Two student diagrams of Tzeltal Maya souls

After reading Pedro Pitarch's amazing ethnography "The Jaguar and the Priest: An Ethnography of Tzeltal souls," I asked my students to create visual representations of Tzeltal Maya souls to spur active learning while raising comprehension of Pitarch's complex work. First, students worked together in groups to summarize and synthesize key the concepts described Pitarch's ethnography. Then, in democratic fashion, they organized their concepts into a visual representation (seen below). 

This learning exercise was necessary, because the Tzeltal (Indigenous Maya) people living in the highlands of Chiapas Mexico have a worldview, ontology, and belief system that is dramatically different from common western perspectives. 

Pitarch describes how Tzeltal people have three distinct kinds of "souls" or animate energy centers that behave differently under varieties of conditions. As a result, the Tzeltal people view and approach the world, sickness, and life in a manner which reflects concern for these spiritual energies found within each person. Learning about this Tzeltal culture and beliefs, helped students appreciate, understand, and value cultural perspectives and ways of life that vary greatly from their own. 

As can be seen in the pictures and video below, my students all had their own perspectives on how Tzeltal souls should be represented.  

Learning together and from each other, The College of New Jersey Students shared their perspectives and collectively produced diagrams in five small groups. These diagrams were transferred from paper to the chalk board for presentation to the class (and for you my readers). The differences and similarities in the diagrams helped students appreciate the complexity of the topics at hand while allowing the class to learn from the differences of perspective that existed in the classroom itself. 

For the presentation of your mini ethnographic project, discuss the three main points below in roughly 5 minutes. Use PowerPoint, pictures and video to present (upload these to me before hand). Alternatively feel free to use the chalk board. 

1) Research Question: What was the main question you wanted to answer in your research? Who were you studying and why?

2) Methods: How did you address the research question? What happend?

3)Results: What did you find? What kind of analysis did you choose? How did  you interpret your data?

As this year's Five College Postdoctoral scholar of Digital Humanities and Blended Learning, I challenged my Hampshire College class to produce virtual reality representations of ancient beliefs systems for the class Anthropologically Critiquing Reality. Influenced by the “Ontological Turn,” this class explores how ontological and metaphysical systems shape societies around the world. For a semester-long project, Hampshire college students learned to use VR tools while independently researching ancient Maya or Pompeiian metaphysical beliefs. More specifically, students were asked to represent and characterize how metaphysical beliefs and ontological assumptions are located in cultural landscapes by producing a short research paper and a virtual reality representation of an ancient belief that would be presented to the class.

While exploring ancient metaphysics and learning VR modeling tools, students were expected to:

  1. Critically explore their western ontological biases

  2. Characterize the main elements of the Maya or Pompeiian ontology using the lens of assemblage theory while integrating anthropologist Philippe Descola’s interpretations about ontological logic.

  3. Produce a virtual reality representation that would critically represent a Maya or Pomeppian ontological concept.

Metaphysics are the often overlooked assumptions regarding existence, reality, and being.

Why VR?

Creating the VR environment is an immersive learning experience that pushes the student to reflect on reality, their own being, and non-western beliefs. While learning about the construction of synthetic VR environments, students were required to reflecting on the western ontological principles that guided and shaped their actions. Each student was also required to present their VR representation to another student who would experience their virtual environment during the last week of class. When producing and presenting VR representations students were instructed to ask themselves a key question.

“How can I create a representation that can bring people closer to another ontological reality?”

Students presenting VR projects to each other in front of the classroom on a projector.

By deeply examining their beliefs, exploring those of others, while crafting an immersive learning experience for other students, the Anthropologically Critiquing Reality students at Hampshire were able to gain hands-on experience with cutting-edge VR tools, learn and articulate complex contemporary research issues and have critically memorable active learned experiences in a college classroom.

Below is an example project by Sylvia William’s that explores the concept of the Way, or co-spirit in ancient Maya culture. Using Google Tilt Brush VR, Sylvia produced a diagrammatic representation of the Maya notion of the co-spirit. Screenshots and animated versions are included below and a full VR version can be viewed on a computer or smartphone and in VR with an Oculus Rift or an HTC Vive at the following link

Web Preview version (use mouse to move image)

The Way in Maya Ontology

Sylvia Williams Hampshire College

Figure 1 - Way Glyph

In ancient Mayan culture, interrelationships between species pervade the way

they conceptualize nature. All things including plants, rocks, landforms and celestial entities (e.g. the sun, the cosmos) possess the sacred essence known as k’uh. As K’uh describes “the most divine life force of existence” (Gomez), relationships between entities prevail as expressive links of collectiveness. Spirit companions or co-essences known as the way are connected to people through supernatural beings typically resembling an animal. Although they take the immaterial exteriority of animals or occasionally celestial phenomenon (e.g. comets, rain, rainbows), each way shares the same interiority as their respective human (Meskell and Joyce 89). They are born on the same day as the human entity and share parallel destinies. Internally similar and physically different, the way shares the consciousness of the human (Stuart 2).

Figure 2 - A representation of a snake way.

The ways in which the wayib are differentiated in painted pottery alludes to the dominant role animism plays in their ontology. While wayib are commonly marked as hybrid entities in depictions with human ornament, goggle eyes and animal features such as paws or a tail distinguishes the supernatural capacity of the being (Davies). Attention to individual way in painted scenes and texts indicates them as their own beings with ambitions and personality while being linked to human consciousness (Meskell & Joyce 89). While these two beings live separately, glyphs explicitly reveal their interconnectedness as they often resemble the conjunction of two beings into one (Fig 1). Very contrary to western ontology, the Maya saw the multitudes of beings as integral to a singular existence (Schnell).

Using Delanda’s assemblage terminology, Maya life is heavily shaped by the conceptual and physical territorialization of the way. As mentioned, paintings on pottery and hieroglyphs are coded evidence of this ontology. Further, wayib are coded by material extensions of the body. Bodily modifications such as god-eyes and animal limbs decode the impression that the human being is autonomous in the same way that adornment decodes the perception that an animal is not a way. This animistic ontology functions on a scale reaching all beings, as all things permeated k’uh, the sacred essence. Additional territorialization of the way takes place through textual practices of naming people, in particular, Maya rulers named after their way (Meskell and Joyce 90). The capacity of the co-essence’s connection with the human entity is so strong that when the way is injured or harmed, the human’s vitality is impacted similarly (Stuart 2).

Figure 3. The connection between the way and a human actor.

This ontology differs drastically from western ontology in the sense that the way surpasses our notion of taxonomy. Species boundaries influence our relationship with non-human animals and instill many degrees of separation between all living things. The disconnect between living entities is coded in the hierarchy of species placing humans as superior to all others. This belief can be traced back to the emergence of humans on the earth based on the notion that God instilled the right in us to till the earth as we please. We get by without an ontology like the way by limiting our perception on nature based on Aristotle’s early classifications of the other.

My representation of Maya ontology is inherently limited by western ontology and my own cultural relativism. I constructed my piece to represent the shared interiorities between the two entities and the characteristics recognized in a co-essence relationship. As I attempt to surpass the duelist ideology imprinted in my mind throughout my life, hindrances undoubtedly obstruct a more accurate representation of the Maya ontology. Because Mayan ontology sees equal significance in natural and the supernatural worlds across animate or inanimate beings, I can only attempt at fully exploring or understanding the way and all it encompasses.

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