|Page 4 of 4|
|.||El Parto (labor) by Antonio Vasquez Yojcom, 2007, 23" x 33" Collection of Maya Women in Art.|
Chapters of Careers of Midwives in a Mayan Community
|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
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
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.
Chapters of Careers of Midwives in a Mayan Community
|LINKS TO SECTION PAGES
To contact us write: Arte Maya Tz'utuhil, P.O. Box 40391, San
Francisco, CA 94140. Telephone: (415) 282-7654.
Email me at