La jícara

The jícara is a Maya ceremonial cup formed from a tree gourd.

The goddesses created it in the place they met. It was dark, so they lit a candle to provide light, placing the candle in the centre of a bowl formed from splitting in half the gourd of the tree known as el jícaro. So I’m told.

Intrigued by a postcard I picked up of La Jícara as a powerful woman placidly and implacably in charge of her world, pouring a libation from a jícara, I wanted to know more. Here’s a bit more about the tradition that I’ve managed to dig up online.

Black and white print drawing of naked woman pouring liquid from a tipped-over bowl. Design and print Taller Leñateros, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.

La Jícara, as depicted by the artists at Taller Leñateros, and printed by them

The jícara represents the world, also fertility, and some say the human skull, too. This last is an association with the Popul Vuh, a creation story of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala.

It may be a hiding place for gods.

So it has a ritual use, and filled even with something as humble as clear water can be an offering to guests or to gods. The offering may also be a drink of corn or chocolate, or pozole (a soup).

The tradition was possibly originally for the elite of Maya society, but it’s democratic these days. Cut into hemispheres, the gourds have an everyday use as bowls, drinking cups, dippers, kitchen utensils, and scales. You can see them used as scales and storage containers in the markets in Chiapas (and probably elsewhere in Mexico).

Botanical drawing of Crescentia cujete branch, leaves, flowers and gourd, published in 1835 in Curtis's Botanical Magazine

A beautiful botanical drawing of the Crescentia cujete that appeared in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 1835

I bought the postcard at the wonderful artists’ collective Taller Leñateros in San Cristóbal de las Casas, in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The studio is a hearth of Tztozil Maya creativity. From paper they make themselves from scrap, they design art that they print themselves onto cards, posters and books. In this way they continue to nurture the traditions and stories of the Tzotzil.

The jícara is among them. It is part of Tzotzil culture, and also of other cultures that we call Mayan, the peoples who lived in what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and western parts of El Salvador and Honduras.

The gourd comes from the tree whose common name in Mexico is el jícaro. It’s botanical name is Crescentia cujete. It seems to be a small tree of several humid tropical regions of the world. (There is another tree gourd in the region, and also bottle, or vine, gourds of the squash family.)

Pink flower with frilled creamy edge growing directly from large branch or trunk of Crescentia cujete tree. Photo Timm Stolten (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The flower of the gourd tree Crescentia cujete growing in Guatemala. Photo Timm Stolten         (CC BY-SA 3.0).


Note: the header image is from a photo by Rik Schuiling of a Crescentia cujete tree with unripe gourds, and a bowl made from this kind of gourd (CC-BY-SA).

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