Symbolic Sibling Rivalry
in a Guatemalan Indian Village

By Benjamin D. Paul, Stanford University

Chapter Three
Some Cultural Assumptions

More important than knowing the procedures is an appreciation of certain cultural concepts and implicit assumptions which impart conscious and unconscious meaning to the ritual. A crucial native conception is the duality of body and spirit. During consciousness the spirit is present, but it is not consciousness itself. It is temporarily absent during coma. At night it visits the places one dreams about. Fright induced by ghosts or were-animals results in sickness because the spirit is jolted out of the body.15 The spirit is the life principle but it is conceived as a real entity rather than an abstraction. Like the wind, it is invisible but effective. It also has qualities. It can be strong or weak, benign or malignant; it is the equivalent of character. Since the spirit is at once real and incorporeal, the average Pedrano finds it plausible that a child is capable of killing its brother even in the absence of manifest aggressive behavior. The action occurs at the spirit level but the effect is as real as life and death.

"Convertiendse en Caracoteles," changing into evil spirits. Maya spirituality teaches that their is spirit in the heart of everything: the sun, the lake, the mountains, and even rocks. Some evil people can at night change their form into animals (caracoteles). Painting by Diego Isaias Hernandez Mendez, 2012.

The nearest corporeal counterpart of the spirit is the blood. Individuals are said to have "strong blood" if they are imperious or aggressive; but those who are submissive, hence possessed of "weak blood," are mildly disesteemed. The power of a person's blood varies with his physiological condition. Men who return from the field carrying burdens of corn or firewood on their backs are supposed to cool off before looking at their children. Exertion heats the blood and "hot blood" is injurious to young children. The danger is conveyed by "looking" rather than proximity. Pregnant women have hot blood and must likewise avert their glance in the presence of infants, or even in the presence of turkey chicks, which perish easily. This is the danger of the "evil-eye." The child that feeds on the soul of its younger sibling is also conceived as exerting the power of its strong blood, or to be strengthening its own blood by sapping the blood of its rival.

The meaning attached to the practice of killing the chicken by thrashing it against the offender must be inferred from native tenets of magic, discipline and exorcism.16 It is fitting that the child's spiritual urge to kill its sibling should be vicariously fulfilled by having the child's body playa direct if passive part in destroying the life of the substituted chicken. The beating, moreover, magically links the child with the chicken. The human back has symbolic value with reference to ideas about the linked fates of family members, as indicated in idiomatic usage. Fathers are said to carry the "luck" of their daughters on their back, while the fate of sons rests on the back of their mother. If a family runs to boys it is said that the mother "carries her sons well." If only girls tend to be born or to survive, the father is credited with superior psychic strength. The beating is also a punitive measure; the child cries when the shaman or midwife strikes the fowl against its back. Physical punishment is a common corrective device in San Pedro, most generally incurred by children over 5 or 6 years old who disobey or disrespect parental authority. Such discipline, however, is not culturally defined as aggression.

But in addition to reprisal and correction, whipping in San Pedro has other implications. Before entrusting an infant to the hammock, the midwife routinely strikes the hammock, alternately warning and entreating its spiritual guardians to protect the child from harm and keep it from falling out of the hammock. This usage, which is paralleled in the ceremonial whipping of children, houses and fruit trees on Holy Saturday, combines coercion with the exorcistic expulsion of evil. Use of the ritual chicken as a lash is thus rendered appropriate by the combination of magical, exorcistic and expiatory connotations inhering in the whipping motif, in addition to the righteous means it represents of releasing parental anger.

The gesture of feeding the chicken to the child is both magical and propitiating. The magical aspect lies in the assumption that supernatural injury can be diverted from the intended victim by providing a substitute object. Another instance of this assumption is the belief that a person with "strong blood" can resist sorcery or supernatural punishment, which consequently falls upon his child or some other vulnerable kinsman. Propitiation consists not merely in giving food but in the generosity of setting before the child an entire chicken in contrast to the frugal serving he ordinarily receives. Thus the ritual that begins with punishment ends with appeasement. Force and entreaty are alternative techniques for influencing others in San Pedro. Unquestioning response to command, within the limits of established principles of authority, rests on the implicit threat of force. To win concessions from a superior, the individual is frequently reduced to the expedient of ingratiation. Supernatural powers are threatened and entreated in turn, as already indicated in the case of the guardians of the hammock. In a hierarchical setting in which parents dominate children and the fates dominate men, one can combat power by counterforce or by ingratiation. The chicken ritual tries both. The child is not a social superior but its voracious spirit is a kind of occult force.

We may now turn to the cultural motif which furnishes the very raison d’être of the sibling ceremony, that of symbolic cannibalism.


15 The concept of "fright" as a disease due to soul loss has a wide distribution, ranging at least from Mexico to Peru. Gillin reports that in the Peruvian community of Moche, susto or "fright" is particularly apt to strike a child at the time it is "supplanted by a younger one at his mother's breast, so that sibling rivalry may be one of the factors in infantile susto as well as dietary readjustment." (Gillin, .1947, p. .135.)

16 While native accounts are explicit as to the manifest intent of the ritual as a whole, as well as the pronouncements against destroying the infant sibling, they take for granted some of the procedures such as that of thrashing. When asked, they say, "It is the custom." The assumption made by the writer is that symbolic customs are perpetuated not only because they are sanctioned by usage and authority but also because they seem appropriate to those who practice them. "Appropriateness" is taken to mean consistency with native assumptions which are not readily verbalized as such but which the investigator may infer from a variety of acts and statements in different contexts of behavior. Itis not our purpose to present the system of postulates that lies at the heart of San Pedro culture, but rather to indicate those implicit assumptions which will enable the reader to grasp the meaning which natives assign to the ritual under review.


I. Socialization Patterns

II. Definition of Danger

III. Cultural Assumptions

IV. Fear of Being Eaten

V. Summary