Anthropology in Mexico

The Anthropological Museum in Mexico City is a cultural jewel. Built around a wide courtyard, it occupies two stories and today I could only manage the ethnographic section detailing the lives of the diverse indigenous cultures of Mexico.

Two features struck me - the sheer diversity of origin myth - the stories of a community's founding - and the commonality of the response - that the story should embody the coming of order and that this order must be maintained in ritual. Ritual, which in Mexico, repeatedly brings one back to dance. The world is repetitively brought back into harmony through dancing. Most spectacular are the pole or tree dance where four figures descend from the height of a specially prepared tree, bound by rope to their feet, they descend in thirteen spiraling circles. On the faces of the dancers is neither excitement or joy but a concentration pof energy and focus that betokens the seriousness of their tasks.

There was much detail on how each indigenous culture had responded to the impact of Spanish colonialism and Catholic mission. What I had not appreciated fully was how slow the colonization of Mexico had been. You think of it in terms of sudden collapse - Cortes extraordinary victory over the Aztec. However, the Huichol, to name but one group, resisted the Spanish (and the Franciscans) well into the eighteenth century (and in many respects Catholicism until now).

I loved the Huichol origin myth - that had the gods emergent from the sea of chaos (the Pacific Ocean), travelling across the temperate mountains and finding enlightenment on a hill in the desert, searing light bringing darkness to balance. The Huichol live in the mountains in the middle - the centre of balance between chaotic ocean and burnishing heat. It fitted the landscape beautiful, not as 'explanation' but as a beautiful imagining of space.

The blending of Catholic motif and traditional belief and practice was fascinating and complex. I noticed, for example, that the devil was a being that required distraction rather than resistance - in the case I saw by getting him drunk! The gods need to be navigated like capricious humans rather than God and evil as involved in a war through time that will come to final conclusion (and victory for God). Time is relentlessly cyclical.

What too does it say that with one group, Jesus was seen as the god of metal tools and money: a god of colonial invention.

I too happily saw a painting of my beloved Leonora Carrington - one of the few of her paintings that took up themes from the traditions and symbolism of her adopted country - in this case of the Maya. One of the features of the museum is how contemporary works of interpretation are allowed to sit amongst the artefacts of their inspiration. It gives to the whole the character of a living tradition - a place not of preservation but of witness.


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