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The Q'an'job'al Maya: Their Stories and History

KanjobalAt one time, the Mayan Empire ruled a wide area of what is now Central America and southern Mexico. But starting around 900 AD, the Mayan civilization mysteriously went into decline, and by the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, only a few outposts of this formerly great Empire still remained.

The Q’an’job’al Maya, also known as the Kanjobal, were one of Mayan groups who had managed to survive to keep Mayan traditions alive. In the 1520s, Spanish invaders arrived at the settlements of the Q’an’job’al people in the mountains of what is now Guatemala, attacking and killing many while forcing the rest to labor in virtual slavery. Like other surviving indigenous peoples, the Q’an’job’al people were eventually converted to Christianity by force, and their traditional culture then changed to accommodate Christian beliefs.

Following Guatemala’s independence from Spain in 1821, things gradually got worse for the Q’an’job’al people. Starting from this time, they were slowly but steadily dispossessed of their remaining lands by the greedy descendants of the Spanish, who were no longer bound by any missionary idealism - such as it had existed. By the 1920s this process had largely been completed, and the Q’an’job’al were reduced to poverty and peasantry.

But the worst was yet to come. Military juntas that ruled Guatemala in the 1970s and 1980’s declared war on the Q’an’job’al Maya, and other Mayan groups, because of their support for left-wing guerilla movements that promised to end discrimination against indigenous peoples. Atrocities were abundant, as Q’an’job’al villages were sacked and mass murders were commonplace. Tens of thousands of Mayan Indians living in Guatemala were killed or permanently displaced after fleeing to southern Mexico during a campaign of quasi-genocide that lasted until the end of Guatemala’s civil war in 1996. While some attempts have been made to correct past injustices, the five million Mayan Indians living in Central America and Mexico are still plagued by extreme poverty, landlessness and a persistent lack of economic opportunity.

The Q’an’job’al Maya are four different indigenous groups who all share the Q’an’job’al language. At the present time, their total population is believed to be somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000. Still largely a peasant farming people, the Q’an’job’al Maya continue to try and hold on to their traditional culture in a world that is so often unsupportive of indigenous ways of living.

The Mythology of the Q’an’job’al Maya

Like all Mayan peoples, the Q’an’job’al have strong oral and literary traditions that help to keep the memories of lost glory alive. The central creation myth of the Mayans is the Popol Vuh, which tells the story of how the Earth, animals, human beings and the Mayan peoples in particular came into existence.

The Popol Vuh story of how man was created reveals a lot about the Mayan concept of social justice. There were four great Gods who each took their turn at trying to create men out of clay, wood, gold and flesh. Only the men created from the flesh of a colorless God proved capable of survival, after which the Gods were happy with their creation. But when the men of flesh found the failed man of gold, so shiny and attractive, they worshipped him and praised him until he came to life as well. From that point on, the Gods decreed that the men of gold would be rich and the men of flesh poor, and it would be incumbent upon the rich to take care of the poor if they hoped to get into heaven after they died.

 In this story, there are obvious parallels with the famous statement made by Jesus that a camel could pass through the eye of a needle before a rich man could get into heaven. Both stories reveal a strong sense of the importance of charity and social justice as the core of spiritual practice.

The story of El Q’anil is a popular Mayan legend that has been especially revered by the Jakaltek, who are one of the surviving Q’an’job’al peoples. A young boy named Xhuman saved his people from destruction during time of war by first bringing them the gift of lightning to use against their enemies. Later, Xhuman returned from faraway heroic adventures to lead his people to victory in their war against intractable enemies.

Afterwards, Xhuman retired to the top of a volcano called El Q’anil, where he ascended to immortality so he could continue to watch over his people for the rest of time.

The “Man of Lightning” is joined in the Q’an’job’al pantheon by a God who was common to both the Aztecs and the Mayans. Called Quetzalcoatl by the former and Kukulkan by the latter, this feathered serpent God is seen by most Mayans as a messenger between Gods and men. While this territory has not been explored frequently enough by staid western anthropologists sharing their culture’s squeamishness about drugs, Kukulkan is a God who is known for frequently making appearances to holy men during visionary experiences involving mind-altering substances. Many have connected this God’s feathered serpent identity to DNA and concluded that these visionary communications represent man’s subconscious abilities to communicate with the source of all life while in altered states of consciousness.

One interesting member of the magical menagerie of the Maya are the Alux, a race of little people well-known to the inhabitants of the mountains like the Q’an’job’al. The Alux are generally portrayed in Mayan storytelling as benevolent – except when they are somehow crossed or disrespected. In this case, they can be quite dangerous to the people who have provoked their wrath. The cross-cultural connections between mythologies are often quite intriguing, which is why the obvious similarity between the Alux and the Leprechauns of the Irish is impossible not to notice and speculate about.

The Q’an’job’al were affected deeply by their contacts with Christianity. As is so often the case with indigenous peoples, rather than adopting the Christian religion whole they created a synthetic religion that absorbed elements of the new faith into their traditional spiritual concepts. The Q’an’job’al believe that Jesus appeared and was crucified separately in each of their villages at different times in history. They see the various Catholic saints and the Virgin Mary as transcendent spiritual beings similar to Xhuman, the Man of Lightning, and like this guardian they watch over local villages and protect them from evil.

The End of Time?

All around the world, New Age enthusiasts and people with an interest in esoteric doctrines are eagerly anticipating the end of the current Mayan calendar in December of 2012. All Mayan peoples, including the Q’an’job’al, have a cyclical view of time, and they believe that when the current age ends a new era will begin for all of humanity.

Whether or not a new era for humanity is really about dawn as the Mayan’s predicted so long ago is uncertain, unlikely or impossible depending on your own point of view about mystical and spiritual points of view. But one thing that seems certain is that, new age or not, the Q’an’job’al Maya will continue to be survivors, just the way they have always been. If a new era does come, we can only hope that it will be one that finally delivers justice to a people who have been abused and exploited for far too long.

Here are some useful links for learning more about the history, culture, and mythology of the Q’an’job’al and other Mayan groups: