Excerpt: Xurt’an

The following is an excerpt from Xurt’an: The End of the World and Other Myths, Songs, Charms, and Chants by the Northern Lacandones of Naha’ (August 2019) by Suzanne Cook, the latest book in the Native Literatures of the Americas and Indigenous World Literatures series.

 

Introduction

On December 21, 2012, throngs of tourists stood at the foot of classic Mayan monuments waiting for the end of the world. The last day of the 5,200-year Maya Long Count calendar was about to expire, marking the end of time. Despite the apocalyptic alarm bells, the xurtʼan came and went without incident, and the next day dawned just like any other. In dignified silence Mayan shamans packed up their paraphernalia, and somewhat disappointed,the crowds dispersed.

But for the shamans, as it is for all Mayas, the xurtʼan signifies both the end of the world and its rebirth. The apocalyptic connotation of the term derives from its twofold meaning. The literal translation is ‘the end of speech’ and in this context alludes to worship. The sweet words of the mortals sustain the gods, who in turn maintain the momentum and order of the universe. Self-preservation motivated the gods in the past to destroy the world and its neglectful mortals and replace it with a new creation with better mortals who would nourish and adore them.

This belief traces its origin to the Creation story, in which the gods spoke the world into existence. They tried several times to create sentient beings who would acknowledge their work and venerate them. When their creations failed to do so, they destroyed the world and started over. After three failed attempts they finally succeeded in creating respectful, sentient beings out of maize. Their venerations sustained the world in a reciprocal agreement between themselves and their creators.

Xurtʼan is also on the minds of the Lacandones. Numbering fewer than four hundred men, women, and children, they were the last Mayas to have practiced the religion of the ancient Mayas. They survived the Conquest intact, while all other Mayas were exterminated or forced into Catholic mission towns. The Lacandones call themselves hach winik ‘True People’, but to the Spanish they were the Lacandones, an exonym that derives from the Mayan phrase meaning ‘those who set up (and worship) stone’. The conquistadors applied the label to all indomitable heathens who had fled into the frontier of southeastern Chiapas and the Guatemalan Petén. Concealed under the canopy of the forest, the fugitives dispersed their homesteads and continued to propitiate their gods well into the twentieth century. By 1970 the hach winik had all but dissolved into legend.

The demise of the hach winik was prophesied by their last religious leader, Chan K’in Viejo. Burgeoning colonization in the forest had forced the semi-nomadic Lacandones into settlements; deforestation, a shrinking arable land base, and a lack of privacy to conduct their rituals hampered their ability to continue their traditional way of life. The religious contexts for transmitting the traditions disappeared, and, one by one, families shelved their incensories, portals of communication to the gods.

Shortly after his death in 1996, Chan Kʼin’s prophesy was borne out when his wives dismantled his temple and replaced it with a church. His eldest son declined to succeed him, leaving Antonio Martinez, now in his nineties, as the only one left to propitiate the gods on behalf of the world. The day that he dies will be the day that the world comes to an end.

Lacandon is an oral culture, which means that knowledge, ideology, and values are passed on through speech, and hence it requires the cultural contexts in which to communicate the traditions. Having lost the religious and attendant social contexts, Lacandon myths, chants, songs, women’s work songs, and medical incantations have lost their relevance to the community. But they are not yet forgotten.

 

Xurtʼan is a collection of oral literature from the northern Lacandones of Nahaʼ. Texts were recorded and transcribed in the community between 2000 and 2015 with help from fluent Lacandon speakers who possessed extensive knowledge of their traditional myths, rituals, songs, and magical charms.

The book is organized into six parts. The first chapter in part 1 introduces the Lacandones, their language, and the historical context within which they emerged as an identifiable ethnic group. This is followed by an ethnographic sketch of their traditional culture and cosmovision. This sketch is meant to establish a context for the Lacandon texts, and the reader will find a wealth of information on Lacandon society, culture, religion, and history. There are numerous references to technical articles, books, research papers, and documentary efforts.

The second chapter describes Lacandon oral literature and compares it with the literary conventions and rhetoric of the ancient Maya. Oral literature is a form of creative language, sharing with written forms the distinctive literary techniques and devices that exploit language at every linguistic level. It differs from written literature in that it only emerges during performance and constitutes an event. In this section, Lacandon literary style—word choice, sentence structure, figurative language, and sentence arrangement—is revealed and compared to ancient Mayan literary style. Lacandon genres are explored as well.

Parts 2 through 6 present the Lacandon texts, organized into genres: parts 2 and 3 divide traditional narratives into myths (part 2) and “popular stories” (part 3), so called because the term “folk tale” still carries negative connotations. Part 4 presents songs, part 5 ritual speech. Part 6 includes three Lacandon descriptions of meteorological and astral phenomena.

The division into myths and “popular stories” is based on the content of the narratives. Myths deal with stories of creation and the origin and development of humanity. They take place in mythic time and involve the gods and ancestors from the distant past. In most cases they are believed to be true. “Popular stories” are fictive, involving animals and supernatural, usually malevolent beings, and are typically cautionary tales.

These narratives were collected as individual texts over a period of fifteen years, and it is unclear whether the Lacandones would impose a chronological order on them. The sequence presented here was determined by the author.

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