Calling Ancestors Through the Butterflies in Guatemala
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

A skeptic of most things religious or otherwordly becomes the centerpiece of a shaman's ceremony in the last Mayan capital of Central America.

Guatemala travel

With the wind whistling hard and the trees swaying overhead, it is not going well at this spiritual site in the middle of the Ximche Mayan ruins. Every match I light goes out quickly with a puff. Apparently the wind god is in a mischievous mood. The woman chanting beside me is seeking some help from another world.

My Ajq'ij, or spiritual guide, is a female shaman. She has donned the red headscarf and red belt required to conduct this sacred ceremony. The square sut represents the four corners of the universe as well as the inner and outer world. The red belt is a representation of the serpent, symbolizing energy, life, and the thread of time. As she carefully lays out the numerous items to be burned, all in a very specific order in four sections of a divided circle, an older male shaman and female apprentice are doing the same nearby. I see the tall man with the same headscarf and belt watching our Ajq'ij as an art teacher would a first-year student. She occasionally steals a glance over at him, as if trying to catch any scowls of disapproval.

The male and his apprentice are doing their ceremony for the pure act of it, with nobody else around. I, on the other hand, am here with a tour guide. I'm a guest taking part in a ritual that goes back more than half a millennium. José the guide is from Guatemala City and this is not his comfort zone either. He does his best to explain what's happening, but we're both more comfortable talking about the history of the structures around us.


Where the Last Indigenous Rulers Stood

Iximche is sometimes referred to as "the last Mayan capital" since it wasn't built until the mid-1400s. That didn't give it much time to prosper before the conquistadors arrived from Spain, bringing swords and smallpox. A few days earlier I had cycled past the first Christian church south of Mexico, which went up in 1524.

Security was obviously the main concern for the four ruling Kaqchikel clan families who planned and built Iximche. It is surrounded on three sides by canyons and the single entrance had a ravine covered by a gated bridge. The whole complex was then surrounded by a high stone wall.

Eventually the Spanish invaders aligned with the Kaqchikel and this site functioned as a makeshift capital. Although many wooden structures were burned when that alliance fell apart, the rulers from across the ocean moved on and left the grand stone structures in place—rather than turning them into churches as they did so often in New Spain. The site lay mostly dormant and forgotten until some explorations in the 19th century and it wasn't until the 20th century that archaeologists arrived and started excavating. In 1989 the site was declared a sacred place for indigenous ceremonies.


Preparing to Reach the Gods

We've been watching for at least 15 minutes as the Ajq'ij lays out more and more items, all flammable, that are supposed to represent different Earth elements or give reference to the various gods. There are lines of sugar in a specific pattern; incense and oregano; cacao and honey; hardened tree resin and candles stacked in a pyramid. There's white for peace, green for nature, then other colors representing the north, south, east, and west. She chants in the local Maya language all the while, invoking prayers. In the end there are more than 20 different items arranged, ready to be set on fire, with some aguardiente alcohol sprinkled on for good measure.

I feel I need to be on my best behavior, to be a good representative of the great economic and political power to the north. When U.S. President George W. Bush visited this site in 2007, the local indigenous priests felt a need to carry out an elaborate purification ritual after he left. They needed to cleanse the sacred site of all the bad spirits he carried with him.


The guide explains that as the honored guest, I am supposed to light the offering once it is ready. First I am to banish all bad thoughts and be sincere in my prayers. Since everything in front of me is flammable and the sun is shining on us under blue skies, none of this should be much to ask. It's an especially windy day though and we're on an exposed hilltop. We only have a quarter pack of paper matches available.

I find it hard to banish bad thoughts when each time I light a match, the wind blows it out before the flame even has a chance to develop. The guide tries to shield the just-struck match with his hands, but that makes little difference. As the last match goes out in a quick puff, there's a sigh all around.

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