THE SLOW DEMISE OF A RELIGION
By Peter Fredson
Once I witnessed the deterioration of an age-old religion, due to the death of its high priest. It did not completely vanish, but evidently it was subverted and proselytized by missionaries in the past few decades.
I suffer from short-term memory now but memories from fifty years ago have recently come flooding back to me. I am no Bernal Diaz de Castillo, or Herodotus, as some names and dates still elude my grasp. Forgive me.
Sometime in the early 1950’s I made the acquaintance of Frans Blom, Danish archaeologist, formerly head of Tulane Middle-American Research. After months of attending his Friday afternoon soirees, he said he had a grant to go into the Lacandon Rain Forest of Chiapas and invited me, a recent MA Graduate, to accompany him as his Field Assistant. His wife, Gertrude Duby, was still in Europe but got back in time to join the expedition.
We bought horses and mules in Comitan and Ocosingo, arranged for “arrieros” or mule drivers, and spent several days riding into the rain forest. We swam the wide Jatate River, onto a savannah called San Quintin, then spent several days making a clearing with machetes for a small plane to land with supplies. We shot off a rocket to let the Lacandones know someone was there. When the Lacandones showed up they spent most of the time relating how alligator hunters and other invaders had stolen their utensils, and what their needs were.
The plane landed with 100-lb sacks of corn and beans for seeding, and sacks of rice for immediate eating. We also brought machetes, hoes, kitchen utensils and large bolts of unbleached muslin to replace their worn tunics.
There were only about 18 Lacandones left in the San Quintin group, and probably about 20 or 30 in another group several days walk away.
One day the old and revered high priest, Cham Bor, fell ill. We tried to save him, but he died. With him went all the sacred knowledge of ceremonies, rituals, dogma, the gods, a devastating loss. He was the only one who “knew things.”
No one in the group was competent to take his place as master of ritual, or knew the sacred secrets. They were helpless after 400 years of evading the Spanish, then the Mexican and other Christian branches of proselytizers. They had kept their ancient religion intact up to that date.
Several years later I returned to San Quintin with Donald and Carmen Leonard of the Centro de Estudios Anthropologicas de Mexico. The River Jatate had wiped out the huts and crops of the Lacandones, along with all their utensils. They came to us crying for aid. Everything was gone.
Luckily I had a portable transmitter from the Mexican Army, and our call for help was answered several days later when a small plane brought most of the needed goods, plus a dog that was requested to replace one eaten by Jaguars.
Then Kayyum, the Singer, fell ill. He became convinced he had been bewitched, and went into the syndrome called “Voodoo Death.” I called on my radio to the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Yaxoquintela, a group of missionaries with a nurse, for aid. The nurse flew in to San Quintin, tried to save Kayyum, but failed. With him went all the sacred songs and chants of the group.
Left without their high priest, without their singer, the group seemed destined to disappear. Who could properly worship the gods?
Our “expedition” allotted time and money was gone, so we left the Lacandones. I never returned. I heard that missionaries had descended on them, and consolidated the remaining groups. The Mexican government finally granted them hegemony over a vast acreage of rain forest, to keep out the people preying upon them. I hear they now number into the several hundreds. I wish them well.