Cenote, a natural freshwater jungle oasis found in the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico
Part 1: a ritual blessing of the cenote
Maya and Christian Ritual - Blessing of the Cenote
Typically we focus on destinations and things to do while in Quintana Roo Mexico. This month's story is not so much of what to do, but a glimpse into the customs and life of the people who are … Quintana Roo. It concerns a chance encounter, one that we were honored to attend, to participate in, and most importantly to learn about local tradition and respect for the land that the Maya call home. The jungle, hearth, corn, cenotes, and rain have always been historical essentials for the Maya. And for prosperity, they always give thanks.
Ritual and ceremony continue to play an important role in the traditional customs and daily life of the people of Yucatan. Certain days of the year are celebrated as important religious events, such as Christmas or Easter. Other days are oriented towards more secular celebrations, these being a young lady's 15th birthday or Cinco de Mayo as examples. On rare occasions, one might witness a matchless blend of old Maya and Christian rites during a novena de promesa (loosely translated as a "religious event for a promise"). These can be held at any time of the year, commonly as a semi-private event, for either giving thanks for receiving what was asked for, or for giving thanks prior to receiving requested assistance. Such novenas may involve asking for a blessing and lasting prosperity for a cenote and the surrounding land.
This blessing ceremony is conducted by one or two maestros cantores (a master singer of psalms), often with an apprentice helper in attendance. One might also characterize these men as Maya shamans (h-men in Maya). During the ceremony we were invited to, we did not observe the drinking of balche (a fermented honey beverage) or rum, which is often consumed in large quantities during h-men rituals. Here a large wooden table is constructed and oriented to the cardinal points of the compass. The table is decorated with sacred Plumeria sp. flowers (nicte in Maya), and a small wooden cross on the eastern edge of the table. Twelve gourd bowls of corn gruel (pozole or atole in Spanish; keyem or za in Maya) are arranged on the table. Four bowls are positioned to the north, four to the south, two to complete the pattern of four on the east side of the table, and two bowls placed in the center of the table. Four additional offertory bowls are positioned on the ground to the northeast of the table. An inscribed cross is branded on each bowl, lending even more sanctity to this corn drink offering. To complete the table adornments, a small sprig of two nicte flowers is placed just west of the center bowls of gruel.
The mood of the audience prior to and during the blessing was relaxed and informal. A kettle of chicken stew was being prepared on a fire to one side, while people stood or sat in the shade and carried on hushed conversations. As opposed to a formal service, I was under the impression that this was more of an occasion to enjoy the companionship of others while showing due respect to shaman's supplications.
To begin the ceremony, the principal maestro cantore delivered a short speech, then a prayer in Spanish and Maya, to finally initiate the singing of psalms. Four candles were set alight on the western edge of the table as the singing commenced; a fifth candle was used to ignite each candle. Each maestro cantore and their attendant stood or sat facing the east during the ensuing ceremony. One maestro cantore acted as principal singer while the other lent his voice during the refrain of the psalms. The psalms are in Spanish, although Maya terms supplement the Spanish when addressing the land to be blessed and holy figures (the Sacred Cross, the Son, Mother Mary, the Father, and the Espiritu Santo). Might the five candles be symbols of these spiritual figures? Coals from a nearby fire were gathered on a strip of bark, where incense (copal?) was added. At certain intervals the apprentice helper proceeded counterclockwise (from west, to south, to east, to north) around the table to anoint the table, flowers, cross, and offerings of corn gruel with clouds of smoke from the incense.
The land blessing ritual was over in just under an hour, where each shaman shook the hand of those present. As the bowls of pozole were being offered to the participants, it was time for us to slip away (raw corn flour gruel is not one of my favorite beverages) and continue our explorations on the landowner's property. No doubt that the stew was consumed as well; on our return a few hours later only the table and withered nicte flowers remained as testimony to a service that we were honored to attend. In fact the table still remains untouched in its original position, one month after the ceremony.
Jaguars and cenotes - natural well holes near a cenote
(photo left) Many wild animals come to cenotes to drink, especially at dusk. A Zapote tree by a cenote~cave entrance shows signs of a fresh scrape made by one of the big jungle cats marking this cenote as part of his territory. (photo right) Oozing white sap leaks from the scrape indicating it is fresh. In the past Zapote/Chicle trees were "milked" for their sap which was used as the base ingredient for chewing gum, hence the "chiclets" gum brand name.