Narrative Structures of Maya Mental Disorders

Abstract

Several Indigenous communities around the globe maintain unique conceptions of mental illness and disorder. The Q’eqchi’ Maya of southern Belize represent one Indigenous community that has maintained, due to highly “traditional” ways of life and the strong presence of many active localized healers or bush doctors, distinct conceptions of mental disorders as compared to Western psychiatric nosology. The purpose of this ethnographic study was to understand and interpret Q’eqchi’ nosological systems of mental disorders involving the factors—spiritual, cultural, social, historical, cosmological, or otherwise—implicated in their articulation and construction. Over a period of 9 months, and with the help of cultural advisors from several Q’eqchi’ communities, 94 interviews with five different traditional Q’eqchi’ healers were conducted. This paper demonstrates that the mental illnesses recognized by the Q’eqchi’ healers involved narrative structures with recognizable variations unfolding over time. What we present in this paper are 17 recognizable illnesses of the mind grouped within one of four broad “narrative genres.” Each genre involves a discernible plot structure, casts of characters, themes, motifs, and a recognizable teleology or “directedness.” In narrative terms, the healer’s diagnostic and therapeutic work can be understood as an ability to discern plot, to understand and interpret a specific case within the board, empirically based structure of Q’eqchi’ medical epistemology.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    The Q’eqchi’ word, aj ilonel, stemming from the verb ilok, “to see,” is often used to describe the work of a traditional healer, translating roughly as “seer” or the “one who sees,” involving the ability to prognosticate disease. The Q’eqchi’ term aj ilonel is singular. The plural aj iloneleb’ is also used when talking about a group of healers. The English word healer and Q’eqchi’ term aj ilonel are used interchangeably throughout.

  2. 2.

    There were no women healers who took part in the MHA at the time of this research. There are female Q’eqchi’ healers who have been working with researchers from the New York Botanical gardens, and discussions have occurred regarding the integration of these women with the male healers with the same goals and intentions that spurred the formation of the MHA. However, several community members felt this was too premature as women and men are still separated by traditional cultural hierarchies that persist today. There are studies that include women’s health in particular (Ekelman et al. 2003), but research looking into the knowledge of women Maya healers is limited.

  3. 3.

    We say “only” impact the body lightly here as seemingly physiological conditions, even those that seem as clearly physiological as kaxum xul or snake bite, can invoke a host of mood states and conditions that may be interpretable as “abnormal” by the Q’eqchi’ healers and patients.

  4. 4.

    This is a reference to two of the 18 months in the Maya calendar which are still in use today among many Maya communities, especially the 260-day tzolk’in or chol q’ij. The 260-day lunar system, sometimes referred to as the tzolk’in (Tedlock 1982), is combined with the macewal q’ij organized in 18 months of 20 days (360 days), with a five-day celebration and gift-giving period called uayeb in K’iche’. Together the 365-day cycle combined with the 260-day lunar system provide a fifty-two-year cycle called the calendar round. The 260-day lunar calendar forms the basis of much Maya religious and ceremonial practice; it is a system of astrology as well as divination. See Hatala (2014) or Molesky-Poz (2006) for more details.

  5. 5.

    Here during the interview the healer used the term “sachk” which the translator referred to in English as “retarded.”

  6. 6.

    Although in traditional Maya mythology the snake is a positive figure and worshiped as a powerful deity, contemporary healers, largely through various Catholic and Christian influences, have come to associate the serpent with a general notion of “evil” spirit. In some cases, snakes are even described to be the servants of Satan.

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Hatala, A.R., Waldram, J.B. & Caal, T. Narrative Structures of Maya Mental Disorders. Cult Med Psychiatry 39, 449–486 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11013-015-9436-9

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Keywords

  • Narrative
  • Cultural psychiatry
  • Maya
  • Mental illness
  • Indigenous knowledge
  • Belize