Snake Dancing in the Western Guatemalan Highlands

Rural people everywhere in the tropics tend to have fraught relationships with snakes. Although many very unlucky people get bitten by venomous species and die every year, the most common outcome when frightened man meets frightened snake is that the latter ends up being bludgeoned, chopped-up, stoned, stomped-on or shot.

Guatemalans’ views on snakes are generally no different than any other group of people, so it is refreshing to see some enlightened highland Maya treating a few species as harmless, benign beings worthy of sharing an afternoon’s revelry with.

Welcome to the K’iche’ Altiplano.

Mayan cosmovision, traditional costumes, oral histories, marimba music, gourd rattles, whips, cross-dressers, bullfights, funny hats, plenty of hard liquor and lots of live snakes…

K’iche’ Maya snake dancers in  El Baile de los Mexicanos , Day of the Dead, 2010 at Chichicastenango, Quiché Department, Guatemala.

K’iche’ Maya snake dancers in El Baile de los Mexicanos, Day of the Dead, 2010 at Chichicastenango, Quiché Department, Guatemala.

…makes for a dynamic combination of Pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial rituals, Mexican Revolution-celebrating fiesta and modern street theatre.

(click on or hover cursor over images here to display footnotes and to open in an expanded lightbox)

Costumes in many traditional dances in western Guatemala are spectacular, but the Baile de los Mexicanos may outdo them all.

As far as I am aware, this article provides the first documentation of large numbers of live snakes being used in a traditional dance by any indigenous people in the Americas other than the Hopi in Arizona.

The original Quetzal-serpent? A black and gold palm pitviper (Bothriechis aurifer). An arboreal venomous snake, known locally as “gushnayera”, that shares parts of the central and western Guatemalan forested highlands with the K’iche’. Image: F. Muller.

Classic period Mayan iconography is populated with snake imagery, mostly manifested as fantastic monsters such as Vision Serpents, Quetzal-Serpents (Q’uq’umatz) and other chimeras. Besides these, there are also less-familiar depictions of boa constrictors, coral snakes, rattlesnakes and other pit vipers across Pre-Columbian Mayan art.

About 30 years ago, the German epigrapher Nikolai Grube deciphered the glyph for “danced”, now believed to be read as ahk'taj in Classic Mayan. A glyph block that usually follows this term will refer to implements or weapons used in the dance, or to the specific form of dance being described. Among these are dances that involved live snakes (Grube 1992, Helmke, et. al. 2010, Taube 2014). Nonetheless, images of people or demigods handling snakes appear to be rare in Mayan art.

There are, however, two very well-known examples that show this practice from sites in the Southern Maya Lowlands

Shown left, one aspect of the beautifully-painted Altár de Sacrificios vase (~700 AD) at the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología in Guatemala shows a shape-shifting, dancing wayob spiritual companion (a nawal) hoisting a large boa constrictor. This is perhaps one of the most famous and photographed polychrome ceramics of the Maya late Classic period. A Lord of Yaxchilán is mentioned as the “owner” or alter ego of another wayob depicted as a dancer on this pot, along with two other powerful ruling dignitaries from major Petén cities.

Then there is this remarkable scene carved on a limestone lintel at a site (R) from near Yaxchilán, Chiapas, México dating to ~752 AD. It shows Mayan noble Yaxun B’alam IV/Lord Bird Jaguar IV on the right with a subordinate dignitary to his left, together with two realistic-looking snakes in a dance called “ahk’otaj ti chan chan”, or “dancing with the celestial serpent” (image from Graham and von Euw 1977). The lack of ornamentation on the animals, their body positions and the manner that they are being held by the two men strongly suggests that living, rather than supernatural, snakes are being depicted in this instance.

The importance of dance as a storytelling, as well as a power signaling and consolidation mechanism for Classic period Mayan nobility and continuing on through to the modern K’iche’ has been highlighted in recent works by Matthew Looper (“To Be Like Gods: Dance in Ancient Maya Civilization” 2009), Rogelio Valencia Rivera (“The politics of dancing” 2014) and Rhonda Taube (“The History of the Dance in Mesoamerica” 2014). Its importance as a spectacle is evident from narratives from the early post-Conquest:

“We have a reference from the Relaciones Geográficas de Yucatán; where the encomendero and conqueror Juan Farfán (1549) mentions, regarding a dance ritual called the fire dance that, ‘such great amount of people gathered to attend the dance, probably more than 15 thousand Indians, and they came from more than 30 leguas away to see it because, as I say, for them was such a great thing’ (In: De la Garza 1983).

