Masks of the Maya

Cosmology, the Zapatistas, and indigenous Maya power

Subcomandante Marcos in the Chiapas hills, 1996. Photo by Jose Villa
Subcomandante Marcos in the Chiapas hills, 1996. Photo by Jose Villa

At the end of 1993, a now-classic re-assessment of the nature and fate of Maya religion and cosmology was published: Linda Schele, David Freidel and Joy Parker’s Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. Central to the book’s argument is the idea that ancient Maya society was a complex tangle of hierarchy and social unity, and that the mythical threads which wove Maya society together had – to an extent not previously realised – survived, scattered among the descendants of this once-great civilisation.

Just a few months later, a gutsy and seminal real-life expression of Maya heritage and indigenous self-affirmation erupted on the streets of towns in Chiapas, a southeastern Mexican state that’s home to a large percentage of the Maya people of this country. Timed to coincide with the coming into effect of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on January 1 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN, or Zapatistas), wearing their now iconic black ski masks, seized many towns in the region, liberated prisoners from the jail in San Cristóbal de las Casas, and resisted the attempts by the army to suppress them for nearly two weeks. They failed to kick off the Mexican revolution that was their initial goal, but subsequent dialogue with government secured some advances for the autonomy of Maya and other indigenous communities in Mexico.

Their struggle is, of course, ongoing. Agreements with the government in 1996 were followed in 1997 by the slaughter, by right-wing paramilitaries, of 45 pacifist Maya Zapatista supporters (including many children and pregnant women) in a prayer meeting.1 But their early adoption of the internet as a platform for communication and media attention, and their sophisticated utopian agenda, captured the imagination of activists around the world, and foregrounded indigenous rights in Mexico.

As with the currently contested TTIP agreement, NAFTA gave corporations the right to sue governments of member states if they thought regulations hurt their bottom line. The ‘freedom’ the agreement deals with is the freedom for corporations to ride roughshod over the interests of people – especially those, like indigenous peasants, with little to no voice in global politics. As the social and environmental destructiveness of this kind of policy becomes more evident, and as the mendacious greed of corporations in a context of deregulation is progressively exposed, the message of the Zapatistas can only resonate for greater numbers of people.

I introduced the Zapatistas by mentioning the coincidental timing of the publication of Maya Cosmos because this book is underpinned by an acute and sympathetic awareness of the situation of the contemporary Maya. The authors’ main argument is that in their customs and rituals, the Maya today retain significant embers of tradition that still glow with pride all these centuries after the great furnace of Classic Maya civilisation burned itself out. Further, they believe that since these poor peasants maintain practices and beliefs that can be related to the grand archaeological remnants of their city-dwelling forebears, there must have been a ‘shared worldview and cosmology that reached from the bottom of society to its very top.’2 The book is peppered with personal accounts of contemporary Maya ceremonies, bearing clear traces of Classic Maya mythology. The authors also detail their efforts to share their findings with Maya people in workshops – learning from them, in turn, more about how surviving languages and ideas echo the pre-Columbian past. While there are no overt political statements, Freidel concludes by stating that ‘all our Maya friends who have shared their world with us stand prepared to defy the fate that tried to reduce their people to obscurity, and we will stand with them.’3 Even if this declaration were not immediately followed by the explosive Zapatista insurrection, these are heavily political words – stemming from a passion and commitment to the human realities of their discipline that is an admirable complement to their academic achievements.

However, there are interesting dissonances and ambiguous harmonies in the space between Schele, Freidel and Parker’s eagerness to root the dignity of present-day Maya in their ancestors’ civilisation, and the ideological tone of the Zapatistas. The Zapatistas are radically democratic and egalitarian; and while they’re firmly rooted in Maya identity, the contrast between their inclusive egalitarianism and the starkly stratified theocracy of Classic Maya society naturally means that these roots are complex.

There seems to be very little discussion of ancient Maya social structure in the context of the Zapatista rebellion. One anthropologist who has explored this area, Gary Gossen, highlights a fascinating passage in a 1994 communiqué from the Zapatista’s Clandestine Indigenous Revolutionary Committee (CCRI). This group is composed of 23 indigenous Maya comandantes and their spokesman Subcomandante Marcos, ever-masked but known to be a non-Maya from the middle classes of Mexico City. An early paragraph in the communiqué states:

Our path was always that the will of the many be in the hearts of the men and women who command. The will of the majority was the path on which he who commands should walk. If he separates his step from the path of the will of the people, the heart who commands should be changed for another who obeys. Thus was born our strength in the jungle, he who leads obeys if he is true, and he who follows leads through the common heart of true men and women. Another word came from afar so that this government was named and this word gave the name ‘democracy’ to our way that was from before words travelled.4

Of course the Zapatistas of recent decades hark back to the armed group led by Emiliano Zapata, who fought for land reform for Mexican peasants and played a major role in the revolution of 1910–1920. But these words seem to delve deeper, claiming a form of bottom-up leadership for pre-Columbian Mexico. Are they trying to reach past the overt pyramidal hierarchy of the Classic Maya (and, for the most part, other indigenous Mexican civilisations), trying to reach something of the spirit in which Schele, Freidel and Parker believe Maya culture bound the upper and lower strata of society together? Are they trying to capture the social shamanic essence of the Maya king – the pinnacle of social power who was meant above all to serve the community in his role as a cosmic conduit and spiritual performance artist?

