Careers of Midwives in a Mayan Community

By Lois Paul, Stanford University

Chapter Four
Social and Economic
Characteristics of Midwives

The life histories of Juana and Maria suggest answers to two general questions about the recruitment of midwives. From a panel of potential midwives (those reputed to be born with the call) only a few actualize their destinies. The process of selection is not random. What are the salient characteristics of those women who make the grade? Those women like Juana who become successful sacred professionals share characteristics that relate to family background, parental expectation, economic situation, and personal character.

"El Parto," childbirth. Painting by Matías González Chavajay, 2006. Collection: Arte Maya Tz'utujil.

Family Background

Although inheritance is not explicitly acknowledged as an avenue to the role, most midwives come from families in which the mother and/or grandmother are midwives or the father is a shaman. In Juana's case her father was a shaman and her mother herself had the divine calling although she did not practice. Identification of a future midwife is made at her birth by the midwife who delivers her. The identifying symbol is a part of the caul attached to the head. Such identification is more likely to occur, to be taken seriously, and to be acted upon when the parents are themselves sacred professionals. Like Juana, children of ritual specialists are exposed to the private rituals and prayers of midwives and shamans. These children's early experiences are framed in the esoteric cultural symbols available within the particular family culture of the midwife or shaman.

Parental Expectation

As in Juana's case, mothers of midwives are strongly motivated to have a daughter become a midwife. If the mother is a midwife herself she serves as role model. In any case the mother's motivation is implemented through the close bond that is characteristic of the mother-daughter relationship in such instances. The mother's own affect and subliminal cues form the basis for implicit communication as the girl is growing up. The prophecy is fulfilled by the predictive behavior of the parents, particularly of the mother. Thus Juana was the subject of mysterious awe-inspiring rituals; her mystical experiences were encouraged. Her mother's dire warnings and punishment gave heightened significance and a sense of fearful wonder to her early dreams. These became templates for the mystical dreams during her divine illness, her identity crisis.

Economic Situation

In San Pedro inheritance of land and wealth is theoretically bilateral but residence of young couples is predominantly virilocal, although there is an increasing tendency toward neolocal residence at an earlier stage of marriage. Michaelson and Goldschmidt (1971) in their crosscultural study of female roles and male dominance among peasants find that where inheritance is bilateral, the increased economic power of women tends to create a machismo syndrome where male authoritarian roles are expected and males feel threatened. This seems to fit the case of San Pedro. However, although women's economic power often remains a theory rather than a fact, male dominance is very important. Midwives like Juana are generally women who not only have a claim to economic means but have the means, in the form of houses or other property. Lacking the tangible means, they may have instead the moral and potential economic support of parents as a base from which to assert an independent stand vis-a-vis their husbands. All husbands balk at the prospect of losing some control over their wives, of giving up a measure of convenience, authority, and manliness in the name of community welfare. To be a successful midwife requires a husband who accommodates to the role of husband of midwife. Some men in this role prove their manliness to themselves and others by discreet sexual liaisons, which their celibate wives tend to overlook. The marriages of midwives are characteristically more complementary and less asymmetrical than most other Pedrano marriages (L. Paul 1974:289) because of the midwife's higher level of economic independence, the aura of her sacred office, and the sexual independence that she enjoys.

In effect midwives constitute an unacknowledged professional elite in San Pedro rather than the part-time category of older kinswomen or poor widows typical in some other areas (Paul, and Paul 1975). But to attain this elite status, midwives in San Pedro suffer an initiatory illness, the price they pay for prestige and power and for the agreement of their husbands. The illness, like classical rituals of transition (Van Gennep 1960), separates the woman from ordinary roles and provides the liminal ground on which the transcendent authorities intervene to resolve the conflicts arising from competing role obligations. In a culminating ritual performed by the shaman who validates her sacred office, the woman is reincorporated into her family and her society in a new hierarchy of roles: the priority of her professional obligation to society is made explicit to her husband as well as to the new midwife herself. Divine election and intervention, at the same time, maintain the boundary between the role of ordinary women and the extraordinary role of midwife, keeping ordinary women in their place.

"Parto," childbirth. Painting by Mariano González Chavajay, 1993. Collection: Amit May.

Personal Character

As stated at the outset, the midwife must also overcome her own inner resistance, a combination of fear, shame, and accustomed comfortable passivity. The woman typically has resources within herself to draw upon: an empathy based on her own experiences in giving birth, the suppressed knowledge of her own supernatural destiny, the wish to transcend her own passivity and enjoy the power and prestige of office.

The midwife has a reservoir of competence and command, heretofore exercised within the limited domestic domain, as well as a mastery of physical skills and craftwork. This gives the Pedrano woman a genuine sense of effectiveness. These domestic sources of inner competence are the resources that the midwife has only to transfer once she has redefined her identity.


The process of redefining herself, in a somewhat limited way, resembles the cognitive stages in the pattern of transformation which Silverman (1967) ascribes to shamans. During her long illness, the midwife-to-be legitimately withdraws her psychic energy from normal responsibilities and relationships and is turned inward. Her prolonged fasting and sleeplessness induce altered states of consciousness in which normal cognitive categories and affective controls give way to a flooding of released psychic materials from the various levels of the mind. In dreams and visions she confronts the repressed "mysteries" of early youth and traumas related to menstrual blood, the fear and masochism of sexual experience, and the fears of bodily disintegration in giving birth to children. Like the visions of the shaman, her visions take on cosmic proportions.

