Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Reading Maize: A Narrative and Psychological Approach to the Study of Divination in Mesoamerica

Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Reading Maize: A Narrative and Psychological Approach to the Study of Divination in Mesoamerica

Article excerpt

The following article is derived from a recent investigation into the on-going use of a Mesoamerican calendar of 260 days among the Ayöök (Mixe) people of Oaxaca, Mexico1. One of the most interesting revelations during this research was the strong bond between this calendar and divination, in this case with the technique of reading maize seeds. A common demonstration of this bond is when a daykeeper, determining possible "good" or "not good" days affecting illnesses, dreams, presages, or conflictive events, casts maize seeds to confirm a preliminary diagnosis, recover more information, and prescribe the most adequate remedy. These remedies consist of paying respect and ask for favors to divinities, such as It Naaxwin (Earth deity), God, the saints, and ancestors. This article focuses on this divinatory practice in an attempt to describe it and analyze it from two complementary perspectives: narrativity and psychology.

Maize divination represents a tool that helps daykeepers handle the predictions and prescriptions of the 260-day calendar, just as it was used in precolonial times along with other instruments. Among ancient Nahua people from the center of Mexico, there were medicine men and women who made use of divinatory techniques such as casting maize seeds, seeing the reflection of persons through a bowl with water, throwing or pulling ropes with knots, and ingesting hallucinogenic plants to help them cure and find answers to diverse problems2. Among these healers there were the tonalpouhque, whose name literally means "those who read the days" and who used and read folded and colorful painted books called the tonalamatl or "books of the days", which some survivals are now known as Borgia Group codices3. The latest research of these ancient codices has convincingly shown that their pictography is a true writing system composed of images and signs made and interpreted conventionally and read poetically4. This article argues that maize divination among the Ayöök people (and probable other Mesoamerican peoples as well), which is at a certain extent a survival of ancient divinatory and calendrical practices from precolonial times, can be read in a similar way as the codices, although still reflecting its own conventions. Hence the casting of maize provides images that can be read and narrated.

To demonstrate this, the following lines will describe how maize divination works and how its narrations5 are generated. To understand better the development of narratives from images, hereby reading maize seeds will be examined by using the theory of signs and symbols developed by Carl Jung6, in which the signs represent abbreviations of known things and symbols become always open and ambiguous. Notions from narrativity, in particular those of the chronotope and dialogical narratives developed by Mikhail Bakhtin7 will also be used to unveil some principles of divinatory speech and narrations. His ideas allow to understand the importance of time and space in building a logical narrative, in this case for the consultant's life and afflictive situation, as well as to define this type of narratives as a dialogical phenomenon. In addition, it will also be argued that Jung's psychological appreciation of esoteric practices as a means of individuation can also be applied in favor of a therapeutic component to divining with maize. Individuation is a Jungian approach to psychotherapy which refers to the achievement of a greater degree of consciousness of unconscious personal and collective factors that play a role, shape and affect one's life. Therapeutic qualities have already been suggested for the Borgia Group, the tonalpouhque and the Mesoamerican divinatory arts8. In the end of this paper, it will be proposed that maize reading, like other divinatory techniques, provides images (as signs) that can be read as a text (full of symbols), therefore providing a narrative built dialogically by the diviner and the consultant. This may well be considered a therapeutic tool that can ease affliction, bring awareness, and prompt action in critical situations. …

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