The Ch’ulel-Multiverse and Intersubjectivity in the Maya Tseltal Stalel

Mural detail at La 72 Hogar – Refugio para personas migrantes. Tenosique, Tabasco, México. Photo by Diana Taylor. 

Mural detail at La 72 Hogar – Refugio para personas migrantes. Tenosique, Tabasco, México. Photo by Diana Taylor. 

As we begin to weave this text, we remember a passage from the sacred book of the K’iche’ Maya people, a book whose contents are shared by other indigenous communities, especially among Mayans. In these cultures, we can find fragments or entire stories described in the Popol Vuh regarding how we think, how we feel, how we know, how we remember, and how we see the world-universe—a concept that in Tseltal Mayan we call sna’el k’inal.

One of the passages found in this book describes the destruction of an entire generation of human beings of the Balumil-World. These wooden effigies were annihilated because they forgot their Framers and Shapers, and so their Framers and Shapers spilled turpentine on them from the sky. They had also forgotten about the existence of other beings and disrespected them, so these other beings also participated in the destruction of the semi-humans, including animals and objects that had been mistreated by these wooden effigies. Citing from the Popul Vuh:

They were spoken to by all their maize grinders and their cooking griddles, their plates and their pots, their dogs and their grinding stones. […] Their dogs and their turkeys said to them: ‘Pain you have caused us. You ate us. Therefore it will be you that we will eat now.’ Then the grinding stones said this to them: ‘We were ground upon by you. Every day, every day, in the evening and at dawn, you always did holi, holi, huki, huki on our faces […] But this day you shall feel our strength. We shall grind you like maize. We shall grind up your flesh. (Popol Vuh, 73-74).

Desperate to save themselves, the wooden effigies tried going up to their houses, but they all collapsed. They were rejected by the trees as they tried to climb them. Caves closed when they sought refuge within them (p. 19). As is evident, both the Framers and Shapers, as well as other self-possessed beings, intervened so that this class of humans would disappear and make way for another generation of women and men with consciousness, knowledge, heart, and ch’ulel.

The passage cited above makes us wonder: How were objects and animals able to speak? How could they possess such understanding? How were they able to act that way? According to hegemonic Western thought, animals are unable to speak, and objects are absolutely devoid of perception. According to this worldview, only humans can speak, as they are the only beings with language and understanding. However, this view of the world “is not the only one, nor is it universal” (Lenkersdorf 1999, 21). As the Popol Vuh shows us, there are other ways of thinking, ways that are still current in today’s Maya communities. They question and make relative the Western worldview—that seemingly unique, unchanging, sole truth embodied in each individual, that hegemonic light that has blinded us. And, when we confront this hegemonic vision imposed on the world, we can see other nuances, other folds and contours of the universe, and other ways of thinking that had been previously unrecognized.  

What we seek to convey in this text belongs to those other worldviews, thoughts, and ways of being (or stalel), which show a yan sna’el k’inal (a different way of knowing-remembering the universe). The act of sharing and exteriorizing a yan sna’el k’inal also uncovers a system of knowledge and an episteme whose matrix lies in the O’tan, or the heart. From this episteme, the sna’el k’inal is a process of ya’yel snopel and ya’yel sna’el—that is, feeling-thinking and feeling-knowing, where our mind and heart are conjugated and interact because we think our feelings and feel our thoughts. Mind and heart are not divorced.

In order to understand this framework, I will begin by explaining stalel, which will help us understand yan sna’el k’inal. I will then discuss ch’ulel as the co-essence and power shared by all living beings, and I will end by sharing some observations about ya’yel-snopel and ya’yel-sna’el, another way of feeling-thinking and another way of feeling-knowing.

