The Street Hustler Storyteller’s Art Isn’t Dead

Of course it isn’t. It lives on in television infomercial hosts, wrestling announcers and multi-level marketing gurus. But I’m talking about the real thing–the carnival barker, the frontier snake oil salesman, the witch hunter. I didn’t think that was something you could see anymore in a public setting: a silver-tongued philanthropic capitalist addressing a preferably credulous public in order to convince them at length and in grand style to buy whatever it is. In Guatemala I was astonished and really very happy to find that tradition thriving. These people are serious storytellers, doing it to survive.

I took a series of chickenbuses to Chichcastenango, a highland maya town on a hilly plateau at about 6,000 feet where they have a big market on Thursdays and Sundays. It was windy and cold and the thin air made it hard to walk uphill. At one end of town, there’s a pastel-colored graveyard on a cliff, at the other, a stark white church built in 1600 on whose steps the local adherents of the maya religion make their offerings of flowers, tobacco and copal.

Five steps into the market I met a lady selling packets of medicine to kill stomach parasites, ringworm and the like. Four pills for four days. She had a collection of specimens–actual stomach parasites preserved in alcohol in baby food jars. She picked them up one at a time as she lectured. “Look at the size of this one,” she’d say. “This demon came out of the belly of a twelve year old girl.”

Chichicastenango, you’ll recall from my earlier ranting about it, is the town where the Popol Vuh was hidden away for 250 years before Friar Ximenez found it in 1701, transcribed it and copied it into Spanish. I went to the museum in Chicago where that copy now resides; they wouldn’t let me see it, but the whole manuscript’s been scanned online anyway. Anyhow. I went to the monastery courtyard where Ximenez would have sat to make the translation. It’s right in the middle of the market, and it was packed with people resting from the ordeal of shopping. A man by the fountain was telling a story to a crowd of a hundred mostly boys, teenagers and young men. The story consisted of a long series of ad-libbed episodes illustrating how the magic elixir of strength he was offering–in clear plastic vacuum bags with straws like those juice packs you drank in junior high–had caused hilarious awesomeness to spring out wherever it fell. He’d puncture a bag of elixir and use it as a visual aid to demonstrate peeing, a pregnant lady giving milk, a guy spitting at a joke, some more peeing, wine being turned to water, water to blood, hooch being drunk, rain. The resourcefulness of it was impressive, despite the lowbrowness perhaps of the humor. And I stood there and listened for 15 minutes, trying to figure out if there was some underlying thread I’d missed or wasn’t picking up, or if this was just how the story went. Everybody was having a good time, anyhow. And when I left, he still hadn’t tried to sell anybody anything.

Now there’s a storyteller.


A bridge in Chichi. Note the depiction of quetzalcoatl above the arch. (That’s El Nubo in the backpack–my intrepid guide.)

On the long bus ride back from Chichi, a twelve year-old kid got on for the leg from Chimaltenango to Jocotenango with a shoebox full of glue sticks–paste glue in a blue lipstick tube, like I used in 2nd grade. He handed two glue sticks out to every person. He clambered to the middle of the bus, gave a three minute lecture on the proper use and benefits of these glue sticks–great for arts and crafts, a great gift for the niños, easy to use, no mess. He named a price. Then he walked back around collecting up most of the sticks he’d handed out and some money from people who wanted to keep theirs. He got off in Joco, replenished his supply from a bigger box guarded by a girl a couple years younger, and climbed back onto the return bus to present his spiel again.

Then there were the “saved” men. Usually with scars or an arm missing from the civil war. Booming preacher voices, a summary of their path from loneliness and sin to oneness with Dios. They are performing a public service, providing a lesson with a clear moral. They ask for donations.

Circular Time

In which I digress (much) further about the not-coming apocalypse.

This is long. Sorry. I tried to break it into two parts, but it just wasn’t happening. Thanks in advance for your kind attention.

The Popol Vuh is the Mayan creation myth. The version available to us today was written in secret between the years 1554 and 1558 by three anonymous philosopher-priests of the Maya religion, during the early years of the Spanish occupation of Mexico, when Catholic missionaries under Friar Diego de Landa were systematically destroying all evidence they could find of indigenous religion and culture. In order to preserve it, the authors of the Popol Vuh spirited it away somewhere in the Guatemalan city of Chichicastenango (underneath a Christian altar, perhaps, as was a favorite tactic of the Maya, preserving the old beneath the new) until 1701, when it was discovered, copied, and translated from the original Roman alphabet transliteration of Quiché into Spanish by Francisco Ximenes, another Catholic friar. His copy is the only one that survives today.

All of which is to say that the contents of the Popol Vuh as we know them have been deeply, irrevocably compromised by the influence of a conquering culture. Some evidence mitigating against this has come to light fairly recently: a stucco frieze dating from before 100 BC has been uncovered in the ruined Mayan city of Mirador, which depicts in detail a scene from the Twin Gods cycle of the Popol Vuh myth. That’s some impressive continuity, considering what an incredibly diverse range culture and belief can be seen across mesoamerica—even from one Mayan sacred site to the next. Still, there is a huge gulf of uncertainty in the 1600 years between those two points, and in the 450 years between then and the winter solstice, 2012. And it’s exactly that kind of gulf from which new-agey doomsday conspiracy theories are born.

