A Quest for the Shaman in Contemporary Highland Maya Life

The sixteenth century Spanish friar, Diego de Landa, may have burnt the Maya codices and demanded that the Maya people conform to religious traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, but he did not destroy their cosmological view. This view, which remains very much alive today, is based on a spiritual model of the world that is fertile ground for shamanism. To pursue a quest for the shaman in Maya culture we will first look at shamanism itself and the problems that arise when attempting to categorize ritual practices. The relevance of the terms shaman and shamanism has been questioned by some scholars involved in studies concerning the Maya, shamanism or both. Then we will look at a series of examples pertaining to Maya belief and behaviors. With these, I will demonstrate specific ways in which shamanism is integrated into Maya life.

Linguistic Roots of the term Shaman

With regards to the first theme we can ask, do the mystical, ritual practices prescribed to and performed by the Maya truly fit within the category of shamanic practice? To answer this we will first look at anthropologist Alice Beck Kehoe’s argument against the idea of shamanism being applied to the Maya or anyone other than the Tungus people from which she traces the origin of the word. She argues that the word ‘saman’ from ‘sa’ the root word meaning ‘to know’ comes from and is used by the Tungus people of Central Siberia to apply to men and women who have answered a priestly calling and use hand-held drums to summons spirit helpers (Kehoe 2000:8). But is Kehoe too hasty in her conclusion? Did the term shaman originate in the Tungus region? A closer look reveals that the root of the word goes back much further.

Mircea Eliade in his comprehensive text, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, (to which Kehoe refers) notes that the term shaman is found in Sanskrit assramana, Pali word samana, Chinese sha-men with additional connections made to the Turko-Mongolian word for shaman kam (Eliade 1964:495). Joan Halifax traces the source of the term further back to ‘sram’ in the ancient Vedic language (early Sanskrit) which means “to heat oneself or practice austerities” (Halifax 1979:3). The word shaman then appears in a stream of ancient languages that fed the living verbal expression of the Tungus. Kehoe questions “Eliade’s method and categorizations” and states that “his assumptions and sources…don’t hold up well”(Kehoe 2000:2). It is therefore worth mentioning that this linguistic connection is not only noted by the above mentioned scholars involved in shamanic research, but is noted in standard dictionary references (http://dictionary.reference.com/search?). It seems quite arbitrary to cut off the fluid migration of a term through multiple cultures and pinpoint one segment on its trajectory as the only legitimate point of use.

Kehoe’s argument, however, goes beyond tracing the linguistic roots of the term. She asserts that the use of the term is unethical as “lumping healers, diviners, and priests outside the global ‘religions of the book’ under the label ‘shamans’ shows how difficult it is for Westerners to recognize the stereotyped Other embedded in our education” (Kehoe 2000:102). This she claims is just another form of racism (Kehoe 2000:102). Of course, active participation in extracting discriminatory ideology from concepts and vocabulary in scholarly works is admirable. However, is it the case that using the term shaman and it’s derivatives to describe ritual practices outside of the Tungus automatically infers a racist stance? Kehoe believes it does stating that it is naïve to “apply the label ‘shaman’ to ritual practitioners outside the word’s Siberian homeland. Sound scholarship requires knowledgeable consideration of its three centuries of use in Western academic writing, and sensitivity to their racist overtones” (Kehoe 2000:101). As already established, the word’s (shaman) homeland is not Siberia at all. To extend this reasoning beyond the point Kehoe is making, would dramatically affect all linguistic expression. Must all words be constructed in a vacuum and limited to their ‘homeland’?” Surely, this is an unreasonable argument.

Shaman and the Relationship to Heat

As for the appropriateness of the term ‘shaman’ in regard to the Maya, we will return to Joan Halifax’s mention of the Vedic meaning of “to heat oneself or practice austerities” (Halifax 1979:3). This concept of heat is central to the Tzotzil Maya’s notion of essence (Gossen 1999:84). The ‘first heat’ is significant in Maya mythology as the substance that destroyed the mythical adversaries of the sun (Gossen 1999:111). Gossen notes that language is a sacrament for the Maya and in ritual performances is referred to as the ‘heat of the heart’ (Gossen 1999:111). Certainly, this extremely strong connection between the notion of heat in the ritual practices of the Tzotzil Maya and the ancient Vedic meaning of the root term generates ample linguistic evidence for the use of ‘shaman’ as it relates to the Tzotzil.

