General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 18 Sep 2020/11 Rabbit
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Mexicolore contributor Crystal Sheedy

Turning babies into Mayas - the traditional Hetzmek* ceremony

We are sincerely grateful to Dr. Crystal Sheedy for this highly informative, first-hand account of one of the most important rituals in the Maya life cycle, that has its roots in ancient Maya custom. Crystal Sheedy fell in love with Maya culture at a young age. She started her ethnographic fieldwork in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico in 2010, where she was able to make lifelong friendships. She currently is an Instructor of Anthropology at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.

Pic 1: Author carrying godchild on her hip
Pic 1: Author carrying godchild on her hip (Click on image to enlarge)

When a baby is born in a (Yucatec) Maya village in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, one of the first events in their life is the héets méek’ [*sometimes written ‘Hetzmek’] ceremony. Another more common name for this ceremony is heek’ ook, breaking (open) the legs. Héets méek’ means to carry a baby on the hip. In the first few months of life, the nukuch máak (elders) advise that a baby should only be carried in the arms. On the day of the ceremony, the godparents will ‘break open’ the baby’s legs - as the godparents will be the ones to carry the baby on their hips during the ceremony. After this event, the nukuch máak say the child must always be carried in this way because as they grow older, they will be able to walk long distances with no pain. The nukuch máak explain the most important part of this ceremony is that it opens the baby’s mind to learn the work they will need to do as they grow into a “good” Maya person.

Pic 2: A ‘kool’ (cornfield) and ‘k’oben’ (three stone hearth)
Pic 2: A ‘kool’ (cornfield) and ‘k’oben’ (three stone hearth) (Click on image to enlarge)

Before the ceremony, parents must find individuals who want to ‘break open’ their baby’s legs as héek’ ooktsilo’ob or héek’ulo’ob (godparents). Godparents can be family or friends of the parents. Once the parents choose their baby’s godparents, they will need to set a date for the ceremony. The nukuch máak advise that boys must have the ceremony at 4 months of age because of the 4 corners of the kool (cornfield), while girls, at 3 months of age because of the 3 stones of the k’oben, (hearth). The kool is where men work as adults, while the k’oben is where women work. Today, the ceremony is rarely held at 3 or 4 months for either gender. Instead, the actual date of the ceremony could range anywhere from 3 months up to 15 months - in extreme cases.

Pic 3: Example of table with items used during a héets méek’ ceremony
Pic 3: Example of table with items used during a héets méek’ ceremony (Click on image to enlarge)

On the day of the héets méek’ ceremony, there is much to prepare! Unlike other ceremonies that may include a jmeen (shaman), the héets méek’ ceremony does not. Instead, the ceremony is held in the home, where friends and family of the parents help prepare for the event. Women help make the food that is used in the ceremony, as well as eaten by the many guests. A table is placed in a cleared area. Many items are placed on this table, which acts as an altar. Each family and each village are different, but there are a few important items that are always used in the ceremony. In the center of the table, there will be a cross or a statue of a saint with one or more candles next to it. The cross or saint must be placed in the east, where its front will face the west. The east is the direction of the rising sun, but it is also where Mayas believe the most powerful supernatural winds come from. Then, food is placed on the table. 9 or 13 je’ ([hardboiled] eggs), k’aj (ground corn kernels [toasted], cinnamon, and anise), and x-tóop’ ([toasted] gourd seeds).

Pic 4: (Top) hardboiled eggs; (centre) ground corn kernels (toasted), cinnamon and anise; (bottom) (toasted) gourd seeds
Pic 4: (Top) hardboiled eggs; (centre) ground corn kernels (toasted), cinnamon and anise; (bottom) (toasted) gourd seeds (Click on image to enlarge)

The ceremony opens the baby’s mind to prepare them for their adult lives. The names of each food fed to the baby during the ceremony are a play on words. The baby eats je’ to u je’ek’a’al u na’at (open the baby’s mind to learning), k’aj to u k’a’ajal u yiik’ (have the baby think responsibly), and x-tóop’ to utóop’ol u na’at (allow the baby to know which chores need to be done without being told). Other items found on the table are ta’ab (salt), 9 or 13 chaay (a plant like spinach) leaves, or 9 or 13 ixi’im (corn kernels). Salt is used to help the eggs taste better, while chaay and corn kernels are used by a helper during the ceremony to count the number of times the baby is carried around the altar.