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No Apocalypse

I love the Mayans. That ought to be obvious to anybody who’s even looked at my WordPress theme. And I guess that makes me biased. Look back through the film category of this blog and there’s a lot of needley criticism of a lot of movies with Mayan themes. For a movie that’s blatant about it the way 2012 is blatant about it, I go into the thing harboring at the same time a sense of dread and a set of unattainable expectations. Which is, of course, not anything like the state of mind that causes people to make movies with Mayan themes. They do it because human sacrifice and murky prophecies penned by ancient mystics from lost civilizations are freaky and cool, and there are a lot of other people out there like me who drool over them.

And I guess because of the mystery involved, people’s imaginations seem to be more inspired by the iteratively more far-fetched folkloric misinterpretations of these myths than the real thing. Crystal skulls, for example, sure do seem a hell of a lot cooler in the popular perception than, say, mossy ones. And I can get behind that. I can sit and enjoy the popcorny adventure elements while managing to mostly ignore my nagging annoyance with the associated historical inaccuracies, cultural insensitivities, even the occasional new-agey hyperbolic pseudo-prophetic ego trip. For the sake of the story, I can look past that stuff. I know what poetic license is. And to a certain extent, the organic, evolving, cyclical nature of Mesoamerican and precolombian mythology lends itself perfectly to that kind of speculation. These are stories that propagate and develop through oral tradition, improvisation. Changing old stories to tell new truths, and vice-versa. There’s room for sprawling, reverently researched historical epic like Gary Jennings’ Aztec, transportive surrealistic allegory like Asturias’ Hombres de Maiz, absurdist, hallucinatory postmodern ultraviolence like Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztex and intimate, intense contemporary fairytale like Aliette de Bodard’s “Blighted Heart”.

I love all that stuff. I love it to death. Which maybe means I’m less critical of Mayan influence in fiction than in film…or maybe it means that fiction’s better! Ha! But anyway.

All that said, every time I see the 2012 trailer, it gets harder to sit through, and my inclination to see it gets tinier. The best thing about that trailer is over before the titles have even finished rolling, and it’s this:

An actual, beautiful piece of Mayan relief art, CGI’d to look like it’s carved into the side of the three-million-foot high movie title logo. That one tenth of a second gives me tingles. The rest of it can go throw an aircraft carrier at itself for all I care. Because as far as I can tell, it doesn’t have a story. It may have a character or two, but mostly it appears to be about some CGI death and destruction. It doesn’t even seem to be bothering to use the mythology at all, even for entertainment purposes—it’s just a convenient date they can assign some doomsday to. And that kind of thing really does have the potential to make me mad. Because not only is it playing to the lowest common denominator at the expense of practically any resemblance to the noble, ancient art of mythmaking, and frankly bears more resemblance to a fireworks display or a line of cars slowing down to look at a wreck than it does to storytelling, but it’s perpetuating the worst, most irresponsible part of the stupid pop culture folklorification of Mayan culture. And it’s making me afraid that what I’m about to say actually still does need to be said.

There won’t be any %&*@ 2012 apocalypse.

Now, if we’re lucky, maybe there just might be a singularity. Or at least a global reawakening. I sure hope so, because for crying out loud, we could use one.

More about all that, and what the Mayan mythology and “prophecy” actually predicts, next week.

But the main point of this week’s angry anti-2012 rant is simply this: go ahead and entertain me with alien-powered crystal skulls and doomsday scenarios if you must—but couldn’t you at least try to engage with the underlying ideas a little bit? The history, the art and culture and mythology of the Mayans has so many fascinating, pertinent, complex and thought-provoking lessons to convey. Can’t we talk about that just a little?

More of that next week too.

Swinging Through the Trees

The thousand-furrowed, spiraling clouds of an angry 2012 rant have been gathering for some time on the horizons of my awareness… but today is not the day. Too much else going on. Head full of other things.

So instead, as a stopgap, a teaser, an eagle-feathered atlatl dart flung at the hurricane, here’s this, from Dennis Tedlock’s introduction to the Popol Vuh:

In theory, if we who presently claim to be human were to forget our efforts to find the traces of divine movements in our own actions, our fate should be something like that of the wooden people in the Popol Vuh. For them, the forgotten force of divinity reasserted itself by inhabiting their own tools and utensils, which rose up against them and drove them from their homes. Today they are swinging through the trees.

Tzompantli Pumpkin

Tzompantli is the nahuatl word for a wooden rack used by the Zapotecs and Toltecs for the decorative architectural display of sacrificed human heads—images of which appear all over Central America in pre-Colombian stone carvings, murals, and scrolls, and no doubt have had at least some small influence on the modern celebration of the day of the dead.