Gossen also makes reference to a part of the creation myth in the K’iche’ epic Popol Vuh, a passage which he believes is ‘a central idea, perhaps the central idea, in Maya epistemology.’5 In the narrative, the gods, after numerous failed attempts, finally manage to create humans – beings capable of praising and worshipping them. However, these humans could see and know everything, just as the gods could, which intimidated them. So they altered their creation a little.

And when they changed the nature of their works, their designs, it was enough that their eyes be marred by the Heart of the Sky. They were blinded as the face of a mirror is breathed upon. Their eyes were weakened. Now it was only when they looked nearby that things were clear.6

Here, the Heart of the Sky – that is, the north celestial pole – possesses an association with the eye found in other cultures.7 But (perhaps because during the time of the early Maya there was no star there, only a vacant darkness?) the connection here is malignant, and human vision is damaged and restricted by it. Gossen comments: ‘reality is opaque; what can be experienced by human perception is seldom the whole picture of what is actually going on; hence, trusted interpreters and leaders are indispensable.’8 In ancient times, the king would have been such an interpreter and leader, someone gifted with an ability to recapture some of our pristine original vision in order to navigate the twists of time and fate. Gossen considers it probable ‘that such clairvoyant skills are attributed to, if not claimed by, the clandestine Indian leadership of EZLN.’9

Another aspect of Maya metaphysics, perhaps the aspect most discussed in relation to the influence of traditional beliefs on the Zapatistas, is the principle of co-essence. Classic glyphs translated as the Maya word way (pronounced like ‘why’, plural wayob) are thought to indicate ‘kings, ritual performers, and gods in their magical alternative forms as animals, stars, and fantastic beasts.’10 These co-essences, or companion spirits, are given to one at birth, and are often revealed in dreams (way also means ‘sleep’ and ‘dream’). They accompany each individual throughout life, and symbolise one’s destiny and power.11 Decorated vases that were once thought to depict bizarre deities are now, after recent advances in deciphering glyphs, thought to show instead the co-essences of Maya lords, dancing in masks and costumes that express their ritual transformation into wayob, the magical beasts that image their souls.12 13  Such iconography has been traced back to Olmec relics from around 1000 BCE. It’s thought that for the Classic Maya, the ability to manifest the power of one’s way was ‘an important marker of elite status.’14 ‘This concept therefore appears to lie … at the center of their theories of statecraft and political legitimacy via shamanic power.’15

Subcomandante Marcos and Comandante Tacho in La Realidad, Chiapas, 1999. Photo by Cesar Bojorquez (CC)
Subcomandante Marcos and Comandante Tacho in La Realidad, Chiapas, 1999. Photo by Cesar Bojorquez (CC)

Now we begin to sense the complex series of transformations that characterise the Zapatistas’ relationship to Classic Maya ideas of leadership, power, and identity. The iconic black ski masks that the EZLN leaders wear in public perhaps have as much to do with the symbolic force of a community’s representative becoming something other than a mundane person as they have to do with pragmatic secrecy. The Maya king was Wakah-Chan, the cosmic axis made flesh in order to act as a medium between the living and the power of the ancestors. His metamorphic masked dance also manifested a penetration of the membrane between this world and the otherworld. Subcomandante Marcos – a non-Maya ‘other’ in the service of the less visible Maya CCRI – acts as a conduit between the Maya insurgents of Chiapas and the wider world, a singular but impersonal representative channelling the power of the media’s global reach to their cause. The ski mask he dons naturally speaks of guerilla struggle. But within the sphere of Maya cosmology it also speaks of transcendence of the mundane ego, of the forces of destiny, and of the fearsome power found when selfish separation from community is abandoned.

Despite (or because of) the mask, Marcos has been criticised for self-aggrandisement. Leadership, even (or especially) that moulded by sophisticated postmodern revolutionary tactics, will always remain ambivalent. But in mobilising against the hydra-headed powers of modern corporatism, the Zapatistas have demonstrated the remarkable ability of contemporary Maya to adapt their heritage in fighting for self-determination. Theatrical shamanic kingship was the way that their ancestors coped with the challenge of holding vast numbers of people together in some form of cohesive society. Masked guerilla insurgency is the way they have recently pushed their desperate plight into contemporary awareness.

Speaking of the lack of an easily identifiable focus to the pan-Indian solidarity movement in Central America, Gossen – as if echoing the old Maya perception of the northern Heart of the Sky as a black void – asks: ‘What is the nature of this empty center? Who or what is the Comandante of Subcomandante Marcos?’16 17 This hidden commander, he concludes, is ‘the emerging collective soul of the modern Maya’.18

However, we must also bear in mind anarchist anthropologist David Graeber’s criticism of the idea that the Zapatistas’ demands are only relevant to an insular struggle for indigenous autonomy.19 Vital as this is, Graeber highlights the fact that for the Zapatistas themselves, their struggle is part of a global predicament in which we are all inescapably engaged. Shall we deny their vision by limiting it to being self-commentary?

The Zapatistas represent a heroic effort to invert the pyramid, to place community at the centre. They realise that their ancient kings’ prerogative of recapturing something of the primordial clarity of vision, before the Heart of the Sky clouded their eyes, is something they must all aspire to in the political fog of globalised modernity. But precisely because of this globalisation, this proposition of radical democracy and striving for clear vision must also speak to the rest of our meshed-together world. The insights of us all must reach past what is nearby, to perceive and fight the complex global machinations that would exploit us.