"To Join the Waters": Indexing Metonymies of Territoriality in Cora Ritual
Coyle, Philip E., Journal of the Southwest
Priests, explorers, and anthropologists have long noted the importance of mitote ceremonies(1) as part of the distinctive culture of the Cora (Nayari) people of the Sierra del Nayar in Nayarit, Mexico. A number of observers have also published descriptions of mitotes (e.g., Amaro Romero 1993; Jauregui 1993), and one--Konrad Theodor Preuss (1912)--recorded and translated many of the songs that are part of these ceremonies. But despite this long-term interest, the relevance of these ceremonies to other aspects of Cora life has yet to be explained. Instead, these ceremonies have tended to be analyzed as either survivals of the pre-Columbian past (Preuss 1912) or simply the "pagan" half of a "syncretic" Cora culture (cf. Hinton 1972).
In this paper I contribute to new interest in Cora mitote ceremonies (cf. Guzman 1997) through a discussion of the pilgrimages or treks that are an integral part of them. Such journeys are undertaken to transport sacred waters from distant springs back to the ceremonial grounds where mitotes are performed. These springs are associated with unique and significant natural landscape features at five specific sites conceived as marking the edges and center of each Cora community's territory. Treks "to join the waters" (in Spanish, juntar las aguas) are thus vital for producing meanings of ancestral territoriality encoded within mitote ceremonial practice. Before addressing these meanings, I first discuss an alternative approach for analyzing religious pilgrimages and define the specialized terms used in this paper.
THE SEMIOTICS OF CORA SACRED TREKS
Victor Turner (1974: 182) defined pilgrimages as forms of "institutionalized or symbolic anti-structure." From this perspective, they are fundamentally "liminal phenomena" (1974: 166) through which pilgrims participate in a temporary state of "communitas" (1974: 201). This liminal state serves to renew society by temporarily breaking day-to-day social ties in favor of a deeper sense of connection. However, in searching for the one key purpose of pilgrimages in the history of human culture, Turner glosses over one of the smaller things that such treks may also accomplish. Specifically, he mentions that "ritual topography" (1974: 184) or "certain ritual features of the cultural landscape" (1974: 183) may be "packed with cosmological and theological meaning" through pilgrimage (1974: 210), but never develops this theme. For Turner, such small and localized meanings were difficult to generalize cross-culturally, and so were marginal to his groundbreaking theoretical work.
In contrast to Turner's encompassing, cross-cultural formulation of pilgrimages, in this article I focus on the smaller, localized meanings of such treks that he chose not to develop. To do this I use a simple semiotic framework that enables readers to appreciate some of the actual meanings produced through Cora mitote treks. Help in deciphering these smaller meanings comes from scholars studying the "play of tropes" that constitute culture (Durham and Fernandez 1991). This work on cultural tropes is also in part a reaction to another strand of Turner's work, his emphasis on the "dominant symbols" (in ritual practice) and "root metaphors" (in spoken discourse) that for him lie at the heart of culture (Turner 1967: 27, 1974: 26). In contrast, Fernandez argues that such an emphasis on any single trope in cultural analysis will always be incomplete. He notes that anthropology's unique perspective on the study of metaphors is to understand them within particular contexts, "in dynamic relation to all the other tropes" (Fernandez 1991: 9-10). In the case of ritual metaphors evoked during mitote ceremonies, these contexts include pilgrimages undertaken "to join the waters."
Two types of "contiguity tropes" (Friedrich 1991: 34) are of particular importance for producing ritual meaning in Cora mitote treks. The first of these is metonymy. As David Sapir (cited in Durham and Fernandez 1991: 193) defines the term, "metonymy replaces or juxtaposes continuous terms that occupy a distinct and separate place within what is considered a single semantic or perceptual domain." In mitote treks, this continuity is most importantly spatial: sacred springs are located next to uniquely significant natural features. The second contiguity trope is commonly called "indexicality" or "pointing" because it acts to point something out (cf. Mertz and Parmentier 1985). Pointers actively locate things in time or space or refer to particular people. In its ritual context Cora sacred water also "points" or "indexes"; it indexes not only the spring from which it was collected, but also all the other metonymic referents that are located next to that spring. These referents make up an "inner storehouse" of signs (Durham and Fernandez 1991: 195) that are figuratively transported back to the mitote grounds along with the sacred water. Among these metonymic referents are boundary-marking mountains, so the sacred water used in mitote dances also indexes Cora territories.
INDEXING METONYMIES OF TERRITORIALITY
The Cora community of Santa Teresa (Kweimarutse), mitote ceremonies are performed both by descent-groups and by officers of the community's cargo system (Coyle n.d.). Before any of these mitote ceremonies can begin, however, the different materials needed to hold the ceremony must be collected. Of these materials, perhaps the most important is sacred water (wawi). As mentioned previously, sacred water is collected from springs (haihsa) that define the limits of the lands on which Cora people live, and the long and difficult treks to "join the waters" produce a number of important connotations that link mitote ceremonies with ancestral territory. Sacred water is collected from five springs: four distinct sites to the west, east, north, and south mark the boundaries of Santa Teresa and define the circumference of a circular or rhomboidal map of the world. The fifth spring is located at the center of this circle or rhomboid, adjacent to the town of Santa Teresa itself.
