A Lost World on the Map

Cave, City, and Eagle's Nest: An Interpretive Journey Through the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan No. 2

edited by Davíd Carrasco and Scott Sessions
University of New Mexico Press, 479 pp., $65.00

About two thirds of the way through Cave, City, and Eagle’s Nest, a new book of descriptions and interpretations of a sixteenth-century indigenous painting from central Mexico, the historian of religion Vincent James Stanzione describes at some length a four-day voyage of initiation in the mid-1990s, on which he accompanied twenty-two young Maya men from their highland community on the beautiful shores of Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, to the lush lowlands and back again. All along the way, he reports, the pilgrims stopped for prayer, reflection, and ceremonial drinking at the very same spots where their fathers and forefathers before them had prayed and offered sacrifices.

The young men, who were members of a cofradía— traditional organizations that are linked to the Catholic Church but are devoted to a community’s own religious practice—started their trip with empty carrying frames strapped on their backs. On their arrival in the tropics they stole into lowland orchards to stage a symbolic hunt for fruit. Now pregnant, as Stanzione puts it, with their bounty, they began the punishing hike back to Santiago Atitlán. At the entrance to the village, as some of them cried with exhaustion and relief, they were welcomed by their young brides, whom they would be able to lie with now that they were men, able to offer the gift of their own fertility, as embodied in the fruit.

It is a beautiful story, beautifully told, but should any reader feel inspired by it to travel to a Maya community in order to serve an apprenticeship there in the deep ceremonies of life, Stanzione warns:

Now that paved highways have been built [from Atitlán to the tropics], now that most of the town’s residents are Evangelical Protestants, now that the cofradía system is all but dead, now that marriage is not as important to the people of Santiago as it once was, this “costumbre” or ritual of bringing home the fruit is no longer performed.1

Stanzione, who arrived in Santiago Atitlán some twenty years ago and has lived there since, is fortunate to have been present for the last enactments of a ritual strongly rooted in the preHispanic past, for it is precisely in the decades that he has been in Guatemala that, after centuries of existence, the cofradía system has finally collapsed. It embodied a vision of the order and place of things and humans in the world, with such strong roots in the pre-Hispanic past that epigraphers, like the groundbreaking Linda Shele, have been able to use Maya communities’ rituals and daily practice to decipher pictograms carved in stone a thousand years ago.

The drastically increased rate of change is being felt not only in Guatemala: the religious vision, languages, dress, forms of production, daily round of duties, and network of obligations that bound together the Tzeltal, Otomí, Guaraní, Araucano, Inuit, Arhuaco, Ianomame, Ayoreo, Rarámuri, Kolla, Navajo, Arara, and Ojibway, to name a few, have been losing ground like the ice on the North Pole. Soon our…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.