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The Ch’ol Maya who live in the western Mexican state of Chiapas are direct descendants of the Maya of the Classic period. Exploring their history and culture, volume editor Karen Bassie-Sweet and the other authors assembled here uncover clear continuity between contemporary Maya rituals and beliefs and their ancient counterparts.

With evocative and thoughtful essays by leading scholars of Maya culture, The Ch’ol Maya of Chiapas, the first collection to focus fully on the Ch’ol Maya, takes readers deep into ancient caves and reveals new dimensions of Ch’ol cosmology. In contemporary Ch’ol culture the contributors find a wealth of historical material that they then interweave with archaeological data to yield surprising and illuminating insights. The colonial and twentieth-century descendants of the Postclassic period Ch’ol and Lacandon Ch’ol, for instance, provide a window on the history and conquest of the early Maya. Several authors examine Early Classic paintings in the Ch’ol ritual cave known as Jolja that document ancient cave ceremonies not unlike Ch’ol rituals performed today, such as petitioning a cave-dwelling mountain spirit for health, rain, and abundant harvests.

Other essays investigate deities identified with caves, mountains, lightning, and meteors to trace the continuity of ancient Maya beliefs through the centuries, in particular the ancient origin of contemporary rituals centering on the Ch’ol mountain deity Don Juan. An appendix containing three Ch’ol folktales and their English translations rounds out the volume.

Charting paths literal and figurative to earlier trade routes, pre-Columbian sites, and ancient rituals and beliefs, The Ch’ol Maya of Chiapas opens a fresh, richly informed perspective on Maya culture as it has evolved and endured over the ages.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806149257
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 04/08/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
File size: 16 MB
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About the Author

Karen Bassie-Sweet is Research Associate at the University of Calgary and codirects the Jolja Cave Project in Mexico. She is author of Maya Sacred Geography and the Creator Deities.

Robert M. Laughlin is author of Mayan Tales from Chiapas, Mexico.
Nicholas A. Hopkins is coeditor of Essays on Otomanguean Culture History.
Andrés Brizuela Casimir is an archaeologist and Head of the Department of Historical Monuments of the State of Chiapas.

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The Ch'ol Maya of Chiapas

By Karen Bassie-Sweet, Robert M. Laughlin, Nicholas A. Hopkins, Andrés Brizuela Casimir


Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4925-7



Karen Bassie-Sweet, Nicholas A. Hopkins, and Robert M. Laughlin

The information about the Ch'ol and Lacandon Ch'ol regions discussed in this chapter is from a variety of documents written primarily from the perspective of Spanish conquistadors, administrators, politicians, and priests. When the Spanish first arrived in Chiapas, various indigenous groups possessed pre-Columbian manuscripts that were related to divination, healing, history, and genealogy (Calnek 1962:15). Although some of these documents survived the initial conquest period, many of them were later confiscated and destroyed by Francisco Núñez de la Vega in his efforts to eradicate pagan beliefs (Núñez 1988). As bishop of Chiapas from 1682 to 1698, Núñez claimed to have burned more than thirty native manuscripts. It is likely that his actions forced the owners of other manuscripts to hide them. The highly regrettable result is that no pre-Columbian documents from Chiapas have survived. In certain areas of the New World, the Spanish had a policy that indigenous lords and their descendants were entitled to retain their administrative functions within their own communities and to receive certain privileges if they yielded to Spanish authority. Consequently, many documents were created by indigenous leaders to verify their status and to support their claims for preferential treatment. Fortunately, these certifications often included information on ancient histories and customs.


The magnificent site of Palenque and its rival site of Toniná were the major pre-Columbian settlements in the Lacandón area. The site of Palenque is well known for its artistic achievements and the extensive hieroglyphic narratives found on its public monuments. Its inscriptions refer to a long line of kings beginning in the Early Classic period (A.D. 430) and extending to near the end of the Late Classic period (A.D.800). Palenque's narratives refer to military conflicts with the powerful site of Calakmul located 250 kilometers to the northeast and the communities in between these centers, such as Pomona, Santa Elena, and Moral-Reforma. Palenque also extended its influence to the southeast and consequently infringed on the territories of such communities as Piedras Negras, La Mar, Anaite, Sak Tz'i', and Bonampak that were located along the Usumacinta corridor. Sixty-five kilometers due south of Palenque, in the Ocosingo Valley, is the highland site of Toniná. Like Palenque, Toniná's inscriptions relate a long history of kings and military conflicts. Toniná was likewise interested in encroaching on the Usumacinta corridor communities and engaged in a number of conflicts there. Toniná's access route to these sites was along the valleys of the upper Jataté, Perlas, and Santo Domingo Rivers, and later Spanish expeditions used these same routes when they journeyed from the Ocosingo Valley to the east.

