For many cultures around the world, birds are viewed as seers who can foretell the future. Among the Ch'orti Maya of southern Guatemala, birds play an important role in many aspects of peoples' lives. Through an ethno-ornithological analysis based on fieldwork with the Ch'orti', this paper shows how birds function as the principal messengers of future happenings, prognosticating positive and negative events such as love, sickness, and/or death, and, perhaps significantly, rain. That birds can foretell information that is empirically beyond human abilities situates them in a category at once distinct from the gods in Ch'orti' thought, yet partakers in the divine. This paper argues for a classification of “semi-divine” for birds in Ch'orti' Maya culture, animals that can access the heavens through flight and convey messages from the gods that have a direct bearing on the day-to-day lives of the Ch'orti'. Having supernatural links also makes certain birds the animal of choice for sorcerers, thereby creating suspicion and mistrust of some birds by many Ch'orti'. The belief in the role of birds as prognosticators for future events is in a state of flux, however, as some in the younger generation have begun to discount certain signs given by birds as folklore and “nonsense.”
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Vol. 37 • No. 4