Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Worship at Teotihuacan

When I take study groups to the grand archeological site of Teotihuacan I usually make a stop at Cuicuilco, the oldest pyramid in the Valley of Mexico, and the place where Teotihuacan's story begins.

Museums and archeological sites generally try to portray themselves as friendly places; most do a pretty good job of welcoming us before giving us their invariable list of "don’ts".  In contrast, Cuicuilco, on the southern edge of Mexico City, doesn't even say "Welcome" before telling us all the things we can’t do.

Outside the site is an Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) banner that says "Attention" followed by a long list of prohibited acts.  Along with the “usuals,” no alcoholic beverages, no spray paint, no indelible felt tip pens, no high heeled shoes, all of which are meant to protect the archeological site, there are also the "unusuals", no baby carriages, no parasols, no backpacks or large bundles, no musical instruments.

Then there are those that seem to border on the absurd -- it is prohibited to light fires, liberate evil spirits, heal anyone, make gifts or donations of any kind.   Since it’s a federal zone no money can be handled.

Without coming out and saying so, the last grouping of "don'ts" effectively prohibits religious worship.

 Being a federal entity in a country whose constitution guarantees religious liberty INAH cannot restrict worship on federal sites.  It can however prohibit all those things that accompany worship -- music, incense, donations, healing rites -- a response to a growing religious movement which worships at archeological sites.

Most INAH archeologists consider themselves social scientists and archeological sites as scientific research areas.  Mesoamerican religion is something they study objectively, as a phenomenon of the past.

That view is increasingly put to the test at Cuicuilco, especially during the month of March.
Cuicuilco's visitors are required to register upon entering the site.  Until recently we signed in on a form that asked our reason for visiting.  There were many days those writing "meditation" -- a euphemism for worship -- outnumbered those with an archeological interest.

Usually dressed in white, sometimes with a red headband, those listing "meditation" as their reason arrive in groups of five to fifty, each with their own leader.  They refrain from labeling themselves but those not part of that movement usually refer to those in white as members of the "Mexicanidad" -- a term I also use.

As the name implies, the Mexicanidad draws from prehispanic Mesoamerican religion but members of it accept a revolutionary idea within religions -- the idea that God has acted among all peoples on this earth and there are valid religious ideas to be drawn from every religion.  Meetings, usually carried out with all participants in a circle sometimes standing sometimes seated on the ground involve instruction and teaching by the leader, meditation, an invocation with prayers addressed to the four cardinal points, the center of the sky, and Mother Earth, usually accompanied by the sound of a conch shell trumpet.

The Mexicanidad is very much an urban middle-class movement which contrasts with the more Indigenous, highly disciplined, Conchero movement.  The Concheros' wear prehispanic-type dress and make offerings of dance accompanied by drums and the characteristic stringed instrument made from the concha, or shell, of an armadillo.
Concheros are frequently seen at sacred sites on which Catholic churches were built shortly after the conquest while the Mexicanidad prefers archeological sites.

Members of both movements will be converging on Cuicuilco, Teotihuacan, and other archeological sites on the vernal equinox.   Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Sun will be visited by hundreds of thousands, perhaps even a million, many of whom will be dressed in white and who will ascend the pyramid.  Once on top, many will perform rituals in addition to raising their arms to absorb the special energy they believe to be present.  INAH recognizes this phenomenon is too large to stop; Teotihuacan will be open from before dawn till dark. 

It's hard to know how attendance this year will be affected by changes in the calendar. March 21st is Benito Juarez's birthday, but it is now observed on a Monday. Previously the holiday made it easy to celebrate the equinox without missing a day of work. Nevertherless expect huge crowds at Teotihuacan and smaller yet impressive numbers at Cuicuilco.

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