Three human skulls of unknown origin with crosses drawn on them are laid before the altar at a catholic church. People pray a traditional rosary to the skulls before All Saints Day mass begins. Once the service in which the names of the dead are read out loud concludes, some of the churchgoers approach the skulls to greet them by caressing or kissing them. After a short while, a man grabs the one in the middle and takes it for a walk through the town. The rest of crowd follows.
The Procession of the Holy Spirits (La Procesión de las Santas Ánimas) is a tradition held by the Itzá people of San José, Petén, a town is located 515km north of Guatemala City. Every November 1st, after the Catholic mass for All Saints Day, members of the maya community walk through the town with one of the human skulls from the altar to visit different families. This year, eleven households have agreed to receive the skull. So, each family prepares a meal for the eighty or more people who participate in the procession, which carries on until dawn. During each visit, three women would chant Catholic prayers in Spanish to honor the dead. Once they’re done, tamales and sweetened coffee are served to all the visitors.
According to the spiritual leader and elder of the Itzá, Reginaldo Chayax, the procession takes place during All Saints Day and the Day of the Dead because Itzá belief holds that the spirits are out and about in the days close to these holidays. Normally, it is suggested that people stay indoors to think about their loved ones who have passed. However, the participants in the procession represent the holy spirits who are out at night, which is why every household they visit greets them with a feast.
Chayax explained that the relevance of this tradition is exemplified in a story from his childhood. “My grandmother told me that long ago, there used to be this one family”, he says. “The husband, who enjoyed hunting, turned ill. So, his wife sold all the hens and they were left without any animals to sell or eat.”
The elder explains that, four days before All Saints Day, the huntsman began to feel better. He then told his wife that he would go out to hunt so that she would have something to prepare a meal with. His family warned him that the spirits would be out that night but he told them that he wouldn’t go too far.
“As he walked through the forest, he came close to a water-point at a crossroads”, Chayax continues. “He began hearing the voices of people. Some of them were bathing, others were swimming and one in particular was crying.” The other voices asked the weeping one why he cried and it replied that it wished to take a bath, but he didn’t have any clothes to change into. The other voices offered the weeping one their clothes, but the weeper complained that it just wasn’t the same.
“Then the huntsman stepped on something that made a noise on the ground, and when he looked up again, half of the people at the water-point turned into wild boars while the other half turned into pheasants and other birds. After seeing this, the huntsman decided to leave his trade”, Chayax concludes.
According to Chayax, the tradition and reverence to the holy spirits is deeply intertwined with traditional medicine and medicinal plants. During the 1930s and 1940s, he explains, there was no knowledge of doctors or nurses. “Our grandfathers, who are your great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers, lived through the knowledge of medicinal plants. For them, the holy spirits were a living thing and they had tremendous faith in them”, he says. “When someone fell ill, they would ask the holy spirits to let their sick person rest. If they were going to take him, then they should take him right away. If they were to live, then the holy spirits should take away their suffering”. And, in the particular case of the huntsman of the story, the spirits took away his suffering so he could carry on with his life, so he gave up hunting after seeing the spirits turn into animals.
At the break of dawn of November 2nd, the spirits leave. The skull is taken back to the church and placed back, along with the other two, into a crystal case next to the altar. Those who participated in the procession go back to their homes after the long night’s walk.