, in order to show that the ritual isn't completely pagan. Although some of the glass candle holders had the Virgin Mary on them, this was the first place of worship I'd seen with no crosses at all (though not the last).

A closeup view of Pascual Abaj's lower shrine

I thought this was it, so it was a good thing I brought Hector. He guided me further up the hill, on a steep mountain path. On the way, he told me that Pascual Abaj is a shrine to the duende, or spirit, of the hill, the town, and the surrounding area. He said that the duende was once a living person, a great and generous man, and when he died he became the spirit of the hill.

Duende is a term imported from Spain, where it means something like an elf or faerie. There are many Mayan tales of hills having a duende inside them that rules over the area, and provides good or bad luck depending on how well you treat them. I assume that just like in Europe, when pagan gods get demoted by the rise of monotheism, people start calling them duende or spirits instead.

At the top of the hill is Pascual Abaj, or sacrifice stone, itself. Pascual Abaj is in a U-shaped enclosure of black stones covered with offerings, with a small firepit inside. There is a cross here, a stone one. The Pascual Abaj stone is shaped like a roughly carved head, but most of the lower section is covered with ashes, as if it's been burned away. About twenty feet in front of the half-circle of stones is another, larger firepit.

Pascual Abaj, the 'sacrifice stone,' is the head-like shape in the center of the semicircle of rocks.

Unlike the lower shrine, this altar was in use. A man was kneeling in front of the sacrifice stone tending a fire. Other people were standing around a fire in the larger pit, which from its smell contained copal incense. One person was chanting and others were throwing in offerings of flower petals. I didn't want to take pictures, it seemed disrespectful. But Hector insisted, and several of the people at the fire said it was okay as well.

The rituals are simple, but this is syncretism in action. Offerings of flower petals, tobacco and incense were the same thing that the Quiche lords gave their gods, according to the Popul Vuh.

These same offerings are for sale in an aisle in the Chichicastenango market now: candles, flower petals, bundles of flowers, bundles of resinous kindling, and balls of copal incense. In the Popul Vuh, the mother of Hunahpu and Xpbalanque used a ball of incense just like these to trick the Lords of Death. She delivered the copal to the Xibalbans through their messengers the owls in place of her heart, which the owls were to cut out.

On the way back, I asked Hector if the Museum of Masks was closed. Hector called to a man in an adjoining workshop. The man got out a key and opened the door to the museum.

I entered a room that was covered from floor to ceiling on every wall with a spectacular arrangement of masks. Masks of deer, monkeys, jaguars, eagles, crows, skulls devils and heroes. In front of the room was a collection of figurines, a stone altar with candles, and a seated figure that was reminiscent of Maximon but with a painted face.

Two walls on the museum of masks

I asked if I could take a picture, and the proprietor said I could in that room, but not in the next. I asked what was in the other room. He said that these masks were old, but in the other room were new masks that he had made.

The masks in the other room were spectacular. Unlike the older masks, which were mostly stained wood with only a little decoration, these masks were finely painted in bright colors. Many of them were human faces with animals above them, animals that played an important part in Quiche mythology: owls, falcons, jaguars, snakes and toads. There was a mask with two catfish, which I recognized as symbolizing the reincarnated form of Hunahpu and Xbalanque after they are burned in the fire of the Lords of Death. There was another double mask labeled with the names of the Hero Twins, which warmed my heart.

Masks seem to play a bigger role to the Quiche today than I had anticipated. Nearly every room I entered in Quiche seemed to be hung with masks, and countless booths in the Quiche Market were selling masks as well. But none of them were near the quality I saw in the Museum of Masks.

I spent another day in Chichi, just to see the market, but I didn't buy anything. It's nice stuff, but it's heavy and I am carrying enough already. I'm having serious shoulder problems; I've tried to minimize the weight of my pack by taking a bunch of stuff out and carrying it in a separate bag, but the damage is done and from my experience it will likely last a few weeks at least.

While I was in the market I ran into my old roommates, who told me that they'd been up to Kumarkaaj yesterday and seen a ceremony of some sort. I was kind of furious that they'd seen it and I hadn't, since they had neither interest in it nor appreciation. If I'd stayed with them I'd have seen the ceremony they saw, but seeing it with them might have been worse than not seeing it at all.

In any case, I went up to Santa Cruz del Quiche the next day, and then to Kumarkaaj. I didn't see a big ceremony like they saw, but I saw plenty. I'll write about that when I get back.

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