Crossing the Lake, Crossing the Sea: Water in K'iche'an Maya Ethnohistorical Sources

Friday, January 4, 2019: 10:30 AM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton)
Mallory Matsumoto, Brown University
Water often occupies an ambiguous position in human thought. As a resource, it can bring fertility and bounty. Yet it also holds our existence in the balance, as insufficient or excess quantities can be devastating. Furthermore, its presence in the landscape presents physical challenges or even threats to those navigating it. This dependent, but fraught relationship with water is reflected in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century K’iche’an Maya sources, with consequences for understanding water’s role in individual and collective identity. Although bodies of water are referenced as localized places on the landscape, they were themselves rarely the site of an event in these narratives. Instead, they more commonly served as demarcations or borders that delineate one place from another. Moreover, by engaging with water in its almost liminal capacity, places and objects exposed themselves to possible change, willingly or otherwise. Such transformations could be destructive, causing harm or death, or creative, inspiring (re)birth. They could be physical, with palpable consequences for the body, or spiritual, especially when associated with acquisition or loss of supernatural abilities. As a necessary and unavoidable element that could just as easily take away life as it could give it, water in colonial K’iche’an accounts possessed a potential that was ultimately transformative for both the landscape and the people who occupied it.
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