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Home arrow Sociology arrow Balancing the World: Contemporary Maya ajq’ijab in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

- Receiving

How some of the interviewees became ajq’ijab

[If our nahuales, the day of birth] say that yes, it is necessary that we become ajq’ijab, then we need to [find] a guia espiritual who is good, who is a teacher, who has studied. And so, he1 has to explain which requisites we need to become an ajq’ijab.

We will then receive the mesa,[1] [2] we will receive the cross,[3] we will receive our nahuales,[4] and a ceremonial outfit and our servilleta,[5] and our 365 beans.[6] - Odilia

After deciding to accept the honour, responsibility and burden of becoming an ajq’ij, the interviewees did so in different ways. The actual process of receiving one’s mesa, vara or cross - that is, becoming an ajq’ij - seems to vary from community to community and from person to person.

Until now, I have presented common ideas that most or all of the interviewees brought up. However, the stories they told me of their initiations were longer, more diverse and more personal in nature. Therefore, instead of trying to show general tendencies, this chapter presents a few selected cases. Here, Teresa,

Odilia, Martin and Carlos look back at their own processes of recognising their don and of their preparation and initiation.


Because she had been an ajq’ij for less than 1.5 years, Teresa still remembered her preparations very well when I met her. She struggled with illness from childhood, and she received crosses to alleviate her problems on several occasions. In her community, receiving crosses is a part of becoming an ajq’ij.

I got sick, I had problems, and a lot of people talked about me. You know, they were gossiping. I was sick, to the point where I was about to die. Someone told me that I would die. And so, as I told you, I didn’t think that I could be an ajq’ij, right?

But the time came when I said “here, but no longer! I don’t want to keep suffering!” And that is what brought me here. I came to where I am today. [---]

When a child is chosen to become an ajq’ij,[7] one will do a work[8] so he or she will not have a bad life. [One does the work] for a cross, one cross. In my case, to become an ajq’ij, I went frequently. First, [I got] one cross, and I was well for a few days. Then I got sick again, and I got another cross, now there were two. And I got sick again, got another cross, now three. And then no, not anymore.[9]

I kept getting sick, though, until they told me “You need to receive,[10] you need to receive! Because your nahual is very strong, it requires it!” And so, after [one receives the fourth cross] one is an ajq’ij.

- Teresa

In addition to the recurring illnesses and the problem of people gossiping about her, Teresa experienced very vivid dreams in which she was flying a lot. These signs convinced several ajq’ijab that she was chosen to become an ajq’ij, but she was not immediately convinced herself.

As mentioned in the previous chapter, Teresa felt she had received instructions from God at that stage. She accepted that she was chosen after God told her who she should listen to. She thinks it was God who healed her by making her an ajq’ij, and sees no contradiction in believing in both Catholicism and Maya spirituality.

Is it possible to combine the practise of an ajq’ij with other religions or beliefs ?

It depends on the mind-set of each person. In my case, yes. [With Catholicism], yes, because I had a very great experience. I did not become ajq’ij because of a very voluntary decision, but rather because of a series of events - like illness, problems, and so on. These [events] influenced me to make me an ajq’ij.

And after [these events occurred] I asked the Lord to - if I was in fact an ajq’ij - that he would tell me whether I actually was on that path. And if I was not, [I asked the Lord] to guide me to where he wanted me to go. And thanks to him, I am who I am [today],

I am well, all [of the illnesses and problems] that I had are now gone. [Before going to the ajq’ij] I went to doctor after doctor, but nothing changed. So yes, I also belong to the Catholic religion.

- Teresa

Teresa explained that in her dream, God had given her the name of an ajq’ij that she needed to talk to. She had several problems at the time, and this ajq’ij would know how she could change her life in a positive direction. With excitement, Teresa told me what happened as she met the man for the first time.

When I arrived [at his house] he [immediately] said “Yes, this is for you. This is for you, you’ll be a curandera.” [...] And he said, “When you receive, this and this will happen" [And I left].

But when I came to [his house a second time] he said “Think this through carefully. This is not a game.” I then told him “I have my mind on this now, I want [to become an ajq’ij], I don’t want to think [about it anymore].” And he said, “I’ll give you some days to think this through, because this is not a game.” “Well, okay then,” I said.

After some days I came to his house once more, and he said “Well, okay then. Your mother and father have to come because we need to go to a certain hill to ask for permission.”

To a hill?

Yes, to a hill. We went, and I started there by asking for permission.

- Teresa

The man became Teresa’s teacher. She went to him for lessons once a week and he would teach her the different tasks and responsibilities of an ajq’ij.

