As we enter a new year, we hope to leave our worries behind us. With that in mind, I remembered a small oval wooden box gifted to me as a child. Inside were six tiny wooden dolls from Guatemala, known as Worry Dolls. I remember them being fascinatingly miniature, placing one in the palm of my hand and telling it my worries before sleeping.
Worry dolls are known to have been created by the Mayan’s over 2,000 years ago. There are two trains of thought assigned to their beginnings: the first is that they are modelled on one of the creator gods; the other (and more common idea) is that the dolls are based on a Mayan legendary princess called Ixmucane. In this myth, the sun god gifted Ixmucane the power to solve any human problem.
According to tradition, Guatemalan children tell the dolls their worries before placing them under a pillow. With six dolls included in the oval box, each night should be a different doll, with one days rest. By the morning, the children will be gifted with knowledge of how to overcome their worries, allowing them to sleep soundly. In the morning, it is advised to rub the dolls tummy, so that the pain of carrying bad thoughts is relieved. The ritual of acknowledging anxieties before sleep is seen as beneficial, particularly for children. Worry dolls have now been recognised by paediatric and child therapists as a way of relaying concerns to a trustworthy listener.
The Worry dolls themselves are between 1-3cm tall and made out of wood, wire and fabric from Mayan garments. The face of the doll can be cotton, cardboard and paper, or clay and the outer clothing from wool or “aguayo” – a traditional Guatemalan cloth. This is all held in place with colourful yarn that is wrapped around each part. Moreover, the fabric used is offcuts from handmade clothes, as a way to reduce waste.
In Guatemala traditional clothing is bright and colourful, depicting local flowers, animals, geometric shapes and figures. The textiles are woven by hand and the yarns are dyed naturally with flowers, vegetables, herbs and bark for their vibrant colours. There are over 800 different styles of indigenous Guatemalan clothing, known as the traje tipico. The traje is still commonly worn by women, and there are various communities where men also wear traditional embroidered clothing. The most common parts of the women’s traje are the huipil (blouse), the faja (belt/sash), and the corte (skirt). Depending on the region, head accessories include the cinta (a type of headband), the tocoyal (a ribbon that is wound around the head ), and the tzute, which is worn on the head, or as a cloth to carry infants on their back. Wearing the traje is a way for indigenous women to keep culture and heritage alive.
The women who make these Worry Dolls live mostly in the rural areas of Guatemala. This provides them with an important supplement to the income they get from agriculture. Now these dolls are famous in Guatemalan culture and are sold as souvenirs to travellers passing through.
I find Worry Dolls magical, both in their significance and aesthetic. They are tiny replicas of Guatemalan people in indigenous cloth, and a reminder of their vibrant culture. In this way they bring a small part of Guatemalan magic into our home and dreams.