If someone had asked me a month ago what a shaman was, I might have said a medicine man. I might even have been proud of knowing that. I also would have been wrong.

As archaeologist David Freidel explains, shamans — unlike other traditional healers — derive their power from direct contact with the spirit world; in an altered state of awareness, they travel to the “Otherworld” to gain insight and information. The act of communing with dead ancestors is a common thread among shamanic traditions from Siberia to South America.

For the Maya people of Mexico and Central America, shamans are more than just spiritual healers; they are a link to a more glorious past, the ancient civilization most of us think of when we hear the word Maya. In the face of a dominant Western culture that threatens to absorb them, the modern Maya are fiercely protective of this connection.

During his twenty-five-year career, much of it spent in the field studying the Maya Indians, archaeologist David Freidel has come close to an insider’s perspective on Maya shamanism. He is a professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and his work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Geographic Society. He and Joy Parker have coauthored several books on Maya culture, the most recent being Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path.

This interview took place during the writing of that book, while the two authors were attending a symposium on the Maya at the University of Texas at Austin.

— Andrew W. Snee


Parker: Most people think of the Maya as a people who are gone, a long-dead civilization, but there are Maya living today.

Freidel: Current estimates show well over five million. The Maya are spread out across El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico.

Part of the difficulty we face in approaching the Maya of modern times is that they regard their knowledge of the Otherworld — the spirit world — as dangerous in the hands of foreigners. To reveal that knowledge to foreigners is, potentially, to provide the dominant national culture and its agents with the opportunity to penetrate their Otherworld and conquer their spirits as well as their physical beings.

I had a wonderful foreman for my research in Belize named Venancio Nobello. He was a leader of his community, a descendant of rebels who fled into Belize after the collapse of their movement. I talked to him about the stories that anthropologists had recorded concerning people being swallowed by snakes and coming out the other end and becoming shamans. He said, “That is very dangerous knowledge. Don’t speak to anybody about such things. Yes, we do have our understandings, but this information can be used to harm people.”

He told me stories about his own experiments with shamanism. He had a book of incantations that he had gotten from his grandfather, but he never showed it to me. One thing he tried was to send a letter magically to a friend of his in Belize. He said that the incantation gave him hives on the inside of his mouth, so he never tried it again.

Parker: I remember reading in one of Carlos Castaneda’s books about the importance of preserving the spirit world. To a people being attacked and oppressed by a national government, the spirit world is the only true freedom left.

Freidel: A lot might be said about Castaneda’s reliability, but that observation is a correct one, confirmed by many field-workers.

Parker: We in the West seem to have developed a philosophy that separates the spiritual world from the material world.

Freidel: It leaves us in the abyss, doesn’t it? We’re torn between a desire for the fantastic, on the one hand, and a nostalgia for the past, on the other. On some level we recognize that our lives are atomized and compartmentalized, and we resist it. That’s why so many people are attracted to the phantasmagoric. People read newspapers that tell them about flying saucers because they want to believe in flying saucers. They want to believe in monsters and supernatural beings and the occult, not merely because these things are entertaining, but because they want somehow to move beyond the banalities of the material world. No matter how you conceive of it, no matter how you construct it, the material world isn’t what people want to live for, so they’re attracted to the mystical. I think the Maya, who know that the spirit world is real and communicate with it regularly, have a much more balanced attitude toward the needs of human beings.

Of course, many mystically inclined people in our society find solace in their own religions. Our religions don’t exclude the possibility of mysticism.

Parker: But so many people are cut off from their spiritual side that a fringe element has sprung up — one that is involved with the more harebrained aspects of mysticism. It’s as if our culture is so unbalanced that it’s tipped in the opposite direction.

Freidel: That’s the point. Shamanism is a matter of balance, and we lack the means to arrive at the balance that shamanism provides. A shaman is a curer, a psychologist, a prophet, a priest, a companion in voyage. To have shamans in your community is very comforting. Even when modern medicine is available, people still use shamans — not necessarily because they believe their cures are superior, but because they want what the shaman provides: a curing of the social being as well as the spiritual being. We don’t have this. We don’t train our people to do this, and it’s our loss.

