Modern Maya, flying kites and Day of the Dead celebrations.

Volcan de Agua
Volcan de Agua (Photo by Dirk Van Tuerenhout)

In the Highlands of Guatemala, about 15 miles north of the city of Antigua, great things are about to happen on November 1st. Every year, on this day, there is a celebration known as the Feria del Barrilete Gigante, or the Giant Kite Festival. Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepéquez, the two towns located north of Antigua, are the focus of this festival.

Lake Atitlan, Guatemalan Highlands
Lake Atitlan, Guatemalan Highlands (Photo by Dirk Van Tuernhout)

The Highlands of Guatemala and neighboring Chiapas, Mexico, are exceptionally beautiful, full of history – some of it enchanting, and some extremely full of sorrow.

In preparation of the Day of the Dead, people in Latin America, and especially in Mexico and Central America, gather flowers, food, and candles. On the day itself, they bring all these items to the cemeteries to honor their loved ones. Food and prayer are the two most important components of this commemoration.

There are regional variations in the way in which these celebrations takes place. Among the living Maya in Yucatán, the Day of the Dead is known as hanal pixan “to feed the souls.” In the village of Pac Chen, Quintana Roo, the shaman starts off the proceedings by praying as he walks around an underground cooking oven, or pib. After the prayers, the food that has been cooking in the oven is moved to a small outdoor altar, decorated with brightly colored flowers.  The shaman further blesses the meal and then the food is served.

In neighboring Tabasco, the Chontal Maya go to church, pray the rosary, and burn candles and incense. At home, they prepare offerings for the dead. The men in the family place a bed of banana leaves on which they arrange food and other items in front of the permanent altar found in all homes. Chicken, tamales and turkey are offered to the ancestors, as they burn more candles and incense on the altar. Eventually, when the remembrance takes place in the cemetery, men play a central role in the ceremonies, as women are forbidden to attend.

In Guatemala, at the end of October, people set up altars with photos of the departed. Around these, they arrange an offering of water, flowers, votive candles and different kinds of food and drink: aguardiente (liquor made from sugar cane), bread, fruit and atole (a non-alcoholic drink made with water and corn flour). During the pre-dawn hours of November 1, members of the family place flowers in the doors of the house to welcome the departed souls. Then comes the rite of “dressing” the graves. The family goes to the cemetery and places flowers on the small hillocks, the last resting place of those who have gone before. They leave wreaths of wax-paper flowers at the head of the grave and then prepare the food which they will eat right there, in a symbolic breaking of bread with the dearly departed. The meal consists of fiambre, a type of Spanish stew made of meat or fish, vegetables, olives and capers; and canshul (based on regional vegetables) which the family eats by the grave.

Santiago Sacatepequez Kite Festival
Santiago Sacatepequez Kite Festival.

The regional specialty of Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepéquez is that they fly kites. A tradition going back more than a century, some of these span 40 feet and are contraptions made of lashed bamboo and vibrant tissue paper held together with gallons of glue. The smaller ones are made of corn stalks and twine.

Maya women elected queens for the Day of the Dead celebrations
Maya women, elected queens for the Day of the Dead celebrations.

It takes a whole village to build these kites. Men travel to the south coast of Guatemala to collect canes for spars; wire and rope hold the kites together. Groups of Sumpango residents collaborate to make each kite. The standard size 10-foot kite takes up to 15 people up to a month and a half to design, create, and assemble, depending on how complicated the design is.

The kites serve as a means to communicate with the deceased, while at the same time also operating as a filter – removing any bad vibes that might exist in the cemeteries.

Gathering around the tombs of loved ones
Inhabitants of Santiago Sacatepequez gathering around
the tombs of their loved ones.

These kites with their vibrant colors, dashing through the sky above the cemeteries add an extra dimension to the gathering of the families around the tombs of their loved ones. An eyewitness account described the experience as follows:

“As the morning wore on, a team of boys and men tested the wind. They grasped a long rope attached to an 8-foot kite and ran into the gusting breeze. Spectators created a narrow corridor as the kite runners raced to pull their creation aloft before they ran into a wall – literally. With a final tug, the brightly colored disk rose steadily, then swooped down close to the heads of the crowd before sailing up again. The fickle winds couldn’t always hold the swerving kites, and they would come plunging down and scatter the crowds. More teams pulled their kites into the air in the afternoon. Some were all-women teams in traditional dress. Others were made up of children or students. Ropes got tangled and shouts went up as a kite dive-bombed.”

One can get a good feel for the excitement that runs through the crowd when some of the giant kites catch the winds and stand upright, by watching – and listening to – the following video.

At the end of the day, kites that were torn by the winds are burned inside the cemetery. The surviving kites are exhibited in the local Catholic Church during a novena for the deceased. Then they are burned, and the ashes are buried in the cemetery, completing the annual ritual for the Day of the Dead in Santiago Sacatepéquez. With the outside world discovering this wonderful festival, and with up to 15,000 international visitors descending to these two cemeteries, some of the kites are now sold to these visitors. This leaves the local Maya both delighted (as this generates extra income) and puzzled as to why one would want to acquire them (as these kites act as filters to remove negative sentiments from the cemeteries) (J. Maxwell, personal communication, February 16, 2011).

I referred earlier to the tradition of kite flying going back more than a century. I am basing this primarily on the observation of the texts written on the kites as shown in the photographs above. This chronology is echoed in some sources. However, it should be noted that some sources peg the origins of the giant kites to the 1940s.

