The Rabinal Achí is a dynastic Maya drama from the fifteenth century and a rare example of pre-Hispanic traditions. It comprises myths of origin and addresses popular and political subjects concerning the inhabitants of the region of Rabinal, expressed through masked dance, theatre and music.
The oral and written narrative is presented by a group of characters, who appear on a stage representing Maya villages, especially Kajyub’, the regional capital of the Rabinaleb’ in the fourteenth century. The narrative, divided into four acts, deals with a conflict between two major political entities in the region, the Rabinaleb’ and the K’iche’.
The main characters are two princes, the Rabinal Achí and the K’iche Achí. The other characters are the king of Rabinaleb’, Job’Toj, and his servant, Achij Mun Achij Mun Ixoq Mun, who has both male and female traits, the green-feathered mother, Uchuch Q’uq’ Uchuch Raxon, and thirteen eagles and thirteen jaguars who represent the warriors of the fortress of Kajyub’. K’iche’ Achí is captured and put on trial for having attempted to steal Rabinaleb’ children, a grave violation of Maya law.
Since colonisation in the sixteenth century, the Rabinal Achí dance has been performed on Saint Paul’s day on 25 January. The festival is co-ordinated by members of cofradías, local brotherhoods responsible for running the community. By taking part in the dance, the living enter into “contact” with the dead, the rajawales, ancestors represented by masks. For the Achis of modern-day Rabinal, recalling their ancestors is not just about perpetuating the heritage of the past. It is also a vision of the future, since one day the living will join their ancestors.
The impact of armed conflict especially in the departments of Rabinal and K’iche has almost led to the disappearance of this dance. Today, it is threatened by the precarious economic state of the custodians and of the community as a whole, the lack of a coherent safeguarding policy and the migration of young people to urban centres and abroad. The Rabinal Achí is also confronted by folklorization and trivialization, which seriously threatens the transmission of Maya know-how and values.