The Use of the Term Shaman as Racist

The issue of racism addressed in the same passage is based on the notion that the use of the term shamanism rests on the “centuries-old Western representation of Otherness in the guise of the shaman” (Kehoe 2000:100). This shamanic ‘Other’ is seen to exist in cultures defined as ‘primitive’ and, therefore, the assumption is they are less than those from the West who are doing the observing. Kehoe notes that “St. Teresa of Avila and other saintly European mystics” used similar techniques and yet Eliade “denied that civilized Europeans could be compared in this way to ‘tribal spirituality’” (Kehoe 2000:101).

To mix the notions of the appropriateness of the use term ‘shaman’ with the concept of racist application of the term is to avoid the real issue here. Changing or limiting the use of one term will not alleviate the ‘cancer’ at the heart of what is identified as a racist problem. Establishing a clear definition for ‘shaman,’ however, would be the first step in alleviating broad inappropriate applications of the word. This would also establish a framework within which one could evaluate whether other ritual experiences should indeed be included that have in the past been omitted and vice versa. Eliade attempts to do this by setting up these parameters “…the specific element of shamanism is not the embodiment of “spirits” by the shaman, but the ecstasy induced by his ascent to the sky or descent to the underworld (Eliade 1964:499). Limiting the shamanic experience to the “ascent to the sky” or “descent to the underworld” is an important delineation. In the ritual practices that Eliade is referring to, this is not a journey into regions that are synonymous with heaven or hell. Neither is the shamanic experience simply spirit possession or entrancement. Understanding the constraints of this definition in contrast to a broad dictionary definition of “one acting as a medium between the visible and spirit worlds; practices sorcery for healing or divination” begins to create a framework which strongly delineates when ‘shaman’ should be applied to ritual practices(The American Heritage Dictionary 2004).

Medical anthropologists Horacio Fabrega and Daniel B. Silver struggled with this question in their work with the Zinacantan Maya. They argue for the use of the term ‘shaman’ in regard to the Maya curer stating that the “… h’iloletik [shaman] are the most numerous and important of the native medical practitioners in Zinacantan. Receiving their powers through divine revelation, and practicing by combined physical and spiritual efforts, they can be called shamans in either a broad or a narrow sense of the term” (Fabrega and Silver 1973:29). Fabrega and Silver’s broad definition is similar to the dictionary definition above “…any kind of curer or medical cum religious practitioner whose powers come from supernatural sources” (Fabrega and Silver 1973:31).

Maya and the Term Shaman

For Fabrega and Silver, the narrow definition limits the use of ‘shaman’ to practitioners who are selected by ancestral gods, given instruction by these gods, are involved with supernatural confrontation, and are typically called to shamanic work with a series of three dreams (Fabrega and Silver 1973:31). It is during these dreams that the initiate is summonsed before the Totilme’iletik (ancestral gods) to their home inside the mountain peak of the Muk’ta Vits, instructed in prayers, diagnosis, and ritual procedure, and finally, symbolically given ceremonial items for curing ceremonies (candles, flowers, incense burners). Refusal of this commission by the gods is believed to result in death or illness (Fabrega and Silver 1973:31). Fabrega and Silver’s field research provide the necessary documentation of the journey into the mountain peak to satisfies Eliade’s criteria for the ecstatic experience as a result of this descent into the underworld.

Anthropologists Lois and Benjamin Paul studied midwives in San Pedro la Laguna in highland Guatemala. They refer to Midwives as ritual specialists who may or may not also be a shaman (Benjamin 1975:707). According to the Pauls, although the midwives in San Pedro la Laguna area perform ritual practices, their realm of expertise and the scope of their ritual practice may not satisfy the criteria for shaman. In addressing this issue, Fabrega and Silver state that the “…distinction between the midwife who is a h’ilol [shaman] and one who is not rests on whether or not the practitioner knows how to pray if a baby is not born at the proper time; if she does, she is considered a h’ilol (Fabrega and Silver 1973:42). This distinction appears to be based on the broad view of shamanism for to pray is to seek intervention from supernatural sources. Fabrega and Silver stated that the “curer or medical cum religious practitioner whose powers come from supernatural sources” fit into this broad definition (Fabrega and Silver 1973:31). This vacillation between broad and narrow definitions of the term ‘shaman’ is what is confusing to scholars and lay persons alike. Adhering to Eliade’s criteria for shamanic practitioners to ascend to the upper world [sky] or descend to the underworld avoids this inconsistency and creates a stable framework within which scholars can confidently work.