Professional dancers, musicians, acrobats and magicians are now known to have been popular at Mayan courts during the Classic period and (briefly) into the post-contact epoch. As mentioned earlier, dancing was a very important activity for the Mayan nobility, probably because it could influence a lot of people when done in public. Ritual dance was a powerful political tool that showed status, highlighted political alliances, celebrated military victories, and could be observed and appreciated by many spectators at a single performance (Looper 2009, Valencia Rivera 2014).

Carved masks and mask dancing have also been important components of Mayan ceremonies for over 1,500 years. Images of masked dancers date at least as far back as early Classic period and brush paintings of mask makers appear on the Post-Classic Madrid Codex (Luján 1987).

Spanish authorities attempted to eradicate all indigenous rituals from the outset of their rule in Mesoamerica, believing most of them to be the devil’s works. After ancient native dances and other traditional indigenous ceremonies went underground, the Catholic Church, the Crown and later the post-colonial Guatemalan governments gradually co-opted Mayan dance as a platform for both political propaganda (e.g. Bailes Moros y Cristianos) as well as to stage morality plays (e.g. Baile de los 24 Diablos).

Under the Catholic Church’s watchful eye, Criollos transformed the political and ecclesiastical narratives of the imported Moros y Cristianos dances (that celebrate the expulsion of Moorish influence from Spain beginning in the 12th century), which were first performed in the New World in México in the 16th century. They fashioned these plays into a periodic, theatrical reinforcement of the defeat and subjugation of the native population by the Spaniards during the 16th century. This very popular tourist dance is known as El Baile de la Conquista de Guatemala and its first texts appear to date to the mid-19th century (Bode 1961, Brown and Rossilli 2008).

A scene from El Baile de la Conquista de Guatemala being danced by K’iche’ performers. The pale-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde-bearded masks in the foreground represent Pedro de Alvarado and one of his captains.

Increasingly, Guatemala’s highland Maya are attempting to reclaim more of their cultural patrimony and revive some of the more controversial ceremonies that were suppressed by governments during the last century. Some of these include bawdy comic theater and ritualized dances that often mock the lifestyles of Ladino and white landowners.

The famous ethnologist Franz Termer, then of the Wurzburg University and later Director of the Hamburg Museum für Völkerkunde, published the first modern account of snake dancing in Guatemala in 1928. The paper was based on his own observations and other fieldwork conducted in the country by him in the mid-1920s. This was later translated from German to Spanish by Antonio Goubaud as, “Los Bailes De Culebra Entre Los Indios Quiches en Guatemala” and remains the earliest known published account of this dance (Termer 1928).

For a variety of reasons, there is a lack of documentation relating to these dances from the Guatemalan Liberal Revolution in the early 1870s through until the early 20th century when Termer first published on them.

Snake dances were reportedly performed across the western Guatemalan highlands in the recent past, extending from the vicinity of Rabinal and San Miguel Chicaj, Baja Verapaz west to San Cristóbal Totonicapán, Momostenango and San Bartolo in Totonicapán Department, Olintepeque and the environs of Quezaltenango proper in Quezaltenango Department, as well as Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan and Nahualá in Sololá Department.

The performances of snake dances in Guatemala normally span the corn planting cycle, from field (milpa) preparation in the late dry season in March and April through development and harvest, traditionally ending at the close of the rainy season on All Saints/Day of the Dead. They are mostly concentrated in late May-June and August, which conveniently happens to be the best time to collect snakes in Guatemala! Currently, the village of Momostenango in Totonicapán Department opens the calendar and Chichicastenango in El Quiché Department closes it.

An adult Guatemalan bullsnake (Pituophis lineaticollis gibsoni) being danced in El Baile de los Mexicanos, November 2010.

The snakes used in these rituals are:

Guatemalan bullsnakes (Pituophis lineaticollis gibsoni). This is the principal species employed in these dances, which is somewhat surprising given its comparative rarity outside of the parts of the Antigua basin in Sacatepéquez Department. It is the largest snake encountered at high elevations in this region, occasionally exceeding 5’/1.50 m in length. This species occurs throughout the Guatemalan Altiplano where it is known as mazacuata de montana, mazacuata ratonera and tolopom/tolopon. Fairly docile and rarely bites.