At each of the five points of this map is a mountain peak (hiri) named for a particular distant ancestor: "Our Grandfather," "Our Grandmother," or "Our Elder Brother." Also associated with each of these springs is a cave (tasta'a) leading into the earth. Emerging near these mountains and caves are the springs of sacred water. This water is distinguished from regular water (hahti) precisely because of its emergence from these special springs, whose location at the five cardinal points of the world suggests their connection to a common subterranean aquifer. Moreover, each of these sites for collecting sacred water also forms a miniature version of the larger map that defines the borders of the Tereseno world. As a person gathers water at each of these isolated and remote springs, the particular characteristics of the site reinforce and elaborate on the circular image that serves as a cosmological model of the world. This model can either expand to incorporate the entire universe or contract to the level of a particular sacred site. Indeed, this model can also contract down to the level of the circular-shaped mitote ceremonial ground, or even down to the level of the similarly shaped gourd bowl containing the ancestral maize (tsiwi) through which prayers are spoken at mitote ceremonies (Coyle 1997; cf. Kindl, Guzman this volume). So although the patrons of the sacred sites are said to watch over the whole world from their positions at the five cardinal points, each of these sites is also a representation of the world as a whole.
In this article I describe only one of these sites: the lake that lies east of the town of Santa Teresa. This is perhaps the most important sacred site for the Cora people of Santa Teresa, and many of the symbolic characteristics of other sacred sites are clearly found here. The lake (called Tu'a'amua or Nakuta) is set in a steep, nearly inaccessible gorge between two escarpments running north to south. From the north it is fed by a creek, but a high waterfall blocks access from that direction. From the south a trail leads to the shore of the lake over heaps of boulders that attest to the lake's origin in a dramatic cataclysm; rather than carving out a canyon to form the lake, the canyon stream was clearly dammed by rocks falling from its walls (figure 1).
[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
The cataclysm that formed this lake is of ongoing concern to Cora people. Stories explicitly link the formation of the lake with the end of a previous world and, at least implicitly, with the repeated renewal of the present world in mitote ceremonies:
Where the lake is today was once a flat prairie. Some people were dancing in a mitote when a huge rock near their ceremonial grounds began to vibrate. Out of the rock emerged a giant snake. It rose in the air over the frightened people, threatening to kill them all. Just then the snake was pierced by an arrow, which was a shooting star shot by Tahatsi Xurave, the Morning Star who protects all the Cora people. The snake fell to earth, causing the ground to give way, which formed the hollow that today contains the lake. The head of the snake broke into pieces when it landed and formed into a few huge boulders that can still be found here and there.(2)
People occasionally claim to see the form of this snake just beneath the murky water of the lake. They say that it is still curled up on the bottom of the lake, and that if it ever rises again it will cause a devastating flood of the Cora towns downstream. Others say that it already left during the earlier flood that destroyed the last world, carving out present-day canyons in the region before plunging into the ocean near San Blas.
When approaching this lake, it is nearly impossible not to recall these apocalyptic stories. To reach the lake from Santa Teresa one passes a place called in Spanish Las Viboras (The Snakes), which is a stream-bed that has basins in the shape of snake heads eroded into the rock. Then, arriving at the edge of the western escarpment and looking down on the lake from above, the overflow outlet of the lake, which carries water only during the rainy season, curves around huge piles of boulders forming the stream into the shape of a slithering snake. On the east side of the lake, seemingly aligned with the rising morning star, is a rock called Tahatsi Xurave, the slayer of the serpent turned to stone. Most dramatic of all, in the vicinity of the lake is a hidden cave that contains a place for a single person to sit. Next to that sitting place is a pile of old coins, and next to that pile of coins is a tunnel going down to the bowels of the earth, seemingly the blackest part of the underworld itself. For those who can withstand five nights of fasting there, wealth and power are said to reside in the cave along with the serpent. For pilgrims to this site, then, stories of the world destroyed by a snake seem to be inscribed in the physical characteristics of the place itself.
At the shore of the lake, a person collecting water is greeted by more unique natural features. Indeed, it is said that all of the plants and animals known to the Coras can be found at this site. Among these plants and animals is a patch of straw ('ixa) gathered for use in one of the mitotes and a large stand of white carrizo reeds (haka), which are used by Teresenos, as well as other Cora and Huichol peoples, to make prayer arrows ('iru). But perhaps the most evocative feature at this site is the island in the middle of the lake. On the very summit of this island is a huge chalate fig tree (xapwa), the xapwa vi'ihatana (fig tree-at-the-place-of-the-rains). Its roots weave downward through the island, and its spreading branches seem to release a green rain of leaves above. This island surrounded by the water of the lake, then, is itself a model of the world situated at the eastern point of the larger cross-shaped map. Beneath the island and surrounding it on four sides is water, and in that water are potentially destructive snakes. Like the circular island, the world seems to float on such water, and the springs at which sacred water is gathered tap into that watery underworld.
