Students Experience the ‘Spirit’ of Mayan Culture
Reenactment of ‘Great Seeing’ ritual gives students historical and contemporary perspective of the Maya of Zinacanteco
WOOSTER, Ohio — In Pam Frese's anthropology classes, students not only learn about other cultures, they also live them. Earlier this month, for example, members of Frese's Peoples and Cultures of Latin America class role-played the lives of the Zinacantecan people who lived in Zinacantan, Chiapas, in the 1950s. The exercise culminated with the reenactment of a healing, or "Great Seeing," ritual on the final day of class before spring break.
"It's what we refer to as experiential anthropology," said Frese, who organizes similar exercises in her other classes. "It is a way for our students to step outside of the traditional way of learning. They read ethnographies about the way the Maya live, but this experience helps them to better understand what it is like to be part of that culture."
The in-class ceremony involved every student — each of whom was given a specific Mayan name and garment similar to what the Maya might have worn. The shaman who conducted the ritual was Justin Ziegler, a senior biology major from Loudonville. The young woman in need of healing was played by Sarah Nation, a senior communication sciences and disorders major from St. Paul, Minn. The sacred proceedings featured incense, herbs, holy water, and artificial chicken blood. The women's malady was unclear, but such illnesses are believed to be the result of many things, including angering the ancestor-deities or breaking moral rules established by the Catholic Church. Illness can also result from the actions of others; actions generally related to political, economic, and gender constructions particular to members of the Zinacantecan community.
The ceremony began in the classroom-turned-rural hamlet with a healing altar on which the infirmed was laid. Later, the group journeyed single file to a mountaintop cave (actually, the second floor of Kauke Hall) inhabited by departed ancestral spirits of the woman's family, as well as all the spirit animal companions of every person who follows "costumbre" or traditional ways in the town. One reason for the patient's illness was that the ancestral deities had released her animal companion because she had committed some social or cultural wrong.
The group concluded the ceremony in the village and then enjoyed a complex meal based upon a recipe at least 20 years old given to Frese by a woman from Zinacantan. The stew was made from ingredients significant to the people in religious contexts and in terms of what the ingredients contributed to curing illness and disease, both spiritually and physically. In addition to the ritual corn stew, Pox (pronounced "posh"), a strong distilled spirits made from corn was served. Of course, in class, students shared a non-alcoholic wine mixed with water.
Students will be given a take-home exam to reflect on their experience and what they learned from it. "What I hope they gain is an appreciation for a totally different way to live," said Frese. "These people live a life that is syncretized between Catholicism and their own religious beliefs. They pray to the Christian God and the Virgin as well as the Christian saints and ancestor deities."
Judging from the reaction of the students, the experience was both enjoyable and educational. "I have always liked Dr. Frese's classes because of the way she incorporates experiences that attempt to simulate some of the feelings and sights that would be common in a real ritual or ceremony," said Ziegler, the senior-turned-shaman who has taken several of Frese's courses. "Some people may find these hands-on exercises crazy or strange, but you just have to enter into it with an open mind and make an attempt to understand that what you are doing is only a variation of the actual ritual or ceremony.
Ziegler found the "Great Seeing" ceremony especially intriguing. "It was very helpful in setting up a perspective for what a particular part of life might look like for a Zinacantecan society," he said. "As the shaman of the ritual, I was definitely nervous about how it would turn out, and I think those feelings would closely resemble how an actual Zinacantecan shaman might feel, but I think [our] ceremony went well, and it was fun. Everyone played their part and made it a successful performance."
Ziegler's classmate, Leah Bowers, a senior chemistry major from Sewickley, Pa., valued the experiential learning exercise as well. "Our class read Vogt's anthropological account of Zinacantecan life and ritual, but I would not have understood the importance of their practices had it not been for the in-class discussion and reenactment," she said. "When we were given Zinacantecan names, our transformation from Wooster students to Mayans began. [Because] we could not physically travel to Chiapas, this healing ritual provided an excellent way to observe and appreciate Zinacantecan culture. It was an authentic and unforgettable experience."
The ceremony was particularly eye opening for Fatima Rodriguez, a sophomore neuroscience major from Los Angeles. "Coming from a culture in which we practice healing rituals, I thought I knew what to expect, but I was blown away by the detail and preparation it took in others," she said. "This was a great learning tool that no book can provide. Professor Frese is amazing. The activities she incorporates into the lectures really keep us engaged."
Indeed, Frese was pleased with the level of engagement by her students, both during class and while enacting the ritual. "You can learn by doing more than reading a book or watching a movie," she says. "Performing makes it real in a way that nothing else in the classroom can."