"To Join the Waters": Indexing Metonymies of Territoriality in Cora Ritual

Article excerpt

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.


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. …