Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity

By Jacob K. Olupona | Go to book overview

Chapter 8

Jaguar Christians in the contact zone

Concealed narratives in the histories of religions in the Americas

David Carrasco

They may someday be considered American classics, but today they are labeled ethnographic texts of dubious value for the history of religions. I am speaking of the fourteen Books of Chilam Balam (Books of the Spokesmen of the Jaguar) of the Yucatecan Maya, which contain the history and cosmovisions, transmitted over a thousand years, and reflecting the influences of at least three thoroughly different cultures, the Classic Maya, the Nahuatl cultures from central Mexico who invaded Yucatan, and the European civilizations of Spanish and Republican Mexico. One stunning representative of this corpus is the Book of Chilam Balam of Tizimin, which covers the historical and liturgical changes of the Yucatecan ceremonial centers from the seventh to the nineteenth century, with explicit coverage of each twenty-year period from 1441 to 1848. The sections of the Tizimin manuscript are dominated by both a sense of cyclical repetitions and prophecies of an ancient future! But what catches my attention is another remarkable kind of difference in the text: the radically different ways, in comparison to Spanish accounts, that the Maya viewed the history of their interactions with the Spaniards. Munroe Edmonson, in The Ancient Future of the Itza: The Book of Chilam Balam of Tizimin (1982), summarizes this disjunction as follows:

Perhaps the most startling aspect of the Book of Tizimin when it is viewed historically is the autistic disjunction between Mayan and Spanish views of the same broad epoch. There are consistent correspondences on numerous points, but the focus of attention is totally different. The Spaniards chronicled their entradas, the sequences of their officials, their laws, discoveries, and conquests. They themselves appear in Itza history, however, as an annoying but shadowy and largely irrelevant presence, alluded to by nicknames. Their tribute was regarded as a temporary burden, destined to be returned at the appropriate time. The thrust of Mayan history is a concern with the Indian lords and priests, with the cosmology that justified their rule, and with the Indian civil war that was perceived as the real dimensions of colonial history.

In effect, this is a secret history…It is astonishing to learn from the Tizimin that the ancient Mayan cities - Mayapan, Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Coba even Merida itself - continued to serve as symbolic reference points for a lively and indigenous religious and political life centuries after their pyramids had fallen into ruins.

(Edmonson 1982: xx)

I am interested in exploring this “different focus of attention” and this sense of a “secret history, especially as they are related to colonial encounters and postcolonial

-128-

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