The January fiesta honouring Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of sheep, has particular importance among the Tzotzil speaking Mayans of Chamula in the south-eastern state of Chiapas, Mexico. A couple of days before the fiesta, sheep owners, both men and women, visit their church carrying ribbons, salt and tzelpat, (a shrub used as fodder for goats, sheep and deer.) They first approach one of the annual cargo holders sponsoring the fiesta, and hand him the ofrenda (offering). The cargo holder takes it and first touches the robe of Saint John’s statue, before placing the ribbons in a book hanging from the saint’s hand. The worshippers then address each saint in turn. To Sebastian they say, ‘Heed here, Lord Saint Sebastian, please watch over my sheep, make sure that nothing happens to them.’ They then address Saint John and say ‘Please Lord Shepherd, take care of my sheep every day, wherever they wander on this earth, wherever they drink water’. The sheep owners return home with the blessed offering, and place the ribbons around the necks of their youngest sheep, assured that the flock is protected. This tradition has made eating sheep meat taboo. The sheep are never killed, only left to die of old age. The shepherds, who are all women, are also weavers, and they say of their flock, ‘they are our brethren, they dress us, if we were to kill or eat them, the Yajval (Lord or Patron) would get very angry and would not give us any wool.’ Sheep are not native to the Americas, they were introduced shortly after the Spanish conquest The Spanish landowners who distributed the sheep in Chamula, wary they might be eaten during the continuous famines, instilled these beliefs which are still held sacred. Unlike llama and alpaca, the domesticated woolbearing animals of the Andes, sheep were a novelty in Middle America. According to a 16th century Spanish-Tzotzil dictionary, they were named tushnuk or tunim chij, cotton-deer, in allusion to their physical similarity to deer, and their cotton-like fibre-giving quality. Today they are simply chij, sheep, and deer are tetikal chij, mountain sheep. Spanish landowners exacted high tributes from the Mayans, which included spun wool and weavings. However, in this region they also selectively introduced certain parts of European technology used to transform wool such as shearing scissors and carding combs. These were made in the city of San Cristobal de las Casas. What was not introduced in Chamula was the spinning wheel or the treadle loom. Instead, the shepherd-weavers continued to use the spindlewhorl and backstrap loom, which were both portable and compatable with being productive during the hours invested in shepherding. Indeed, this may be why it was not practical to introduce the ‘modern’ wheel and loom in Chamula, whereas this technology was in use in the urban centre of San Cristobal, 10 km away. Adapting to this new fibre, the spindle grew to twice the size of the cotton spindle to adjust to the longer, thicker wool and the waist loom...To read the full article click on the Selvedge Articles icon below from issue 89.
MADDA STUDIO SE from SWANG on Vimeo.