Brigitte Jordan

2007    Technology in Sacred Spaces. Anthropology News 48:4:29 (April).


Chichicastenango is a well known, even famous market town in the mountains of Guatemala, frequented by Quiche Maya from the surrounding area who buy and sell their wares there, as well as by busloads of tourists who buy trinkets and snap pictures. On market days, the town is transformed with Maya vendors coming from the countryside, putting up booths in every street, or just squatting on the side walks, especially around the plaza in front of the main church. On the steps of the church you are overwhelmed by clouds of burning copal incense and a bedlam of sights and sounds. In this region, an interesting mixture of Maya and missionary practices co-exist and often are carried out side by side.


Encountering a Ritual One Sunday, when we had had enough of the marketís noise and confusion, we decided to go for a hike in the hills around the town. We had been told that there was an ďidolĒ somewhere up there, but were rather surprised when after hiking uphill for half hour we actually happened upon it in a pine forest clearing. Pascual Abaj, the idol, is a black stone figure, a bust of vaguely anthropomorphic shape, maybe two feet high. It stands on a broad stone platform, also blackened by soot.


Just as we prepare to get a closer look, two men, a woman and a young boy arrive. The older man carries a bundle supported by a head strap in the typical Guatemalan style. That he is a porter is confirmed when he places the bundle at the base of the idol, accepts a few coins from the woman, and leaves. The remaining couple and boy we take to be a family. Wrong. The man turns out to be a shaman. He has come with his client, a Maya woman in the colorful local garb, to carry out a ceremony for whatever is the womanís problem. They speak Spanish with us but carry out the ceremony in Quiche, a language we donít understand. They say itís okay if we watch.


So we stand there transfixed, for almost two hours, fascinated as the shaman alternately talks to the woman, prays, and then begins to build an offering. He pours a circle of sugar, fills it with disks of copal, then adds dozens of candles of different colors, all pointing to the center except for the black ones that he reverses so that they point to the outside of the circle. On top of that he places twelve thick cigars of tabaco puro, two cakes of chocolate, some candy, and finally the contents of a small flask of some kind of liquor. At some point into the second hour, he sets the little altar aflame. We watch and listen silently as they pray together, mostly on their knees, sometimes standing, with outstretched arms. Sometimes they face each other; sometimes they face the statue as they implore Pascual Abaj to help with the womanís problem.


At some point when the woman is standing in front of the idol with outstretched arms, holding bundles of candles, and the shaman is on his knees pleading with the spirit, his voice rising with the smoke of the incense, this really unbelievable thing happens: A cell phone rings.


The woman reaches into her bag and pulls out the phone. She talks animatedly for a minute or so; hands the phone to the shaman; he talks for another minute, hangs up -- and they go on imploring the idol without missing a beat in the rising crescendo of their prayer.


Sacred and Profane? We left wondering about the phonecall. For all we know, the person who called may have been connected to the ritual in some way. And then again it may have been the shamanís wife calling about dinner.


So what about that cell phone?


I tried to imagine a catholic mass. Could it recover from such a call and resume its rituals without any sign of discomfort or disturbance? At the same time, I canít but think: Who knows how many people are working their PDAs during mass? As Genevieve Bell has pointed out, there is probably more technology poised at the borders of the holy than most of us imagine.


But then, there are other ways of thinking about that cell phone. What is so remarkable about the incident on the mountain is that it was in no way troublesome, unexpected or disruptive, except to us. Rural people in the hinterland of a developing country are apparently quite capable of living unproblematically in two worlds at once. The local and the global appear to be coiled and twisted in interesting parallel and overlapping experiences that can not be simply located in either the global or the local.


Technology adoption is one of the forces that make all kinds of borders increasingly permeable. Techno gadgets are colonizing our homes and workplaces, our entertainment spaces and learning environments, and so we might ask, What other sacred borders are being breached? Or, the other way around, What kinds of boundary lines are still intact? How much of our world still remains off-limits to techno gadget intrusion? or, again to look at it from the other side, barred from techno gadget enrichment? What are the spaces that we agree to keep protected from colonization by techno gadgets? Making love maybe? Well Ö I wouldnít be so sure.



Brigitte Jordanís research interests revolve around the changing nature of work under the impact of new communication and information technologies and the consequent transformation of ways of life, societal institutions and global economies. For more information, see or contact her at