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Weekly Alibi Mayan Folktales

By Steven Robert Allen

JUNE 1, 1999: 

"Mayan Folktales: Folklore from Lake Atitlán, Guatemala" by James D. Sexton (UNM Press, paper, $14.95)

Settled in the deep volcanic cracks of the Guatemalan highlands, Lake Atitlán wears a necklace of 14 small villages around its shining steel rim. Predominantly Mayan Indian, the villagers still speak a dialect of Maya-Quiché and carry on the traditional beliefs and practices of those who ruled this area for hundreds of years before the Spaniards arrived. The Mayans still wear their colorful, indigenous dress and tell the old tales--inevitably and irretrievably altered after centuries of colonialism and flux--to pass the time and pass on the values of their culture.

The tales in this collection primarily come from Ignacio Bizarro Ujpán, Sexton's assistant and collaborator since the early 1970s when Sexton first traveled to Guatemala to do research in the Lake Atitlán region. As Ujpán, a native of the area, says, "These are stories told by the old people, who mostly did not know Spanish. ... We still tell these stories. My aunt and my grandma have told them to me. When we do not have anything to do, these are the stories we tell."

Here you will find exotic traditional folklore, tales of gods and witches, curanderos and devils, the exploits of naguales (people who can change into animal forms), battles between good and evil, and cautionary tales which convey the ethical standards of an insular people. And if that doesn't get you excited, there's also one hell of a lot of obscenity, sex and cheap laughs at other people's expense.

Actually, many of these stories seem more like bawdy jokes than folktales. One of my personal favorites is called "The Woman Who Loved Many Hombres and Died from Drinking a Lot of Water and a Piece of Sausage that She Had Eaten." It's about a woman who is married to a traveling fruit salesman. Her husband finds out she's been cheating on him during his frequent trips out of town. Pretending he's going on a trip, the fruit salesman hides outside his house and watches as a strange man enters to make love with his wife. After the dirty deed, the stranger has to pee, but because the salesman is hiding outside the house, some dogs start barking. The woman doesn't want her lover to go outside because she fears for his safety, so she removes a cane from the walls of the house so he can pee between the crack. When the man sticks his penis through the chink, the salesman hacks it off, throws some salt and lemon on it, and sets it out to dry in the sun like a sausage. The lover promptly dies, and the salesman returns to his wife pretending he doesn't know what's happened. He later feeds her the penis for breakfast. After eating the salty sausage, the woman gets really thirsty and eventually dies of dehydration.

There are a lot of stories like this. Mixed in are also several anti-clerical tales about bumbling or evil priests, as well as "stories" about traditional rituals and dances. One of the most entertaining is called "Dance of the Flying Monkey," a sketchy undertaking that involves men swinging 25 meters off the ground from lassos tied to the top of a tall pole. The dance hasn't been performed since 1979 because in that year a dancer's lasso broke and the man died, breaking all the bones in his face, along with his companion's spine. No one's had the guts to do the dance since.

Sexton doesn't stylize these tales. He seems to have translated them all pretty much literally. Many of these stories contain rambling passages, colloquial phrasings, and even small flourishes of illogic or inconsistency. None of this is really a drawback, though. Their oral character makes reading them more like witnessing the stories directly than reading a book. You can almost hear the speaker's voice, see the movements of his hands, smell the scent of a severed penis roasting over an open fire. The ritual and dance descriptions are not as entertaining as the stories, and in my opinion they would have been better served in a separate book, but despite this, Mayan Folktales: Folklore from Lake Atitlán, Guatemala depicts an unromanticized indigenous culture that is alien to most of us and fascinating to all.

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