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The Semiotics of Body and Cosmos in Maya Healing Incantations

Timothy Knowlton, Berry College, Fellow 2014–2015

During my fellowship, I focused on researching Maya ideologies of signs and signification over time as they relate to indigenous cosmology and concepts regarding the human body. My case study is the colonial compilation of Yucatec healing chants and herbal remedies known as the Ritual of the Bacabs. Invoking Pre-Columbian deities and using archaic tropes shared with Classic Maya inscriptions, this manuscript is the most important extant source for understanding how Maya medicine was performed in the late Pre-Columbian and Colonial epochs. I am working to elucidate this notoriously enigmatic manuscript through the methodological tools of linguistic anthropology and insights from my own recent fieldwork with contemporary Maya healers in Yucatán.

While at Dumbarton Oaks, my analysis focused on several problems. The first is the relationship between the words of the chants and the material culture involved in healing. For example, healing rituals include the reinterpretation of quotidian domestic equipment (such as cooking pots and weaving implements) as the uayasba, “icons,” of gods. Understanding the rituals therefore involves reconstructing Maya notions of materiality. A second emphasis is the chants’ conception of the human body as porous. Bodies are “entered” by non-human forces, and health is subject to ritual manipulation through exposure to heat, flame, and “cooling” substances. A final emphasis is locating the female deities operating in the healing rites’ cosmological landscape, and evaluating their diachronic relationship to Pre-Columbian antecedents.