A wild adult Central American boa (Boa imperator) in Tropical Dry Forest, central Guatemala. Image: F. Muller.

Central American boa constrictors (Boa imperator). Uncommonly used and not native to the Altiplano. No doubt brought up to the western highlands from the Pacific piedmont or from the upper Rio Motagua Valley. Known locally as mazacuata. Temperament varies between individuals. Some are mild-mannered and tractable, other are very truculent and will bite with little provocation.

Central American indigo snakes (Drymarchon melanurus). Rarely used and doesn’t occur in the Altiplano but is known from the foothills on both coasts where it is known as zumbadora or voladora. Snakes used in dances in El Quiché, appear to be D. m. melanurus and are probably collected in the upper Motagua Valley where they occur to ~4,600’/1,400 m and were once common in lightly disturbed areas. Nervous, fast and strong; docile when accustomed to handling but will bite when freshly captured.

A wild brown phase Godman’s pitviper (Cerrophidion godmani) in Chiapan cloud forest. This very variably-colored species can have light gray, brown, red or black background color. Image: F. Muller.

I have been unable to find a published image of a venomous snake involved in any Guatemalan dance, nor am I aware of any reliable report of them being used despite claims made by a few authors since the late 1950s. The locally common indigenous Godman’s pitviper (Cerrophidion godmani), known in Guatemala as cheta and cantil de tierra fria, is quick, irascible and very difficult for an inexperienced person to handle without getting bit (pers. obs.). This variably colored pit viper is small and rather unimpressive, and it seems unlikely that they are ever used in dances. There are several harmless or rear-fanged colubrid lookalikes (generically known as “cantiles”) that may be used on occasion and misidentified as pit vipers by anthropologists.

Contemporary documentation and communications with fieldworkers show the following snake species and their associated dances in print images and notes. Almost all snakes observed and photographed have been medium to large adults.

In Frost (1976) – Pituophis in Baile de la Culebra, location unknown, photo presumably taken in the early 1970s.

Author (mid-1980s) - Boa in Nahualá, Sololá Department used in a Patzcar dance. Observation.

In Pieper (1988) - Pituophis in Baile de los Mexicanos at Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan, “Huehuetenango” (sic) Department, photos taken in 1987. One of the photos shown in this catalogue was reproduced in Pieper 2006, correcting this dance’s location to the Sololá Department.

In Lara and Mata (2002) - Pituophis in Baile de la Culebra, photo taken at Santa Cruz del Quiché, El Quiché Department, no date.

In Brown and Rossilli (2008) - Boa in Baile de los Mexicanos at Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan, Sololá, photo taken in 1996. Pituophis in Baile de la Culebra at Santa Cruz del Quiché, El Quiche Department, photo taken in 2001.

In Hutcheson (2009) - Drymarchon and Pituophis in Baile de la Culebra, at Joyabaj, El Quiché Department. Observations made, and photos taken from 2000-2003.

M. Looper (pers. comment 2011) - observations during fieldwork last decade, Pituophis only, dance not specified but mentioned other references of snake handling in Baile de los Mexicanos, undated.

In Brown (2015) - Pituophis in Baile de la Culebra at Santa Cruz del Quiché, El Quiché Department, photo taken in 2008.

In Akker (2018) - Pituophis in Baile de la Culebra at Momostenango, Totonicapán Department, photo taken in 2015.

Author (2019) - Pituophis in Baile de los Mexicanos at Chichicastenango, El Quiché Department. Observation and photos taken in November 2010, several shown here.

Reports from a variety of sources indicate that the snakes are captured weeks prior to the dances, held in woven sacks (although wooden box cages were visible in Chichicastenango in 2010) or – traditionally – in large gourds or clay vessels, from which they were released by the wife character during El Baile de las Culebras. After use, snakes are said to be released at the point of capture. Most print images show large, healthy-looking animals being handled with surprising care during dances. The live snakes that I saw used in two dances were all held in a relaxed manner - even by visibly drunk dancers - looked in excellent condition and were surprisingly relaxed in demeanor despite all the ruckus around them.