Ceremonies were what I practised the most. He would do the ceremony, and when he started talking, I would follow him. And that’s how I started studying. After that, he would teach me how to read the charts11 and how to read what people callfrijolito.[11] [12] [...]

[But I had to read them] fastly. It’s not like he would explain to me [that it should be done] this way or that way, no. There are some [ajq’ijab] who have systems, like for instance, they will start with the nahuales, right? That, [my teacher] said, is not [how I should do it].

Instead, I should focus on the problem of a person and just go “Aha! Watch this and this!” And so [the solution] reveals itself.” But every [ajq’ij] has her or his own [method].

- Teresa

Because her method of divination is based on intuition rather than a system, the teacher found it necessary to have an exam to determine if she knew what she was doing.

So there sits my teacher with his beans and here I sit with my beans. He says to me “Well, let’s say that this imaginary person [with these features] just came in with a problem. Do me the favour of asking,[13] and I will ask as well. And so I started, right? But he said “don’t talk, it is better if we don’t talk. Write [your result] on some paper, and I’ll do the same”

To see if [the results] coincide?

Yes, to see if they coincide. And he said “If we don’t [write it down] you’ll say that I’m copying what you said, and I’ll say that you’re copying what I said!”

Of course!

And then, [when we looked at the answers], wow! We had the same answer! [...] And then he said, “Yes, this is for you!”

The exam went well.

Yes, that exam was a good one, right? Because every person has her or his own [method]. Although sometimes it depends on how one asks.

- Teresa

After being tested in a variety of tasks, Teresa had a final ceremony with her teacher on a hill near her hometown. Here, she received a fourth cross and finished her training.


Odilia had been an ajq’ij 14 years at the time of the interviews, but the first sign that she was chosen came when she was born.

You see, I was born for this. Because, when I was born, there was a midwife[14] who attended my mother. [...] Back in the days our ancestors[15] were wise, they knew all the secrets, they knew everything about how babies are born. Nowadays, on the other hand, in the hospitals, they don’t know how babies are born. [Odilia laughs]. But earlier, the midwives were wise.

And so, the midwife told my mother “The baby who just was born is a very special woman. Your baby who just was born is a girl who will have a don[16] later [in life].” [...] “Oh, very well,” my mother said, “but what should I do about it?” The midwife said “The girl may need to have a cross or two crosses, she may have them, because she was born for this.” [She knew this because] when I was born, I brought with me the umbilical cord as a cross[17] from birth.

- Odilia

In Odilia’s home, there were four altars next to each other - one for her, one for her brother and one for each of her parents. All of them became ajq’ijab after receiving crosses to alleviate illness.

[A few years passed, and] at the time when I started to walk, I got sick. They said it was ojo.[18] My grandmother told my mother “I don’t know what’s wrong, she won’t get better!” They [tried to] cure me with plants, and nothing [happened]. But I had my great- grandparents,[19] that had lived back in the days, and they told my mother that what I had might be because of my destiny. [They said] that I had to discover my destiny, according to the day I was born.

And so my mother told them which day I was born, and that’s how [my great-grandparents] found out that what was wrong was neither ojo nor any other illness. And they said that what I needed was to receive my [first] cross. And so, since then, I have had my cross. When they gave me a cross, the illness went away.

Later, when I was 12, I got sick again, but with a different illness. I think they said it was mumps. [.] And so, my grandmother said “How is it possible that the girl got this illness, she’s still so young!” [.] My grandfather said the same, [and then he said] “This is not an incurable disease, it has to be something caused by her destiny - she needs to receive another cross!” And so they gave me another cross, and the mumps went away.

- Odilia

Unlike Teresa, who received four crosses, Odilia became an ajq’ij when she received her third cross. However, several of Odilia’s family members have received a fourth cross after they became ajq’ijab, which is seen to strengthen them in their work.[20]

[14 years ago, when I was in my early twenties] I did not have mumps anymore. They put my two crosses here[21] and they did [a complete ceremony for them] with all of the materials [that one uses for a ceremony]. That’s what they did.

Time passed, and the illness came back again, but this time it wasn’t mumps, it was some other problem, with my stomach. And again: I could not sleep at night, I had stomach-aches. They took me to the hospital and to specialist doctors, but they could not cure me. And after that, my father discovered[22] and told my mother that what I had was no illness, but I needed to receive my vara completely. And I needed to do so immediately, because if I did not do it quickly, I could die. [...]

