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Insiders from outside

In more recent times, things seem to have changed a little, and from what I was told, many Maya may feel that they are presented “better” nowadays.[1] Maybe as a response to critique, several researchers - and I must admit, with this text, I am one of them - have tried to present the Maya and the ajq’ijab on their own terms. This is often done by letting them “speak freely” through direct quotations and trying to present an “insider” perspective. I will present three examples of such works.[2]

Barbara Tedlock’s book Time and the Highland Maya[3] is probably one of the most influential works on the subject. In this book, Tedlock focuses primarily on the Maya calendars and the importance of time itself in Maya practise and belief. With her husband Dennis Tedlock, she lived and worked with ajq’ijab in the Momostenango area in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She published the book in 1982, and then did new work which led to a highly revised edition in 1992.

Another example of presenting an insider view is Jean Molesky-Poz’s book Contemporary Maya Spirituality.[4] However, to a large extent, Molesky-Poz does not present her material as the viewpoints of her interviewees, but rather as objective truth. I feel it is important to avoid the trap that Molesky-Poz falls into, in that she assumes that her interviewees represent a coherent system of Maya beliefs and practises. She has interviewed a limited number of people in Zunil, and presents interesting and valuable insight into their thoughts and practises. But then she assumes that their practises are nearly direct continuations of the practises of the lowland Maya of Peten, whose culture traditionally is said to have declined and disappeared about 1000 years ago. She also nearly ignores the Mexican influence on the Guatemalan highland Maya[5] in the years following the decline of the lowland Maya, and she does not mention that we actually do not know when or where the contemporary practises arose. These assumptions and exclusions may be problematic.


My last example of insider perspectives presented by non-Guatemalans is The Ancient Spirituality of the Modern Maya by Thomas Hart.[6] This is one of the books that inspired me to embark on this project, and Hart has does a lot of what I wanted to do myself. By presenting long excerpts from interviews with more than 50 people, he manages to give the reader both a general insight in Maya spirituality as well as a glimpse of the diversity that exists.

Tedlock and Hart share something which probably has had a very important impact on their work: they have been initiated as ajq’ijab themselves. This may give them unique insight and knowledge that I cannot presume to achieve. But it may also be problematic, as the insider-perspective of their interviewees, which they seek to convey, may be coloured by their own ideas. I, too, want to present insider perspectives, but I want to do it while trying to maintain an outsider position. As such, the perspectives I present may be called emic, following Kenneth Pike.[7] Since I am not an ajq’ij myself, I hope to be able to present the views of all my interviewees equivalently, as I do not have a marked opinion of what is “correct” and what is not.

  • [1] This may in part be due to a recent emergence of Maya groups and their work torestore pride in Maya culture and heritage. See also Chapter 2 below.
  • [2] In addition to the three books mentioned below, I have also found two others veryinteresting. The Modern Maya by Macduff Everton is primarily an art book containing beautiful photography, but also some very interesting observations on the contemporary Maya in Mexico. The Book of Destiny is a popular book written by theajq’ij Carlos Barrios for a Northern American and European audience as an “insider’sexplanation” of the 2012 phenomenon. Although it does not hold academic standards, it has some very good explanations of the Maya calendars. Macduff Everton, TheModern Maya: A Culture in Transition (Albuquerque, NM: University of New MexicoPress, 1991); Carlos Barrios, The Book of Destiny: Unlocking the Secrets of the AncientMayans and the Prophecy of 2012 (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2009).
  • [3] Barbara Tedlock, Time and the Highland Maya, 2 ed. (Albuquerque, NM: Universityof New Mexico Press, 1992).
  • [4] Jean Molesky-Poz, Contemporary Maya Spirituality: The Ancient Ways are not Lost(Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2006).
  • [5] Cf. Coe, The Maya: 207-210.
  • [6] Thomas Hart, The Ancient Spirituality of the Modern Maya (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2008).
  • [7] Russell T. McCutcheon, The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion, Controversies in the Study of Religion (London: Cassell, 1999): 17, 28-36. See also the restof this book for more on the insider/outsider problem.
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