Mayan Oral Tradition

The Mayan Oral Tradition: A Verbal Art at Risk

There are many variables contributing to the endangerment of the Mayan oral tradition. First and foremost, the elders are dying and legends aren’t being passed down to the next generation. This means that the next generation won’t be able to continue to pass on the oral tradition to their children and their children’s children. For a culture to thrive, this is a necessity.  Another contributing factor is that the younger generation isn’t self-identifying with their native Mayan language. Maya parents are speaking in Spanish to their children rather than in their first language in the hope that this will provide better opportunities for them to succeed in the world. These instincts are reinforced by the fact that “bilingual” education classes are taught in Spanish. Sadly, the message for “success” is to: speak Spanish; listen to Spanish radio stations; go to school and receive an education in Spanish; forsake your Mayan culture; forsake your Mayan first language; and often, forsake your traditional Mayan clothing.

How can we help to revitalize this vital Mayan oral tradition?
The Dance of the Deer, Deer Dancers
Deer Dancers with Marimba, Photo by Ava Berinstein, 1978, Cobán, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

Translation of Laj Xajol Kej, “The Dance of the Deer”

“The Dance of the Deer” legend was told to me by Francisco Choco’oj Paau in 1978 during my fieldwork in Cobán. The translations and the art of story-telling itself help to convey Mayan language and culture. These stories and legends play a central role in community life and the revitalization of Mayan language and culture through Maya verbal art; a tradition that is at risk of extinction. This Q’eqchi’ – English  translation of the “Dance of the Deer” is from the Berinstein 2013 “Q’eqchi’ Narrative Collection.” The verses in the translation help to illustrate the poetic structure of the text through the use of couplets.  Couplets, as a literary mechanism, have been attested in hieroglyphic inscriptions and codices dating back to the Classic and Postclassic periods (A.D. 250 – 1500).

Enjoy the legend!

Mayan Rituals

Translation and video of Resil li aawk  sa’ li k’aleb’aal, “How to Plant Corn”

The narrative describing “How to Plant Corn” was told to me by Carlota Yalibat in 1978 during my fieldwork in Cobán. Traditional Maya farmers continue to perform sacred customs and rituals before planting corn, before picking the crop , and after the crop is picked. These traditions are passed down from generation to generation; usually from one’s father, or grandfather.

In the translation of this text, Carlota mentions that the farmer must go to the center of the cleared field and and plant the seeds in the form of a cross. The true significance of this stems from the cosmological reference to the four astrological points:  East – West and North -South. Once putting the seeds in these four points, it does indeed form the shape of a “cross.” The origin of the practice, according to Victor Cal, a Maya educator at Tumul K’in, is related to the Maya calendar and relates to the four directions and their corresponding relationship to the elements needed to produce a good crop, e.g. East- fire, West- earth, North- air/wind, and South- water.

Sometimes, traditions are practiced over and over, “because it is the way it has always been done; it is the way of our father, and our father’s father; and it is how we were taught.” The reason behind the symbolism however, may sometimes be obscured as religious symbols, like crosses, become more prevalent in the (modern)culture.

Enjoy the video and narrative!

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