At that time, my grandparents had died [.] and so, my father had started working.[23] My grandfather [had] taught him. And so it passes from one generation [to the next]. [.] So my grandfather had taught my father how to do the ceremony when one receives one’s vara, one’s mesa. That’s how I started. And when I received my tzite, like they say, the mesa, my other cross ... the illness went away.

- Odilia

None of Odilia’s problems returned in the 14 years after she had become an ajq’ij, with one exception: she had become sick when she started neglecting her respon- sibilities.[24] At the time of the interviews, she was in the process of making amends, and she told me she felt better. To Odilia, the fact that she became sick when she stopped practising was the ultimate proof that she was born to be an ajq’ij.


Since Martin did not grow up in Guatemala, he had not even heard of the ajq’ijab until he was an adult. He first met some ajq’ijab when travelling through Central America in the early 1990s.

While I was [travelling in Guatemala] I got to know some people who practised Maya spirituality and I wasn’t particularly looking for ... um, that, at that stage. But I got very interested in what they were telling me about the persecution they faced and the fact that they felt that they didn’t have the same rights that other people had in Guatemala. And by that they meant that they felt that they were very mistreated - publicly and mainly because of misrepresentations of what they did - as being evil paganism, or sin worship, or that sort of thing.

But I started to talk a little about what they did, and I got interested in what they were doing, but more than anything from a rights-based perspective. And for that reason I decided to return to Guatemala and to try and write some articles or a book about their rights.

- Martin

When he was living in Europe, Martin considered himself to be an agnostic. He grew up in a Christian community, but he stopped believing in his teens. When he returned to Guatemala, it was not for religious or spiritual reasons.

It was really a political interest that I had at that stage. And when I did return I started working, [and] little by little I started to talk to a few people who practised their faith. And I guess I was, let’s say, spiritually an outsider at that stage. I didn’t feel I had a faith or a belief of my own at that stage at all. But I started talking to people and found that an awful lot of what they said made an awful lot of sense.

And little by little, as I started accompanying them in what they were doing, in ceremonies and so on, a couple of people started telling me that I really ought to be practising myself - for various reasons - and after their various reasons, I ... I started to have a series of dreams, and those dreams were very ... had an enormous impact on me ... and terrified me. [...]

And I consulted one ajq’ij, first of all, about why I was having the dreams. He said it was part of my calling to become an ajq’ij myself. And I spoke to some others about it and they agreed that that’s what I was supposed to be doing.

Some other ajq’ijab?

Yeah. And so I went through an examination of my own conscience and beliefs and feelings at that stage, and decided that it was true. I didn’t feel it was a choice of accepting whether I believed in something or not, I just felt it to be true.

- Martin

After he had decided to become an ajq’ij, Martin started learning with a K’iche’- speaking teacher. Together, they began a series of preparatory ceremonies in various locations. Martin, Odilia, Isabela and Byron told me that some ajq’ijab can be initiated several times. For Odilia, this was connected to receiving additional crosses. Martin told me that he had had three teachers in total, over a period of a little more than two years. He had different experiences with each of them.

Where were you received?

Originally in [a small K’iche community outside Quetzaltenango], and then I had other processes. [With] one’s teacher one is led to the road, as it were, and then one walks on one’s own. But there are other “levels,” as it were. And in my case I had a subsequent process in [another K’iche community outside Quetzaltenango], and then another in [a Mam community outside Quetzaltenango] with a teacher from Xela.[25] So I had three formal teachers at different times, let’s say. [---]

Could you maybe tell me a little bit more about the process? You mentioned some ceremonies ...

The ceremonies are really where one’s guide or teacher is presenting you to altars, or shrines, and is presenting you to the days of the calendar - so there are different ceremonies on different days. The specific process of how many ceremonies, how long, which days, and so on, really varies from teacher to teacher - there’s no standardised form.

There’s some degree to which there are similar forms, but they’re as far as I can see more or less on municipal level - in one municipality it’s quite a different process from other municipalities - and within that individual teachers and so on are different. For some people it’s about the number of ceremonies, for other people it’s about the length of time, for other people it’s about the indications - let’s say in dreams, or signals in the fire which the teacher or the guide receives during the process itself.

But the common denominator is that one has a guide or a teacher who presents the pupil before the authorities of the world - which are the shrines, and the spirits of the air and the cold, and the spirits of the dead, and the spirits of the days, the nahuales themselves. [The teacher] presents [one], and is very much speaking on one’s behalf - as one’s advocate or as one’s lawyer - asking for permission that this person be received as an ajq’ij. [...]

