Allen Christenson explores Maya rebirth rituals in a new publication that debuted October 2016.
PROVO, Utah (Oct. 12, 2016)—Since his service as a missionary in Guatemala, professor Allen Christenson of the Comparative Arts and Letters Department at BYU has been fascinated with the Maya. The Maya are an indigenous Latin American people who live throughout much of southern Mexico and Central America. Part of their belief is that all eternity is a circle of birth and death driven by human action. “Pretty much all major Maya major ceremonies deal with rebirth and creation and trying to renew the world,” Christenson explained. “The whole idea is that they rebirth the world when the world dies.”
This belief in the cycle of death and rebirth is the focus of Christenson’s new book The Burden of the Ancients: Maya Ceremonies of World Renewal from the Pre-columbian Period to the Present. This book, which was just published this month, focuses on traditional Mayan rituals and the belief of the Maya that their rituals are essential for the world to continue. “If they don’t do the proper ceremonies and prayers [the world] will stay dead. We will live in darkness and decay and corruption. They literally believe the world is on their shoulders,” said Christenson.
Christenson explained that the day after a rebirth ritual, the Maya look at the world differently because to them it is literally a new earth that is different than the corrupted earth that had existed the day before. “When they do these ceremonies, they don’t see it as a commemoration of creation or a reenactment of creation. It is creation. They are literally making the world new and untainted again.”
Part of Christenson’s research process was to receive training as a Maya shaman. “It’s a nine- month training because that’s the human gestation period. You hang out with a traditional Mayan shaman to learn prayers and ceremonies,” he said. Maya shamans are traditionally called in dreams by their ancestors and their training is not so much learning as it is remembering.
Christenson explained, “What your trainer does is to help you remember. All of your ancestors pass on their memories to you in your blood; you carry their blood and you carry them with you.” This awakening of the memories and experiences of ancestors is another important part of why the Maya perform rebirth rituals.
Many significant Maya rituals are held around Christian holidays, including Santa Semana (the week before Easter) and New Year’s Day. Christenson noted that the Maya keep their core beliefs and then add Christian elements that they feel complement their traditions. This is true with the saints they choose to worship as well as their belief in Christ. They see Christ as the ultimate symbol of death and later rebirth with the Resurrection. “You don’t say the Maya were converted to Christianity. It’s more that they converted Christianity to their unique view of the world,” Christenson said.
Through his publications, Christenson also hopes to present the Maya as a people who are not long dead and who have not disappeared, but as a vibrant, living society. Christenson explained, “We tend to think of them as a long ago vanished race but they’re really not. They are a living, modern society that has maintained their language and traditions, particularly those of rebirth and creation.”
—Hannah Sandorf (BA Art History and Curatorial Studies ‘17)
Hannah covers events for the Comparative Arts and Department for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.
Both images were taken in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala during Semana Santa (Easter Week) courtesy of Allen Christenson.