Rituals to help us out, and beliefs one professes tongue in cheek – Part I

Alasitas Festival

By Ton Salman

People celebrate, joke and banter. Hunger, disaster, conflict, violence, repression, all ruin people’s lives and cause enormous pain. But people will not cease to honor birthdays, make something of festivities, mock the force majeure, even laugh at times about their own misery. Or better yet: ridicule and shit all over the whims of fortune or the perpetrators.

Fortunately, bad luck never lasts an eternity. Good times, or at least “doable times” prevail in most people’s lives. But in many places, people are acutely aware of the fragility of prosperous or even doable times, of the flimsiness of blessings and welfare. Among other places in Bolivia, where a peculiar yearly celebration takes place. It is called Alasitas, an indigenous word that in English would translate as buy me. So, it is an appeal to purchase. It takes place mainly in La Paz, the government seat of the country, and starts every year on January 24th. An enormous amount of small market stalls offer no food, no useful tools or appliances, utensils or durables. Instead, you buy miniatures. Some of them beautifully made, real precious handicraft, other things are cheap mass jumble, hardly worthwhile. The miniatures you can buy range from traditional ones important in agriculture and virtually accessible to poor people: utensils and land work-tools, crowbars, small amounts of corn to sow, quinua, the Andes cereal, potatoes, rice, sugar, pastas, bread, but also animals: sheep, lamas, also building bricks, bags of cement, a wooden door – and ranging to contemporary more common things like cars, bikes, apartment houses, computers, cell phones, musical instruments, kitchens, pressure pans, refrigerators, tooth paste, soap, firewood, I-pods, televisions, phony miniature money, fake passports and visas for the US or Europe, certificates and university diplomas… and the latest is a fake Covid19-negative test result. 

The miniatures stand for the ‘real thing’. The idea behind this festival is that buying the miniatures, the object-in-small or an imitation of the object, you will obtain the real thing within a year. Possibly two. But anyway: you influence or even steer the future. You beseech the future, you adjure your fortune, you plead the providence. People come to this fair in their thousands, and a bit in jest and a bit much more in earnest, buy the things they long for, the thing they hope for or aspire to. And maybe the more earnest half is the most interesting. For many, it is attractive to practice rituals with which you might be able to influence your fate; even if a non-believer, it suggests you might keep bad luck at bay, you might be able to implore the good. It does not do any harm – and it really might touch the powers, the coincidences and contingencies that govern our lives. Many of us, maybe winking but still…touch wood, we cross fingers, we light candles, we keep an amulet, a rabbit’s foot, we have a lucky dime – if it doesn’t help, at least it feels nice to have it, to do it.

One wonders where Alasitas might come from. There are no definite answers. There is reinvented tradition, there are myths, some historical facts, often disputed, and there are opposing scientific explanations and interpretations that all might have a piece of the real story.

To begin with: miniature objects appear to be a traditional thing in the Andes. Archeological research confirms that such small object were made before the conquest, even long before the Inca empire came into existence, during, for instance, the high times of the Tiawanaku-culture ((200–1100 AD). Often they were made of black basalt stone, or of gold or silver. There are small pots and vases, and anthropomorphological and zoomorphological figures. Although it is believed that these objects did play an intermediary role in the contacts with the deities, there is no proof for that. There is some reason to believe that in the Tiawanaku-world, around the end of December, certain ceremonies were celebrated to request good harvests, affluence, and most likely also fertility, fecundity, sex and love.

Others say that the origins are that in traditional Andean agriculture (often poverty ridden), peasants would, after harvests, exchange the funniest, most peculiar species of potatoes, or little stones, or strangely shaped branches and the like, that they had found harvesting. It was a ritual of reciprocity, but in this case not concerning the eatable harvest, but the somewhat more entertaining objects that were found. 

The whole thing about small things having a power, an effect, a consequence that was much larger than the tiny object as such, was backed by a specific deity-like figure: Ekeko, sometimes spelled as Eqeqo, also known, according to some, as Tunupa. His story follows in Part II of this blog.

Ton Salman worked at the Department until his retirement in 2018. 

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