And like I said, it’s a process that involves the dreams that then are experienced by the pupil and by the teacher during that process. And there are certainly elements during the process where the important thing to do on such and such a day is to present oneself with one’s teacher at a certain shrine. [.] Other times, it’s a question of talking, and trying to understand a little of the calendar, trying to understand a little of the process of divination, or ... different elements such as those. So sometimes it’s a question of spending time with the teacher and chatting, and talking, and other times it’s a ceremonial activity.

So like I said, it varies enormously from person to person. And certainly, some are much more thorough in terms of how they feel someone ought to be prepared as far as the understanding, or the concept, or the intellectual part, as it were, is concerned - in terms of the days, and so on - and for others, no. For others, by far the more important aspect is that one is making one’s presentations before the shrines and before God and the ancestors. And after that, it’s the mystical teaching, [which] can’t be transmitted by a guide - it’s the experience of the pupil, of the person who is going to receive.

That’s the kind of process I had - and the processes must be fairly similar, in terms of those basic elements, for just about everybody. There are all sorts of variations in terms of people’s experiences of what point in their life they might become an ajq’ij, and what needs to happen to them beforehand, [...] but it’s certainly common for people to have gone through some very negative life experiences before accepting that this is what they have to do.

- Martin

Like most of the other interviewees,[26] Martin had struggled with negative life experiences on his own. Before his training, he had had problems with nightmares and depression. Because this is so common, and because the work as an ajq’ijab can be a burden,[24] he is surprised by the number of new ajq’ijab in recent years.

Nowadays there are a lot of people who are received as ajq’ijab, and not necessarily because they have the calling, to be honest, and it’s something that’s of some concern, at least to a lot of elders. It used to be taken a lot more seriously I think, at least from what people tell me. It was never anything that anybody would want to do. It’s far too big a responsibility, and carries all sorts of consequences if one doesn’t respect it properly.

And it used to be that if someone was told that they had this calling to be an ajq’ij, it was something they would really try to avoid - through ceremonies, paying fines as it were, before God - and really just accepting it if they saw that there was no other way to cope with the burden of their calling. So to that extent it’s certainly not a career choice

  • - certainly not by anybody who understands what it implies. Like I said, there’s some concern nowadays that some people [aren’t] taking it seriously enough.
  • - Martin

Both Martin and several other interviewees stress that even though they have finished their training with a teacher and have become ajq’ijab, they have not finished learning. To Martin, his initiation ceremony was a beginning rather than an ending. Because so much of the work of an ajq’ij is practical in nature, experience gathered over time is considered very important.

When one becomes an ajq’ij I think there’s ... It’s really just in some ways the start of the process. It’s certainly a process whereby there’s not an awful lot of formal academic examination of theology, let’s say. [You] have a guide or a teacher who teaches you and puts you on the road - and once you’re on that road, then you’re walking it yourself.

So there’s an incubation period where you have become formally an ajq’ij but you’re a long way away from God still - or at least that’s how it was in my experience, and is for others as well, but maybe not for everybody. So it’s really a very long process - like I said, there’s a starting point which you can reach with one’s teacher, but after that it’s really walking the path on one’s own that takes you a little closer to the sacred or to the spiritual. And I think that’s still the road I’m walking at the moment, you know?

- Martin


The story Carlos told me took place in the 1940s. At the time, he was only 13 years old, and like most of the other interviewees he had suffered from illness since childhood. Like Martin, he was also troubled with terrible dreams. Even though he was sick, he needed to work in the fields. One day, while working, he received a sign.

Well, you see. As you know, there are snakes in the world. And so, when I was out working in a spot up in this hill [Carlos points to a hill right outside the house], suddenly a snake came to me. It wound itself around my hand. It was about this big [ Carlos shows us about 30 cm with his hands]. So that happened.

Did it bite you?

No, no, no. It only wrapped itself around my hand. Later, I went to gather some brushwood at another spot. And again, the snake came and wrapped itself around my leg. And then the pain stopped.

- Carlos

Carlos was cured from his illnesses for a while after encountering the snake. His parents found this to be extraordinary. They were both ajq’ijab themselves and suspected that this might mean that Carlos was chosen. They decided to seek another ajq’ij to get a second opinion.

Back then, my mother and father were alive. They went to put a question[28] with [an ajq’ij]. So, they did it, and the man said “[Carlos] has his power, he will be [an ajq’ij]’.’ And that is where it started for me.