Pic 5: Author readying her godchild
Pic 5: Author readying her godchild (Click on image to enlarge)

The godparents ready their godchild for the ceremony with the gifts they bought as the table is prepared. They dress their godchild in new clothes and put new gold or silver jewelry that is small enough for a baby to wear! Then, the mother will take her baby to the table. At the table, the godparents will wrap a pañal, which is a small white cotton blanket with embroidered corners, around the baby’s waist. The godparents tie a small amount of money - around 20-200 pesos - into one of the corners of the pañal. The nukuch máak say that this money must be given to the baby, so they can learn to be responsible with money. The parents must use this money to invest in their child’s future, such as buying chickens when the child becomes old enough to raise them.

Pic 6: ‘Ts’u’uts’ k’ab’ (kissing of the hand)
Pic 6: ‘Ts’u’uts’ k’ab’ (kissing of the hand) (Click on image to enlarge)

The ceremony begins with the parents standing on the side of the table facing the cross or saint, and the godparents on the other side of the table. The parents are said to be in the eyes of Jajal Díios (the True God). They cross themselves and do a gesture called, ts’u’uts’ k’ab (kissing of the hand) and give thanks to the godparents for doing this ceremony for their child. Ts’u’uts’ k’ab is done by lying the thumb flat over the middle part of the left side of the index finger - which makes a cross. Then, the other three fingers of the hand remain straightened. The three fingers are said to represent the Holy Trinity. The person making the gesture will gently touch the three fingers of another person making the gesture, then they will kiss their thumbs. Afterward, the parents give their baby to one of the godparents.

Pic 7: The Maya World Tree
Pic 7: The Maya World Tree (Click on image to enlarge)

If a boy is having his legs ‘broken open,’ he will be given to his godfather, while a girl will be given to her godmother. The godparent will ‘break open’ their godchild’s legs by carrying the child on their hip. Then, they will slowly walk around the table in a counterclockwise direction 9 or 13 times. 9 and 13 are important numbers in Maya Culture! A jmeen explained to the author that the numbers reflect the layers in the sky or the underworld, where the gods live. After each turn, a leaf of cháay or a corn kernel will be placed on the floor or table by a helper - typically a nojoch máak (elder) - as the godparent passes by. Counting ensures the number of times around the table is 9 or 13.

Pic 8: Author feeding her godchild
Pic 8: Author feeding her godchild (Click on image to enlarge)

For each turn around the table, the godparent will feed their godchild some of the food on the table. They must make sure that the baby tastes or eats the food. After the first trip around the table, guests receive some k’aj and x-tóop’. To eat x-tóop’, its hard shell must be broken. Then, as the baby passes by the guests - who are sitting around the event - the shell is either spit or tossed to the back of the baby. The shells of the x-tóop’ are said to help the baby remember all that is shown to them in the ceremony. Once the first godparent finishes their 9 or 13 turns around the table, their godchild will be given to the other godparent. Then, the process is repeated in a clockwise direction.

Pic 9: Author massaging her godchild
Pic 9: Author massaging her godchild (Click on image to enlarge)

After each godparent takes their godchild around the table, in some villages, the baby receives a massage from their godparents. On the left side of the table - when facing the cross or saint - a folded blanket is placed on the ground. The baby is laid on the blanket with their head facing east and their feet pointed west. Then, the godparents will ‘massage’ the baby’s body. This ‘massage’ also opens the baby’s legs and makes the body more flexible. If the godparents did not ‘massage’ the child, then the baby will grow to have back pain at a young age. Then, when they become a nojoch máak, they will have a hunchback!

