The Myth Behind the Mayan “In lak’ech”

I don’t exist without you and you don’t exist without me. Therefore, you and I exist from relating, we exist from “us”.

According to various interpretations, Mayan people conceived the universe as a great unity where everything is related. The individuals, the community, the plants, the animals, the winds, and the spirits are united and nothing exists without the relationship to the other; everything is alive and everything is connected. That is why any action of one affects the other and that is why it is said that you are my other self. If I respect you, I’m respecting myself, and if I attack you, I’m attacking myself.

For Dr. Fidencio Briceño Chel, PHD of Anthropological Linguistics at UNAM, in this dual vision in which I do not exist without you, the “I” is used first of all to accentuate the personal commitment to be part of something, to be part of the whole. We do not exist as separate entities, we exist from our belonging and relationship with the community and with everything that surrounds us. Thus, you and I relate by forming a “we” that relates to our peers (human beings) but also to “others”, such as plants, animals and the supernatural presences that populate the world.

That’s why Mayan philosophy respects the stones, the path, the forests, the mountains, the caves, the cenotes and the rivers. “That is why the Mayan, from childhood, learns to get along with everything around him, because it is through his relationship with those others that he builds his person, his respect, his prestige, his family, his community, his people and his world”, emphasizes Don Fidencio Briceño.

Under this concept of collectivity, for several decades we have heard a phrase that seeks to express this feeling of unity and collectivity of Mayan thought: “In lak’ ech, Hala ken” which, in a literal translation, means “I am you, as you are me” or “I am another you, as you are another me”.

Some say that the phrase was introduced by the Mexican anthropologist Domingo Martínez Paredes in the 70's and that it was gradually transmitted among various enthusiasts of Mayan culture, enthusiasts who sought to rescue the roots of this thousand-year-old philosophy. Because of its important meaning, the phrase became better known and many began to use it in good faith in their ceremonies.

However, in recent years several comments have questioned the origin and etymology of the phrase by pointing out that it is not a common linguistic construction among the Mayan speakers and that in reality the Mayan did not use it and did not greet each other in this way. The controversy grew after several “new age” currents adopted the phrase in their thoughts and made it popular, attracting new followers who identified with the immense value of the concept of unity.

According to Dr. Fidencio Briceño, the phrase “In lak’ ech, hala ken” expresses the concept of unity of Mayan thought, but it is a phrase created by people who do not speak Mayan, who are not Mayan and who do not have Mayan culture as their own. The phrase does represent the idea of relationship and collectivity of Mayan philosophy, but according to Don Fidencio, it is not necessary a phrase that is used daily among Mayan speakers and is a very literal translation.

We could say that this phrase is an approach of the western man, interested, legitimately, by the concept of unity of the Mayan thought. Others, say that the phrase is real and it is actually used in Mayan communities.

I heard the phrase for the first time almost 20 years ago and since then I was captivated by the powerful message behind it. Today, and after investigating more about it, I realize that beyond whether the phrase is true or not, what is important is all the ancestral wisdom that it releases. Understanding that I do not exist without you, just as the night does not exist without the day, makes us look at how everything is connected and how we are part of a whole.

By assimilating this very abstract concept into our daily lives, we will understand that nothing in this universe is separated and that any action has a consequence. This is why we create our universe and why everything deserves to be treated with respect.

Sources:

Cultural grammar, or how culture is present in Mayan thought/ Dr. Fidencio Briceño Chel/ La Jornada del Campo

Speaking of Crabs and Starfish: Ancestral Knowledge and Collaborative Practices, by Rocio Chaveste and Maria Luisa Molina

Mexican freelance journalist based in Berlin. Someone who travels the world with a small backpack.

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