The Jaguar and the Priest: An Ethnography of Tzeltal Souls

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In contrast to western notions of the soul as the essence or most native part of a human being, the Tzeltal-speaking Indians of Chiapas, Mexico, regard the soul first and foremost as an Other. Made up of beings that personify the antithesis of their native selves-animals such as hummingbirds or jaguars, atmospheric phenomena like lightning bolts or rainbows, or spirits of European appearance such as Catholic priests or evangelical musicians-Tzeltal souls represent the maximum expression of that which is alien. And because their souls enfold that which is outside and Other, the Tzeltal contain within themselves the history of their relationship with Europeans from the beginning of the Spanish conquest to the present time. Thus, to understand the Indian self opens a window into the Tzeltal conception of culture and community, their notions of identity and alterity, and their interpretation of interethnic relations and types of historical memory. In this pathfinding ethnography, which was originally published in Spanish in 1996 as Ch'ulel: una etnografia de las almas tzeltales and is now extensively rewritten and amplified in English, Pedro Pitarch offers a new understanding of indigenous concepts of the soul, personhood, and historical memory in highland Chiapas. Exploring numerous aspects of indigenous culture and history-medicine and shamanism, geography and cosmology, and politics and kinship among them-he engages in a radical rethinking of classic issues in Mesoamerican anthropology, such as ethnicity and alterity, community and tradition, and change and permanence.