Midwives (iyom) in San Pedro la Laguna receive a call, a divine mandate, to their profession (Paul 1975:710). To deny this call, as with the shaman, is to risk illness or death. Lois and Benjamin Paul tell us that “divine election for the shaman or for a midwife, is the wandering of the future practitioner’s spirit into the realm of the supernatural – what Eliade calls the ‘ecstatic journey’” (Paul 1975:711-712). They also note that the midwife “mediates between the mundane and the supernatural world, and she performs rituals to safeguard the lives of her patients” (Paul 1975:707). That the midwife is embarked on an ecstatic journey and “mediating between the mundane and supernatural world’ would seem, according to the narrow definition of shaman that has been established, to satisfy the requirements for the category of shaman even if it does not fall within the Maya category of Aj’kun. To add even more confusion to this issue is that the San Pedro midwife is considered to be a “psychopomp in reverse” (Paul 1975:712). This is, the San Pedro midwife conducts spirits into “the land of the living” rather than conducting souls to the land of the dead. This is yet another example of the complexity attached to categorizing ritual practitioners.

The complication noted above appears to stem from the practice of assuming that the indigenous classifications for practitioners must or will neatly fit within the established classification system scholars are using. The Maya may use the term h’ilol to broadly define curers, however it does not logically follow that all the curers or ritual practitioners within the categories established by the Maya will have a natural fit with the criteria anthropologists have established for the category of shamanic practitioner.

The confusing nature of the designations between roles is evident in Kehoe’s discussion of the multiple terms used for practitioners by Maya that are ‘lumped’ together “under the label ‘shamans’” (Kehoe 2000:102). She notes twelve roles in Santiago Atitlan that anthropologists Robert Carlsen and Martin Prechtel found grouped together by scholars and given the label ‘shaman’ (Kehoe 2000:53). I have found several additional roles that can be added to this list. Many of these ritual practitioners would not necessarily fit within the narrow classification of ‘shaman.’ Aj’kun, the first in this list, would fit the narrow definition of shaman. Aj’kun is defined as a “doctor or curer who ‘goes out to find’ the deity or spirit that can be invoked to cure an affliction” and enter an “alternate world” in this curing process (2000:54). The Aj’kun, then, that enter these alternate worlds would satisfy the narrow definition of shaman. However, the roll of the Telinel, literally meaning ‘shoulderer’ (carrier of the statue of the Mam deity in the Atitlan Maya) does not in itself necessitate that the person holding this position to be either an Aj’kun or to enter alternate worlds, thus this position would not satisfy the narrow definition of shaman although a shaman may hold the position. The confusion that can easily occur if one is not sensitive to these nuances is evident in these examples. Kehoe’s concern about the overuse of the term ‘shamanism’ appears to be valid in cases such as this.


To summarize this discussion on the term ‘shaman,’ it has been established that the Tungus term ‘saman’ is rooted in the Vedic term ‘sram.’ The meaning of this term “to heat oneself or practice austerities” strongly relates to the Chamula Tzotzil Maya notion of ‘heat’ in ritual practices. This provides the foundation for a strong argument for the use the term for the Tzotzil Maya in particular and also demonstrates that it is necessary to understand language as a living medium that is constantly being transformed and adapted across cultural lines. To freeze the use of a particular term to a single point on its trajectory would be arbitrary. This does not discount, however, a need for one clear and generally accepted definition for the term ‘shaman” that is adhered to by all scholars. The term ‘shaman’ does appear to be used in a sweeping manner to include ritual practices that are not strictly shamanic. For the practices that do not meet the narrow definition of ‘shaman’ the term ‘ritual specialist’ may be a more appropriate term.

Maya World-View as a Stage for Shamanic Practice

Now that we have a better understanding of word shamanism, we will pursue our quest for the shaman in the lives of contemporary Maya. First we will consider the way the Maya view the natural world, then, how they view themselves in relation to this world. Next, we will look at how the selection of a shaman flows from this view of the natural world. Following this we will see how all Maya view themselves as having a spiritual connection to nature through their companion animal and how the healing ceremonies conducted by the shaman reflects and reinforces this view. Then, we will look at how shamanic practice strives to strength family ties and ties to the community. Finally, we will look at an example of how the Maya world-view weaves shamanism into the life of the Roman Catholic Church.

A look at the Tzotzil Maya world-view gives more insight into how a culture that ascribes to a supernatural mind set has a synthesis of this mind set within all beliefs and behaviors. Because of this synthesized nature, it is difficult if not impossible to correctly understand such a complex system under an analytical format. The whole does not readily give way to its parts and dissection of cultural notions inherent in the culture may destroy rather than add to relevant pathways of understanding. It is through this holistic view of the Maya that a clearer vision of how this shamanistic behavior is reflected within the context of Maya everyday life.

