Thomas Hart. The Ancient Spirituality of the Modern Maya

Thomas Hart.  The Ancient Spirituality of the Modern Maya.  Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico Press, 2008. Pp 290.  $45.00 hardcover.

 Kristina Downs
Indiana University

The Ancient Spirituality of the Modern Maya by Thomas Hart profiles the persistence of traditional Mayan religion in contemporary society.  Hart, who has lived and worked in Guatemala since 1993, conducted most of his fieldwork in Guatemala among the K’iche’ Maya, but argues that many of the concepts he discusses are relevant to the Maya more generally.  Although the title stresses the endurance of Mayan Spirituality, the central theme of the work seems to be change, which is often framed as a detrimental decline of the old ways.  His collaborators repeatedly mention that because of social changes, things are not seen the way they should be, the way they once were.

The book is divided into sixteen chapters focusing on different aspects of Maya Spirituality, ranging from prayers to calendrics to the afterlife.   Hart clearly knows his subject well and the amount of detail in the work is fascinating.  At one point, he even includes a long passage in which a K’iche’ Aj Q’ij (priest) explains a prayer line by line.  In the chapter on calendrics, he also takes the time to explain the meaning of each day, using the words of his collaborators.  This comprehensive approach extends to his inclusion of quotations from Catholic catechisms condemning aspects of traditional Mayan Spirituality at the beginning of several chapters.  This helps to subtly prove Hart’s point about Christianity’s attempt to suppress native religion.  In addition, the book contains numerous photographs which help to illustrate the rituals and objects that Hart discusses, although they are unfortunately all black and white. The depth of detail Hart includes leaves the reader with a thorough understanding of Mayan religion and provides a wealth of source material for scholars on the subject.

However, the construction of the work makes it difficult to follow at times.  Although the chapter order and divisions are logical, many of the chapters consist of a series of long quotations, often with no transition or comment from Hart.  Furthermore, the format of the text makes no distinction between the formatting of quotations that come from newspapers and other secondary sources and those that come from Hart’s informants.  This is confusing and also serves to impersonalize the primary source texts.

At the same time, one of the best aspects of this work is that Hart lets his collaborators do most of the talking; much of the text of the chapters is long quotations from these collaborators which often continue for several pages.  What is frustrating, however, is that Hart provides little information about these collaborators as individuals.  They are rarely identified by name; Hart simply designates them by ethnicity and occasionally by occupation.  There are legitimate reasons that Hart must protect the identities of his collaborators, but it seems there might have been a way to do so without stripping them away completely.  It is also curious that, in light of Hart’s concerns, one of the narratives for which he provides the most specific information is perhaps one of the most sensitive, since the informant for that piece is a Mayan priest who was previously a Catholic deacon and also a former guerilla.

Hart also includes almost no context for the performance of the narratives he includes.  Nor does he analyze these narratives or responses from his collaborators; for the scholarly reader this can be frustrating at times.  One narrative is a clear example of a “Vanishing Hitchhiker/Hitchhiking Nephite” variant in which the three young women the driver picks up are described as the spirit of corn, leaving the region because people no longer treat them well.  Hart does not even acknowledge the use of a common tale type.  Some grounding in the existing scholarship on folk narrative would have strengthened the work overall.

Over all, the work provides wonderful source material on Mayan religion.  It is full of unique and interesting narratives illustrating various aspects of Mayan Spirituality.  Hart does not clearly identify the intended audience of the work, but it would be accessible to undergraduate students and even the casual reader.  For scholars and researchers, particularly in the field of folklore, Hart’s lack of analysis or context for the narratives limits their usefulness.  Hart succeeds, however, in allowing the often subjugated Mayan people to retain control of their own material by not dominating the work himself.  In the process, the author provides a clear picture of the persistence of Mayan Spirituality in the modern world that would correct any of the misconceptions that he mentions in the Introduction.

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