An interesting anecdote on the fate that these “danced” snakes’ encounter after release was provided to Paul van den Akker (2018) by a Momostecan K’iche’ daykeeper. This man said that other snakes in the forest would no longer recognize these animals on their return and would immediately kill them when they were encountered. This because the exposure to food, music and dance gave these “danced” snakes a human spirit (i.e. a nawal or alter ego).

There are two narrative models for surviving Guatemalan snake dances, one apparently of indigenous Prehispanic origin with later additions, and the other a modern text probably imported largely intact from Chiapas, México and dating from somewhere around the turn of the last century. Both begin with two lines of paired dancers facing each other in a square and ordered by social hierarchy. They commence with a dedication to the village’s patron saint, God and an offering of flowers, fruits and/or votive candles. In El Baile de la Culebra, the dancers may also be invited to mimic the preparation of sweetened corn gruel (atole) by the black house servant.

Patzcar group of dances

Baile de la Culebra – a variable and somewhat confusing plantation narrative in two parts lampooning a white/Ladino ranch owner (“El Patrón”) who calls for a bullfight and snake hunt and whose oversexed indigenous or Ladina wife (a female impersonator, dressed in a huipil/blouse and a woman’s wooden mask and called “Xinula” in some towns) flirts with, and is aggressively seduced by a variety of his laborers. Dancers, called Tz’ulab’, may form a line that moves in a serpentine manner to mimic the movements of a serpent. In some versions, the Patrón is bitten by a snake and “dies” but is later revived after being “bitten” again or touched by another snake administered by an indigenous shaman, only to find his wife has ran off with his overseer. Whips are commonly used as phallic props and to flog dancers, sometimes quite painfully. Depending on the location, there is lots of alcohol, verbal mocking of other participants and spectators, wrestling, avocado fights and other chaotic horseplay involved. Participants mostly dress in tattered or old clothes. The traditional white and black-painted masks carved for this dance are now less commonly used than before, and often substituted with Conquista masks outside of Santa Cruz del Quiché. Light-complexioned Malinche, Margarita as well as other female wooden masks are used in dances. Snakes are introduced by the “wife” figure some ways through the dance from large, stoppered gourd or ceramic jar (tinaja) she carries in her arms. The play ends in an amicable circular dance. This dance has alternately incorporated and shed components from the Gracejos, Patzcar and Toritos dances over the decades, including the use of sheepskin wigs and polychrome wooden masks from a variety of regional dances. Twelve to 30 dancers were usual in the early 20th century (Termer 1928). Marimba music, gourd rattles (chinchines) and riding whips (chicotes, latigos) are common to all. Originally, dancers were repeatedly struck with fresh stalks of native nettles (chichicaste), which must have been extremely painful. Much of the spoken parts are/were narrated in K’iche’, but dancers do shout, “¡Ay, que bonita la fortuna!” (“Oh, how fair is fortune!”) in Spanish when addressing the snake/s that they handle.

Patrón mask dating to the late 1970s from El Baile del Patzcar, Nahualá, Sololá Department. Author’s collection.

The Baile de la Culebra is a highly sexualized dance, with some of the dancers (all male) mimicking intercourse and each in turn running snakes through their clothes, particularly their shirts. Termer (1928) noted that it was the only overt display of lewdness that he observed while among the highland Maya, writing “…all the dance was transformed to a pantomimed sexual orgy…”. While the significance of snake handling in this dance remains rather obscure, various authors suggest that it probably originated as a milpa/cornfield planting ceremony and is of Pre-Conquest origin. While snake dances today continue throughout the planting and harvest cycle (the Patzaj = doubling the cornstalks), they still seem to emphasize the transfer of eroticism and fertility generated in the dance to the snake, thence onwards via its relationships with the earth upon release. Snakes are also widely associated with regeneration or renewal due to their well-known skin-shedding abilities. The “plantation” narrative that is shared with many other regional dances (see below) seems a convenient “add-on” for subtly mocking authority and demonstrating resistance to physical oppression by Ladino authorities in general (Akker 2018). Maury Hutcheson (2009) begins his paper on his experiences documenting this dance in Joyabaj, El Quiché Department by expressing his frustration at trying to obtain clear and concise responses to his questions to K’iche’ correspondents about the origins and meaning of the dance. This was perhaps due to the hybrid type of ceremony he observed and photographed, which had much more “bullfight dance” influence than those described by Termer, Brown and Rossilli and Akker.

