A shaman in his workshop. Catarina, Guatemala.
Shamans were specialists in ecstasy, a state of mind that allows them to move freely beyond the ordinary world, beyond death itself, to deal directly with the gods, demons, ancestors and other unseen but potent things that control the world of the living. – David Freidel, Archaeologist
The perception that everything in the cosmos is imbued with the life force and interconnected, gave rise to the practice of contacting the spirits of ancestors and gods in altered states of consciousness, asking for guidance, favors and prophecy. We can imagine that, early on, certain individuals came to rule because they were shaman. Other shaman would have been embraced by kings who wanted to take advantage of their power. For certain, shamanism became the foundation for Classic Period religious and political validation.
The shaman’s altar and offering plate (bottom left).
Maya shaman “worked” the cosmos, which they perceived as multi-layered. The nine levels of the upper world were the realm of deceased ancestors and beneficent deities. As the realm of light and life, shamans journeyed there to petition the gods for favors and appeal to them on behalf of others for healing. The thirteen levels of the underworld contained demons and malevolent gods. Being the realm of darkness and death, shamans would visit there to break evil spells or petition the demons to stop creating havoc—hurricanes, drought, flooding—in the world.
The techniques for altering consciousness included prayer, sacrificial offerings, drumming, dancing, pain, sensory deprivation and the taking of hallucinogens. Among these were Nicotiana rustica, a strain of tobacco, peyote, the Morning Glory flower and a poison from the gland of a Bufo marinus toad. One of the ways this was taken was to insert secretion from the toad’s back into a cigar that was then smoked. (Below, in a scene from Jaguar Rising, Fire Eyes Jaguar smokes his way through a portal to the underworld).
Among the ancients and today, some Maya shaman believe they’re aided by their nagual, an animal companion spirit. These spirits, taking the form of a powerful animal, carry them into the other worlds. For the Maya, this was often the jaguar. Native American cultures favored the eagle and bear. A related phenomenon was shapeshifting, the projection of consciousness into an animal form itself. On the imaginary level, a shaman used the animal’s body to journey into and around the spirit world.
George Fery, writing in Ancient Origins, says of shapeshifting: “The selected animals are dedicated to specific tasks that are related to their shape, color, and behavior. What is seen is not the animal in a zoological sense, but principles and qualities considered by shamans to be embodied by these animals. These principles or qualities may be flight, speed, sharpness of sight or hearing, ability to undergo metamorphosis to camouflage, to simulate death, or to live in two worlds, such as frogs, turtles, and other amphibians. For the Yanomami of the Upper Orinoco, river otters are auxiliaries of women shamans and protectors of the tribe’s womenfolk.”
Whatever the culture, these specialists most always carry a badge of identification. Among the Zinacantan of Highland Chiapas, Mexico, a shaman-in-training travels to the lowlands to cut a bamboo staff that he’ll always carry in his left hand as a symbol of office—and a protection from dogs that might guard his client’s house. The staff is buried with him when he dies. Female shamans carry a different species of bamboo.
Today, when a Maya shaman dies, tradition says his or her soul joins the souls of other shaman at the lineage shrine where they offered their services. As the souls accumulate, the shrines become known as Warab’alja, “Sleeping Places,” and they take on increasing power. Among the K’iché of Highland Guatemala, lineages has four such shrines built in the form of small stone boxes where prayers are offered on calendar days to commemorate births, deaths, marriages, plantings and harvest.
Fire Eyes Jaguar’s Hallucinogenic Journey
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 139-141)
Inside the temple, White Grandfather set the torch in a holder on the wall and tied back the doorway drape a little to remove the thin veil of ash that lingered in the air. Following his gesture I sat on an ocelot pelt with my back against a side wall. Painted black on the wall across from me was a medallion, a large circle with inset corners that framed the cross-eyed, shark-tooth face of Lord K’in. Taking fire from the torch with an ocoté stick, he lit some tinder in a censer. When it flamed, he added the stick and three others before setting it in front of me. He took a blue-painted calabash from under the medallion and nodded for me to take one of the many rolled-up leaves it contained. Inside the leaf was a cigar. “We wrap them with bits of copal bark,” he said, and scrapings from the backs of frogs.” It releases the ch’ulel to go through the portal.”
Sitting next to me, White Grandfather removed his headgear and re-tied the three-leaf headband so it fit snug on his forehead. After adding another stick and some copal nuggets to the censer, its sweet smoke replaced the acrid smell of burnt ash, and it wafted to a hole high in the back wall. As my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I noticed a round feather-standard leaning against the wall next to the doorway. Tied to crossed lances in front of it was a ceremonial shield with the face of a laughing falcon on it. Beside me, arranged on a reed-mat, were ceramic cups, an incense bag and an offering bowl containing strips of cotton and square leaf-packets that were tied with string and painted red. Next to my teacher was a bundle of ocoté sticks, an incense bag, a carapace drum, rattle, grinding stone and two gourds with stoppers.
