The San Antonio Deer Dance
For the first time in ten years, the Deer Dance Festival was celebrated in August of 1989, in the Mopan Maya village of San Antonio in the Toledo District of Belize. Several years ago, the traditional costumes had been destroyed in a fire. Influenced by missionaries, some Maya lost interest in the traditional festivals. But others from both Mopan and Ketchi Mayan villages in the Toledo District, became concerned about the loss of their cultural traditions and formed a group which evolved into the Toledo Maya Cultural Council. The Council's objectives are "to strengthen the concepts of indigenous and cultural rights based upon the principle of equality and to ensure unity among the Maya of Toledo." In 1987, the Council obtained a grant from Video Incorporated, a broadcast company, to make new masks and costumes and to perform the dance for video taping, but they did not hold the entire festival that year.
I had visited San Antonio, a village of nearly 2,000 people, twice before. Bol's Hilltop Hotel overlooks the entire valley and the villagers are eager to tell visitors of the Mayan way of life. When I learned the Deer Dancers would be dancing from the 15th of August until the Festival of San Luis on the 25th, I planned to visit.
I was not especially interested in what I thought was a separate, Catholic celebration on the 25th. With my Western analytical and cultural bias, I expected to dissect the ritual into its ancient Maya and Spanish-influenced components. I was in for a great cultural awakening! I found the traditional Deer Dance, the statues of the two saints, San Antonio and San Luis, a greased pole (money tree) and the Catholic Church, all integrated into one coherent festival which represents the Mayan culture as it exists today.
The village of San Antonio was established about a century ago when refugees fleeing the Guatemalan army came from San Luis, Guatemala. Though they brought along the statue of their patron saint, San Luis, they named their new village San Antonio, said to be his younger brother. These two Catholic saints probably represent ancient Mayan gods, but also seem to personify the two villages - their old home San Luis, Guatemala, and the new home, San Antonio, Belize.
Mayan society is a cooperative community emphasizing equal status of all persons. There is a minimum of hierarchy in the political structure as positions of leadership are passed around from year to year. I met the alcalde, the leader of the village, and requested permission to photograph the festival and write an article. He referred me to one of the nine priostes, a position somewhere between priest and presiding officer, who gave me permission and explained the festival. During the nine days of the festival, each of the nine priostes, in turn, hosts the entire village for one day of the novena, the dancing and feasting. That family is responsible for the food for the whole community for that day, a considerable expense.
The roles of men and women are sharply defined, but given equal respect. The day before the novena, men come to help butcher the pig, while the novena is going on at another house. The women make a sweet, yeast bread and shuck the corn, which is boiled in lime that has been extracted from snail shells. On the day of the novena, many women arrive early to carry water from the river, grind the corn, make the tortillas, cook the meat stew, make coffee, and grind cacao for a drink made from cacao, black pepper and sugar.
On the days which include an all-night vigil, this work goes on from early morning until the midnight meal. As I learned to make tortillas, I saw how hard the women worked. The corn grinding seemed endless! But, as they worked, they laughed and joked, sometimes at my lopsided tortillas. They have little time for visiting in their normal daily routine, so this was a welcome celebration. During some of the all-night vigils, there was social dancing to the lively music of the marimba, alternating with a quartet playing violin, mandolin, harp, and drum. The large sound box on which the harp was mounted served as the drum and was hit with the drummer's fists.
The Festival began with an all-night vigil in which there was no dancing. The masks and costumes were blessed with the smoke from burning copal (incense) and given food offerings. The Maya believe there is great power in the masks that can be directed for good or ill, so the blessing and the daily return to the church to light candles and pray are to satisfy the masks so they will not be angry.
Each day the sound of the drum announced the procession to the home of the prioste for that day. Leading the procession was the Holy Deer, followed by the other characters of the dance, two marimbas, one of which was carried by four men as three men played. This marimba was placed inside the prioste's house and played during breaks in the ceremonial dancing which was held outside.
The other marimba was used only for the ceremonial dancing and was played by one man, the director of the event. There were twelve dancers, in two lines of six, which face the marimba. Each dancer was paired with a partner in the other line. Those in the left line were said to be the older brothers or sisters of those in the right line. Heading the lines were two men in red, then the Holy Deer on the left and the tiger (jaguar) on the right, followed by another pair of men in red, the women (played by men), the dogs and, finally, the hunters, who were dressed in black. The men in red and the hunters also played rattles and chanted, adding to the music of the dance.
The dance consisted of a chorus repeated between the figures which told the stories. The entire sequence was repeated each day, beginning in mid morning and finishing by late afternoon, in the hot sun. The figures used the four corners and the center of the space between the two lines, representing the five Maya cardinal directions - north, south, east, west, and the center.
