Book Review: In This Body: Kaqchikel Maya and the Grounding of Spirit

In This Body: Kaqchikel Maya and the Grounding of Spirit. Servando Z. Hinojosa, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2015, 272 pp.

Servando Hinojosa’s ethnography explores the bodily basis of spiritual knowing among Kaqchikel Maya people of San Juan Comalapa, a community in the highlands of central Guatemala. Hinojosa takes as his lead how many local Maya people themselves speak about spiritual experiences, which they often describe in terms of the body. The author pursues this exploration through participant observation and interviews with practitioners in three domains of activity: midwifery, soul therapy, and community dance. Although the practitioners in these domains encompass both Catholic and evangelical Protestant Mayas, Kaqchikel narratives all make frequent recourse to the body when communicating spiritual states and experiences. The ethnography is admirably clear in its written style and remains closely grounded in Comalapans’ words and Hinojosa’s own fieldwork observations, although its explicit engagement with anthropological theory beyond specifically Mesoamericanist concerns is slight.

The ethnography is organized into four parts. Hinojosa begins by introducing the relationship of soul and place in Mesoamerican cultures more broadly. This includes a comparative look at different Mesoamerican groups’ notions of multiple and divisible souls, as well as specifically Kaqchikel notions such as k’u’x (heart, animistic center) and chuq’a (soul strength and heat). Hinojosa relates these concepts to folk syndromes such as fright sickness (xib’iril) and common Maya diagnostic techniques like pulsing. Also important to Mesoamerican soul concepts are features of the local landscape and their rajawal, or spirit-owner. These rajawala’ (plural) are stewards of hilltops, forests, and even certain animals and objects, such as dance costume masks. Appearing to Comalapans as well-dressed, fair-skinned (Ladino or gringo) men, spirit-owners often are held responsible for cases of fright sickness, taking a portion of a person’s soul in response for the person making use of natural resources while not ritually acknowledging the spirit-owner in their domain. Therefore, understandings of body, landscape, and spirit intersect for various Mesoamerican peoples, including the Kaqchikel Maya with whom Hinojosa conducts his research.

The second part of the ethnography focuses on the domain of midwifery. Midwives in Comalapa are considered spiritually gifted individuals. Through embodied knowledge, the skills of their hands, midwives follow the development of fetuses’ and children’s bodies and the concomitant bodily signs of their animating essences. Kaqchikel midwives’ activities includes the massages that orient the fetus prior to birth as well as the investigation and ritual treatment of the umbilical cord and placenta, the latter also referred to as the k’u’x. Midwives’ work goes beyond ushering bodies into the land of the living; events during childbirth portend future vocations, and umbilicus treatments serve as a means of gendering the newly born child in terms of skills needed later in life. Thus, midwives’ manipulation of the body and the components of childbirth is simultaneously a means of fashioning the person.

In the third part, Hinojosa explicates the work of soul therapists (oyonela’) in Comalapa. These specialists treat fright sickness, a spiritual malady that affects health by fragmenting the relationship between body and life force (chuq’a). Soul therapists treat this through oyonïk (calling) rituals, which are typically performed in multiples of three, and often prescribe the final ceremony to occur at the place in the local landscape where the fright is thought to have occurred. Oyonela’ make use of a wide range of ritual tools, in some cases fashioning effigies of clients who cannot attend the healing ceremonies as a surrogate body. These effigies are called k’al k’u’x, referring to wrapped animating essence made of the client’s unwashed clothing, which is said to still contain ruxla’ (the breath or odor) of the person. Through analysis of the soul therapists’ work, Hinojosa gains insight into Kaqchikel understanding of how the body grounds and emits spiritual essences, and thus into the relationship of wholeness to health in Kaqchikel Maya culture.

Although at first the focus on community dances in the final part of Hinojosa’s work may seem to diverge from the previous sections’ discussion of health-specific practices, this section refines and reinforces several themes already present in the discussions of midwifery and soul therapy. As much as in more explicitly medical domains, the performance of Kaqchikel dance dramas involve ceremonies in which spiritual experience is grounded in body. Performers engage in a series of rites (kotz’i’j) at places in the local landscape in the course of receiving and feeding their costumes, or more specifically, the rajawal tzyaq (lord of the costumes). Participants embody their characters in dance, their masks redden at being fed “hot” liquor, and some hug and weep when parting with their costumes at the close of the dance season.

Through both his own ethnographic research in Comalapa and his wide-ranging comparisons with other Mayan-language speaking groups, Hinojosa thoroughly documents his central thesis that the body serves as the primary vehicle of Maya spiritual realities. A weakness of the work however, is that beyond some brief applications of Csordas’s (1993) concept of somatic modes of attention (pp. 68–70), the author does not especially engage with anthropological theory much beyond Mesoamericanist scholarship. This is unfortunate, particularly with regard to Maya soul therapy, for which comparable practices have been investigated by theoretically engaged anthropologists of the body elsewhere around the globe. Therefore, this work misses an opportunity to develop an anthropological argument of more relevance to scholars working beyond the confines of the region. Nonetheless, Hinojosa’s book is an excellent ethnographic case study of the body in a Guatemalan Maya community, rich in engaging vignettes. Hinojosa’s clear writing style makes it a good candidate for use in undergraduate anthropology and Latin American studies courses that would benefit from an analysis of the intersection of body, landscape, and spirit in an indigenous Mesoamerican culture.

Reference Cited
Csordas, T. J.
1993 Somatic Modes of Attention. Cultural Anthropology 8:135–156.

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