Maya Moral and Ritual Discourse: Dialogical Groundings for Consuetudinary Law

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Toward the end of the twentieth century, Highland Maya intellectuals and activists in Guatemala began to argue for the recognition of indigenous customary law, rooted in traditional Maya moral and ritual discourse. Such law is often in tension with the Western notion of rights (grounded in the idea of universal reason) that undergirds national and international treatises regarding indigenous peoples. This essay identifies three distinct but mutually engaged pairs of moral concepts—hot/cold, left/right (or positive/negative), and favorable/not favorable—articulated through K'iche' Maya quotidian and ceremonial practices and speech. It also identifies the extent to which they do not necessarily align with Western (Abrahamic and religious) notions of good and bad. These three pairs of moral terms, specifically as conserved through the high-register of Maya discourse used by traditional ceremonial specialists, illustrate a normative means by which Highland Maya discern understandings of justice, and ground their advocacy for restorative (rather than retributive or punitive) justice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)88-123
Number of pages36
JournalJournal of Religious Ethics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2018
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Religious studies


  • Guatemala
  • Maya
  • consuetudinary law
  • customary law
  • human rights
  • indigenous peoples
  • justice
  • moral discourse


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