The story of the tiger began with the tiger dancing around the center and around each of the other dancers. The tiger then chased and was chased by each of the four men in red from each of the four corners and around the center. Perhaps they represent the bacabs, the Maya guardians of the directions. The tiger played the clown, improvising and teasing the hunters throughout the dance, stealing their hats or their rattles. Finally, the tiger was captured and the dancer stepped out of the skin of his costume and out of the dance. The hunters pantomimed the killing and skinning of the tiger.
The story of the Holy Deer was danced with reverence instead of comedy. The Holy Deer danced grandly around, acknowledging the other dancers and then ran away to hide in the woods. The hunters sent their dogs after him. Eventually, the Holy Deer came back, chased by the dogs and the hunters captured the skin as the dancer slipped out of it. The hunters killed the deer, skinned it, and gave it to the women to end the dance.
The preparations for the finale started two days before with an all-night vigil for the men who were to cut the tree for the greased pole. At the senior prioste's house, an alter was made for San Luis, and the prize to be place at the top of the pole, was hung on the alter. This colorful sculpture was made of bananas, a bottle of rum, and money.
The tree was cut and trimmed the next day, and the dancing continued, drawing larger and larger audiences. A great procession followed as the huge pole was carried up the hill to the church. Halfway up the hill, and again at the top of the hill, the pole was put down and blessed by the statue of San Antonio, the dancers, and the women who carried the burning copal. San Antonio was then returned to his place in the church, more prayers were said, and the statue of San Luis, flanked by a dozen flags, was taken out under a canopy to bless the pole. The pole was left at the top of the hill and the procession, including San Luis, went to the senior prioste's house for another night of social dancing and feasting.
On the morning of the 25th, preparations for raising the pole began to the steady, dramatic beat of the drum. The men cut grooves for the support ropes and the prize, and constructed a cradle in the hole where the pole would be raised. The pole was about 60 feet long and made from a tree called sayuc in Mopan Maya. Its massive size made the logistics very important, for any mistake could cause a serious accident. Twenty-four bars of soap were flattened with rocks, broken into small pieces, and dissolved in three buckets of water. Melted lard was then added. Once the slippery concoction was well-mixed, it was used to grease the pole.
The Deer Dance began with the Holy Deer story. When the Holy Deer ran away to hide, the whole procession went to the home of the senior prioste where San Luis was in residence on his altar. They ate a meal there and then came back in a grand finale procession with the saint under his canopy, flanked by the flags. It was, after all, his birthday. The greased pole was then blessed again by San Luis, by the dancers, and by the women with burning copal.
The pole raising was the most dramatic event I have ever witnessed. To the steady beat of the drums and with the added drama of an approaching thunderstorm, fifty men holding ropes and five holding forked sticks began to lift the pole. There were several false starts, after which adjustments were made. Two more ropes were added; the forked sticks were repositioned; and some of the grease was taken off the pole because the forked sticks kept slipping.
Finally, the pole began to go up. One of the forked sticks broke, but men holding the remaining four gradually raised the pole, moving the sticks in turn to a point lower on the pole. Suddenly, the weight of the pole left the sticks and was held only by the ropes. The men holding the forked sticks dropped them and ran. The men with the ropes took over, pulling in all directions. The giant pole swayed dangerously. The breathless crowd watched as the pole righted itself and finally settled into the hole.
The tiger and the hunters were the first to attempt to climb the pole and then a dozen other men tried. Even with the support of a forked stick under their feet, which were tied together, none got more than one-third of the way up. Several more tried and climbed half way before they, too gave up. When the successful challenger started, his manner was different, more determined. As he reached for his prize at the top of the pole, the church bells rang out.
While this was going on, the Deer Dance continued. The tiger ran away, climbed a tree, and was brought down by the hunters with bows and arrows. After the hunters captured the Holy Deer, the women hung the Holy Deer skin on a small replica of the greased pole, as if it were the prize at the top of the pole.
I asked the about the meaning of the festival and was told that it was simply for fun and enjoyment, but the villagers' belief in the power of the masks indicated a much deeper reason. When pressed, some said the deer represented the people of San Antonio being chased by the Guatemalan army - but the dance is older than that. Others suggest it was about the Spanish conquest five hundred years ago. Even that seems too recent. Then I was told that it was about the Maya as hunters and the way they related to the animals they hunted. This was closer to the symbolism I wanted to believe after watching the dance. Whatever it means, the Deer Dance Festival says much about current Maya culture and about the generosity and cooperation of a community celebration. The Maya culture is only one of several distinct cultural traditions of Belize, a country that values the preservation of its people's diversity.
I am grateful to Jose Maria Salam (the Holy Deer), the other dancers, Juan Cal, Paula Salam, Prudencio Paquiul, Timotea Teul, Thomas Sho, Rosario Cucul, Dionisio Bol, Florencio Choc, Martina Coc, Petrona Sho, Concepcion Cal, Pablo Cal, Elizabeth Cal, Victoria Bol, Primitivo Coc and Eve Danziger, for their warm hospitality which enhanced my enjoyment and understanding of this event.Judy Lumb, August, 1989