Symbolic Sibling Rivalry
in a Guatemalan Indian Village

By Benjamin D. Paul, Stanford University

Chapter Two
The Definition of Danger

Conviction that a given child harbors a destructive spirit is founded on several types of evidence. A baby born with two hair whorls or with the cord wound round its neck is sometimes thought to have a baneful destiny. When it is two years or older the curing rite may be performed to protect the lives of subsequent siblings. If the youngest of several children continues fretful and sickly for weeks or months after it is born, blame may center on the next older child; it is feared that he is slowly consuming the spirit of the vulnerable infant; or the ailing child may itself become suspect in due time and require ritual intervention to safeguard still younger babies. But the most typical situation leading to performance of the curing rite is one in which successive babies die12 while an older sibling remains alive. On the assumption that the living child has eaten its younger brothers or sisters and will do the same at the next opportunity, it is subjected to the magical cure a week after another baby is born, when mother and infant formally end their post-partum seclusion.

"Purificación del Alma," purification of the soul. Sacred sites where Maya perform rituals, often have been chosen because of some exceptional physical characteristic, in this case the incredible view of the lake and surrounding mountains. Painting by Pedro Rafael González Chavajay, 2007.

To reduce anxiety over the death of children13 parents resort to various protective measures including the use of herbal charms to ward off "evil-eye," disparagement to avert the caprice of fate, burning candles before images of the saints and at hillside shrines, and similar acts. By itself the presence of death or disease need not direct suspicion against a child. Family misfortune is susceptible to a wide range of natural and supernatural explanations including fright, were-animals, domestic discord, and the malicious sentiments of envious neighbors. But the contrast between the favorable fate of one. child and the unhappy fate of the next may easily arouse suspicion that one is surviving at the cost of the other. In any event the diagnosis is not made by the parents themselves. They bring their troubles to a shaman or the family mid- wife; both ritual specialists owe their calling to supernatural mandate. Like our own physicians they prescribe according to certain established doctrines, taking into account the peculiarities of the case, intimate knowledge of the client, and need for reassurance. If empirical measures prove ineffective they fall back on invocation, exorcism and special ritual. Children may be credited with evil spirits when conditions fit the cultural "definitions of the situation" outlined above. In such event the shaman or midwife ascertains or assumes that the child had been born on an unlucky day, the native calendar being horoscopic. But any given situation permits a choice of interpretations depending on the intensity of concern, availability of alternate explanations, and the judgment of the consulting specialist.

To work properly, the procedural steps of the sibling ritual should conform to the accepted symbolic idiom of the culture. One rule is to keep the male principle and the female principle unmixed. If the subject of the ritual cure is a boy, the fowl should be a cockerel and the ritual specialist a shaman (who is always a male). In the case of a girl, a pullet is used and a midwife officiates. Symbolic differentiation of the sexes correlates with a clear distinction in social status between men and women in San Pedro. Another desideratum is that the chicken be black, a color connoting power, often evil.14


12 Infant mortality is high in San Pedro as a result of dysentery, intestinal parasites and other consequences of inadequate sanitation. Numerous children also die during epidemics of measles and chicken pox against which the Indian population has little immunity, but such deaths are usually attributed to natural causes or to supernatural punishment for general failure to heed the ways of the forefathers.

13 Objectively considered, the individual faces unpredictable and uncontrollable hazards. In a cultural atmosphere which places a premium on raising a family, the death of children not only brings anguish to the parents but arouses intolerable feelings of inadequacy and self-blame. The anxiety of bereaved parents may be intensified by unconscious "guilt" arising from the ambivalence in parental attitudes toward children, who are a source of both hardship and gratification. To preserve the psychological integrity of the individual, San Pedro culture, like many others, sup-plies mechanisms of "prediction" and "control" which simultaneously lift the blame and restore normal motivation. Under acute stress people feel the need to "do something." Our interest, how- ever, is not merely to show that the sibling ritual is one way of meeting this pressing need but to analyze the factors which make this particular "solution" so acceptable to the average Pedrano.

14 These are ideal rather than rigid requirements. Thus if a black chicken is not available another may be used, especially a red one (red is also a "strong" color).