- Carlos

Carlos’ father became his teacher, and would do his preparatory ceremonies for him. At the time, Carlos had become sick again, and so the father would go to the sacred places in the hills alone.

My father went to ask permission from God, from the shrines, from the rivers, from the sacred places where the shrines are. Because he did that, I got a little bit better. My dreams stopped for a little while; the dreams that were bothering me. In the end, they went away completely.

- Carlos

Despite the relief brought by his father’s ceremonies, Carlos was severely ill by the time the preparations had been done for him. But he would need to participate in the last ceremony to become an ajq’ij and be cured for his illness. Getting out of bed and to the ceremony was very difficult for him.

Now I was on the verge of dying, because I had not received yet. And suddenly, it hit me right - oh, God! - and I turned pale.[29] I could not eat because of what was affecting me.

But, because of my [vara] ... I fought to receive it. And it cooled me.[30]

You were cured when you received your vara?

Exactly. Yes, it cured me.

- Carlos

Carlos, like nearly all of the interviewees gave me the impression that being an ajq’ij was not something they had wanted initially. For many, the choice had been between becoming an ajq’ij or live with suffering. In some cases, the alternative to becoming an ajq’ij was death.

  • [1] Odilia’s teacher was a man, but both male and female ajq’ijab can teach.
  • [2] The altar is often called the mesa, ‘table.’ The mesa is also often referred to as the spiritual spouse, and the ceremony where one receives it is the spiritual marriage. See alsoChapter 6 above.
  • [3] People can receive crosses to ward off illness. Among the Mam-speaking interviewees, like Odilia, receiving four crosses may make one an ajq’ij. See also Chapter 7above and some of the stories in this chapter.
  • [4] Odilia had several small objects, mostly small stones, on her altar. These representedher day of birth and other nahuales that were important to her.
  • [5] Literally ‘napkin’ or ‘towel.’ The servilleta is a folded piece of cloth that many ajq’ijabwear on their head during ceremonies. Several ajq’ijab also have special clothes thatthey wear for ceremonies.
  • [6] The tzite beans are often called the vara, ‘staff’ (of office). The term vara mayalso refer to the mesa and everything that comes with it, or the role of being anajq’ij itself. The tzite beans are used for divinations, and the number used variesfrom community to community and from person to person. See also Chapter 5above.
  • [7] Here: if they have problems, especially if they struggle with illness.
  • [8] A ceremony.
  • [9] After three crosses, the ajq’ij Teresa visited would not give her more crosses. In hercommunity, receiving a fourth cross means becoming an ajq’ij oneself. They neededto be sure that she was chosen, and she needed to be willing to become an ajq’ij, beforethey could give her a fourth cross.
  • [10] Receive a cross. Here: Become an ajq’ij.
  • [11] The charts showing how dates in the Maya short-count calendar correspond to theGregorian calendar. Thus helps one to figure out the nahual, that is, the name andnumber of each day.
  • [12] Literally ‘small bean.’ Divination with tzite beans is sometimes referred to as “readingthe small bean” or “small beans.”
  • [13] Do a divination.
  • [14] Comadrona, a traditional birth attendant. This particular midwife was also Odilia’sgrandmother.
  • [15] Keep in mind that the original word used, abuelos, can mean both ‘ancestors’ and‘grandparents.’
  • [16] ‘Gift’ or ‘calling.’
  • [17] The umbilical cord had been entangled in a cross-shape across her body during birth.
  • [18] Literally ‘eye.’ It is believed in many communities that babies can become sick if somebody, especially strangers, look at them. Ojo or mal de ojo is sometimes translated as‘the evil eye,’ but this translation can be misleading, as it is believed that the illness cantransfer to the baby from the person without her or him knowing or intending it. Thismeans that the person may only mean well, but have an energy that is too strong forthe baby to handle. See also Hart, Ancient Spirituality: 128 f.
  • [19] The great-grandparents were also ajq’ijab.
  • [20] I return to this below.
  • [21] The crosses were placed on the altar of her grandfather, which used to be where thefour altars of the current residents are situated.
  • [22] He did a divination. As mentioned, Odilia’s father is also an ajq’ij.
  • [23] As an ajq’ij. Odilia’s father was her teacher after this.
  • [24] See Chapter 6 above.
  • [25] A local name for Quetzaltenango.
  • [26] See Chapter 7 above and the other stories in this chapter.
  • [27] See Chapter 6 above.
  • [28] A divination.
  • [29] Carlos fell unconscious for a moment, and his parents thought he was dead. He cameto himself after a while, but he still had a very bad fever.
  • [30] His fever dropped.
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