Shamans & Mayan Culture

Shaman were held in extremely high esteem by the Ancient Mayans and for good reason; not only were they healers who utilized the vast storehouse of plant life that circled them in the lush rainforests they called home, but they were the ones who communicated with the Divine in order to get answers to everything from the source of illnesses to discovering the will of the gods.  As a matter of fact, all of humanity (at least according to the Popol Vah) was created in a divinatory ritual conducted by the gods.  And divinatory rituals were, at least in early Mayan culture, performed exclusively by Shamans.

Yet Shamans are typically nothing more than a footnote in most texts. The Spanish conquerors destroyed the whole of Mayan written history except for a few codices (The Codex Borgia is one amazing and complete codex example), and did their best to erase the existence of Shaman and the high place in Mayan society by associating them with the “Devil” and “Pagan rituals.” The Spanish replaced Shaman with the priests that also existed in Mayan society as they tried to convert the Mayans to Christianity.  Priests did exist harmoniously in Mayan culture, but the role of priests and Shaman were quite different from each other.

To me, one of the best explanations as to why the Spanish were so threatened by the Shaman of ancient Mayan culture is because Shaman often used substances that induced altered states of consciousness to communicate with the Divine.  Mayans were actually quite versed in a wide range of psychoactive and hallucinogenic substances that ranged from Nicotiana rustica (wild tobacco that is far more potent than modern-day tobacco and often used exclusively for its psychoactive properties), to peyote (used today by American Indians), to Morning Glories (Aztecs) and Blue Lily (revered by the Egyptians).  There is even detailed explanations that outline the use of the “poison” gland from the Bufo marinus toad, which has since proven to be quite a powerful hallucinogen.

In fact, the Bufo toad was held in extremely high esteem by the Mayans, and the hallucinogenic substance that the toad excreted was often blended to make the magical potions that facilitated communication with the supernatural.  Like many Mesoamerican peoples, a fermented drink called “Balche” was made from the Balche tree (Lonchocarpus longistylus) and honey and was one of the core potions used for divination purposes.  The secretions of the Bufo toad were added to this blend, it was consumed with cigars made of the Nicotiana rustica, or evidence, although less concrete, suggests that Blue Lily and/or Morning Glory was added to the brew for one purpose:  to open a gateway to communication with the supernatural.

This assertion was further confirmed with Thomas Gage, who, in the seventeenth century, reported that the Pokomam peoples added tobacco and/or secretions from Bufo toads to their fermented beverages to increase the power of the beverage to transport them to the gods.  And the below image is from my personal collection of Mayan artifacts, and one of my favorite as well; it’s the only vessel of its kind that I know of, depicting a Bufo toad with a ritualistic drinking vessel on its back that surely contained the psychoactive beverage that helped transport a Mayan Shaman to the Underworld:

bufo-vessel_432x72

There is even less documentation supporting the ritualistic use of mushrooms by the ancient Mayans, it’s not too far of a leap to connect the many figures depicting psychoactive mushrooms in the Mayan areas to the south, in the Kaminaljuyu tombs, and in dictionaries that were compiled immediately after the Spanish conquest.  In fact, one mushroom called “Xibalbaj okox” (which means “underworld mushroom) was specifically mentioned in the dictionary as a gateway to the supernatural.  But this fact was suppressed and history has done its best to minimize the importance of these kinds of substances and rituals that were central to Mayan Culture.

There is no argument that the Mayans were deeply connected to their environment.  There is no argument that they had a very sophisticated and intrinsic relationship with their environment.  They were mystics, philosophers and astrologers and existed for over 1,000 years, ruling an entire continent and coming up with a language, number system, and yearly calendar that scientists, archaeologists, and astronomers still revel about.  Yet, as is typically the case, whenever the word “hallucinogen” is used in reference to anything intellectual or honorable, it is dismissed.

To me, there is no way any thinking person can ignore the simple fact that part of the reason the Mayans were so advanced in so many intellectual pursuits is partly because of their ritualistic use of mind-alerting substances to communicate with the “gods,” the “divine,” or whatever anyone chooses to call them.  It simply doesn’t make sense to try to minimize the importance of some of the very things that could have been, in large part, responsible for the leaps in technology and thought that has allowed the Mayans to endure in our mutual consciousness to this day.  But this has always been how the conquering nations operate, and especially in relation to the most violent religion in recorded history (the Christians).

I’ve often wondered why individuals who may have direct access to the Divine are so threatening to the conquering Christians, but as I did more research into the history and core beliefs of the Christian movement, it became clear:  Only the Christian clergy have access to such things, and certainly a bunch of “savages” (as commonly referred to by the Christians) could never have such powers unless they were “pagans” or “devil worshippers.”

And this is part of how Christians brainwash their followers and maintain control over large populations; power is placed only in the hands of the elite, and the common man is certainly “too dumb” or at least not personally powerful enough to have any sort of valid contact with their creators without the help of the Christian clergy.  And this is where it all goes so awry with me; I have touched the hand of the Divine, I have a belief system based on a well-thought out and carefully researched position that empowers me to make my own choices and to honor all that being human is, which to me, in turn honors my personal Divine in the most powerful way possible.

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9 Comments

  • Jose Lopez
    October 4, 2009 at 12:40 pm 

    Everything about the Mayan Culture. Beautiful

  • john sanders
    December 13, 2009 at 5:11 am 

    Thank you for sharing your insights of the mayan culture. I agree with your comments regarding christianity and how it flagrantly disregarded centuries of cherished wisdom. I believe we are in the time when the common man will rise up beyond his self imposed ignorance to claim the expanded consciousness that is rightfully ours.
    cheers!!!!

