THE SLOW DEMISE OF A RELIGION

                                          By Peter Fredson

Once I witnessed the deterioration of an age-old religion, due to the death of its high priest. It did not completely vanish, but evidently it was subverted and proselytized by missionaries in the past few decades.

I suffer from short-term memory now but memories from fifty years ago have recently come flooding back to me.  I am no Bernal Diaz de Castillo, or Herodotus, as some names and dates still elude my grasp. Forgive me.

Sometime in the early 1950’s I made the acquaintance of Frans Blom, Danish archaeologist, formerly head of Tulane Middle-American Research. After months of attending his Friday afternoon soirees, he said he had a grant to go into the Lacandon Rain Forest of Chiapas and invited me, a recent MA Graduate, to accompany him as his Field Assistant.  His wife, Gertrude Duby, was still in Europe but got back in time to join the expedition.

We bought horses and mules in Comitan and Ocosingo, arranged for “arrieros” or mule drivers, and spent several days riding into the rain forest.  We swam the wide Jatate River, onto a savannah called San Quintin, then spent several days making a clearing with machetes for a small plane to land with supplies.  We shot off a rocket to let the Lacandones know someone was there.  When the Lacandones showed up they spent most of the time relating how alligator hunters and other invaders had stolen their utensils, and what their needs were.

The plane landed with 100-lb sacks of corn and beans for seeding, and sacks of rice for immediate eating. We also brought machetes, hoes, kitchen utensils and large bolts of unbleached muslin to replace their worn tunics.

There were only about 18 Lacandones left in the San Quintin group, and probably about 20 or 30 in another group several days walk away. 

One day the old and revered high priest, Cham Bor, fell ill.  We tried to save him, but he died.  With him went all the sacred knowledge of ceremonies, rituals, dogma, the gods, a devastating loss. He was the only one who “knew things.”

No one in the group was competent to take his place as master of ritual, or knew the sacred secrets.  They were helpless after 400 years of evading the Spanish, then the Mexican and other Christian branches of proselytizers.  They had kept their ancient religion intact up to that date.

Several years later I returned to San Quintin with Donald and Carmen Leonard of the Centro de Estudios Anthropologicas de Mexico. The River Jatate had wiped out the huts and crops of the Lacandones, along with all their utensils.  They came to us crying for aid.  Everything was gone.

Luckily I had a portable transmitter from the Mexican Army, and our call for help was answered several days later when a small plane brought most of the needed goods, plus a dog that was requested to replace one eaten by Jaguars.

Then Kayyum, the Singer, fell ill. He became convinced he had been bewitched, and went into the syndrome called “Voodoo Death.” I called on my radio to the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Yaxoquintela, a group of missionaries with a nurse, for aid.  The nurse flew in to San Quintin, tried to save Kayyum, but failed.  With him went all the sacred songs and chants of the group.

Left without their high priest, without their singer, the group seemed destined to disappear. Who could properly worship the gods? 

Our “expedition” allotted time and money was gone, so we left the Lacandones.  I never returned.  I heard that missionaries had descended on them, and consolidated the remaining groups. The Mexican government finally granted them hegemony over a vast acreage of rain forest, to keep out the people preying upon them. I hear they now number into the several hundreds.  I wish them well.


  1. Not doubting your story,but its interesting that the High priest didnt attract any acolytes.I presume the community was very small and couldnt spare too many people for religious practice as they were all hunting and gathering.

  2. Frumpa:  I thought I had explained that the group, after the death of the priest, only consisted of about 17, perhaps 16, members. Half were women, so that left only about 7 or 8 men, of whom half were adolescents and not yet privy to any secret knowledge. The remaining males each had a unique role..for instance, Kayyum was the only one who knew all the sacret chants. And, as you mentioned, the others had to hunt and gather.

  3. I’m not exactly certain of the intent of this post by Peter Fredson, Peter Fredson. Is it to encourage the spreading of religious ritual because it can too easily be lost? Is it to say “Look at those silly superstitious fools. They can’t even take proper care of their silly religion”? Is it to say there are numerous versions of religion and many variants are destined to fall by the wayside as time passes? Is it to elicit sympathy for an innocent untainted group?

    Is it to bring attention to Peter Fredson’s, Peter Fredson’s socially significant contributions?

    The sad reality of the situation is that anyone in the community could have taken over the high priest’s responsibilities. Surely they had all been witnesses to the ceremonies and almost any one of them could fake knowing the answers as the High Priest had been faking it. Instead they accepted that one special person had the ear of their god. They left the work of interacting with this god up to him and common sense should have told them not to.

