Mayan ethnographer, John Early examines the centuries-long speculation about why the ritual calendars of the Mayan Indians in Guatemala and the regions of Chiapas and Yucatan in Mexico revolve around festivals in honor of the Catholic saints. During these festivals, at the insistence of the Maya, a Catholic priest comes to their villages to celebrate mass and baptize newborns. Refuting the often-repeated thesis of a ""spiritual conquest"" by the Spaniards or their post-colonial successors in which the Maya were converted to Christianity, Early argues that the Maya identify with Catholicism despite their failure to embrace the religion in any orthodox sense. The author explains the paradox by showing that, as is often the case in conversion attempts, the Maya adapted elements of Catholicism into their existing beliefs. Drawing on historical and ethnographic materials to discover the cultural logics with which the Maya interpret their ritual behavior, Early offers a detailed description of all the elements of the Mayan festivals for the saints and of the pre-Columbian Maya worldview about rituals and the theological concepts behind them. Considering the sixteenth-century worldview of the Spanish royalty, the conquistadors, and the Catholic priests to reveal the Spanish mindset before and during their encounters with the Maya, the author also cites the testimony of the Maya. Early provides a unique synthesis of archaeological, historical, ethnographic, and theological data that shows the use of Catholic elements is completely understandable in terms of the traditional Mayan worldview dating from pre-Columbian times.
John D. Early is professor emeritus of anthropology at Florida Atlantic University. His many books include The Xilixana Yanomami: History, Social Structure, and Population Dynamics with coauthor John F. Peters (UPF).