Preuss Book on Mayan Culture Published
These questions are answered in a new book by Penn State McKeesport Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature, Dr. Mary Preuss. Yucatec Maya Stories: From Chen-Ja' to the Milpa was released in June by Labyrinthos, Lancaster, CA. The book is a compilation of folk stories Preuss collected during several visits to towns ranging from Muna to Choyob in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.
Preuss is an expert in Mayan culture and literature and travels often to the region. Her first book, Gods of Popol Vuh (Labyrinthos, 1988), focused on the roles of major deities in the Quiche Maya's religious book.
She is also the editor of Latin American Indian Literatures Journal and editor of six books about Latin American Indians.
In her new book Preuss presents a collection of stories and their interpretations as told to her by Yucatec Mayas. Their ancestors, usually the elders in families, orally passed down these stories over many centuries. Preuss tape recorded, transcribed, and translated the stories so that they will not be lost to future generations.
“The influence of television on the present generation living in this region is strong. In the past families gathered together in the evenings and parents or grandparents entertained the children and each other with these stories,” Preuss said. Unfortunately, many myths may be on their way to extinction.
In the book’s introduction the author gives an in-depth description of the area where she conducted her research. By painting a picture of the region, its history, and its people, she prepares the reader for a peek through a window in time at a mystical culture. Preuss identifies the individuals who tell the stories, their ages, and the towns in which they live.
The first chapter examines myths by looking at the characters in various stories, their themes and the old Indian beliefs that are present in each. The Mayans believed in cosmological structure, the way in which the universe is ordered. They held strong beliefs about the earth, four cardinal points, the solstices, and the symbols of the axis mundi. The axis mundi is the imaginary line that traverses three levels of the universe including heaven, Earth, and the underworld. Shamans, priests who use magic to control events, and deities can traverse these levels, but not humans.
Some of the figures in myths have been around since the 16th century when the Spanish colonized the region. The aluxes are an example of such figures and Preuss devotes a chapter to them.
“The aluxes are little people and they are very mischievous,” Preuss explained. “They are about knee-high, smoke little cigars and wear little sombreros,” she said.
One may believe in them or not, much like leprechauns; however, many instances of unexplained events have been attributed to the aluxes.
“Aluxes like to play pranks,” Preuss said. They can make hammocks swing or make fires go out when there is no other obvious explanation. They have been known to throw pots and pans out into the yard when angered by the homeowner about something.
“The aluxes have to be respected. If not, they can make life very miserable,” she said. “They demonstrate dualities which Mayan philosophy credits with maintaining a balance of order in the world. For instance, life is good when there is a balance between good and bad.”
The admonition “to be careful about the aluxes” is illustrated in a story about an archeologist and his encounter with the “little people.” It is customary that archeologists carefully remove the stones from former temples that have been covered over with plants, trees, and dirt. Working in a remote area of the Yucatan peninsula, an archaeologist and his assistants lay the stones nearby on the ground in a systematic fashion. (This procedure helps to determine the order of the stones in the original structure). At the end of the first day he recorded the findings, but when they resumed work the next day, all of the stones were back in their former positions.
Bewildered, the archaeologist directed the workers to remove the stones again and arrange them on the ground as before. It was long, tedious work. Upon returning to the site on the third day, the archeologist again found the stones in their original location. The mysterious act baffled him. Who caused this phenomenon? Perhaps someone did not want him to be there.
When he shared his concerns with natives, they told him it was the work of the aluxes. The “little people” thought he was being disrespectful because he had not engaged a shaman to perform the required ceremony. Once the rite was done, there were no more problems.
Other chapters recount myths about sirens, guardians, witches and sorcerers, and ordinary Maysa, as well as beliefs and traditions. Preuss hopes that the preservation of these stories will be continued in their native land. She has met a few University students who are working together to accomplish that goal.
With the decline of oral tradition and the influence of television on world cultures, perhaps these tales will some day become material for television scripts which may broaden the audience for these entrancing stories of the Mayan culture of the Yucatan region.