Home Sociology Balancing the World: Contemporary Maya ajq’ijab in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
- Common terms
Before presenting the ajq’ijab and their work, I will briefly discuss some of the terms that I use when presenting the material, including “ajq’ij” “Maya spirituality," and some key concepts that the interviewees tended to refer to in our conversations. I will also use the opportunity to discuss why I have chosen to use Maya spirituality, and to discuss what I mean by that term. My choice of terms is largely based on the choices made by the interviewees, and therefore I see this discussion as fitting within the empirical part of this text.
Look, religion is like ... like a compromise, it’s coloured. But spirituality is a conviction, it’s general, it’s not partisan, not specified, it’s more open.
During my fieldwork, I encountered a problem. My interviewees were all ajq’ijab themselves or closely connected to the ajq’ijab - a group of people that normally fits within the religious specialists-category one often finds within the comparative study of religion. Yet it was clear from the start that calling what they were working with religion, ‘religion,’ simply would not do.
In Guatemala, both among the interviewees and other people that I met, well- known terms are used in a different way than they often are within the study of religion. In everyday language, religion often means Christianity, especially Catholicism.1 Culto, ‘cult (meeting),’ is used to talk about an Evangelical meeting or Protestantism2 in general, and espiritualidad, ‘spirituality,’ can mean almost everything 
else. Some terms, like brujeria, ‘witchcraft,’ and chamanismo, ‘shamanism,’ are mostly used by people outside of Maya spirituality when talking about the work of ajq’ijab. Some, especially evangelical missionaries, use these terms derogatory - but for others they are simply used because those are the names they know. The terms brujo or bruja, ‘witch,’ are also used within Maya spirituality about people who are thought to do ceremonies or other work with bad or harmful intentions. Such a person is often called ajitz and is seen as an opposite to the ajq’ij.
Even though we, within the study of religion, may not have been able to define such concepts to a satisfactory degree, most of us still have a certain feeling about what religion and spirituality are and what they are not. To me, the idea of ‘religion’ meaning (Catholic) Christianity, for example, therefore seemed a little strange, but nonetheless I had to adapt to this way of thinking to be able to understand the interviewees. When I asked Martin - as one non-native speaker of Spanish to another - what he thought I should call “the Maya” in this text, he told me he had found that one word will evoke different associations if translated into Spanish from, for instance, English:
It’s a very different thing for me personally to speak of Dios or God. It’s a very different thing for me to hear the term creencia or use the term belief in English. They just have very different social contexts that have informed what they represent when we hear them.
But that’s just an initial observation, so let’s say Maya spirituality is what I practise, and if you have a slip of the tongue and say Maya religion or Maya beliefs I have no objection to that and I don’t find them at all offensive, but they’re less acceptable in Spanish than in English, in the Guatemalan context.
Manuel had an interesting way of defining what “the Maya” is. First, he postulated that the whole world is divided in a material and a spiritual realm. Then, he called the whole “Maya sphere” - of culture, politics, society, anything - “the Maya Cosmology” or the “Maya Cosmovision”. Within this big area of everything Maya, we find the Maya material world and the Maya spirituality. But just looking for the spiritual part is wrong:
The Maya Cosmology is, socio-economically, socio-politically and socio-culturally, an alternative. But, that’s Maya Cosmology, it’s not just spiritual. Only ... listen, to only look for the spiritual, and like the Christians say, “The more masses you go to, the bigger your reward, the more you pray The Lord’s Prayer, the more ...” No, that’s just quantity, just keeping appearances.
When Manuel speaks about colouring in the quote initiating this section, he sees the spiritual as a “layer” covering the entire world. When someone takes part of this layer and colours it, tweaks is with their own ideas and their own system, they create a religion:
The Maya cosmology, or rather, the spiritual part of it, is open, is integral. And the religious is something coloured, partisan, maybe subject to manipulation by the interests that created it. That’s why someone said, in their time, that religion is the opium of the people, a taming of the masses.
Even though Manuel thought it wrong to just look at the spiritual aspect, I felt that it was natural for me to do just that. I wanted to study the ajq’ijab and their work, which normally is connected to this part of what Manuel calls the Maya Cosmology. Still, this division is an artificial one, and it is important to keep in mind that the interviewees probably do not have a clear dividing line between “the spiritual” and everything else.
It seemed to me that most of the interviewees had not put as much thought into definitions as had Manuel, but in the way they talked about definitions (if and when they did), they would have a similar idea of dividing the world, so to speak. Most would simply see the spirituality as an integrated part of a whole that they called “tradition,” “customs” or simply “the Maya” - more or less like Manuel’s “Cosmology”. I did not want to use “tradition” or “customs” myself, because they would be too wide categories. The Maya traditions or customs incorporate a lot of aspects such as food, clothing, music, politics and history. All of these are interesting aspects, and they may have a spiritual component, but they also incorporate a lot of components that hold little or no relevance for the purposes of my project.
The one thing the interviewees did have in common, however, was that if they did divide “tradition,” “customs” or “the Maya” into smaller parts, they used the word espiritualidad when talking about anything non-material. As mentioned, nearly all of them were also of the opinion that religion was something else, normally a synonym for Christianity, especially Catholicism. One of these is Juan.
I have no religion. [...] I don’t practise Christianity, in other words, I have no religion.
The Maya is not religion.
What is it?
It’s philosophy. The “Maya religion” is not a religion, it is philosophy. In Guatemala,
as ajq’ijes, we are spiritual guides.
[If they are spiritual guides,] can I also use the word “spirituality,” or [just] “philosophy?”
Yes, both of them. We are dualists. We’re not monists like in the Christian religion.
When I have chosen to use spirituality for the thoughts and practises of the people I have interviewed, it is simply because this is the direct English translation of the word most of them use themselves. Also, since nearly all of them translated ajq’ij into guia espiritual, ‘spiritual guide,’ when speaking Spanish, it felt reasonable to say that spirituality was their area of profession. The use of guia espiritual was rather consistent, but for spirituality itself, other terms are sometimes also used; such as philosophy, cosmology, cosmogony, cosmovision, tradition, customs and, also, religion; but out of these, spirituality, customs and tradition are the only terms that no interviewees have objected to. As discussed earlier, tradition or customs would be too wide categories for the purpose of this text, and so the only remaining term is spirituality.
Spirituality, of course, is itself a term with a long history of problems of definition. A discussion of this history belongs elsewhere, as my decision to use it is based not on how it has been used before, but on the use of it by my interviewees. Based on what the interviewees think of and talk about when they use the word espiritualidad, my research, in part, may contribute to a redefinition of what spirituality can mean and what it does mean in certain contexts.
As with ajq’ij, a term which I will discuss further down, I considered using a Maya term instead of spirituality. I asked some of the interviewees if such a term existed, but most of them could only think of Spanish terms such as tradition, costumbre or espiritualidad. Martin mentioned the K’iche’ term kojonik, which he translated into “religion, spirituality, belief [...] all of those things” I ended up not using this term because it would feel a little forced since only one of the interviewees had mentioned it, and because not all of the interviewees were K’iche’-speakers. I do not know if this term would be acceptable to Mam- speakers as well.
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