War events between Palenque and Toniná are recorded in the inscriptions of both cities. For example, the Palenque ruler K'inich Kan Bahlam II apparently captured Toniná Ruler 2 in A.D. 687, and Toniná subsequently captured the next Palenque ruler, K'inich K'an Joy Chitam II (Martin and Grube 2008:181). Scholars have argued that the Palenque-Toniná conflicts were centered on their mutual desire to control the Usumacinta corridor, and most of the archaeological work has been focused on this lowland zone. In contrast, our volume concentrates on the pre-Columbian sites that are located on the ancient mountain route between Palenque and Toniná that passed through the Tila and Tumbalá region, as well as the sites west of Palenque.

The population levels in the lowlands dropped dramatically after the decline of elite society in the Late Classic period (A.D. 800–A.D.900). Our knowledge about the time period between the Terminal Classic period and the Spanish conquest in the Ch'ol and Lacandón Ch'ol regions is limited, but it is likely that at least some population remained in the area, particularly in the rural zones. At the time of the first Spanish contact in the sixteenth century, there were indigenous towns in the region that were ruled by caciques and groups of principal lords. Despite the waves of European pandemics that preceded the actual arrival of the Spanish, there was a significant population base and resilient culture. This chapter is an overview of the Ch'ol and Lacandón Ch'ol areas from the Late Postclassic period through the conquest period. We include a detailed discussion of the Lacandón Ch'ol conquest because the events that affected these towns also impacted the Tila and Tumbalá Ch'ol region.


While Núñez was in the Soconusco region, he acquired a native manuscript written in Tzeltal and titled the "Probanza de Votan." A probanza was a statement of claim verifying the status of a family. The Votan probanza detailed the history of a Postclassic ruler named Three Votan and his descendants. At the time, there were still two hundred Tzeltal families living at the town of Teopisca who claimed to be descendants of Three Votan, so it is not surprising that such a document existed. Núñez quoted from the probanza when he wrote hisConstituciones diocesanas del Obispado de Chiapa. The canon Ramón de Ordóñez y Aguiar of San Cristóbal de Las Casas (1739–1825) claimed to have been in possession of the same Votan probanza almost a hundred years later (Ordóñez y Aguiar 1797, 1813, 1817; Brasseur de Bourbourg 1866; Megged 1996:24–25). Given Núñez's predilection for destroying native documents, it is possible that Ordóñez had unknowingly acquired a different copy. In any event, the Ordóñez copy was subsequently lost, but Ordóñez and his contemporary Pablo Félix Cabrera described its contents in their writings. The abbot Brasseur de Bourbourg, who collected and copied many important colonial documents during his time in Chiapas and Guatemala, obtained copies of Ordóñez's writings and wrote about Three Votan as well. All three of these men speculated wildly that Three Votan and the ancient Maya originated in Egypt, Jerusalem, or Atlantis, and that Three Votan had founded the city of Palenque. Despite not having the original probanzas to consult, some reliable information about Three Votan can be deduced from the writings of Núñez and these later authors.

In the Maya calendar system, the 260-day tzolk'in cycle was composed of twenty day names combined with thirteen numbers. A survey of the tzolk'in day names used by the various Mayan language groups indicates that while some day names or their cognates were common to all groups, a number of these day names were different (Thompson 1950:66–103). The third day name in the Yucatec, Ixil, K'iche', and Pokom calendars is Ak'bal. This word derives from the word ak'ab', which means "night" in virtually all Mayan languages. This meaning is found in hieroglyphic writing where k'in "day" is often paired with ak'ab' "night." The equivalent day name in the Tzeltal, Chuj, and Popti' (Jacalteco) calendars is Votan. In Mesoamerica, it was a common practice for deities and people to be named after the tzolk'in day on which they were born. The etymology of Votan is unclear, but in the context of the Postclassic ruler Three Votan, it is obvious that he was named for the day he was born (Calnek 1962:17; 1988:9–10).

Although the etymology of the name Votan has long been a mystery, it may have been a Nahuatl loanword. Karttunen's dictionary of Central Mexican Nahuatl reports the term cuauhtlah (kwaw-tlah) "mountain, wilderness, forest (montaña, arboleda o bosque)," from the entry quauhtla in Molina's 1571 vocabulary (Karttunen 1983:64). This is a locative noun, a variant of kwawi-tlah, literally "tree-place." A cognate term in a Salvadoran variety of Nahuat is cuhtan (kuh-tan) "monte, campo" (Geoffroy Rivas 1961). From these two forms we postulate a Gulf Coast Nahuat term *kwohtan, intermediate between the Central Mexican term and the Salvadoran one. (An asterisk marks the form as a hypothetical reconstruction, a form not attested directly but hypothesized on the basis of attested data.) It is reasonable to imagine *kwohtan (or a similar form) being loaned into Mayan as wotan, i.e., Votan. Our hypothesis is that this name may refer to the earth lord, who goes by many names, including Chuj Witz-'Ak'lik "Mountain-Grasslands" (i.e., Earth); Kekchí Cuu1 Taq'a "Mountain Valley" (also Earth), and Chol Yum Witz "Mountain Lord," among others (see chapter 8 for a discussion of earth lords).

