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Shaman

Shamanism in Ancient Mesoamerica: A Journey to the World of the Gods

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Shamanism, a spiritual and religious practice rooted in the belief of an intermediary connection between the human world and the spiritual realms, holds an important place in the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica. The region, encompassing present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, was home to advanced ancient civilizations such as the Olmecs, Maya, Zapotecs, and Aztecs. These societies developed intricate belief systems where shamanism played a crucial role in social, religious, and political spheres. Shamanism in ancient Mesoamerica was not a uniform practice but varied significantly across different cultures. However, it consistently centered around the shaman as a pivotal figure capable of traversing both the physical and spiritual worlds. 

Shamanism in Mesoamerica as a Gateway Between the Realms 

The origins of shamanism in Mesoamerica can be traced back to the early pre-Columbian periods. Archaeological evidence suggests that as early as 1500 BC, shamans were active in the Olmec civilization, often regarded as the "mother culture" of Mesoamerica. Olmec art and iconography frequently depict figures believed to be shamans, adorned with jaguar pelts and masks, signifying their role as intermediaries between the human and supernatural realms. The Olmecs' reverence for the jaguar, an animal associated with power and mysticism, permeated subsequent Mesoamerican cultures, reinforcing the shaman’s status as a mediator endowed with supernatural abilities. 

"Aztec shaman" in Plaza de la Constitución,

"Aztec shaman" in Plaza de la Constitución, Mexico City. (Alexey Komarov/ CC BY-SA 4.0) 

“Shamanism is a term used by anthropologists and historians of religion to describe similar systems of religious thought and practice centered on the role of ritual specialists who enter trance states in order to communicate with the supernatural world for the benefit of their communities. It has been posited as the first human religion.” 

  • “Shamanism in Pre‐Columbian Mesoamerica”, Jordan, Keith, 2008.  Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. 

In ancient Mesoamerican societies, shamans served multiple roles: healers, diviners, ritual specialists, and spiritual leaders. They were believed to possess the ability to communicate with gods, ancestors, and spirits, often entering altered states of consciousness to perform their duties. This communication was facilitated through various means, including trance states induced by hallucinogenic substances, fasting, rhythmic drumming, and dance. 

One of the primary functions of shamans, however, was healing. Illness in Mesoamerican belief systems was often attributed to spiritual causes such as the displeasure of gods, malevolent spirits, or soul loss. Shamans would diagnose and treat these ailments through rituals, herbal remedies, and spiritual journeys to retrieve lost souls or appease offended deities. They also played a crucial role in divination, interpreting omens and natural signs to predict future events and guide community decisions. This predictive aspect was vital in agricultural societies reliant on favorable weather patterns and successful harvests. 

Masters of Appeasing the Mighty Gods 

Rituals and ceremonies were integral to shamanic practice in ancient Mesoamerica. These rites were conducted to ensure cosmic balance, to appease gods, and maintain harmony between the human and spiritual worlds. Among the most significant rituals were those dedicated to agricultural fertility, rain, and the cycles of life and death. The Maya civilization, for instance, had an elaborate calendar system and cosmology deeply intertwined with shamanic practices. The shamans, often referred to as "daykeepers," used the Tzolk'in (a special sacred calendar) to determine auspicious dates for rituals and agricultural activities. They conducted ceremonies to honor Chaac, the rain god, invoking his favor for bountiful rains essential for maize cultivation. These rituals often involved offerings, bloodletting, and dance, believed to open portals to the spiritual realm. Sometimes even human sacrifice was involved. 

12th-14th century ceramic effigy of Maya rain god Chaac in the de Young Museum in San Francisco, California

12th-14th century ceramic effigy of Maya rain god Chaac in the de Young Museum in San Francisco, California (Daderot/CC0) 

This human sacrifice, although a controversial aspect, was a significant element of Mesoamerican shamanistic rituals, particularly among the Aztecs. Sacrifices were seen as the ultimate offerings to the gods, ensuring the continued movement of the sun and the fertility of the earth. Shamans would lead these ceremonies, communicating with deities to receive their blessings and maintain cosmic order. It is important to remember that these societies did not see death in the same way we do today. Believers often volunteered to be sacrificed, and in other cases, it was the prisoners of war that were offered to the gods. 