Stalel as a Way of Being-Thinking-Feeling, Acting, and Knowing the World

The Tseltal people in Chiapas frequently use the word stalel to refer to various aspects of our Tseltal life-world. For example, if we add kuxlejal to stalel, the resulting dyad, stalel kuxlejal, alludes to the way we live our life and to a way of knowing-acting-thinking-feeling-seeing the world. We thus frequently say, ja’ jich stalel jkuxlejaltik to mean “that’s how we live” or “that’s our way of life.” But stalel on its own also refers to our way of living life – kuxinel kuxlejal – and to our way of being, acting, seeing, thinking, laughing, perceiving, interacting, and naming the world.

Stalel can also be understood as the ways of our Me’il-Tatil—our Mothers-Fathers or ancestors—which we have to follow, doing “exactly as they did.” We prefer to say, in the present, ja’ jich stalel jMe-jTatik, or “that is the way of our Mothers-Fathers.” Or we may say “that is how they were taught by our ancestors,” to dictate the way we should do something, or the way we should know and speak about a certain topic, or to justify not changing the way we do something, or not modifying certain personal behaviors. Of course, there are always modifications, but at the same time we update, re-update, and once again reference a stalel of the past, established by our Me’il-Tatil, by saying ja’ jich skostumbre te jme’ jtatike, or, “those are the customs of our mothers and our fathers.” 

The stalel is, therefore, the continuum of our Me’il-Tatil, or a kind of “collective consciousness” (Durkheim, as quoted in Giddens, 2006). So the stalel are ways of acting, living, thinking, perceiving, and naming, and most of what we have ever done, said, and thought—since the early years of our lives—has been determined by our collective consciousness, because “that’s the way it is.” Those are our shared traditions that make us who we are. And that is our stalel.  

The stalel is a wide field of beliefs, thoughts, and relationships where subjects are woven, where bodies are permeated and constrained by internalized acts of faith. The stalel existed before we were born, but it can still be modified; we do not lose our agency. We can see this especially in women, who question and fight against a certain type of stalel, aiming to acquire a different stalel and a different awakening of ch’ulel. 

So we can say that stalel is used to name “the nature of tradition,” the ways of being, thinking, acting, walking, laughing, perceiving, communicating, and relating to the world around us. It has an individual and a collective character. At the same time, we can understand it as tradition itself, rife with complexities, continuities, changes, contradictions, and clashes.

A person’s behavior, actions, thoughts, and words are permeated by—or they themselves permeate—several “folds” of stalel, which are transgressed, modified, or changed. In those transgressions, a type of ch’ulel is awakened.

As can be noted, the term stalel is used in various contexts. We could say that stalel is a way of playing with language across different strands of the Tseltal Maya social fabric, across different fields of our life-worlds. It is a web of processes through which subjects internalize or assimilate norms, ways of thinking, being, and acting in certain spaces and geographies. It is a criss-crossed, interstice-filled landscape that generates practices; or certain social practices are justified as being a type of stalel.

We make these observations about stalel because it is our starting point for discussing ch’ulel as a fundamental entity that is shared by all living beings: humans, animals, and things. The ch’ulel as an entity, from stalel and sna’el k’inal, is what makes intersubjectivity possible—that is, ch’ulel turns everything in existence into a subject and allows us to interact with one another, subject to subject.

Ch’ulel as the Primordial Entity in All Beings

If we return to the Popol Vuh fragment we quoted at the beginning of this text, we will notice that objects and animals can speak. We could claim this is a contradiction, because a different passage in the same book states that animals are not able to speak. We cannot deny, however, that animals use a language to communicate. It may not be a language like ours, but when we speak, they understand us, and we understand them. The same is true of other existing beings; we can understand their language. In our Tseltal Maya thinking, they not only possess a kind of language, but they also have a ch’ulel: an essence and power, a spirit and force, that makes them be what they are. Ch’ulel is present in everything—we exist in a universe, or rather, a multiverse of ever-interacting and ever-interconnecting ch’ulel.