Patzcar (variously translated as “rags or rumpled clothing”, “vagabonds”, “clowning”) themes have a strong influence on this dance. The genre is believed to have Pre-Colombian origins and may be loosely based on a tale from the Popol Vuh where the hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, disguise themselves as orphans dressed in rags and entertain the Lords of Xibalbá with dances, acrobacy and magic prior to vanquishing them through clever trickery.

Franz Termer believed the Baile de la Culebra to be of Mexican origin, perhaps linked to infrequently held Aztec festivals that called for an abundant corn crop, but he failed to provide any real evidence to support this theory. The well-documented, shared cultural influences between the Maya and peoples on the central Mexican plateau like the Toltec provided ample opportunity for continual exchange of harvest rituals, but the fog of centuries sometimes makes it difficult to discern who influenced who.

Bullfight group of dances

Two young K’iche’ bull-masked dancers taking a beer break during a Baile de los Toritos. Note the ornately-costumed, black-masked figure walking behind. Both bulls and black house servants are common themes across all the bullfight and related dances in western Guatemala.

Baile de los Mexicanos – another locally famous plantation narrative involving a Patrón rancher who organizes a lengthy fiesta, which begins with declamations and drinking “finos licores”, luncheon at the local cantina, the snakebite death of a cowboy (sometimes), a comic bullfight and a dramatic deathbed farewell by the Patrón. In most common narratives the Patrón is portrayed as hapless and somewhat cowardly pale-skinned older man, who is gored by a bull and dies at the end after giving a lengthy speech where he reveals his bequests. No aggressive physical interaction, except on the part of the bull during passes. Participants all dress in very ornate Mexican cowboy (charro) costumes, and a number of specific carved wooden masks are used (Viejo/Patrón, Dead Patrón, the black servant Chiliano, an Overseer, Margarita/s, Vaqueros/Mexicanos, Bulls). Plenty of serious drinking is involved. Both this and the following dances reportedly originated in Chiapas in the late 19th and early 20th century and made their way to Guatemala following the end of the Mexican Revolution. The Baile del los Mexicanos is conspicuously absent from Termer’s (1928) list of well-known “farcical or comic dances” performed in Guatemala during his first visit so, together with other evidence, it is unlikely that it was being performed in the country prior to the 1930s. The caricatured Mexican masks with their toucan noses, handlebar moustaches and gold-toothed grins are normally painted as darker-skinned morenos, and mock the western Mexican Revolution-era cowboys that form the focus of the dance. Some masks are repainted in black and gold on the Chiliano color scheme. The models for current scripts (“los originales”), as well as the earliest known masks for this dance, appear to date from the late 1930s (Brown and Rossilli 2008).

The bull makes his entrance front and center in El Baile de los Mexicanos. Note the old, white-bearded Patrón hiding away rear left.

Talking with one of the soberer dancers in Chichicastenango in 2010, he told me that some of men owned their entire costumes, others’ parts, and that others rented their entire wardrobes from the mask rental shops (morerías) in town. The high cost of owning and renting costumes for the Baile the Mexicanos makes this a dance that only fairly prosperous local merchants, farmers and politicians can aspire to participate in.

Seven adult Guatemalan bullsnakes (Pituophis lineaticollis gibsoni) are visible in this image.

The introduction of snakes to some performances of the Baile de los Mexicanos may originate from a specific older script that includes warnings about snakes in the mountains and the death of a vaquero from snakebite (Brown and Rossilli 2008). It seems that the spread of this practice to the Baile de los Mexicanos may have more to do with its added attraction as part of a grand spectacle rather than the semi-occult fertility symbolism and messaging of the Baile de las Culebras.

Snake handling in the El Baile de los Mexicanos appears to be a be an example where dance organizers have creatively borrowed interesting narratives and props from other regional dances to incorporate into their own. It probably dates from the early 1980s since there are no reliable reports of it prior to that. Pieper (2006) wrote that the usual response to his question as to why a Baile de los Mexicanos dancer danced with snakes was simply that “…he just likes to”. That said, many modern K’iche’ dancers are quite aware and proud that there are aspects of their performance that echo or invoke Pre-Conquest rituals. Contemporary snake dancing may continue to spread due to the allure of association with the old ways.