  • Carl de Borhegyi
    February 12, 2010 at 7:50 pm 

    Hay Keith,
    Your article on Shamans and Maya Culture was a great read. I only wished it had been a bit longer you were just getting going. By the way I love your toad vessel, it is a “real classic”, no pun intended. Let me start by saying that my father was the Maya archaeologist who first identified and dated the so-called mushroom cult, based on his study of mushroom stones found in the Maya area. (visit Mushroomstone.com) Over the past 15 years I have followed up on my father’s research, the late Dr. Stephan F. de Borhegyi and have made many new and interesting discoveries which you will find very interesting. I believe I found enough evidence to make it very hard for most to “dismiss”. I hope you take a look at my research site, you won’t be disappointed. I would love any comments or concerns. (google Image Carl de Borhegyi)

  • keith
    February 15, 2010 at 3:21 pm 

    Carl,

    Thanks for the kind words on the article; it’s actually just one of many, and it’s indeed just the “introductory” article. I always figure that something is better than nothing, so more in-depth articles will indeed follow in the near-future. The Mayan Bufo toad vessel is the prize of my collection; there’s no denying it’s purpose and there’s no denying the importance of that toad in the Mayan mystical and shamanic tradition.

    I’ve actually been to your site in the past and have been extremely inspired by it. You’ve got a ton of information and research there; it’s one of those places I hope people find their way to. I do think we’re just at the beginning of truly discovering the Mayan culture thanks to a number of dedicated and open-minded archaeologists such as your father, so it’s exciting to see work like yours online.

    Please feel free to e-mail me at any time; I’ve actually got a bunch of questions for you…so let’s begin a conversation offline rather than on the blog.

    All the best to you and thanks again for stopping by!

    Kind Regards,
    Keith

  • Ramon F. Barela, MFA
    April 13, 2010 at 11:04 pm 

    I am very glad to come across your website. I am an artist and educator and am currently investigating the DNA of corn and the effects of the blue lily.I totally agree with you that the Maya had access to vast and deep knowledge of the cosmos because or in part as a result of their use of pschoactive drugs in their rituals. Can you refer me to any studies that have been conducted while in the use of the “blue lily”? It is interesting that we find it in Egypt, India and Mesoamerica. Please send me your thoughts. I would like to share some images with you, gracias, ramon.

  • Carl de Borhegyi
    April 14, 2010 at 3:22 pm 

    Hi Keith,
    I came back to your site to read more of your work and found your reply. Thanks so much for all your kind words. My research site is still a work in progress, with more editing needing to be done, but it’s getting there. R. Gordon Wasson postulated that early man, crossing the Bering straits or the land bridge that replaced it, most likely brought with him the link between the toad, the female sex organs (vulva) and the mushroom as part of his intellectual luggage, exemplified, according to Wasson, in the Mayan languages and the mushroom stones of the Maya Highlands. I’ll be in touch, Carl

  • keith
    April 14, 2010 at 7:43 pm 

    I have a couple of authoritative sources regarding ancient ritualistic use of Sacred Blue Lily, including my own modest collection of Mayan artifacts which all share a common theme: incontrovertible evidence of the use of entheogens such as the Bufo toad and Sacred Blue Lily as a part of Mayan ritual. Someone actually just included an image of my Bufo Toad Vessel in an interesting essay called Mystical 2012 if you’re curious. Anyway, I would be very interested in continuing a discussion outside of the Comment section of the blog and perhaps trade some research via e-mail. Please feel free to contact me directly at keith at cleversley dot com whenever it’s convenient for you. Kind Regards, Keith

  • Carl de Borhegyi
    July 22, 2010 at 10:56 pm 

    Hi Kieth, regarding the ancient rituals of consuming mushrooms and the licking of toads…

    It’s strange that, in the half century since my father, Maya archaeologist Stephan F. de Borhegyi published his first articles on Maya mushroom stones and proposed their use in connection with Maya psychogenic mushroom ceremonies, little attention has been paid to this intriguing line of research. I propose that the oversight is related to the worldview classification scheme established by R. Gordon Wasson in which he distinguished between peoples and cultures that liked mushrooms (mycophiles) and those that feared them (mycophobes) (Wasson, 1980: XV). This classification might be extended to include all psychogenic or mind-altering substances with the exception of alcohol. Their use in the Western world is considered to be objectionable, immoral and, for the most part, illegal. In any event, it is clear that, while the Pre Columbian peoples of Mesoamerica were decidedly mycophilic, the majority of archaeologists who have studied them are mycophobes. The result has been that their possible centrality to ancient Mesoamerican religious rituals has been either overlooked or, at best, barely acknowledged (Martin and Grube, 2000:15; Coe, 1999: 70; Sharer, 1994: 542, 683).

    Quoting R. Gordon Wasson:

    “I believe that the so-called mushroom stones really do represent mushrooms, and that they were the symbol of a religion, like the cross in the Christian religion or the star of Judea or the crescent of the Moslems”.

    “In the association of these ideas we strike a vein that must go back to the remotest times in Eurasia, to the Stone Age: the link between the toad, the female sex organs, and the mushroom, exemplified in the Mayan languages and the mushroom stones of the Maya Highlands. Man must have brought this association across the Bering Strait (or the land bridge that replaced it in the ice ages) as part of his intellectual luggage.”

    “… the whole corpus of surviving pre-conquest artistic expression should…be reviewed on the chance that divine mushrooms figuring therein have hitherto escaped detection”. (From, Mushrooms, Russia and History, New York, 1957, p.286)

    Carl de Borhegyi
    For more on the Olmec-Maya mushroom religion visit mushroomstone.com

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