Ch’ulel: “Soul” or “Spirit”

The animating spirit within all things

Plumeria, San Ignacio, Cayo, Belize

For the Tzotzil Maya, ch’ulel is the inner, individual soul which has thirteen parts and is centered in the heart. This life essence that animates the person is placed in the embryo at conception by ancestral deities and is inherited from the grandfather, not the father, because, after a person dies, the soul remains at the gravesite for the same period of time as the person lived. And once the ch’ulel has been placed in the new grandchild, he or she becomes a k’ex “substitute” for the departed ancestor. In Tzotzil, the term is k’exolil.

Because death was the result of serious loss of ch’ulel (“soul loss”)—caused by the gods, the death of the animal companion, the sale of the soul to the Witz’ “Earth Lord, or by accident or murder—the soul spends its time at the grave site gathering up the fragments of ch’ulel that had been spread over the landscape to reintegrate itself. When that’s done, it joins a larger “pool” of souls kept by the gods, to be used eventually for another person.

Another form of ch’ulel is referred to as wayhel, “dream spirit.” It animates animals and the forest, and is characterized as unruly, uncontrollable, wild impulsive. When the sun sets, the wayhel spirits can attack one another, resulting in illness and death of anyone close. 

Breath was the rarified essence of ch’ulel, the conduit between the world and the living and world of the gods and ancestors. As essence, the breath of a person continues after death as the soul of the deceased person. It’s why, when a person or god or ancestor is portrayed in Maya art, a flower or jade bead is shown in front of or in the nose or mouth. It signifies the presence of their ch’ulel. There’s speculation that these were also placed there to absorb the “breath soul.” Further, it was believed that the gods and ancestors were nourished by the ch’ulel in the breath. And it’s the ch’ulel in blood that made it “precious substance,” the life force.

In the inscriptions, ch’ulel is symbolized by a white flower, likely the white plumeria. For example, these are expressions of death:

  • Ch’ay u sak nik nal, “Diminished, his white flower.” Yaxchilan Stela 12.
  • Iwal ch’ay u sak nik nal, “And then diminished, his white flower.” Copan stairway.
  • K’ay sak nik nal, “Ended the white flower.”  Copan stairway.

                                Sak Nik “White Flower”                           

 Although the plumeria blossoms shown in the photograph below the header are not “white,” they show their size and shape.

The modern Tzotzil and Tzeltal peoples entered the highlands of Chiapas between 100 BCE and 300 CE. Before the Spanish conquest, they exported quetzal feathers and amber to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. They also produced salt.

Ch’ulel And Identity

Excerpt From Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 12)

IT WAS WELL KNOWN AMONG MY PEOPLE, THAT CHILDREN inherited their ch’ulel—the spirit that made them who they are—from their grandfathers. Just as a crop of maize replaces the previous crop, so our sons and daughters replaced their grandfathers, walk for them on the face of the earth. When we remember them, they are present in both our lives and the life of the caah, the community. As I was growing up I could see that this was true for everyone around me. It certainly was true for my brothers and sister. But it was not true for me. Although I knew my grandfather, respected him and laughed with him, I was my father’s daughter. 


The Ch’ulel Of Twins

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 76)

Thunder Flute picked up a stick and began peeling the bark. I got a smaller one and moved around to sit cross-legged in front of him. As he spoke he kept his eyes on the stick. “At Tollan the holy ones believed that twins share the same ch’ulel. They said the gods intended that one would serve the caah, and the other was to be sacrificed as a gratitude for Tollan’s bounty. When the twins came, the highest of the daykeepers came and told your grandfather it would be his privilege to offer one of them as an offering to the gods.” 

“Which one did they want?” 

“He let your grandfather decide. As my brothers grew, he and your grandmother saw that they did not share the same ch’ulel. Far from it. They had the same face, but they were different in many ways.”

“What did grandfather do?”

“He tricked the daykeeper. He said he would offer one of them to the gods, but in order to make the offering more pleasing, he wanted to wait until they became strong and stood as tall as a young maize stalk. The daykeeper not only agreed, he also petitioned someone and they were apprenticed at the Lodge of Builders—to put some muscle on their bones. That is where they learned the ways of building.”


Ch’ulel Inherited From A God

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 88)

“You are more than you think, grandson. Much more. Your blood is precious because it contains ch’ulel inherited from Lord One Maize. You will not feel its lightning power until you are older, but it is there, asleep in your blood. With proper layering, it will awaken and you will recognize it. For now, all we can advise is that you seek your rightful path, walk it in truth and begin speaking the truth as you know it. If you do that, your layering will be greater than that of our brother who sits on the throne at Mirador adorned in jewels and feathers.”

“With respect grandfather, the prophet said my path was that of the jaguar. Can you tell me what it means?” He couldn’t. “What happens if I never find this path, my rightful path?”

“That cannot happen. For now, be as you are and follow your heart—.”

“That is what I hoped you would say. My heart tells me to live with my friends and apprentice myself to White Cord. Somehow, that is what will happen.” 

“Just as the sacred substance within the sap rises in a tree, as you grow older the ch’ulel of the maize god will awaken in you and call out your courage. You will do more than you think you can do.” White Grandfather stopped and dragged the end of his staff across the sand to make a line in front of us. “On this side of the line, you stand as a sprout, questioning your path. You wonder if your ancestors are Rabbit or Macaw.” He pointed ahead. “On the other side of the line lies your true path. Standing here, you worry because the prophet said it leads to the Mat. But it is best to not look too far ahead. Winds can come and blow the sands away. Water can come and wash it away—.”


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

The following are links to for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A Novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller  

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