White Grandfather took one of the burning sticks from the censer and lit a cigar. “This is the holy portal,” he said, puffing to get it lit. He handed it to me and told me to take several strong puffs, each time breathing it in. I’d smoked cigars with Thunder Flute and my uncles before, even inhaled, but this was very different. It was thick and tasted like a combination of tree sap and burnt thatch. The smoke stung my nose and bit my tongue. White Grandfather set the drum, rattle and incense bag in front of him. “Keep breathing it in, grandson.” I did, but I kept coughing. “Blow some smoke to the medallion,” he said pointing. “That is the place of entry, the doorway.” I noticed that it was shaped like the bottom part of a turtle shell, rounded except for inset corners. And it seemed to have been painted blue. “Fix your eyes on it,” he said, tapping the little drum with a thin white bone. Tap, tap, tap. Pause. Tap, tap, tap. On and on, always three taps and a pause. “Breathe it in, grandson…”
My teacher chanted in a whispery voice, words having to do with good sight, good happenings and good remembering. I passed him the cigar but he shook his head. “We remain behind—to guide you. Do what we ask, answer our questions as you journey along. All will become clear. There is nothing to fear.” He chanted again, louder, adding some rattle sounds in the pauses between taps on the drum. This went on so long, twice he bumped his knee against mine—hard, probably to keep me from dozing off.
“The MEDALLION IS QUIVERING, GRANDFATHER.”
“Fix your gaze on the dark center, grandson. Relax and allow yourself to go through.” The tapping stopped and I felt a damp cloth, first on my brow and then on the back of my neck. “Close your eyes now.” As I did, he tied the cloth over my eyes. Amazingly, faintly, I could still see the quivering medallion, only now it was definitely blue turning purple with blackness growing in the center. “Keep puffing, grandson. Breathe in the smoke.” More and more of the medallion was becoming black. Suddenly, I felt something in my hand. Wood. “What do you see, grandson?”
Suddenly I saw my Little Owl. “My canoe, Grandfather!” The loudness of my voice startled me. After that, I whispered. “I see Little Owl—clearly as when I painted her feathers.”
“Look around. Where are you?”
White Grandfather’s voice seemed to be coming from inside me, the sound filling me like a hollow jar. “In the canoe, in Little Owl.” What I said is not right. I am not in the canoe, I feel like I am the canoe.
“What is happening?”
“Floating—smooth—on a black river. Waterlilies all around. Maybe sky wanderers.”
“There are others with you.”
“As he said this they appeared. “Paddlers,” I reported. “One in front, one in back. They paddle slowly, but we are moving fast. Shining black water. Floating white flowers. Fast but smooth—like a pond at night.” With each comment there seemed to be two of me, one watching the canoe and whispering as if from the sky, the other looking ahead at the river of stars in the distance as we approached them.
“You know the paddlers.”
The one at the bow had his back to me but I knew who he was. “White Cord! My uncle.” It made no sense, how could he be there? Suddenly I felt like I was myself, the river, the canoe, the paddlers and their paddles all at once. No difference.
“White Cord has jaguar ears and paws, does he not?”
I hadn’t noticed. “He does—and black spots on his body.”
“The paddler behind you is old, is that so?”
I knew without even turning. “Very old. Without teeth. Red eyes.”
“A stingray spine through his nose?”
“And wrinkled skin.”
“Look ahead, grandson. What do you see?”
“Ayaahh! Faster now, much faster but still smooth. Passing through waterlilies. The sky all around is green, bright green streaming down and waving like curtains. In the distance there is a tall tree—of stars. Everything is quivering. Approaching the tree, the quivering—Ayaahh! The branches are snakes!”
“Beyond the tree—what do you see?”
“A great forest of starry trees—all quivering. Blue, yellow, green—they move together, like in a dance. Their colors, they are so—”
“The colors are holy breath, grandson, streaming out from Heart Of Sky—all that you see is alive there—one living thing.”
“Slowing now. The forest—the trees are headless serpents, hundreds of them, all quivering and rising up like a curtain—uncountable serpents—green and red and purple. It feels like something is holding us back. Now they have heads—pointed like spear points and with big red eyes, all of them coming up, streaming up, out from a sea of blackness—heads to tails that seem never to end. Even these, seem to be me. “Ayaahh! An armadillo with bright white eyes! Enormous! Coming through the curtain of—now they are flaming feathered serpents, still quivering. In front of them is the armadillo—rising big as a tree—glaring at me.”
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