We can find several stories that narrate the existence of ch’ulel in vegetables, minerals, and animals, as well as in human beings. For example, there is a Tseltal Maya story that tells of dogs that used to talk, but when they denounced adultery, they were punished by having their heads placed at their tails, and their tails placed at their heads; they have been mute ever since, and we can no longer talk to them. Even though they understand our language, we can’t understand them, and they only understand each other. But they have a ch’ulel that is a guardian in another life and occasionally makes an appearance in this life. 

Another story tells of a young Tseltal Maya woman who slept in a cave and became pregnant. The baby’s father is the owner-guardian of the mountain where the cave is located, and once the child became an adult, he became the leader of the Tseltal rebellion of 1712 (Gutiérrez 1996).

We could make a long list of stories that are the basis for a way of thinking that shows us that other beings, beyond human beings, have their own language and their own ch’ulel. We interact with them and they interact with us, as was the case with the woman and the owner-guardian of the mountain. A fundamental part of this thought is the notion of the existence of yan balumilal or yan lumk’inal, another world or another universe inhabited by beings that are visible but not tangible. This notion deserves to be understood, since we interact with the yan lumk’inal and its inhabitants.

Yan Balumilal or Lum-K’inal: Other Worlds or Universes  

In the Tseltal Maya life-world, it is believed that beyond this balumilal (or world, in which we live), there are Yan Balumilal (other worlds). One of the other worlds or universes is thought to be under the Earth, where the ts’uk-itetik (beings with elongated tailbones and buttocks) live. Another one exists above us. Other ways of thinking maintain that the yan balumilal are somewhere in the lum-k’inal (universe), and that after we live in this world, we travel to one of the other yan balumilal that is also a lum-k’inal or universe. Each universe has four guardians who defend its four edges; these guardians are interconnected, and the inhabitants of the different worlds communicate with each other.  

The notion of yan balumilal or yan lum-k’inal is also used to name places that are different from our birthplace. Women who move to their husbands’ homes, men and women who go to work in a different town, they all inhabit another life-world or life-universe. When we first arrive at these life-universes, we have to announce ourselves to the guardians, just as we do with our neighbors, because if we don’t, we will be seen as strangers and intruders. We must also do this when we clear a field, so we don’t anger the guardians or make the plants and trees weep. We must ask the guardians of the place to tie their animals and birds so they don’t eat what we plant, since we are taking away a portion of the land where they eat and live. We cannot generalize these actions and thoughts anymore, because part of the Tseltal people’s stalel has modified these practices due to the increasing presence of other idiosyncrasies, and due to the fact that our communities’ geographical territories have shifted over time. However, there are still some families that practice rituals in their corn fields, parcels of land, and homes, because they hold these ancestral thoughts and beliefs about the existence of ch’ulel as a guardian and protector.

In any case, all Tseltal Maya people, even if they follow the Chrstian faith, believe there is “something” that inhabits the mountains, caves, plants, and trees. All beings in the animal kingdom—including humans—as well as those in the vegetable and mineral kingdoms, are endowed with mobility: something infuses them with life and breath. In Tseltal, this “something” is called ch’ulel.

After human beings die, our ch’ulel travels to another world, where it may or may not be well received by other ch’ulelaletik (plural of ch’ulel) inhabiting those worlds. They may say: “yes, I know you” or “I don’t know who you are,” depending on whether our ch’ulel made an offering or announced itself with the ch’ulelaletik or the inhabitants of the yan lum-k’inal, together with the body that inhabited this world.

As we can see, what objects, animals, trees, mountains, caves, and minerals share with human beings is ch’ulel. They are not hollow beings, empty or lacking consciousness. In this conception of the ch’ulel, human beings establish relationships with everything that exists, that is, humans interact with their environment and their environment interacts with humans in the material and immaterial planes. The existence of and relationships between everything that exists are arranged from this plane or universe of the ch’ulel.

