Posted by: Johan Normark | December 16, 2010

Speaking blood and the face of the day – daykeepers and the tzolkin

Within the 2012 circus there are plenty of weird interpretations of what the tzolkin means. The tzolkin is a cycle of 260 days that consists of 20 days and 13 numbers. Few, if any, of these 2012 related interpretations actually take the contemporary highland Maya use of the calendar into account. During the 1970s and 1980s the ethnographer Barbara Tedlock was trained and worked as a daykeeper (ajk’ij) and learnt the way the tzolkin (chol k’ij) is used in the K’iche community of the municipality of Momostenango in highland Guatemala. Daykeepers cures the sick, introduce newborn children into the world, arrange weddings and funerals, perform ceremonies for the dead and local plantation and harvest rituals according to the tzolkin (Tedlock 1992:36). The daykeeper also has one of a few occupations. Only women can become midwives. Other occupations are not gender-specified (Tedlock 1992:74).

Each day in the tzolkin has a name which the daykeeper uses as a mnemonic phrase when he or she investigates a client by divination. During divination, the daykeeper recites the names of the days of the calendar at the same time as he or she feels the blood ”speak” within the body. The daykeeper’s diagnosis comes from a complex interpretation of blood movement, days and their coefficients. Depending on where the blood ”speaks” within the body and when this happens when the daykeeper recites the calendar days tells him or her something about the condition of the client.

In Momostenango, the body is seen as a microcosm and if the blood speaks in some part of the body, that part reflects macrocosmic conditions. Both men and women have masculine and feminine sides in their bodies, which also reflect macrocosmic relations between time, space and gender. Some of the K’iche days are especially masculine and feminine. The coefficients (1-13) that come along with the days also indicate how strong or weak this femininity or masculinity is.

Each tzolkin day has its own ”face”, identity and character, which influences the activities of the people. A person’s destiny is called ”his day’s face” (uwäch uk’ij) (Tedlock 1992:2). A woman born on the days No’j or Quej (two extremely masculine days) may be signalled as a man on the right side of the daykeeper’s body. The opposite may happen to a man born on the feminine days Came and Ak’abal. These four days are especially powerful ones for performing rituals (Tedlock 1992:143).

A daykeeper is chosen by birth, sickness and dreams followed by marriage to a spirit at the initiation. The date on which a person is born helps to decide whether he or she can become a daykeeper. If the birthday (ru k’ij alaxic) is Ak´abal, No’j, Can, Came, Aj, E, Quej, K’anil, Ix or Tz’iquin, the child gets the soul called coyopa (sheet lightning), which gives him or her a special gift to receive messages from the surrounding world (Tedlock 1992:53).

Readers of this blog will know that I am against ethnographic analogies that relate contemporary practices to ancient materials. The Classic period use of the tzolkin may have included expressions that are forever lost but my guess is that the tzolkin primarily was used in a similar way as noted above. That is at least closer to the “truth” than all the wacky proposals made by 2012ers.

Tedlock, Barbara (1992). Time and the Highland Maya. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

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Responses

  1. [...] Felipe became a Guatemalan spiritual guide dedicated to the ceremonies of his Mayan ancestors to save, first himself from drug addiction and then to heal his people and help the survivors of the genocide close the “circle of pain”. Ongoing archaeological investigations suggest that ancient Maya settlements were strategically placed on top of and around numerous caves, both natural and man-made, and that these caverns served as landmarks of political power and spiritual meaning. The tzolkin is a cycle of 260 days that consists of 20 days and 13 numbers. Few, if any, of these 2012 related interpretations actually take the contemporary highland Maya use of the calendar into account. During the 1970s and 1980s the ethnographer Barbara Tedlock was trained and worked as a daykeeper (ajk’ij) and learnt the way the tzolkin (chol k’ij) is used in the K’iche community of the municipality of Momostenango in highland Guatemala. Daykeepers cure the sick, introduce newborn children into the world, arrange weddings and funerals, perform ceremonies for the dead and local plantation and harvest rituals according to the tzolkin (Tedlock 1992:36). From Johan Normark in “Archaeological Haecceities.” [...]

  2. [...] (Flori) Pérez González, a traditional  Ajq’ij, a Maya Daykeeper from a Mam village in the mountains of northern Guatemala, was there to offer us [...]


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