Parker: So shamans treat individual illness in the context of the family and of the surrounding society. They seek to heal the larger breech, not just the breech in a person’s body.

Freidel: The same is true of traditional healers everywhere. Traditional healers who deal with magical as well as physical means find themselves constantly looking to redress the individual balance. A shaman, for example, will look to see if someone has lost a piece of his or her soul. It’s a common affliction in Mexican societies. It’s called susto. We would call it fright or shock. If you fall down, or embarrass yourself, or have an overabundance of adrenaline in your system, you might be afflicted with something like this.

It’s this redressing of balance that a person has to undertake with a shaman. A Maya shaman will get people to confess their sins. The shaman can then go into the Otherworld with that knowledge and come back with some useful advice. Shamanism is a very efficacious approach to that sort of problem.

We are unsettled by the notion that when Japan’s new emperor accedes to the throne, he goes into a small hut with four posts and communicates directly with his ancestors. We find this kind of behavior disturbing in civilized societies.

Parker: Are there male and female shamans?

Freidel: Some societies have principally women as shamans, some have principally men. And some have both, as the Maya do, because shamanism is a personal calling, a call to the individual, regardless of their station in life. It’s a very idiosyncratic vocation.

In the case of ancient Maya shamanism, men would sometimes perform as if they were women. They would wear women’s clothes in ritual states and give birth to supernatural beings. They were transcending the most fundamental of social dichotomies, the male-female, just as they were transcending the fundamental dichotomies between the human world and the spirit world.

Parker: You first approached the Maya because you were fascinated with shamanism.

Freidel: I was attracted by how central the shamans were to the Maya. The shamans live in a sacred geography that pulses them in and out of the center of the community, a place called htek-lum, where the navel of the universe is found. They work in caves and in mountains, they heal the sick, and they communicate with the ancestors on behalf of the people. It was this very rich, living Maya world that I first found, not the archaeological world. After this encounter, however, I decided to go back and look for the principles of Maya shamanism in the Maya past.

Parker: People in our society seem to know very little about shamanism. Few make a serious study of it.

Freidel: There’s a tendency to think of shamanism as being attached only to “simple societies.” In the study of religion, shamanism has been called a primal religion or a first-order religion, terms meant to imply an understanding of the world that does not make the same kinds of rational distinctions as the so-called higher religions. Universalizing, monotheistic religions are, of course, regarded by some historians of religion as somehow advanced over primal religions. But certain modern peoples whom we regard as “civilized” adhere to shamanism. Japanese Shintoism, for example, is a fundamentally shamanic understanding of the world.

Parker: Are you saying that somehow we find more sophisticated, seemingly more elegant shamanistic religions like Shintoism easier to swallow?

Freidel: On the contrary, we find it easier to swallow the concept that shamanism is associated only with primitive peoples and ancient days — not that it is alive and well among civilized people today. We are unsettled by the notion that when Japan’s new emperor accedes to the throne, he goes into a small hut with four posts and communicates directly with his ancestors. We find this kind of behavior disturbing in civilized societies, particularly in the case of leaders. We want them confined to rational judgment.

Parker: This fear of the mystical is real, but it is also a great irony. If the truth were known, many more people live by these ideas — at least in some areas of their lives — than would like to admit.

For example, when my grandmother died several years ago, I had some dreams and experiences in which she actually spoke to me. As a consequence, I felt a tremendous healing and acceptance of her death. But in the West we don’t normally talk about such things because we fear being laughed at or otherwise ridiculed.

Freidel: There are serious sanctions against such ideas that result from centuries of suppression.