Thus, the ch’ulel is not exclusive to the human being; according to Tseltal thought, everything is infused with life. Everything is a living being with some type of language, perception, and ch’ulel. Contrary to positivist Western thought, which has classified existence into animate beings and inanimate things, in indigenous Maya thought, everything has life, source, matrix, heart, veins, bones, flesh, feelings, thoughts, language, and ch’ulel. We could say that the “non human,” which has all the same attributes as humans, is simply a representation in the image and likeness of humans. For instance, when we name the parts of a house, they have the same names as the parts of the human body. So a house has a mouth, eyes, head, back; or trees have a nose, mustache, eyes, belly, feet, etc. Similarly, human lips are leaves. The act of naming certain parts of “objects” this way shows us a way of seeing the world, a thought or sn’ael k’inal that is totally different from the ways of knowing the world in hegemonic Western thought. This humanization of “things” is simply the re-cognition and the co-essence and co-existence of ch’ulel, and we must give it ich’el ta muk (respect and recognition of its greatness and dignity). When they are not treated with ich’el ta-muk’, these beings rise up against humans or deny them the favors asked of them—as mentioned in the Popol Vuh.

Among those of us who still maintain such a view of the world, ch’ulel as universe or totality of thought and worldview has an essence and power, such that there are constellations of ch’ulelaletik as essences and powers, leading us to consider the ch’ulel-multiverse. In this constellation, ch’ulelaletik interact, relate to each other, and are interconnected in the infinity of the cosmos, mutually affecting one another. Lenkersdorf called this mutual effect “biocosmic intersubjectivity.” 

By way of conclusion, we understand other forms of stalel and sna’el k’inal, in which all existing beings are subjects that interact and relate to one another from the ch’ulel-multiverse, where these subjects are politicized, rise up against the oppressor, and subvert an established stalel. This requires leaving the cave of hegemonic thought, ripping apart one’s own beliefs—going deep into the interstices of other worlds and thoughts where there are constellations of world-knowing, feeling-thinking and thinking-feeling from the constellation of the ch’ulelaletik.

The ch’ulel-multiverse—as essence, power, spirit, and consciousness of everything that exists—subverts a world and a type of knowledge that has established “objects” to be known and studied. The presence of ch’ulel in everything that exists, that is, the ch’ulel-multiverse or this “biocosmic intersubjectivity”—present among the Tojolabal Maya in Chiapas, as studied by Lenkersdorf— interpellates modernity as well as academic uses and traditions. Both the ch’ulel-multiverse and biocosmic intersubjectivity may constitute an epistemic category that can help us understand our Tseltal Maya thought, or our stalel kuxlejal. At the same time, this knowledge is a political-academic position that eliminates the asymmetrical relationship between “subjects” and “objects” in the social construction of knowledge, as Western thought has historically done in constructing the different ways of being-acting in society.

These yan sna’el k’inal and stalel have always existed. The ch’ulel-multiverse will continue to exist, and it will shelter us once we truly immerse ourselves, from the nakedness of our heart’s ch’ulel-spirit-consciousness, and choose to return to our forgotten knowledges and cosmos. In order to do this, we must disembody and unlearn Western thought, which de-chulelizes nature and humankind, and will slowly dehumanize us all. Put a different way, we must make our hearts, our eyes, our ways of thinking and being return to the cosmos we have forgotten, to the enchanted world that demands our respect and recognition. 

Works Cited

Lenkersdorf, Carlos. 1999. Cosmovisión Maya. Mexico, D.F.: Centro de Estudios Antropológicos, Científicos, Artísticos, Tradicionales y Lingüísticos “Ce-Acatl.”

Giddens, Anthony. 2006. El capitalismo y la moderna teoría social. Barcelona: Idea Books, S.A.

Gutiérrez, Domingo Gómez. 1996. Juan López: Batzíl Ajaw/Héroe tzeltal. Mexico, D.F.: Instituto Nacional Indigenista.

Popol Wuj. 2011. Translation to Spanish and notes by Sam Colop. Guatemala: FyG Editores/Biblioteca Guatemala.


    Works Cited