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Changing Otherworlds: Pre-Columbian Concepts of 'Heaven' and 'Hell' in the Context of Early Colonial Christianization in Highland Guatemala

Frauke Sachse, University of Bonn, Fellow 2012/13

My research is concerned with the linguistic transmission of Christianity in early colonial Highland Guatemala. I am exploring how the missionaries translated Christian concepts into the Mayan language K'iche' and in which way this new discourse of conversion was mapped onto precolonial conceptualizations of religiosity. During my time at Dumbarton Oaks, I focused primarily on aspects of afterlife, trying to understand how culturally distinct notions of eschatology were negotiated in the context of the colonial encounter.

The analysis was based on colonial K'iche' language documents written by missionary as well as indigenous authors. Some of my time was spent on transcribing and translating selected doctrinal texts with relevant information on Christian eschatology. These included some chapters of Domingo de Vico's Theologia Indorum (Fall of the Angels, Earthly Paradise, among others); various catechisms with accounts of the Apocalypse, the arrival of the Antichrist, and the sufferings in Hell; as well as selected texts and sermons regarding the Passion of Christ. These sources served as a basis for identifying the translations of terms such as 'Heaven', 'Hell', 'Paradise', or 'Eternity' etc. and their respective semantic fields. The next step of analysis was to examine in which way K'iche' doctrinal terminology reproduced indigenous conceptualizations of 'Afterlife' and 'Otherworlds'.

In this last step I benefited tremendously from Dumbarton Oaks' rich library resources on Mesoamerican Studies. I treasure the academic interaction I had with scholars at (or visiting) Dumbarton Oaks, and appreciate the many constructive comments that I received from fellows in the Byzantine department.

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