General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 19 Apr 2021/3 Alligator
Text Size:

Link to page about the Maya Calendar
Today's Maya date is: 13.0.8.8.1 - 3042 days into the new cycle!
Link to page of interest to teachers
Click to find out how we can help you!
Search the Site (type in white box):

Article more suitable for mature students

Mexicolore contributor David Bolles

The Shamans of Yucatan, Mexico

We’re sincerely grateful to David Bolles, a longstanding Maya scholar of renown and specialist in the language of the Yucatec Maya, for allowing us to publish here a very slightly abridged version of an article he wrote some years ago, based on his own personal experience of living, working and studying in the Maya region of Yucatan. In the UK today, the tradition of shamanism is barely understood, yet for centuries it has been central to the working of Maya society...

Pic 1: Late postclassic ceramic censer from Cozumel; the figure depicted has a bee on his abdomen and a honeycomb in his hands, with miniature artificial hives on both sides. Museo Regional de Antropología, Mérida
Pic 1: Late postclassic ceramic censer from Cozumel; the figure depicted has a bee on his abdomen and a honeycomb in his hands, with miniature artificial hives on both sides. Museo Regional de Antropología, Mérida (Click on image to enlarge)

The Yucatecan shaman, called in the Yucatecan Mayan language H-Men (he who makes) or H-Men Dzac (he who makes medicine), is still a very important person in Yucatecan folk culture. His rituals play a very important part in the agricultural cycle, especially in the growing of corn and the raising of bees. He also is still very frequently used for the curing of illnesses, since there are certain illnesses which in the folk mind can be cured only by him and not by the doctors which practice European type medicine. In this article the masculine form of the word shaman will be used, mainly because the majority of Yucatecan shamans are males, but it should be understood that X-Men (she who makes) is equally implied. While I personally do not know a X-Men, it is my understanding that X-Menoob are considered to be as powerful as, and in some cases more powerful than H-Menoob.
There are two ways in which a person becomes a H-Men. Either he is born to be one or he chooses by becoming an idzat (apprentice to a H-Men) to learn to be one. The born H-Men, all things considered, is thought to be the more powerful of the two.

Pic 2: A Maya shaman holds a ‘zaz tun’; the air bubbles inside the glass are key to reading the signs
Pic 2: A Maya shaman holds a ‘zaz tun’; the air bubbles inside the glass are key to reading the signs (Click on image to enlarge)

A person becomes a born H-Men as follows:-
When the baby starts kicking and moving about in the womb a mother who understands what movements are the sign of a born H-Men will recognize whether or not this child is destined to become a H-Men. If the child has a chance of becoming a H-Men and if the mother wishes this to happen then she will bury a zaz tun (“clear rock”, a clear glass marble) or that lacking a regular marble in the back of the kitchen in the patio. When the child takes its first steps it will go directly to the place where the marble is buried and will dig up the marble. This is the sign that the child is indeed destined to become a H-Men and will need no further education but is born with the knowledge necessary. (It should be noted that the game of marbles is very common and lost marbles are in the muck of almost every patio!)

Pic 3: ‘Nacimiento’/’Birth’ by Salvador Reanda Quiejú, 1990
Pic 3: ‘Nacimiento’/’Birth’ by Salvador Reanda Quiejú, 1990 (Click on image to enlarge)

While the foregoing is the common explanation of what a born H-Men is, there are certain facts which should be noted. First, the child born in the above situation is born into a family already strong in the H-Men tradition even if there is no practitioner in the family. The family members know many of the general attributes of being a H-Men. Furthermore, the rituals which are used in agricultural ceremonies and the herbs and substances used in common home remedies are of common knowledge by those interested in such things. Thus the born H-Men will be surrounded by those factors which are basic to the H-Men’s profession as he grows up. It seems safe to say that for those “born” H-Menoob who succeed that it is a case of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Pic 4:  A trainee sprinkles ‘balche’ (see below) over the ‘chan mesa’, the small altar, under the direct supervision of a senior shaman
Pic 4: A trainee sprinkles ‘balche’ (see below) over the ‘chan mesa’, the small altar, under the direct supervision of a senior shaman (Click on image to enlarge)

The person who chooses to become a H-Men generally does so as follows:-
The road for a person who chooses to become a H-Men by becoming an idzat (H-Men apprentice and helper) is much more difficult. First of all, since he is not born with the knowledge he must learn it, and that can and most often does take years as an idzat to a master H-Men. Generally the idzat learns from his master both through example by taking part in helping with the preparations of medicines and performing of ceremonies and through conversations with his master. (I hesitate to use the word “lessons” because these conversations seem to take place as the occasion arises.) I have yet to learn at what point an idzat graduates from his position and becomes acceptable to his community as a H-Men.