AI drawing of an Aztec shaman with a pile of human skulls sacrificed in sacred rituals.

AI drawing of an Aztec shaman with a pile of human skulls sacrificed in sacred rituals. (Domingo/Adobe Stock) 

The rich symbolism and iconography associated with shamanism are evident in the art and artifacts of ancient Mesoamerica. Animals such as jaguars, serpents, and eagles frequently appear in shamanic contexts, symbolizing power, transformation, and divine connection. The jaguar, in particular, was revered for its nocturnal prowess and association with the underworld and shamanic journeys. Artifacts like masks, figurines, and ceremonial tools often depict shamans in transformative states, blending human and animal features. These representations emphasize the shaman’s ability to transcend ordinary reality and access otherworldly knowledge. The jade masks of the Maya and the carved stelae of the Olmecs are prime examples, showcasing intricate designs that highlight the shaman's esteemed status and their role as intermediaries. 

Maya Jade Mask & Burial Artifacts of Kinich Hanab Pakal, Ruler of Palenque, 615-683 AD

Maya Jade Mask & Burial Artifacts of Kinich Hanab Pakal, Ruler of Palenque, 615-683 AD (Public Domain) 

A Complex Journey to Other Planes of Existence 

Central to Mesoamerican shamanism was the use of hallucinogenic substances to induce altered states of consciousness. These substances, derived from plants such as peyote, morning glory seeds, and psilocybin mushrooms, were considered sacred tools enabling shamans to communicate with the spiritual realm. The ingestion of these entheogens facilitated visions, spiritual journeys, and encounters with deities and spirits. 

Peyote cactus with fruit (bottom), Lophophora williamsii, 

Peyote cactus with fruit (bottom), Lophophora williamsii (Karelj/CC BY-SA 3.0) 

“Throughout Mesoamerica, shamans ingested copious amounts of various organic hallucinogens, narcotics and neurotoxins in order to reach their desired trance-state. These substances include seeds from the cojobana tree (cohoba) and numerous varieties of hallucinogenic fungi. In addition to this, there is evidence that cultures like the Mexica hunted for and made use of a widely growing small cactus called peyote. Peyote was an especially important component of the divinatory rituals of the Teochichimeca, who were the ancestors of the Mexica. The Mesoamerican peoples also utilized various fauna in their quest for a deep trance. There is evidence of shamans licking the toxic skin secretions from poisonous toads, such as Bufo marinus, in order to achieve a brief stupor. Another concoction that has been found to be a potent psychoactive substance is referred to as teotlacualli. Teotlacualli is a mixture composed of tobacco, crushed scorpions, live spiders and centipedes that the shaman then smears all over his body or drinks.” 

 “Psychoactive Substances and Shamans: An Influential Pairing”, Hollace Good, 2011, Undergraduate Research Journal. 

The Aztecs, for example, revered teonanácatl, or “divine mushroom,” using it in various rituals to gain insights and divine guidance. Similarly, the Maya utilized balché, a fermented beverage made from the bark of the Lonchocarpus tree, often consumed during ceremonial gatherings to enhance spiritual experiences. The use of these substances was carefully regulated within ritual contexts, underscoring their significance and the shaman's specialized knowledge in administering them. Also, shamans held considerable socio-political influence in ancient Mesoamerican societies. Their ability to mediate between the earthly and divine realms endowed them with authority that extended beyond spiritual matters. They often served as advisors to rulers, influencing political decisions and legitimizing leadership through their perceived connection with the gods. It should not be surprising that manipulation of the masses was often utilized in such matters.  

The Mexican magic mushroom or Teotlnanácatl mushroom is believed to be one or a mixture of these two psilocybin mushrooms of Mexico:

The Mexican magic mushroom or Teotlnanácatl mushroom is believed to be one or a mixture of these two psilocybin mushrooms of Mexico: Psilocybe aztecorum and/or Psilocybe mexicana.  (alexander volkov / Adobe Stock) 

The Speakers of the Shadow Language 

In the Maya civilization, the ahau, or king, was often regarded as the highest shaman, embodying both political and spiritual leadership. The king performed key rituals and communicated with deities, reinforcing his divine right to rule. This dual role underscored the intertwining of religion and politics in Mesoamerican culture, where the shaman's spiritual authority bolstered the political hierarchy. The legacy of ancient Mesoamerican shamanism persists in contemporary indigenous practices across the region. Many modern-day Maya, Nahua, and other indigenous groups continue to revere shamans, known as curanderos or healers, who maintain traditional knowledge of medicinal plants, rituals, and spiritual practices - knowledge which was inherited across generations of healers. These practices, though adapted to contemporary contexts, reflect the enduring significance of shamanism as a cultural and spiritual cornerstone. 

