Careers of Midwives in a Mayan Community

By Lois Paul, Stanford University

From: Women in Ritual and Symbolic Roles. Edited by Judith Hoch-Smith and Anita Spring (Plenum Publishing Corporation 1978)

EDITORS' NOTE: A short and conceptually narrowed version of this article was published in Ethos shortly before Lois Paul died. That publication, entitled "Recruitment to a Ritual Role" (L. Paul 1975), deals exclusively with one of the two major themes of the present version, that of the normal process of becoming a midwife in San Pedro la Laguna. Like this chapter, it includes the case of Juana, a typical, indeed prototypical, midwife, and it lays out the economic and other background factors that usually characterize those "normal" women who end up in mid-career as sacred midwives. This chapter includes as well the contrasting and instructive case of Maria, a deviant or "abnormal" woman who half solves her psychological problems, along lines suggested by Silverman (1967) for shamans, by becoming accepted as a midwife in a neighboring Indian town. Lois Paul was a research assistant in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University, Stanford, California. Ms. Paul died on December 21, 1975.

"El Parto" childbirth. Painting by Juan Fermin González Morales, 1999.


Midwives in the Zutuhil community of San Pedro la Laguna in highland Guatemala are both ritual and obstetrical specialists. Like shaman-priests generally, the midwife mediates between her patients and supernaturals, performing rituals to safeguard her patients. She herself is recruited by supernaturals and her calling is validated by a shaman. Exercising the role of midwife in San Pedro, in comparison with other communities, involves large caseloads and requires a high level of activity and professional commitment. Incumbents are recruited from the category of women still in their prime-married women who begin their careers between the ages of 35 and 40. These women must overcome their own reluctance, their husband's objections, and society's envious ambivalence toward their social ascendancy (Paul and Paul 1975).

The problematics for the individual woman in San Pedro revolve around the cultural definitions of male and female behavior. The activities of the midwife are incompatible with the behavioral norms that apply to ordinary women. Midwives are born with the sign of their divine destinies but are socialized like ordinary women as daughters, wives, and mothers. San Pedro women enjoy the right of bilateral inheritance but are in fact generally subordinate to men and restricted to the domestic domain where they work long hours grinding com, weaving, washing, carrying water, bearing children, and tending domestic animals.

Females are socialized to attain high levels of skill and mastery, to be responsible and nurturant, even as children, with those younger in their charge. They grow up feeling competent and efficacious but only within the limited domestic sphere. With their seniors, and particularly with males, they are expected to be obedient, compliant, passive, and unquestioning. Trained in extreme modesty, they typically approach menstruation, marriage, and first childbirth experiences in varying degrees of ignorance, which expectably results in fright, anxiety, and trauma. To contain women's exercise of competence and efficacy within the domestic sphere, San Pedro society traditionally has depended on segregation of males and females, supervision of females, the assignment of legitimate sexual pleasure exclusively to males, the mystification of sex and reproduction for females, and the psychological mechanisms of fear, shame, and guilt as social controls (L. Paul 1974).

The role of midwife, on the other hand, demands that a woman be aggressive and authoritative in unfamiliar situations, that she observe none of the usual space or time boundaries applicable to other women, that she display unusual fortitude. She must withstand the terrors of night and of contact with the supernatural. She must overcome feelings of disgust and fear at the sight and handling of blood, of the newborn fetus, of potentially polluting birth substances. She must overcome intense shame and modesty concerning the sexual organs and act upon the bodily organs and substances of strange women.


"Parto," birth, one of the few paintings of a midwife  which is done by a woman artist. Painting by Vicenta Puzul de Gonz├ílez, 2009. Collection: Rita Moran,

She must be able to suppress her own panic and lend strength to her patient as she struggles with a difficult breech delivery or delayed ejection of the placenta, relying on ingenuity, herbal remedies, magic, nerve, and physical strength, rather than the wonder drugs, anesthetics, and forceps of the modem delivery room. She knows she will have to take command at the moment of delivery, overruling advice of anxious parents who may be her seniors in age, and she fears taking responsibility for another's life. Characteristically, Pedranos learn to avoid blame by avoiding involvement in the affairs of others. The midwife's high status and supernatural credentials usually ensure her authority, but high status and material rewards can expose the midwife to the envy of neighbors.

In San Pedro, as in the highland Maya area generally, there is a marked ambivalence toward hierarchy and any demonstration of assertiveness or ascendancy that accrues to the individual office holder rather than to the office (Colby 1967:416-418). By accepting the role of midwife the woman exposes herself to the envy of neighbors and the possibility of sorcery. An older woman informant explained: "It is a sin for one who is born with the virtud (power) to refuse to go out and help women, but people also gossip about midwives; they say their husbands don't know how to support them. People are always envious of the things others do." A midwife's husband loses a certain amount of "face" in the eyes of other men as his wife gains more autonomy in her new role and men make gibes about his manliness. To safeguard the lives of her patients a midwife must observe the cultural taboo on sexual intercourse required of ritual specialists generally in the Maya area. Midwives in San Pedro should abstain from sex four days before and after a delivery.

To overcome these obstacles, selection of midwives in San Pedro is based on birth signs and other evidences of supernatural choice. This accounts for the high prestige and respect accorded those women who become midwives in San Pedro (Paul and Paul 1975:716-719). Not all of those born with signs of divine election, however, actualize their calling, despite the risk they run of suffering supernatural punishment if they refuse the call. Who are the women who accept the supernatural mandate? What are their social and psychological characteristics? By what process do they come to accept this extraordinary identity? The literature contains few detailed descriptions of the process of becoming a folk curer (Landy 1974:103). The literature is particularly sparse in regard to the midwife's route to her role. In Mesoamerica periodic religious and legal harassment of native ritual specialists since the conquest has contributed to a general attitude of secrecy and suspicion toward outsiders. Accounts of the recruitment process, therefore, tend to the stereotypic.

Biographical data on two Pedrano sisters are presented to illustrate contrasting routes to the role of midwife. Juana (names are fictitious) is the very model of a midwife in San Pedro. Maria, her sister, defined as a deviant personality by San Pedro culture, seeks to stabilize her own equilibrium by becoming a sacred professional. The writer came to know Juana and Maria while living in San Pedro for a year in 1941, long before either of the women became midwives, and has had contact with them on repeated field trips since 1957. Most of the information was secured at the time the events in their lives occurred; early childhood data were recounted by the principals themselves or by relatives and neighbors.

In 1941 two midwives served a population of 2000; one has since died, and the other is now the oldest practicing midwife. By 1975, the population of San Pedro has more than doubled, and is served by seven midwives, all familiar to the writer.