Dancers with adult bullsnakes. Notice the relaxed grip that they have on the animals. This careful handling technique, that permits fairly unrestricted movement by the snake, minimizes bite risk. This dancer’s painted gourd rattle (inverted in this photo) shows cowboys with lariats and live snakes. Also note the well-attended open bar in the background.

Dancers with adult bullsnakes. Notice the relaxed grip that they have on the animals. This careful handling technique, that permits fairly unrestricted movement by the snake, minimizes bite risk. This dancer’s painted gourd rattle (inverted in this photo) shows cowboys with lariats and live snakes. Also note the well-attended open bar in the background.

There were about a dozen adult Guatemalan bullsnakes making the rounds in the dance that I witnessed in 2010, with some dancers holding two and others none. A video posted online shows eight or nine snakes danced in a follow-up performance in late December that same year.

This a an extremely popular dance with participants and the public alike because of the gaiety, wardrobe, upbeat music and drinking that it showcases. Marimba and mariachi music are overlaid throughout. The dance ends in circular funeral procession and linked-arm dancing. Twenty to 28 dancers form a full cast.

A dozen charro dancers in the line up with 10 visible here.

Common themes to both dances in contemporary presentations include old white Patrones, black servants, attractive and coquettish women figures (Xinula and Margarita), mozos-farm laborers-cowboys, and snake-handling.

Patrón rental masks for El Baile de los Mexicanos at Morería Santo Tomás, Chichicastenango, Quiché Department.

The Bailes de los Toritos, Costeños, Vaqueros, Compadres, Patzcar and Gracejos all also share a few common themes to both dances described above, but apparently don’t use snakes except on rare occasion (yet). Some unrelated dances, especially the Baile de los Güegüechos/Patzcaá in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz Department incorporate crooked walking staffs in the ritual, that are often carved and painted to depict coral and other snake species (Brown and Rossilli 2008, Arriola de Geng 2009).

Four masks from the Baile de los Toritos that are shared in several other regional bullfight-themed dances. Two contemporary, rental-style bulls are paired with two mid-century, rosy-faced white vaqueros. Note the similarity - color scheme aside - between the features on the mask shown on the bottom left to the Mexicanos below. Author’s collection.

Paul van den Akker, in his 2018 doctoral dissertation at Leiden University asserts that snakes, live and wooden are, to his knowledge, only used in the Baile de la Culebra in Guatemala. Clearly this is not the case, and there is a wealth of recent photographic and video evidence to prove otherwise.

The well-known Hopi snake dances in northern Arizona share elements with the K’iche’ Baile de la Culebra as well, most notably that they also use native bullsnakes (Pituophis melanoleucus) as the principal species in their dance. One short explanation of the Hopi snake dance is that it is a rain prayer and crop fecundity ceremony. Hopi invocations for abundant maize, beans and squash yields from their lands echo old Mayan prayers made annually throughout the western Guatemalan Altiplano for survival from subsistence plot milpa

A timeless image in the Guatemalan Altiplano. Tasseled cornfield (milpa) in the rainy season on a hillside in the Mayan highlands. Image: F. Muller.

At least one variant of the Danza de los Negritos, a dance dating from the early colonial period in Mexico and from the Sierra de Puebla, used live snakes in the past. Current versions use a carved wooden snake (B. Stevens, pers. comm., Stevens 2012). Like a few traditional dances in Guatemala, theatrical performances of the Danza de los Negritos are now exhibited as a folklore spectacle by local governments and tourist boards in central México.

There are also reports of a snake movement-influenced dance, La Danza de la Culebra, being celebrated during the Carnaval de Papalotla in Tlaxcala, México (Akker 2018), but the storyline is quite different and snake handling is apparently not involved.

And finally, some of the dances held in the Antigua basin at San Miguel Dueñas and San Antonio Aguascalientes, Sacatepéquez Department sometimes incorporate Guatemalan bullsnake handling as a recent phenomenon (O. Cruz, pers. comm.). There are also occasional modern “Mayan” snake dances like one held in Chicacao, Suchitepéquez Department on the Pacific coast that appear to have no real narrative, nor masks, but do involve traditional dress, musical instruments and several live boas held by the dancers as part of the spectacle. Many of the spectacular devil masks in Guatemala have carved coral snakes, rattlesnakes and other vipers running down their faces or sprouting from their horns. None of these have relationships to the snake dances held in the Altiplano.