Pic 10: Godfather showing godchild how to play the keyboard
Pic 10: Godfather showing godchild how to play the keyboard (Click on image to enlarge)

After this massage, one of the godparents will show their godchild the baby’s future work. For a boy, his godfather will show him his future work, while for a girl, the godmother will. Each ceremony is different and what is shown to the baby depends on what the parents and godparents want the baby to learn as they grow older. If a baby has a parent who is a musician, the baby may play on an electric keyboard or touch a microphone, so they will learn how to become a musician!

Pic 11: Godfather showing godchild how to get firewood
Pic 11: Godfather showing godchild how to get firewood (Click on image to enlarge)

The boy will be shown tools he will need when he works in his kool. String is shown so he will know how to measure his kool. His godfather will help him climb a tree with an ax in his hand, so he will be able to get firewood. He will be handed a gun (unloaded!), so he will learn how to hunt. He will be shown the road, so he will always know his way to his kool. He will be placed on a bike (or inside a car!), so he will learn how to travel. He will be given a pencil and a notebook, so he will be good in his studies.

Pic 12: Godparents showing godchild how to wash in a ‘batea’ (washing basin)
Pic 12: Godparents showing godchild how to wash in a ‘batea’ (washing basin) (Click on image to enlarge)

The girl will be shown how to care for a home. She will be given a small piece of nylo (cut plastic bag) and some sakam (corn dough), so she will be able to make tortillas. She may also touch the xamach (griddle) to make sure she knows how to make food. She will be taken to the standing grinder - or the traditional ka’ (grinding stone) - so she will learn how to grind corn and other spices. A bucket will be given to her, so she will know how to get water. A broom will make sure she knows how to sweep. An ax will allow her to get firewood. A sewing machine to make sure she learns how to sew. She will be taken to a batea (washing basin), so she will learn how to wash clothes. She will be shown animals, such as chickens and pigs, so she will know how to take care of them. Then, like the male child, she will be given a pencil and notebook (or a laptop), so she will also grow to be smart!

Pic 13: The Giving of Thanks at the end of the ceremony
Pic 13: The Giving of Thanks at the end of the ceremony (Click on image to enlarge)

Showing this work is one of the most important parts of the ceremony. As the baby was taken around the table 9 or 13 times by their godparents, the baby’s mind is said to be ‘open’ to learn these tasks. As each type of object or work is shown to the baby, they must touch the object or mimic the behavior, while the godparent explains what is being shown. If the baby does not do touch the object or mime the behavior, they may not learn the work that they will need to do as an adult.
After the work is shown to the child, the godparents meet the parents at the table. One parent takes the baby, and the godparents stand on one side of the table facing the cross or saint, while the parents stand on the other side of the table. They cross themselves and do ts’u’uts’ k’ab. The godparents - now in the eyes of Jajal Díios - give thanks to the parents for allowing them to be godparents of the baby. The ceremony ends.

Pic 14: Growing up to be a musician like Dad...
Pic 14: Growing up to be a musician like Dad... (Click on image to enlarge)

Because the godparents are believed to have ‘opened’ the baby’s mind to this work, parents will always remind their child of their godparents’ commitment. As the child grows, their parents will expect the child to learn easily how to do the work the godparents ‘taught’ them during the héets méek’ ceremony. But children do not always do what they are told. So, when a child is being lazy, not obeying their parents, or does their work wrong, a parent will say something like: “Child! Who carried you (around the table)? Who fed you k’aj? Your godparent did!” The parent reminds their child of their godparents’ commitment. The parents also suggest that their child is being a “bad” Maya person and not following their village’s view of a “good” Maya person because a “good” Maya person is not lazy, a “good” Maya person listens to their elders, and a “good” Maya person knows how to do their work correctly.

Picture sources:-
• All photos by, thanks to, courtesy of and © Crystal Sheedy, except -
• Pic 7 thanks to and downloaded from http://www.mayankids.com/mmkbeliefs/worldtree.htm.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 12th 2020

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