Photo of Don Tomas Calvo, courtesy of Mayanow.org
Last year, young couples across East Asia scrambled to get married and have babies in the auspicious Year of the Dragon. The same isn’t quite true of the current Lunar New Year, the Year of the Snake, which is being met with a more muted enthusiasm, due to the less favorable position held by the serpent (sometimes referred to as “little dragon”) in ancient Chinese culture. Western culture, meanwhile, is downright unfriendly towards the animal. It was a snake, after all, that in the Bible convinced Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, inviting evil into the Garden of Eden. The western canon is rife with other examples of serpents representing deviousness and evil. From fairy tales to modern cartoons, the snake is a harbinger of bad luck -- a creature to be feared.
Yet, as we embark on this Year of the Snake, solace can be found in the fact that there is at least one culture that views snakes in a more benevolent light. In the highlands of Guatemala, today's Mayan elders hold the serpent in high esteem.
Don Tomas Calvo is Nim Winaq, or the most senior elder, of the indigenous municipality of Santo Tomas Chichicastenango in the department of El Quiché, Guatemala. He is the moral and ancestral authority of the Mayan people, the guardian of the Popol Vuh, a Mayan holy book, and most likely the highest-ranked Mayan elder alive today. For his people, serpents are representatives of good.
"For our culture as Mayans," Don Tomas explains, "[the snake] is a creature of Mother Nature and guardian of the soil and earth. For us it does not represent anything satanic or bad, as it does in the western Catholic world, which mentions that the snake was used for evil to deceive Eve and cause her to eat the forbidden fruit and so deceive Adam so they were banished from paradise, whence the disobedience of original sin."
Above all, he says, the snake represents justice. In ancient times, Mayans would use snakes to help them reach a verdict, placing them among those suspected of committing an offense. According to Don Tomas, "The snake would always bite the guilty party." They could even take advantage of the biological diversity to impose a multilayered justice system. "My grandparents said that seeing a non-poisonous snake, this is a sign that we are doing something wrong," Don Tomas explains. "If we do not correct our path, the real poisonous snake will come." The non-poisonous snake is the toj, or warning. The poisonous snake is the kotzij, the execution of justice.
The significance of the serpent in Mayan culture, however, is broader still than just a symbol of justice. Among other things, the serpent signifies respect, order, reflection, meditation, authority and death. Passed along through generations is the teaching that "you should not kill a snake because it is a creature of Mother Nature and the guardian of the soil and earth," Don Tomas says. For ancient Mayans, serpents also represented a link to the underworld, and therefore, to ancestors and spirits. One particularly well-known motif shows a human head protruding from a snake's mouth. It is an ancestor who is appearing from the underworld through the snake.
Furthermore, a variety of Mesoamerican cultures recognize a "feathered serpent" god. As part snake and part bird, those deities represent the dichotomy of the heavens and the earth, the serpent aspect being symbolic of the earth, water and underworld. This figure has different names in different indigenous languages: Quetzalcoatl in Nahuatl, Kukulcan in Yucatec Maya, and Q'ukumätz in K'iche. In the Popol Vuh, Q'uKumätz is one of the creators of earth and man. The snake also signals something else: the motif of a serpent swallowing its own tail is important to Mayan elders, as it represents the circle of life.
Even with these associations, the true stature of the serpent can be hard to divine. Mayan elders will tell you that, despite Q'ukumätz's preeminence among their ancestors, today, the snake does not exactly represent a god-like figure, even if it is revered. "The snake is not ranked nor represented as a God,” Don Tomas says. "The snake is like the Kap Rakan (tremor or earthquake) -- a signal that you should behave well and do no harm to anything or anyone."
The significance of serpents can vary significantly depending on what era of Mayan history is being studied, and Mayan elders must often walk the fine line of honoring their distant heritage while acknowledging the vast differences between modern Mayan culture and its ancient roots -- the face-painted warriors and pyramids that are the images many still hold of Mayans. “The Mayan civilization is very old and has existed for a long time," explains Don Tomas. "It will continue to exist, possibly in a different form… We don't dress the same way as we did in the classical period, in the year 250 A.D., but the culture and the principles are thriving, in the region that I govern."
The Popol Vuh, the noted Mayan holy book, is written in K’iche’, one of more than 20 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala. It is also the primary language of Don Tomas and many other Mayan elders who speak only a few words of Spanish. The loss of indigenous language in younger generations, says Don Tomas, is a hindrance to the propagation of ancestral teachings to a larger audience.
"There is a phenomenon that some elements of the indigenous identity are lost," Don Tomas explains sadly. It is indeed a worrisome trend that indigenous languages and traditions are not being passed on to the next generation. In Guatemala, many see Spanish and cultural assimilation as a way for upward mobility and avoiding discrimination. In the United States, most children of indigenous immigrants see their ancestral traditions, languages, and wisdom as useless. "Teaching them to value their culture, their roots, their languages, their vestments is of critical importance," says Don Tomas, "We need to teach them to be proud of this. This gives them a unique badge of honor, and that is very important."
"Facing the closing of the Oxlajuj B'aktun and the beginning of the new era," says Don Tomas, referencing the change in era based on the ancient Mayan calendar which occurred on December 21, 2012, "it is important to know the real truth about the Mayan people and to see the greatness of its knowledge and wisdom. It is time that the world knows its writing, reading, meanings and ways of seeing the world; the knowledge residing within the codices, embodied in each descendant of the Mayan people.”
In speaking to Don Tomas about the symbolism of the snake, a lesson emerges: Every story has another side, just as an animal vilified in one culture can be revered in another – a reminder that every belief, assertion and prejudice can be challenged and seen from a different perspective. It is with that understanding that Don Tomas strives to show the world what his so-often maligned and disenfranchised culture can teach the world. "There are people that believe that the practice of the Mayan religion is synonymous to witchcraft, Satanism, sorcery," he laments. "[This is] a concept inherited from the western world that erased Mayan history and imposed by force its ideas through the Catholic religion first, and then Protestantism. As a result of the invasion and religious imposition, much of the Mayan wisdom has been lost. Today, this ancestral wisdom is found only in low levels, and only in very old elders."
If we can consider the merits of a trampled-upon culture's views on snakes, then perhaps we can also learn to consider disparate viewpoints on other things as well. With the opening of the new B’aktun two months ago and the commencement of the Year of the Snake last week, we have a rare opportunity -- to learn from what other cultures can teach us and implement those lessons into our daily lives. Instead of being wary of the year of the snake, maybe we should welcome it. "[It] is important to bring the message of peace during this change or era," Don Tomas said, "because it is a chance for humanity to change our ways."
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