Graphically the sick woman sees female genitalia, scenes of birth, the bloody fetus, the placenta and organs out of place. She confronts chaos in the tabooed "primal scenes" of her childhood. These are the very things she will have to confront as a midwife and they strike terror into her. But having confronted them, she overcomes her terror. Through the culturally available iconic symbol-the transcendent maternal authority figure-cosmic mysteries are brought under control and reduced to the level of domestic tasks by the reassuring instructions, the lessons in obstetrics that the supernatural tutelaries give her. She is readied to assert herself and assume the mandate but she does not give up passivity completely, remaining the obedient child in fulfilling a supernatural command.

To the woman and her society the illness poses the threat of real death, despite the social and psychological functions it appears to the anthropologist to fulfill. Struggling in her own "rebirth" to overcome fear and passivity and to actualize her inner resources, the woman does for herself what the Cuna shaman does to facilitate a difficult childbirth. She expresses "otherwise inexpressible psychic states" in the symbolic forms of her culture (Levi-Strauss 1963:201). As her feelings and thoughts take shape in templates provided by her culture's cosmology, she is doing the "dream work" necessary to bring about the isomorphic coherence between the subjective woman and the objective role. The reality and gravity of the struggle are affirmed by the fact that some women destined to be midwives do succumb to death—the ultimate passivity. It is clear that in San Pedro the role of midwife demands women strong in body and mind. The case of Juana illustrates the process by which the successful transformation is made from ordinary woman to sacred professional.

Deficiency in any of the foregoing characteristics-presence of role models, a climate of expectation, economic advantage, and strength of character-accounts for the many failures among the women credited with supernatural birth signs.

The case of Maria constitutes an instructive exception to these rules of selection. Although given unusual attention as an infant, she was not defined by her parents as a potential midwife. Nor did she have a base of economic independence from which to assert her autonomy. She did, however, anomalously identify with her shaman father as a role model. And she did have an unusual amount of drive and talent, which made it possible for her to escape the role of deviant and redefine herself as a sacred professional, a person of momentous importance. However, it is unlikely that she could have become a midwife had she remained in San Pedro. That her situation is not as stable as Juana's is not surprising. That she was able despite family expectation and lack of economic support to become a capable and prestigious midwife is the more noteworthy. In another culture she might have been driven into madness. Although her role as wife is not altogether syntonic with her role as midwife, she is able to find structure and resonance in the role of midwife to fit her unique personality needs.

In the cases of both Juana and Maria, we have seen what belief in supernaturals does-how spirits of ancestor midwives as cultural symbols overcome strains and role conflicts and effect the resynthesis of the individual woman's ego, her transformation to a sacred professional. But an equally interesting question is what supernaturalism means, what it communicates to Pedranos about the nature of reality and the relation of that reality to their view of the cosmos.

In the face of rapid modernization and rivalrous sectarian claims to represent the only true religion, a new phenomenon has arisen—the skeptic who questions the very existence of God, of ancestor spirits, and of nature deities. In San Pedro, shamans are diminishing in number, their office challenged by new religions and by medicines that can now be bought in local pharmacies. But pastors and pharmacists do not deliver babies, hospitals are far away, and nothing is locally available to take the place of native midwives. Midwives who are supernaturally selected and instructed are still preferred to the few who have recently learned their art from public health nurses. Belief in supernatural assistance at childbirth not only gives midwives and their patients an extra measure of assurance in the face of danger and uncertainty, but also provides evidence that a deeper layer of meaning lies beyond the seemingly capricious losses, suffering, and inequities of the existential world. The supernaturals may be punitive and arbitrary but they are not mad or disinterested in the affairs of humans. The midwife's mystical experiences are proof that the invisible supernaturals exist, and that the midwife herself is blessed with supernatural powers to assist other women in childbirth.


Colby, Benjamin J. 1967. Psychological orientations. In Robert Wauchope (ed.), Handbook of Middle American Indians (Vol. 6). Austin: University of Texas Press. 416–431.

De Beauvoir, Simone. 1970. The Second Sex. New York: Bantam Books.

Eliade, Mircea. 1964. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Landy, David. 1974. Role adaptation: Traditional curers under the impact of Western medicine. American Ethnologist 1 :103–127.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1963. The effectiveness of symbols. In Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books. 186–205.

Lewis, I. M. 1971. Ecstatic Religion. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books.

Lindemann, Erich. 1944. Symptomatology and management of acute grief. American Journal of Psychiatry 101:141–148.

Michaelson, Evalyn J. and W. Goldschmidt. 1971. Female roles and male dominance among peasants. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 27:330–352.

Paul, Benjamin D. 1967. Mental disorder and self-regulating processes in culture: A Guatemalan illustration. In R. Hunt (ed.), Personalities and Cultures. New York: Natural History Press.

Paul, Lois. 1974. The mastery of work and the mystery of sex in a Guatemalan village. In M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere (eds.), Woman, Culture and Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Paul, Lois. 1975. Recruitment to a ritual role: The midwife in a Maya community. Ethos 3:449–467.

Paul, Lois and Benjamin D. Paul. 1963. Changing marriage patterns in a highland Guatemalan community. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 19:313–148.

Paul, Lois and Benjamin D. Paul. 1975. The Maya midwife as sacred professional. American Ethnologist 2(4):707–726.

Silverman, Julian. 1967. Shamans and acute schizophrenia. American Anthropologist 69:21-31.

Uzzell, Douglas. 1974. Susto revisited: Illness as strategic role. American Ethnologist 1:369–378.

Van Gennep, Arnold. 1960. The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Phoenix paperback edition.