Before the sacred water is scooped into the jugs that will be used to carry it back to the mitote grounds, flowers are left by the side of the spring, and these index more metonymies. Two colors of tree-growing iris used extensively in mitote ceremonies are offered. Purple iris flowers (tsuwa) are left prior to the dry-season mitotes in May, and white iris flowers (tsuwa tikweina'ara) are left during the later harvest-season mitotes, celebrated between October and January. Like the transportation of water from springs to mitote grounds, the repeated use of these flowers serves as an index. In this case, however, the index is temporal. The flowers point backward and forward to distinct mitote celebrations, and so semiotically tie those ceremonies into a single ritual cycle. The shift in the color of these flowers from purple to white through the course of the year gives a sense of movement to the ritual cycle. This change in color also indexes the progression of the seasons, which in turn resonates with the counterclockwise trek to collect sacred water from different sacred sites as well as the counterclockwise direction of mitote dances.
After the water is collected, it is taken to a large rock shelter on the east side of the lake and more offerings are made. All the substances that Cora people normally consume or that the remembered ancestors of the people making those offerings were known to enjoy (cookies, tortillas, fresh fruits and vegetables, bread, coffee, chocolate, and cigarettes) are placed on a simple stone altar. More flowers are also offered, along with little pillows of cotton upon which old coins are placed. Once offerings have been made, sacred water is poured into a gourd bowl. Each of the people who has come to collect water first pours thin streams of it into each of the four corners of the bowl and then into the center. Once all of these people have added water, each then adds ground raw white maize (tsiwi) to the water in the gourd bowl. This maize is also sprinkled at each of the corners of the gourd bowl, and then into the center (figure 2).
[Figure 2 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
The result is another model of the world: an island--representing the world (chanaka)--made of maize. The maize-island seems to float in the gourd bowl, just as the larger island with its chalate tree seems to float in the lake to one side of them, and the world as a whole seems to float on the vast Pacific Ocean that can be seen from certain mountains on the western edge of Santa Teresa. It then becomes apparent (through the indexing of metonyms) that the cataclysmic flood that destroyed the last world was just a rising of that sea. The Cora's fragile earth-island was covered with water at that time, and only the five highest mountains at the edges of the Tereseno world remained above the floodwaters.
After the offerings have been made, the people present for the pilgrimage gather together in a tight group facing the altar in the cave on the east side of the lake. Their tight formation resembles growing maize plants or a bundle of maize ears. The eldest male then says a prayer under his breath, making reference to the particular patrons and the unique natural features found at each of the sites. The completion of these prayers marks the end of this ritual at Tu'a'amua, and the people then begin their long walk to Kweinarana'apwa, the sacred site marking the northern boundary of Tereseno lands.
In collecting sacred water for use in mitote ceremonies, Cora people make pilgrimages to five different springs. I have discussed one of those springs here. Following the rituals undertaken at this spring, the people move from this lake to the northern, western, southern, and central springs that form a cross centered at the mountain adjacent to the town of Santa Teresa (see figure 3).
[Figure 3 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
Each of these springs is at least a day's walk from the next, so the whole pilgrimage may take more than a week to complete. At each of these sites, the rituals described above are repeated. The signs reproduced in these specific rituals then resonate with the particular characteristics of each site producing distinct connotations. The lake known as Tu'a'amua is perhaps the most dramatic sacred site in Santa Teresa, but each sacred water source has unique characteristics that emerge in the course of the pilgrimage and the subsequent mitote ceremony. By "joining the waters," the particular characteristics of each site--a tree growing out of a rock here, a spring of sacred water dropping into a gourd-bowl-shaped rock there--are metonymically collapsed and figuratively (or rather indexically) transported back to the mitote grounds. In the course of the mitote ceremonies these signs emerge and resonate with still more signs mobilized in the ritual. Hence, by "joining the waters" Cora people position themselves within a particular "ritual topography" or "symbolically encoded landscape" (Turner 1974:, passim), the ancestral homeland of the Cora people of Santa Teresa.
Research for this paper was made possible by grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and the Fulbright-Garcia Robles Commission. This paper is dedicated to Nayari Otis Castillo, the son of George Otis and Veshalica Castillo of Tepic, Nayarit.
(1). In the Cora language, mitotes are referred to using the verb stem --ne-, meaning "dance," much as the Huichol neixa denotes major tuki rituals.
(2.) This frequently told story was recounted to me by a friend in an informal interview. Other versions may be found in Amaro Romero (1993), Hinton (n.d.), and Preuss 1906).
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PHILIP E. COYLE (Ted) is currently assistant professor of anthropology at Western Carolina University. Previously he held a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution. He received his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Arizona in 1997. He completed his tenth and last year of participation in the Cora Holy Week festival of Santa Teresa (Nayarit) in 1998.…
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Publication information: Article title: "To Join the Waters": Indexing Metonymies of Territoriality in Cora Ritual. Contributors: Coyle, Philip E. - Author. Journal title: Journal of the Southwest. Volume: 42. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2000. Page number: 119. © 1999 University of Arizona. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.