Maya Pilgrimage to Ritual Landscapes: Insights from Archaeology, History, and Ethnography

Nov 8th, 2015 | By | Category: 27-2: American Indian Law, Media Reviews

maya-pilgrimage-ritual-landscapesBy Joel W. Palka
University of New Mexico Press (2014)
392 pages

Review by Laurie A. Occhipinti

In many religious traditions, pilgrimages to sacred sites are undertaken in order to reaffirm individual faith, request divine intervention and favors, forge community bonds, and perform rituals that strengthen social, as well as spiritual, order. In this book, Joel W. Palka uses archaeological, historical, and ethnographic sources to trace Maya pilgrimage over thousands of years. For the Maya, pilgrimage has been, and continues to be, an integral cultural and religious practice through which people communicate with the gods, maintain ethnic and local identity, and interact with the landscape. Based on his own archaeological research over several decades as well as an extensive and thorough review of other researchers’ work, Palka argues that for the Maya, pilgrimage is not an exceptional activity but an obligatory practice that is “just as important to Maya people’s everyday life as cooking food, building houses, and planting fields.”

Over many centuries, Maya pilgrims have visited islands and waterfalls, cliffs and mountains, caves, and even ruins of earlier communities and shrines, all believed to be home to the gods. At ancient pilgrimage sites, archaeologists find offerings such as incense burners and figurines, small objects that would have been easy for pilgrims to transport. Historically, the Maya’s own written records, as well as colonial writings, describe the rituals of pilgrimage. More recently, ethnographers have chronicled contemporary Maya pilgrimage in traditional communities as an important religious practice in which people from many communities continue to visit ancient sites and sometimes the ruins of their ancestors.

The strength of this meticulously documented study is its great time depth, providing a different kind of perspective on ancient practices and beliefs and the enduring importance of this ritual practice. The book mentions pilgrimage sites that combine Catholic and traditional locations and symbols, but does not explore this transformation in depth. Still, the case study makes a strong contribution not only to our understanding of Maya pilgrimage, but as a model of interpreting how cultural practices persist and change through time.

Laurie A. Occhipinti, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.

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