The Tzotzil Maya view their physical realm of existence as a flat & square earth which is the center of the universe with the sun revolving around the earth (Holland 1964:42). Each of the four corners of this earth platform is supported by earth bearers. Suspended over this earth platform is a sky composed of thirteen horizontal levels forming the ‘mountain of the earth’ or upper world and below the surface of the earth are nine horizontal levels of the underworld (Holland 1964:42). Each of these regions is inhabited by gods. This type of cosmological world-view, one in which gods exists in every corner of the cosmological theater, not only sets the stage for shamanic practitioners to enact their rituals, but the individuals seeking aid from these practitioners exist within this theater as well. All within this framework coexist with an understanding of and experience with the gods.

This is readily seen in anthropologist Allen Christenson’s account of two brothers involved in repairing the altarpiece at Santiago Atitlan. The Chavez brothers approached their task with exceeding care. This consideration was not due primarily to a desire to preserve the surface of the altar or for aesthetic reasons, but it was rather due to concern for the soul of the piece (Christenson 2001:66). One of the brothers, Nicolas, related the myth of the altar’s creation noting that the gods searched for a tree that would consent to watch over the saints and finally “the cedar tree agreed” (Christenson 2001:67). The Chavez brothers joined new cedar to the old panels in the altar and heard “creaking and settling sounds in the wood which Nicolas interpreted as the older pieces accepting the new and urging the sculptors to hurry in their work so that the saints would not be left without a home” (Christenson 2001:67). The cedar tree is understood to be sentient and, even after it is cut down and fashioned into an altar, the cut wood retains it sentient qualities.

Humankind as a Spirit-filled Integrated Part of Nature

This spirit-filled way of being is not limited to the environment where the earth itself is viewed as sacred (Tedlock 1992:454). It penetrates all. Humankind is not separated out of this spiritual world-view as an objective observer-outside the rest of the natural world. Ch’ulel, the spirit, is the vital force that flows through the human body (Holland 1964:43). It is through this vital force that “individual character and personality traits find expression” (Holland 1964:42). All that affects the spirit which is infinite and immortal affects the body which is finite and mortal (Holland 1964:43).

Selection of Shaman

Nature beckons the potential initiate to become a shaman. The manner in which Maya Aj’kuns are called by the tellurian deities is consistent with the classic call of a shaman. For the Maya, the call may come in a dream from deities that they encounter while out on a walk, in a dream, or an infant may be marked at birth by the way the amniotic sac lays on its body (Fabrega and Silver 1973: 31-32; Paul 1975:709). If this membrane is perceived to be a “little shoulder bag,” then the child is destined to be a shaman (Paul 1975:708). This is consistent with a similar practice by the Yurak-Samoyed in Siberia who identify a shaman’s new-born son with a caul or “shirt” of membrane as being called by the gods to become a shaman (Eliade 1964:16).

The Tzotzil Maya initiate is summonsed to the sacred mountain home of the appropriate patrilineage (1992:456). Typically the initiate receives a series of dreams in which detailed instructions are given for ceremonies, prayers, diagnosis, and is symbolically given ritual objects such as candles and flowers that will be needed in the sacred ceremonies (Fabrega and Silver 1973: 31-32).

Illness and the Companion Animal

The human does not stand alone but is intimately connected to a companion animal through a common spirit binding the two from birth to death (Holland 1964:43). This companion animal is born in the same instant a human baby is born and resides in the sacred mountain [The Tzotzil sacred mountains are those of Larrainzar (Holland and Tharp1964:303)] of the appropriate patrilineage (Holland 1964:43). The destinies of each pair (human and companion animal) parallels the other.

For example, when a human is ill the companion animal is also assumed to be ill. This correlation between the manifestations of the spirit pair (human and companion animal) is understood to take place throughout the life of both. So, when a ritual is held for an ill human the same ritual is believe to be taking place in the sacred mountain for the companion animal. Most illness that cannot be healed with herbal treatment is believed to be “diseases of the spirit” (Holland 1964:43). Disease of this type is caused by loss of the spirit. This is often referred to as ‘soul loss’ and requires a ‘soul retrieval’ by the shaman. For the Maya, this loss may have occurred during a dream, from a fall or from being frightened. It is during times such as these that the malevolent gods can capture the lost spirit and hold it captive (Holland 1964:44). Initially, the victim of this soul loss may not be aware of what has occurred until illness sets in. At this point an Aj’kun (shaman) is called to retrieve the lost spirit or soul and reunite it with the individual (Holland 1964:44). The companion animal undergoes the same series of events within the sacred mountain.