The Votan probanza indicates that Three Votan was a member of a lineage called Chan and that he was born on an island off the coast of Yucatán at a place called Valum Chivim (Nine Chivim). Place names that include the number nine are common in the Maya area. The lineage name Chan had a wide distribution and appears in documents from Tumbalá (Ch'ol), Acalán (Chontal), northern Yucatán, and the Petén (Maya of Yucatán) (Roys 1940:39, 44; Calnek 1962:121). Calnek has observed that the island of Three Votan's birth was probably Cozumel, an important trading center located off the east coast of Yucatán, where the Chan family held prominent political positions at the time of the Spanish conquest (Calnek 1962:16–17; 1988:10). It is likely that Three Votan had a Chontal Maya heritage.

Three Votan and his followers are said to have ascended the Usumacinta River from Laguna de Términos and established a town called Na Chan at the base of the Tumbalá mountains. Calnek (1962:121) noted that the names Nachan and Chivim appear in sixteenth-century Catholic baptism records from Yajalón, which suggests there were intermarriages between Tzeltzal from Yajalón and Ch'ol from Tumbalá. How and when Three Votan moved from this Ch'ol area into the Tzeltal and Soconusco regions to the south is not indicated, but the probanza refers to conflicts with other foreign groups that had subsequently moved into the highlands. After resolving these issues, Three Votan is said to have divided Chiapas into provinces and established order. These events are paralleled in the life of the Chontal ruler Auxaual, whose name is likely Aj Ux Ajwal (Lord Three Ajaw). Auxaual came from Cozumel, ascended the Usumacinta, and founded a town called Tanoche (near present-day Tenosique) sometime in the mid-fourteenth century (Scholes and Roys 1948:79, 383–85). Auxaual's descendants then moved to the northeast and were in control of the entire Acalán region by the time the Spanish arrived in 1519. Whether Three Votan arrived before or after Auxaual or was his contemporary is unknown.

The Chontal Maya were merchants. Three natural products found in the Tumbalá mountains that would have attracted the attention of the Chontal were quetzal feathers, amber, and green stone. Quetzals were common in the region until the middle of the twentieth century, and according to the former president of Tumbalá, they were still found on Tumbalá Mountain well into the late twentieth century (Domingo Solís López, personal communication 2002). The amber deposits at Simojovel and the green serpentine deposits at Chalchihuitán are just thirty kilometers southwest and south of Tumbalá, respectively. The importance of two of these three products is reflected in the indigenous name for Tumbalá, which is K'uk' Witz "quetzal mountain," and Chalchihuitán, which derives from the Nahuatl term for green stone.

At the close of the Late Classic period, the cultural horizon extending from Morelos and Puebla to the Gulf Coast and the Yucatán Peninsula included such sites as Tula, Cholula, Cacaxtla, El Tajín, Xochicalco, and Chichén Itzá. The wind and morning star deity called Quetzalcoatl (Kukulcan in some of the Maya areas) played a dominant role in the religion of the time (Ringle, Gallareta Negrón, and Bey 1998; Ringle and Bey 2012). This deity was analogous to the Classic period deity One Ixim and his Postclassic K'iche' counterpart One Hunahpu (Florescano 1999; Bassie-Sweet 2008:298–300). Rulers not only used these deities as role models, but were thought to embody these gods. Consequently, we often see Maya depictions of their past rulers and cultural heroes with the qualities of these deities. Such was the case with Three Votan. For example, Three Votan was said to have come from the east. An eastern affiliation for founding ancestors is a common theme in Mesoamerican mythology, and such statements occur even when a group's actual migration was from a different direction. The reason for this connection rests in the identification of the ancestor with the morning star deity. In the Maya region, east is defined as the place where the sun rises. When Venus first appears as morning star, it rises close to the rising sun, so the arrival of the ancestor from where the sun rises is like the arrival of the morning star. Núñez (1988:237) described how Three Votan left behind relics that were to be honored by his descendants. To house these relics, it was said that Three Votan created a cave simply by blowing; thus he had the powerful wind attribute of the morning star deity.

