Saturday, January 27, 2007

navel gazing



This carved chest contains one of the most sacred objects in Guatemala.

It’s suspended from the ceiling of a small room in a non-descript home – the Confraternity house of San Juan -- off a steep narrow alley in the town of Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala.

The box was carved by the artist Diego Chavéz, who also carved the altarpiece of Santiago Atitlan with his brother Nicholas. The other side of the box – the side I couldn’t see from where I was shyly standing and trying to take pictures without firing my flash -- contains an image of a woman giving birth. Inside is the sacred bundle of Yaxper: “patroness of the moon, weaving, childbirth and midwives, who participated in the creation of the world”.[1]

So perfectly appropriate that one of the creators of the world would be a crafty girl.

The Mayans have a long tradition of revering bundles – they appear in hieroglyphic inscriptions going back thousands of years. I don’t entirely understand what it is thought that they contain, but I know that this one matters more than most.



I’ll let Allen Christenson tell the story, because he understands what I saw in that room, under the sweet attentions that the confradia paid to Yaxper, better than I did:

The Yaxper bundle is called ruk’u’x alaniem (“heart of the placenta”) and consists of a small woven cloth with pendant ribbons and tassels which the head of the confraternity said represent umbilical cords and tendrils of plants.

The cloth itself symbolizes the inside of a woman, including the placenta. Three small angel faces are sewn onto the cloth which represent the “corn girls”. The cloth is used by midwives and shamans to aid in childbirth as well as in healing ceremonies for sick infants.

Following delivery, midwives often bring the placenta to the confraternity to be blessed. It is then wrapped in a cloth and buried, either at the edge of the mother’s hearth, or sent to be thrown into the lake.

Under the ribbons at the base of the cloth are two small, round, very hard cloth bags, which I was told contain dried lumps of maize dough. These are called the yuxa (“divine twins”), which [are associated] with the original placentas, or “seeds” of the human race; all things that have an umbilicus are linked to this womb-root.

The association of the placentas with the sacred bundle of the grandmotherly midwife deity Yaxper, which contains the original “seeds” of the human race, likely ties the Confraternity of San Juan with the house of Xmucane, grandmother of the Hero Twins in their aspect as maize deities.[2]


The ceiling of the room is decorated with the curling tendrils of plants – also thought to represent umbilical cords. As are the cords that the carved chest is suspended from.

All things that have an umbilicus are linked to this womb-root – the seeds of the human race.

Belly buttons, baby: they’re what bring us all together. A constant reminder of our common humanity.

I love that.



[1] Weaving the Fabric of the Cosmos by Allen J. Christenson

[2] Art and Society in a Highland Maya Community by Allen J. Christenson

3 comments:

MGL said...

Actually, Adam and Eve didn't have a belly button, you know. Not being born of woman and all.

suttonhoo said...

well that certainly throws a wrench into the theoretical works, doesn't it?

anniemcq said...

How did I miss this? This is a gorgeous, informative post. I love hearing about these traditions. Thank you, thank you. I love this.

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