The hanal pixan ceremony mentioned earlier, while occurring on the days of the Day of the Dead celebrations in the Catholic liturgical calendar, has its roots in pre-Columbian ancestor veneration.

Redfield and Rojas (1934) studied the Maya village of Chan Kom including their beliefs in the afterworld, and their burial customs. They reported that the Maya believed in demons, okol pixan, who would waylay a person’s soul the moment it left the body on its way to paradise. To prevent this from happening, the Chan Kom Maya employed a maestro cantor to recite prayers, thus keeping these “soul thieves” at bay. Diego de Landa mentioned the existence – in the 16th century – of demons that swooped in to abduct the soul of the deceased. Scholars wonder if these 16th century demons might be the okol pixan of early 20th century Yucatán. The same Chan Kom Maya were also convinced that animals, rather than humans, were able to see human souls attempting to leave the body, moments before death. Thus, when dogs barked all night, they were convinced that a death was imminent. A soul returned to its home for up to seven days after death. During this period, a house should not be cleaned, as the deceased is thought to return to collect what is his or hers, especially its sins so that it can be judged in the afterworld.

Sometimes souls are stuck. When a person dies a violent death, either by accident or by murder, they are trapped in the place where the person died. This sometimes means that the souls are caught under a rock or in a tree until they are liberated (by someone moving a stone, for example). The sounds made by trees during windy weather are seen as signs of these trapped souls.

Customs observed during the early Colonial period by Diego de Landa reflected the customs in place during the final portion of the Late Postclassic period, just before the arrival of the Spaniards. de Landa described how among the upper echelons of the elite, the custom was to cremate the remains, rather than bury them. The ashes were then placed in great ceramic burial urns. As far as the “regular” elite were concerned, their ashes were placed in wooden statues, which were then kept and venerated. We see here in both cases clear attempts to keep the remains of the deceased in order to pray to them later.

We learn that among the upper crust, there was a firm belief and desire that the statues resemble the appearance of the deceased, especially the facial features. Moreover, these statues were brought out during ceremonies when people wanted to appease the souls of the deceased. People shared meals during such ceremonies and offered food to the statues (Tozzer, 1941:131).

The customs described above are recent examples of Maya people honoring the dead. What do we know about the pre-Columbian roots of these customs? As far as I know, there is no evidence of pre-Columbian Maya flying kites. In one instance, Tozzer (1941:131, n. 612-613) provides us with an answer dating back to pre-European times. Archaeologists found wooden statues and human skulls painted and modified to look lifelike at the site of Chichen Itza in northern Yucatán. It is tempting to see in the statues seen by Tozzer the most recent descendants of the pre-Columbian statues.

The ancient Maya also honored their dead by burying their dead underneath the floors of their dwellings. There is good evidence that after an interment the house and its contents was burned to the ground and a new house was then constructed on top of it. Such acts of destruction and reconstruction, acts of rebirth and renewal, correspond with the cyclical view of life and nature that the Maya held. Predictably, the tombs of the rich and powerful were separately built affairs, filled with valuable grave goods.

The burial customs of the ancient Maya elite inform us best about ancestor worship. Temples built on top of pyramids, some of which enveloped royal tombs, were decorated with art and text referring to the ancestors of the ruling dynasty. These temples were the place where ancestor rituals took place and, as such, they constituted a portal between the world of the living and the afterworld (Foster, 2002, p. 211).

Tikal Altar 5
Tikal Altar 5.

A unique carved Maya monument allows us a fleeting glance at ancestor worship among the Classic period Maya elite. Tikal Altar 5 shows Tikal Lord Jasaw Chan K’awiil I and an unknown lord from the site of Maasal. One can see a skull and long bones depicted between them. These remains are identified as those of Lady Tuun Kaywak. The hieroglyphic text refers to an act of consecration, in conjunction with the word “knife.” The monument is dated to AD 711, a period when Tikal and Calakmul were at war. It has been suggested that we are witnessing the removal of human remains, likely an ancestor of the ruler of Tikal, for reburial at Tikal, at a moment in time when the original burial site, Maasal was threatened by Calakmul. Rather than risk the tomb of his ancestor be desecrated, the ruler of Tikal exhumed the remains and brings them back to his capital. A cranium and long bones were recovered by archaeologists near this altar (Fitzsimmons, 2009, pp. 164-165). This is a touching example of the close ties between the living and the departed, as they were felt in pre-Columbian days.

The overview provided here shows that both modern and ancient Maya honored their departed loved ones. Though the sentiments may be the same, they chose different ways to express them.

Further reading:

Fitzsimmons, James L., 2009. Death and the Classic Maya Kings. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Foster, Lynn V., 2002. Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Redfield, Robert and Alfonso Villa Rojas, 1934. Chan Kom, a Maya Village. Carnegie Institution. Publication 448, Washington, DC.

Tozzer, Alfred, 1941. Landa’s Relacion de las Coas de Yucatan: a Translation. Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Papers, 18, Harvard University.

One thought on “Modern Maya, flying kites and Day of the Dead celebrations.

  1. Thank you for this explanation and I witnessed this event in 1992 and had arrived very early in the morning. It was impressive. However, after a couple of hours I felt compelled to leave as I felt the visiting foreigners (which I was one) were not showing due respect taking it all in as a photo opportunity and standing on graves etc. However, the event itself provided for me some deep spiritual insight in relation to our attitde to death and so forth, especially when one also considers Guatemala’s recent violent history. I hope more due respect is shown by foreigners these days. I was also intrigued to see kites flying over the corn fields which I would witness from whatever bus I was, this is also an enduring image.

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