“The shamanic practices of ancient Mesoamerica reveal a profound connection between humanity and the cosmos, where every ritual, every trance, was a step into the boundless realms of the divine. These ancient spiritual intermediaries not only healed the sick and foretold the future but also embodied the intricate relationship between the physical world and the spiritual forces that shaped their reality. Their traditions offer a complex worldview of wisdom, intertwining the mystical with the practical in ways that continue to inspire and intrigue us today.” 
-  “Echoes of the Jaguar: Mystical Traditions of Ancient Mesoamerica”, Elizabeth Carter, 2003, University of Oxford Press 

Moreover, the archaeological and ethnohistorical records provide valuable insights into the continuity of shamanic traditions. Codices, such as the Dresden Codex and the Codex Borgia, contain detailed accounts of rituals, cosmology, and shamanic practices, preserving the rich heritage of Mesoamerican spirituality. These texts, along with ongoing anthropological research, help to illuminate the complexities and nuances of ancient shamanism, contributing to a deeper understanding of its historical and cultural impact. 

Page 25 of the Codex Borgia.

Page 25 of the Codex Borgia. (Chaccard/CC BY-SA 4.0) 

Living in an In-Between World 

Today, many remote native communities in South America, most notably in Mexico, continue to practice shamanism in some form. In a more modern context, these shamans would be seen as village elders, or village healers, whose knowledge of the land around them and the plants that grow there is unique and requires a lifetime of study and devotion. For villages that are far in the mountains and woods, so distant from doctors and bustling towns, these healers are often the sole source of help and remedy. And we can safely assume that it was just the same centuries ago, when ancient peoples had to rely on knowledgeable shamans for help and healing.  

This continuity of shamanic traditions in contemporary indigenous practices highlights the enduring legacy of such ancient beliefs, reflecting a resilient cultural heritage that continues to inspire and inform modern spiritual practices. Through the study of archaeological findings, historical texts, and living traditions, the profound depth and complexity of shamanism in ancient Mesoamerica continue to captivate scholars and enthusiasts alike, offering a window into the spiritual heart of these remarkable civilizations. 

Top image: AI illustration of shamanism in Mesoamerica. A Maya shaman in a traditional healing ceremony ritual. Source: Mr. Bolota/Adobe Stock   

References

Carter, E. 2003Echoes of the Jaguar: Mystical Traditions of Ancient Mesoamerica. University of Oxford Press. 

Hollace, G. 2011. Psychoactive Substances and Shamans: An Influential Pairing. Undergraduate Research Journal. 

Jordan, K. 2008. Shamanism in Pre‐Columbian Mesoamerica. In: Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures . Springer. 

Pratt, C. 2007. An Encyclopedia of Shamanism Volume 2. The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc. 

Stutley, M. 2003. Shamanism: An Introduction. Routledge. 

 

Frequently Asked Questions

The shaman is a specialized ritual practitioner who is adept at entering altered states of consciousness understood as journeys to the spirit world. 

Mesoamerican shamans believed in a complex spiritual cosmology that included a pantheon of gods and spirits, as well as the interconnectedness of the physical and spiritual worlds. They often revered natural forces like the sun, rain, and earth, and believed in the importance of rituals to maintain harmony and balance in the cosmos. Additionally, they held beliefs about the power of healing, divination, and communicating with ancestors and supernatural beings. 

In the case of the Maya, the term used to refer to shamans is «Maman» or «x'amanej.» For the Maya, a shaman is much more than a healer or healer. He is a being that possesses supernatural abilities and acts as an intermediary between the gods and humans. 

Aleksa Vučković's picture

Aleksa

I am a published author of over ten historical fiction novels, and I specialize in Slavic linguistics. Always pursuing my passions for writing, history and literature, I strive to deliver a thrilling and captivating read that touches upon history's most... Read More

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