Two examples of devil masks used in several dances in Ciudad Viejo, Sacatepéquez Department that have snakes prominently carved on the masks. On the left, a Diablo Seductor (“the Seducer”) and on the right a Diablo Mayor Verde (“Green Satan”). Author’s collection; both carved by the very talented artist, Oscar Cruz Quiñonez.

Morería Santo Tomás, Chichicastenango 2011. Owner Don Ignacio Calel on the left and current owner-manager Angel Ignacio Ventura on the right. They are displaying a Baile de los Toritos costume. Note rental masks and Mexican sombrero hanging in the background.

Recent fieldwork by anthropologists studying dance and ceremony in the Maya highlands of western Guatemala indicate attempts at revival of some older dances and continuing evolution in traditional dance as opposed to adhering to more familiar, highly stylized or static performances of widely-performed tourist dances such as El Baile de la Conquista. Unfortunately, this comes at a time when high-quality traditional wooden masks are becoming harder to acquire and older indigenous mask carvers abandon their craft. A few remaining morerías (mask and costume manufacturers and rental shops) in the villages of Chichicastenango and San Cristobal Totonicapán, as well as private individuals located elsewhere in the Altiplano, supply masks and wardrobe for formal dances, even those held some distance away such as in eastern Chiapas, México (Morería Alejandro Tistoj employee, pers. comm.).

Morería Alejandro Tistoj e Hijos, San Cristóbal Totonicapán, Totonicapán Department 2011.

Most finely-carved polychromed wooden masks ~100 years old or more are now in private collections or museums, many outside of Guatemala. Large numbers of vintage masks were destroyed in the late 20th century by fanatical Evangelical Protestants and Catholic fundamentalists taking up where 16th century Spanish Inquisitors’ left off (Brown and Rossilli 2008, O. Cruz pers comm.).Noteworthy old masks from well-known dances that have provenance to a late 19th or early 20th century mask carver, santero or famous moreria’s workshop have been scarce for decades and are now very valuable. Contemporary polychromed wooden dance masks are generally far less artfully-carved and painted than vintage or antique examples, and are usually fashioned from hard Mexican white pine (Pinus ayacahuite) rather than softer and more valuable Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata). Modern wooden masks destined for the rental trade are robustly built to handle a lot more abuse and wear and tear than delicately-carved early 20th century masks.

A selection of polychromed carved Spanish cedar masks from the Baile de los Mexicanos, mostly dating from the 1960s. Top row and lower right, Mexican cowboy masks, lower left a house servant, “Chiliano” mask (ca. 1980), and middle an old Margarita mask in the fine, San Cristóbal Totonicapán santero style (ca.1940), paint over gesso with German glass eyes. Author’s collection.

The mystique and artistry of older Guatemalan dance masks, their collection, restoration and curation, are a topic apart.

Recommended reading:

Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya. 2003. Allen Christenson. Available online: http://www.mesoweb.com/publications/Christenson/PopolVuh.pdf

There are several very readable annotated translations of the Popol Vuh. In my opinion, this is the best.

To Be Like Gods: Dance in Ancient Maya Civilizations. 2009. Matthew Looper. University of Texas Press. Austin, TX. A fascinating read on the history of Mayan dance from its origins through to the present and well-worth the ticket price just to see the photographs of superb late Classic period polychrome ceramics and performances of other contemporary K’iche’ dances.

Masks of Guatemalan Traditional Dances, Vols. & II. 2008. Joel Brown and Giorgio Rossilli. Privately printed. Longboat Key, FL. Together with the additional titles listed below, these represent the definitive reference work for Guatemala masks, dances and morerías. This two-volume set is a well-researched catalogue that includes many annotated historical photographs of dances taken at remote localities throughout the country as well as of modern dances photographed by the authors and their correspondents during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Nothing else in this field comes close.

Traditional Dances of Ciudad Vieja. 2008. Guatemala. Joel Brown and Oscar Cruz Quiñonez. Privately printed. Longboat Key, FL.

Guatemalan Masks - A Portfolio. 2009 Joel Brown. Privately printed. Longboat Key, FL.

Guatemalan Masks - A Study and Second Portfolio. 2011. Joel Brown. Privately printed. Longboat Key, FL.

Guatemalan Masks - A Third Portfolio. 2014. Joel Brown. Privately printed. Longboat Key, FL.

Exotica Esoterica