When I was in Iran, I remember going with a student of mine to his hometown and visiting a graveyard where someone was being buried. My friend was investigating the act of mourning, so we talked to people about death and about the spirit. Everybody there agreed that human beings in their sleep could leave their bodies and move about. There were certain things you could do to prevent it or encourage it. The soul was something so palpable to these people that they were very comfortable with the notion of speaking to the dead.

Here in the West as well, our intuition tells us we can talk to the dead. The question then is, Why do we find it necessary to socialize ourselves out of such experiences? So many of us have them as children. We see monsters that our parents tell us aren’t there. Throughout our lives, we all have opportunities for mystical experiences, but we are told that such experiences aren’t real. And so we lose the ability to have them.

From my vantage point, this kind of restriction is a dimension of our culture to be subverted, dismantled, and replaced by what I would regard as a more expansive understanding of the truth, one that takes into consideration the value of experience and doesn’t subjugate it to our ideas of what we expect it to be. For shamanism does not derive from fantasy, but from experience. Shamans experience the Otherworld, and so do the people they help and heal.

One of the wonderful dimensions of shamanism for me is its unleashing of the imagination, the intuition, and the emotion of a person, rather than allowing the banality of the material world to overwhelm one’s life.

Parker: It’s interesting that you bring up the matter of childhood experience — seeing and speaking to people who “aren’t there.” Many children will talk to people who “aren’t there” until they are finally scolded so much that they stop. But who really knows what is out there to perceive? We see what we are trained to see.

Freidel: One of the wonderful dimensions of shamanism for me is its unleashing of the imagination, the intuition, and the emotion of a person, rather than allowing the banality of the material world to overwhelm one’s life. Making the life experience conform to the imagination is a great thing, and it’s something I would like to see our society pursue actively. Instead of simply consuming fantasy, we should generate fantasy, generate alternative understandings.

This outlook comes from my own experience as a member of the sixties generation. We did it. We did introduce a new understanding to the world — maybe not to everyone, but at least to ourselves. We needed ceremony and we generated it. We came to understand that there are altered states of consciousness available through drugs or through ecstasy of various forms. We learned that ecstasy can be public and shared and that it is something wondrous — not something to be frightened of or ashamed of. Today I feel more than a nostalgia for that time; I feel a commitment to inculcating in future generations a sense of their possibilities, a willingness to subvert what goes by the name of realism in our culture.

Parker: When I edited a literary magazine, I used to receive a lot of stories from authors trying to write within the boundaries of the “realism” our culture has established. These were all stories about fear and despair, violence and hopelessness. They were stories of people who have no power, people who are being used, people being brutally raped or murdered. You’d read them and, after a while, you’d just go numb. They didn’t heal you or change you; they knocked you all to pieces. In the world of these stories, human life had very little value, and there was no potential for existence ever to get any better.

Freidel: It’s easier to write that way now than ever before. We are a society that increasingly lends itself to nightmare, a society disengaging itself from its finest qualities, its finest goals. But I think we will rebel against this lack of vision. We’ll require better of ourselves. Whether it comes through some better understanding of our own spirituality or not, I think we won’t tolerate it much longer. I expect another generation of crazy fools to emerge.

Parker: You spoke earlier about your experience in Iran. Would you repeat the beautiful story you once told me about going into the cave of the Sufi master?

Freidel: It’s become something of a personal myth, a kind of allegory for my own journey to understanding. While I was in the Peace Corps, I went up to a cave, a Sufi master’s memorial, in the hills north of the city of Shiraz; Shiraz is famous for its Sufi masters. At the time, I was with a linguist, an American who had come to Shiraz to teach in the university there, but also to learn about Sufism, which is the mystical vehicle for Islam. He knew about these shrines dotting the hills around Shiraz and the little teahouses that go with them. So we went up on this hillside on a beautiful Friday evening, when the people were being called to prayer. My friend showed me a little hole in the side of the mountain, and I went inside. There was a single candle on a small altar of blue-and-white tiles. It was very simple, just a little box set in the wall. The cave was about seven feet tall and eight or nine feet wide, almost perfectly conical.

