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By Martín Prechtel
Published by Tarcher Putnam, 1999, 384 pages, $25.95
Long Life, Honey in the Heart is, for the reader who would like to know something about Central America in the 20th Century, a delicious, beautifully written account of the last traditional initiation that was accomplished in the village of Santiago Atitlán in the Mayan highlands of Guatemala. That narrative alone, with its vivid portrait of the young initiates, and the old traditionalists (some of whom supported and some of whom opposed the initiation), and the near-disaster that threatened the initiation, is enough for an entire book. The story amounts to accurate anthropological writing from the inside, so to speak, since the author was specifically chosen by the traditionalists to carry out one last initiatory effort.
Underneath that report, there is a second book which amounts to a sharp-edged and thoughtful discussion of the distinctions in world views between Christianity and the Mayan religion. We see entertaining moments of conflict: for example, the Mayans inside the church open a hole down to the Underworld, an effort essential to balancing the worlds. The Catholic priests and converts fill the hole with cement; the Mayans cheerfully dig it out again, and so on. The Mayans happily married Jesus to one of their female divinities. But we also see Protestant evangelists in this book, full of contempt for anything not praised in their seminaries, attacking a complicated, ancient, many-wingéd religion, and planning to take no prisoners. A Christian may come away with some shame from this story, along with an awe-struck amazement at the simple-mindedness of the evangelists, so elementary as to make Luther or Calvin seem like Newton. Protestantism has been, since the 18th century, the advance guard for modernism, so in the story we're telling, Protestantism and modernism win.
Giving a description of the eloquence and humor of Prechtel's writing is difficult, so I'll quote a bit of it. Martín Prechtel mentions that soon after arrival in the village, he joined a small band which played on the street corners. One day he got a message that the religious hierarchy of the village wanted to see him. As it turned out, they were charging him with playing sacred music "with uninitiated youth in nonsacred places and in nonsacred ways." He went to the hierarchy compound:
Copal smoke from several billowing burners choked the murky darkness. As my eyes adjusted to the crowded hall, it was evident that I stood surrounded on four sides by beings greater than myself.
To my right, behind hundreds of shimmering, dripping, smoking tallow candles, stood a row of life-size sixteenth-century Spanish Catholic saints dressed as Atitecos, and Mayanized beyond the conquerors' imagination. These were accompanied by the householder's personal spirits and "throne beings," and two rawhide boxes full of sacred ropes, obsidian blades, and spines...
Directly facing me, extending down the south wall, over three hundred old eyes stared at me out of the heads of more than one hundred fifty official men in black tailored wool blanket tunics with unused sleeves, their luxurious red headcloths tied up pirate fashion or loosely draped over their shoulders. When I said my meek little greeting, "Ex kola nuta nutie?" the whole room thundered with replies of various degrees depending on rank, gender, age, and relation to my lack of age and knowledge.
Prechtel survived this confrontation when the old men and women realized that he was an amateur, and that he meant no harm. He was ordered to replace the old ceremonial flute player, dead for a year. The flute player's widow taught him hundreds of tunes and rhythms, so he became a hard worker in ceremonial duties.
Years later the same religious hierarchy asked him to become chief of a last initiation for young boys, even though the government had basically declared it illegal. The book gives a staggeringly detailed and moving version of that particular initiation. Prechtel cannot tell all that occurred, because some parts were and remain secret, but from what he is allowed to tell, he provides a flavorful description of the contemporary version of initiation that hundreds of cultures all over the globe once provided for their youth. The 12-year-old whose footprint was recently found in the mud of a Magdalenian cave may have been on his way to such an initiation. In an appendix to the book, Prechtel comments on the contemporary fad for initiation:
To have initiations again we'd have to find a way to bring this banished indigenous soul back home to us and we would have to have communities worth coming home to. To do so we have to go very, very slowly. A great deal of study, struggle, sacrifice, and love would have to be expected to make a real initiation for modern folk, one that wouldn't ring hollow...
The main difference between the cultures who send their youth to war or corporations and the culture of a Mayan village lay in the fact that the village elders did not send their youth off to war armed with computers, swords, rocket launchers or tanks to kill and raid, creating more Death. Very significantly, they sent their Rainwarriors to fight against the Deity of Death, to fight Death itself, not to make more death but to coax Death into releasing life back to us...
Armed with an acute oral literacy of courting, poetry, history, and above all a well-developed relationship with nature as a divine female being, these "spiritual warriors" attempted to fight Death, to convince Death to release the Female principle of the Universe, the Woman Earth, as well as the boy's very own soul, which was a Female too; his "Spirit Bride."
Martín Prechtel's first book, which was called Secrets of the Talking Jaguar, told the story of his personal apprenticeship to the old shaman and renegade Nicolas Chiviliu. I thought it a marvelous book, making clear how dangerous such shamanic work is, a long way from the current drum-beating in the basement of a church during the weekend. The new book is a treasure of cultural reporting, a testimony to the delight of being human, and a touching account of a genuine initiation that took place only a few years ago. Because of Martín Prechtel's immersion in the village life of Santiago Atitlánnot as an observer, but as a Mayan-speaking participant, even a leader in their initiationswe have a new look at a human community as it goes about infinite labor in order to honor the divine beings of ripening fruit, of fish, of jaguars, of lakes, and of the flowering earth.