Three Votan assigned a female ritual specialist to guard and maintain his shrine, and then he mysteriously departed. His departure parallels the Popol Vuh story of the primary lineage head Balam Quitze of the K'iche', who gave his people a sacred bundle that represented him, and then he and the heads of the other three K'iche' lineages miraculously disappeared (Christenson 2007:253–55). The Three Votan cave was located near Huehuetlán (modern Huehuetán) in Soconusco. When Núñez made his inspection of this town in 1691, he discovered the cave shrine was still guarded by a female ritual specialist and that the natives continued to venerate Three Votan. Núñez confiscated the relics and publicly destroyed them in the main plaza of the town.

There is little evidence to indicate where Three Votan established his first community of Na Chan at the base of the Tumbalá mountains. The extensive archaeological and epigraphic studies of Palenque history demonstrate that Ordóñez's belief that Nachan was the site of Palenque is simply wrong. Regrettably, little archaeological work has been conducted in the region of the Tumbalá mountains that would facilitate the identification of a Post-classic town. Even so, it would be most difficult to link such a site to Na Chan, given the meager description of its location. There is, however, a mountain in the Tumbalá region that might have been identified with Three Votan.

At the foot of the Tila Valley is Ajcabalna Mountain (2,470 meters) with the highest elevation in the region (see map 1). With its steep sides, this mountain has the shape of a great pyramid, and it is frequently shrouded in clouds. The contemporary Ch'ol believe that the deity who resides inside Ajcabalna provides rain for the corn and causes earthquakes and thunder. After a serious earthquake in the 1950s, ritual specialists journeyed to the mountain to petition this lord to stop the aftershocks (Joljá Cave Project field notes). It has been reported that the cave on this mountain contains pre-Columbian idols, burials, polychrome ceramics, figurines, and jade ornaments, which indicates that it had a long history of ritual use (Blom 1961; Piña Chan 1967:47). Given that Three Votan was likely of Cholan ancestry, his calendar name in that language would have been Three Ak'bal (Three Night). The Maya believe that mountains are manifestations of their gods, and they identify their founding ancestors with these deities. It is, therefore, possible that Ajcabalna, which literally means "night house" in both Ch'ol and Tzeltal, was thought to be the mountain manifestation of Three Votan.


At the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Ch'olan speakers inhabited an area in Chiapas extending from the town of Tila in the north to the towns of Pochutla, Topiltepeque, Lacam Tun, Sac Bahlán, Peta, and Map in the south (map 3). The Spanish referred to the people of the southern communities as the Lacandón. This name likely derives from the place name Lacam Tun, the largest of these settlements. The term Lacandón was eventually applied to the Yucatec Maya speakers who moved into the region after the demise of the Ch'olan populations (Sapper 1907; Thompson 1938; Scholes and Roys 1948:45; Villa Rojas 1961; Hellmuth 1977; Bricker 1981:52, 330; Palka 2005). To distinguish between these two groups, the Ch'ol speakers are referred to as Lacandón Ch'ol while the Yucatec Maya speakers are referred to as Lacandón Maya. While Lacam Tun, Sac Bahlán, Peta, and Map are the Ch'ol names for these settlements, Pochutla and Topiltepeque are Nahuatl names that were assigned to these settlements by the Spanish. The Spaniards often employed Mexican place names in the Maya area (for example, towns that end in "tenango," such as Huehuetenango or Chichicastenango, are Nahuatl names).


Excerpted from The Ch'ol Maya of Chiapas by Karen Bassie-Sweet, Robert M. Laughlin, Nicholas A. Hopkins, Andrés Brizuela Casimir. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Preface and Acknowledgments Karen Bassie-Sweet,
Introduction Nicholas A. Hopkins,
1. History and Conquest of the Pre-Columbian Ch'ol and Lacandón Ch'ol Karen Bassie-Sweet, Nicholas A. Hopkins, and Robert M. Laughlin,
2. The Colonial to Twentieth-Century Period in the Ch'ol Region Nicholas A. Hopkins, Karen Bassie-Sweet, and Robert M. Laughlin,
3. The Pre-Columbian Sites of the Ch'ol Region Karen Bassie-Sweet, Robert M. Laughlin, and Nicholas A. Hopkins,
4. Archaeological Survey of the Joljá Caves and Nuevo México Cave Christina T. Halperin and Jon Spenard,
5. The Paintings of Joljá Cave 1 Karen Bassie-Sweet, Marc Zender, Jorge Pérez de Lara, and Stanley Guenter,
6. The Family of Ancient Creator Deities Karen Bassie-Sweet and Nicholas A. Hopkins,
7. Ancient Thunderbolt and Meteor Deities Karen Bassie-Sweet and Nicholas A. Hopkins,
8. Contemporary Mountain, Thunderbolt, and Meteor Deities Karen Bassie-Sweet, Nicholas A. Hopkins, Robert M. Laughlin, and Alejandro Sheseña,
Appendix: Ch'ol Folktales,

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