Healing Ceremony and the Beliefs and Behaviors of the Family

It is understood by the Maya that harmony with the spirit world is mandatory for well-being. Spirits are not left out of any aspect of life. When a member of the community is ill the extended family is integrated into the ceremony to retrieve the lost spirit. Holland and Tharp liken this treatment of ‘the disease of the spirit’ to family psychotherapy therapy which reorients the patient’s attention to “goals outside of himself,” the patient is reassured by the supportive group working together for his recovery, the patient is the center of attention from the intimate group gathered to do the healing, the patient is prompted to participate, and an integration into established social norms is encouraged (Holland and Tharp 1964:50). The entire family participates in going out into the community to gather materials necessary for the ceremony. The boundaries between the sacred and the mundane are porous or nonexistent for the Maya. Perhaps this is better to be thought of as levels of intensity of interaction with the sacred where the sacred is always already present. The materials sought are readily contacted and available with on a day-in and day-out basis. It is invoking the spirits, calling their attention to a special need by supplication that sets the ceremony apart.

In the sacred mountain, the companion animal has a beautifully painted stool surrounded on three sides with pine boughs and pine needles and flowers cover the floor (Holland and Tharp 1964:43). In preparation for a healing ceremony, an altar is created that to a large degree replicates the companion animal space (Holland and Tharp 1964:47).

There is a unified vision of what is happening in the spirit realm of the companion animal and in human lives. The supportive family of the ill person goes out to collect plant materials according to the Aj’kun’s directions. The natural forces participate in reuniting the shared spirit of both the companion animal and the human. The web of existence as experienced by the Maya integrates humankind into the woven fabric of nature as opposed to surface application. The Aj’kun’s role is also woven into the fabric of the Maya’s lives. The healing requires participation from the family and awakens the community to the disharmony of the patient by sending ‘messengers’ out to retrieve materials for the ceremony.


“Altar for Healing Disease of the Spirit” (Holland and Tharp 1964:47)

Shamanic Involvement in the Church

The church that the Chavez brothers were working on when they ‘heard the wood speak’ is Roman Catholic. They donated their services as they felt they could not profit from work on a sacred object without offending the ancestors (Christenson 2001:58). When the Chavez brothers prepared for their repairs to the altarpiece at Atitlan, they visited the Aj’kun, elders in the community, and elderly people who had a spiritual relationship to the church to engage them in the design of the panel the brothers were going to create to do the repairs (Christenson 2001:61). The brothers also wanted them to suggest myths or ritual prayers that might add to the motifs to be carved on the altarpiece (Christenson 2001:61- 62).

Thus, even when involved with the Roman Catholic Church Maya people retain a world-view that intricately weaves their understanding of a spiritual web of existence into their beliefs and behaviors. They do not separate out selected elements of the world.


The terms shaman and shamanism fit many of the ritual practices of the pan-Maya population. Maya world-view is shamanic in nature and shamanism cannot be extracted from their culture. This way of knowing the world – moving through a spirit-filled environment – penetrates deeply into every thought and deed of the Maya people. Because the spirits are involved throughout Maya life the remedy for social and physical disharmony (illness) is interaction with these spirits. A complex system of specialists exists to honor the omnipresent spirits and placate disturbed ones. Therefore, shamanic thought and ways of being can be found in seemingly mundane elements of Maya lives.


Works Cited

Christenson, Allen J.

2001 Art and Society in a Highland Maya Community: The Altarpiece of Santiago Atitlan. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Eliade, Mircea.

1974[1972] Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Willard R. Trask, trans. Bollingen Series XVII. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fabrega, Horacio and Daniel B. Silver.

1973 Illness and Shamanistic Curing in Zinacantan: an Ethnomedical Analysis. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Halifax, Joan.

1979 Shamanic Voices: a Survey of Visionary Narratives. New York: Dutton.

Holland, William R.

1964 Contemporary Tzotzil Cosmological Concepts as a Basis for Interpreting Prehistoric Maya Civilization. American Antiquity 29 (3):301-306.

Holland, William R. and Roland G. Tharp

1964 Highland Maya Psyhotherapy. American Anthropologist, New Series 66(1):41-52.

Kehoe, Alice Beck.

2000 Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinking. Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin.

Paul, Lois and Benjamin D. Paul.

1975 The Maya Midwife as Sacred Specialist: A Guatemalan Case. American Ethnologist 2(4):707-726.

Tedlock, Barbara.

1992 The Role of Dreams and Visionary Narratives in Mayan Cultural Survival. Ethos 20(4):453-476.

Tedlock, Barbara

1982 Time and the Highland Maya. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition 2004 About Dictionary.com. Electronic document (http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=shaman), accessed November 20, 2004.

COPYRIGHT © 2004 by Barbara E. Verchot