I sat down for a while with my friend, then he left me alone there. Sitting on the prayer tiles, I felt closer than I’d ever been before to a really different way of looking at and thinking about the world. At the same time, I could appreciate that I would never be part of the reality that had spawned this person and his memorial. It was a poignant moment for me because I recognized that I was as close as I would ever be to another reality, and yet I was a universe away.

I went outside and sat down with the other people there, young Sufi men drinking tea and quietly watching the sunset. Above the din of the city, which was very active on a Friday evening, we could hear the prayers come up from the mosques and the muezzins’ calls to prayer coming out of the minarets. The mosques’ beautiful turquoise tiles and onion-shaped domes were everywhere.

Then the wind shifted and a gray smoke cloud came over the city from the cement factory. I was struck by the pollution of this place by modernization, by Westernization. Cement is the building material of the developing world. It’s replacing all the local materials: the adobe, burnt brick, and wood. Iran is a society with an ancient architectural tradition and an ambiance created over centuries. There was a pollution of the spirit going on, as well as of the air.

There are a lot of ideas about what makes life good and what makes for physical comfort in the world, and they don’t necessarily involve our technology or industrialization. Many societies do very well with other means. If they’re going to accept Western technology, they want it to be on their own terms. It’s important for us to translate their aspirations, as best we can, into our understanding of the world in a way that leaves their understanding intact.

Cultural pluralism isn’t just a noble ideal; it’s enlightened self-interest on our part. If we as a society do not come to understand this, then we will not be in a position to accept gracefully the innovations that come to our world from outside. We’re going to have to experience some changes, but we’re spiritually unprepared for that right now. One of the ways to become prepared is to recognize that, like people who have a shamanic vision of the world, we have our own ancestors. They need to be brought back into our lives in a way that makes sense to us. We need to understand what it is we genuinely cherish about our past, what we wish to take forward into the future.

Ideally, I would also like to see the return of ancient Maya knowledge to the modern Maya. But given that in the ancient world the Maya were powerful, and in the modern world they are oppressed, I don’t know what they would do with such knowledge. Knowing that through their way of life they once created a great and powerful civilization, that in fact the way they think about the world generated that understanding and that power — what would this mean to them? No Maya movement for autonomy is likely to succeed in Mexico and Guatemala today.

Parker: Even so, Americans continue to feel drawn to Maya culture. Tens of thousands travel to Chichén Itzá during the solstice. What do they understand of this place and this culture? What do they expect to happen to them?

Freidel: Many people want to find personal salvation, if not world salvation, in the ancient knowledge of the Maya, and this longing is exploited by charlatans. However, even this fascination with charlatans has a positive aspect. For if people could be shown a closer approximation of what the Maya themselves thought was going on, they would find it at least as attractive — and probably much more valuable in the end — because it is closer to what we might call the truth.

If people went to the Maya world and actually talked to the Maya instead of looking at their ruins, I think the results would be most intriguing.

Parker: Could you tell the story about finding your marble?

Freidel: I was working in my kitchen at the excavation site at Yaxuna, close to Chichén Itzá. There I lived next door to a shaman named Don Pablo, who had repaired the roof over my kitchen. When I found a small glass marble on the kitchen floor, I thought it must be one he’d lost. A marble is a “stone of light” — the Maya call it a zaztuna, which means “foreseeing into” a situation. When you hold a crystal of this type in front of a candle, you can see into it and it will speak to you. In the Maya tradition, one of the ways that you know you’re going to be recruited as a shaman is if you find your stone of light.

So I brought this marble over to Don Pablo. I was proud of myself for having found it and having returned it to him, so that he’d know I understood about such things. He looked at the marble very carefully for a long time before speaking. Then he said, “Yes, this is a stone of light, but it will not speak until it’s been washed in corn gruel. Even then, it will speak only in Maya.”

I said, “I found it in the kitchen.” And he said, “Oh yes?” And I said, “I presumed it was yours.” And he just laughed.