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“Sunset at Bathwater” Death Valley, California

The Long-Ago Shamans of Death Valley: Vision Quests and Magical Rites

Death Valley is located in southern California, adjacent to the state line with Nevada, in the United States. Running roughly north-south, this remote valley is roughly 95 miles (153 km) long and 25 miles (40 km) wide. Its dramatic and tumbled rock strata reflect the vast ages of the Earth’s geological upheavals. The name of the place (apparently due to the deaths of ‘Forty-Niner’ gold prospectors there) may conjure a somewhat forbidding mental image, yet the actual visual impact is a vivid one, with rocks looking as if painted in reds, oranges, yellows, golds, and black, punctuated by scattered areas of white, glistening salt flats and mustard-yellow sand dunes, all fringed to east and west by purple-blue mountains. It is harsh and barren, but certainly colorful.

Zabriskie Point – an eastern entrance into Death Valley.

Zabriskie Point – an eastern entrance into Death Valley. (Photo: author)

Author Paul Devereux on the Death Valley salt flat known as ‘The Devil’s Golf Course’.

Author Paul Devereux on the Death Valley salt flat known as ‘The Devil’s Golf Course’. (Photo: S. Devereux)

People inhabited this remote place about 9,000 years ago, when a cool period allowed a shallow lake to occupy part of the valley floor. Eventually warmer, arid conditions developed, and the lake dried up about 2,000 years ago. The only evidence of this ancient lake today is what can only be called a large puddle and salty smear at what is said to be the lowest point in the continental United States – it is at any rate below sea level.

Although the region looks inhospitable to modern eyes, the collective territory of Death Valley, the adjacent Panamint Valley and the nearby Coso Mountains to the west, plus the wilderness stretching to near Las Vegas to the east, was known to the Shoshone as tiwiniyarivipi – their mythical place of origin “where the stories begin and end”. Today, few people would guess that it harbors a shamanic cartography. It is, however, a challenging place in which to find the remnants of that ancient sacred geography.

Some of the shape-shifting sand dunes in Death Valley.

Some of the shape-shifting sand dunes in Death Valley. (Photo: author)

Shamanic Ritual Markings

The shamanic ground markings of Death Valley tend to be found in the more remote parts of this already remote region – probably the reason why any trace of them survives at all. They are ritual and magical features left by long-ago shamans, probably of the ancestral Pima and Shoshone peoples, and they are fragile, so much so that their precise locations are not advertised. Indeed, only a few archaeologists have visited them, and then only rarely. I had to work from what I had been able to gather from obscure sources and personal guidance to find any of them, and so I quite often found myself standing at features I knew no one had seen for many years, possibly for decades.

They take various forms – ritual pathways, shrines, vision quest ‘beds’, scraped ground markings and strange sinuous lines and weird patterns of rocks.

Vision Quest Beds

One of numerous vision questing ‘beds’ to be found on the floor of the valley.

One of numerous vision questing ‘beds’ to be found on the floor of the valley. (Photo: author)

Vision quest beds are remote, subtly-marked locations where an Indian brave or shaman would go to spend a solitary vigil seeking a vision – a personal spiritual gift. He would go without food or sleep for perhaps three or four days and nights until the vision came. If it came at all, it would most commonly be in the form of what we would call an auditory hallucination: he would hear a chant or song. (It is said that some traditional Indian chants originated in this way.) Sometimes, though, the vision might appear as a spirit animal, or even a spirit taking human form. In Death Valley, as is often the case elsewhere in the ancient Americas, a vision quest bed is simply a small area demarcated by a low ring of rocks.

Ritual Pathways

A ritual pathway in Death Valley.

A ritual pathway in Death Valley. (Photo: author)

Ritual pathways are probably the rarest of the shamanic features. The only one I found was created very simply by the removal of the small dark rocks that litter parts of the Death Valley landscape. The path led to the remnants of a shrine, now visible as simply a loose group of boulders.

Geoglpyhs

Part of an intaglio figure, formed by scraping away the topsoil which is darkened by long ages of oxidization (known as desert varnish) revealing the lighter subsoil.

Part of an intaglio figure, formed by scraping away the topsoil which is darkened by long ages of oxidization (known as desert varnish) revealing the lighter subsoil. (Photo: author)

The most enigmatic of all the shamanic relics in the valley are markings etched into the hard, sunbaked ground (‘intaglios’) or laid out with small rocks on the surface of the ground (‘petroforms’). Such features are collectively known as ‘geoglyphs’. Both types in Death Valley mainly show meandering, abstract patterns, but a few seem to depict mythical creatures.

A petroform pattern.

A petroform pattern. (Photo: author)

Nobody knows what the petrofroms were all about. One suggestion is that the lines of stones represent the work of vision questers, because physical exertion was supposed to help the arrival of a vision – in fact, some questers would run back and forth in the heat of the day until they collapsed and had what we would call a near-death experience.

On the other hand, it is known from ethnology that up until the 19 th Century, at least, Indian shamans in the general region around Death Valley would sometimes incise lines on the ground to magically create a boundary, a virtual obstacle, that no one could cross until the shaman lifted the spell. It has been noted that the linear features tend to occur near what would have been the shores of the former shallow lake, and so perhaps they represent shamanic attempts to stop the increasing aridity that was drying up the water. If so, the magic didn’t work.

A solitary line of rocks – a petroform relic that tells of the mysterious activity of a long-ago shaman in Death Valley.

A solitary line of rocks – a petroform relic that tells of the mysterious activity of a long-ago shaman in Death Valley. (Photo: author)

Shaman Hearths and Magical Fire

The shamanic landscapes of Death Valley also repay close observation of the ground for two types of very subtle features. One of these is the occasional occurrence of very small pebble arrangements near intaglios. Archeologists have referred to these as ‘shamans’ hearths’. Some of these were simply symbolic, perhaps a kind of signature.

A subtle collection of small rocks forming a ‘shaman’s hearth’.

A subtle collection of small rocks forming a ‘shaman’s hearth’. (Photo: author)

The other type of very subtle evidence of former shamanism is the sparse occurrence of localized scatters of quartz flakes. These resulted from shamans producing ‘magic fire’ during rituals: when a piece of quartz is struck or rubbed with another piece of quartz, its interior lights up due to a piezo-electrical effect. Because of this, quartz was considered a sacred rock.

A 5-inch (12 cm) piece of quartz (rock crystal) illuminated by its own piezo-electricity brief moments after being rubbed by another piece of quartz.

A 5-inch (12 cm) piece of quartz (rock crystal) illuminated by its own piezo-electricity brief moments after being rubbed by another piece of quartz. (Photo: author)

Taken all together, these strange, mysterious features and markings tell us of long-ago magico-ritual activity, representing the legacy of the ancient shamans of Death Valley.

Further information on these and other shamanic features in the Americas can be found in Mysterious Ancient America, only available through Paul Devereux’s website, www.pauldevereux.co.uk

Featured image: “Sunset at Bathwater” Death Valley, California (Flickr/ CC BY 2.0 )

By Paul Devereux

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