    Too bad they didn’t ask the visitors to put an ad in an American paper. We have no shortage of self-styled preachers who talk with their buddy God and understand exclusively what He wants and values. One less preacher here would have been a (pardon the pun) Godsend for these abandoned believers. Our preachers have no difficulty pretending to know things anyway and once there, this favored one could pretend to have a timely conference with their God and now knows what their god wants. Who’s to be the wiser? When you place your beliefs in someone else’s care, you get what you get and that’s all you get.

    I guess I’m kinda having a hard time feeling sorry for these lazy thinkers, these eager believers.

  4. Brock:  To answer some or your questions, in order.

    I’m not exactly certain of the intent of this post by Peter Fredson, Peter Fredson. Is it to encourage the spreading of religious ritual because it can too easily be lost? NO.

    Is it to say “Look at those silly superstitious fools. They can’t even take proper care of their silly religion

  5. Peterfredson, that was a fascinating entry – I’m really glad you wrote it. 

    Sometimes telling a story needs no intent.  The teller tells, the listeners get what they will out of it.

    Keep surfing, keep writing.  And “What you said!” on that entire Bush administration thing.

  6. Peter, thanks for responding and allowing me to better understand what your intent was. It was an interesting story (fascinating is a strong term) and I wanted you to know it made me think. Perhaps I came off a little severe in my reply and maybe my true feelings weren’t revealed. In all honesty my comment was inspired by this:

    Frankly the only sincerely felt estimation I have of you at the moment is that you desire attention. You really only comment in entries you have made and it causes me to wonder if you are only here to bring attention to yourself. That’s why I joked about your name being said twice. Granted a few readers still fail to notice who the owner of the entry is but for the most part readers check the by-line now to be sure. It hardly seems necessary to “sign” it twice and tends, to me at least, to come off as a bit egotistical. Couple that with the fact that you really only comment to your own entries and maybe you’ll understand why I have the impression I have.

    It seems you lead (have led) an interesting life and comments from people like you are of value here, so you really should grace other threads with them too.

    I’ll read what you write no matter what because I do find you interesting. I hope you can accept my admitted impressions in the spirit they were given, too. I have a lot of respect for SEB and it’s many lucid commenters and I value honest, forthright commentary. I even try to give some when I feel I can accomplish it. This might not have been one of those times.

  7. All right, Brock, I’ll bite – fascination is a strong term.  Basically it means compelling interest – you won’t leave until you hear the punch line.  Kind of splitting hairs, there, and the difference depends on the audience.

    With my background in an evangelical denomination I’ve sat through dozens of slide shows and sermons by missionaries who went into remote regions to “help” people who had “primitive” religions. 

    Reading this, now I can imagine an opposing slide show on the other side of the wall depicting the erosion of the same culture by outside economic, cultural, and religious interests.

    Peterfredson, Brock’s right – you have not been commenting on other threads.  Why not chip in?  Also, no posts on your blog since October.  You’re a pretty interesting guy – people are far more likely to visit if you post more often.

  8. Whoops, PF, I just found that your blog has a glitch in it that kept more recent posts from showing on the home page.  But I also noticed that some of your posts were doubled up here.  Hmmm…

  9. Heh heh, reading, I’ve been reading GeekMom, and now I’m back getting myself into trouble with comments. It’s nice to know you missed me though. I would miss you too if you weren’t here.

    Your comments are generally fascinating too, DOF and I didn’t mean to suggest that you’re too easy to please. If I did, I deserve a spanking, don’t you think? Ooh yeah, I’ve been a bad boy!

    Thank you sir! May I have another?!!!

  10. DOF: I am a novice at the mechanics of blogging..I still don’t know how to make separate quotes. I also have made mistakes in trying to erase an article or modify it, and sometimes a duplicate shows up inadvertently due to ineptness.I should have about 12 entries on SEB, with another half dozen held by SEB in reserve.  I read other people’s blogs but generally do not commment as I am frequently intemperate.
    BROCK: Several months ago my son, who is now 40, suddenly showed interest in my career.  He found out that his old man is not as boring as he thought and that he had better learn some of my exploits before I drop dead.  I decided to write up some incidents of my life in diary-fashion, as they came tricking back to my memory. If you want to call it ego, go ahead.

  11. Brock – LOL!  LOL

    PF – Intemperate?  I wouldn’t worry about that; if you have a fairly thick skin people will let you know and you can adjust.

    Keep writing, and damn the torpedos! I would treasure any such thing my father had written, had he lived to write it.

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