Pic 5: Late Classic limestone sculpture of a male facing upwards. The scarifications between his eyebrows and on his cheeks are symbols of shamanic initiation; round his neck is a knotted rope, identifying him as a shaman in a trance. MNA, Mexico City
Pic 5: Late Classic limestone sculpture of a male facing upwards. The scarifications between his eyebrows and on his cheeks are symbols of shamanic initiation; round his neck is a knotted rope, identifying him as a shaman in a trance. MNA, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

There are many types of H-Menoob ranging from H-Dzac Ya (he who medicates pain) to H-Pul Ya (he who throws pain). There are H-Dzac Yaob who never do pul ya although of course they must have the knowledge of the powers of a H-Pul Ya in order to undo the damage inflicted by one. I have also heard that there are H-Pul Yaob who never do dzac ya, but this might have been said out of spite. Generally though the H-Menoob are capable of doing both, and it seems to rest on the character of the individual as to how much of which practice he will do. There are those who rarely do agricultural ceremonies and those who seem to prefer to specialize in doing them. Thus, just as there are many types of medical doctors ranging from the general practitioner to the various specialists so too there are various types of H-Menoob.
The H-Dzac Yaob have various ways of divining the sickness of a patient. The use of a zaz tun with the aid of chants is a common method. Also common is padz (massage) in which the H-Men tries to feel the site of the illness. There are also H-Menoob who use European divining methods such as the use of cards or dice. The truly powerful H-Men though will know the site and type of ailment even before the patient enters to see the H-Men. A common story relating to successful cures is that even before the patient has had the chance to speak and tell the H-Men what ails him the H-Men will say that the patient has such-and-such an ailment and must undergo the following treatment.

Pic 6: ‘Curandero de Hueso’ / ‘Bone Setter’, 2014 by Mario González Chavajay
Pic 6: ‘Curandero de Hueso’ / ‘Bone Setter’, 2014 by Mario González Chavajay (Click on image to enlarge)

Once the illness has been determined the H-Men tries to alleviate it either through medicines (today both home made remedies and commercial remedies such as penicillin are used) or through chants or through a combination of both. The medication is sometimes administered by the H-Men, but frequently directions are given to the patient on how to take or use the medicine. In some cases the H-Men does not even prepare the medicine but instead tells the patient what herbs and minerals must be gathered and how to prepare and apply the medicine at home. If chants such as “santiguar” are to be part of the treatment then of course that must be done by the H-Men. A H-Men will frequently go to the home of his patients if they live near him to carry out these chants.

Pic 7: Late Classic Maya Jaina ceramic ritual mask, showing facial markings typical of shamanic practices and sorcery. The sign on his face symbolises a portal into the underworld. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City
Pic 7: Late Classic Maya Jaina ceramic ritual mask, showing facial markings typical of shamanic practices and sorcery. The sign on his face symbolises a portal into the underworld. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The H-Pul Yaob are approached by patrons who want to do harm to some individual. Often the motive is to even the score or to get revenge for some harm done by that individual to the patron, be it real or imagined. That is, many Yucatecans, both Mayans and the acculturated Spanish speaking people, take offense very easily, and sometimes in cases where no offense was intended.
Once the magnitude of injury has been determined by the patron and the H-Pul Ya then the H-Pul Ya will take what he considers to be the appropriate action. Some of the more talked about methods are:-
1) making of an image, for example of wax, of the individual to be harmed or killed, and then to inflict the damage upon this image. Sticking needles into the region in which the damage is to be done is the method most talked about.
2) taking a X-Tun (described below) and ritually “throwing” it to pierce some organ of the victim, thereby causing pain or death depending on the intent is also a practice of common knowledge.

Pic 8: A copy of the ‘Chilam Balam’ on display in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City
Pic 8: A copy of the ‘Chilam Balam’ on display in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

3) making incantations such as, I have been told, that given in the Chilam Balam of Chumayel on page 2 (Chac Ix Chuuah cabob ti lakin; ‘The red wild bees are in the east’) are also employed. In the case of this chant Plumeria flowers are placed in a circle on a path in which the victim is sure to travel while the chant is being said. In addition to the chant as given the name of the victim is mentioned and the method by which he will die.
While these are mystical methods by which the victims are supposedly inflicted with some sort of illness, what in fact seems to be going on is that the H-Pul Ya manages in some way to make suggestions which work psychologically on the victim or in some cases even gets various types of poisons or objects into the victim’s system, mainly through ingestion. (What I haven’t figured out is how the H-Pul Ya gets access to the person’s food in order to accomplish this.) Ingestion of large quantities of hair or metal objects such as needles by pul ya victims has often been talked about, although I do not personally know a person who has suffered this form of pul ya.

Pic 9: Late Classic fleshless stone head sculpture from Uxmal, representing the Maya god of death. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mérida
Pic 9: Late Classic fleshless stone head sculpture from Uxmal, representing the Maya god of death. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mérida (Click on image to enlarge)

It must be noted that there are diseases and psychological situations and resulting deaths which are ascribed to pul ya even when no H-Pul Ya was actually involved. For example a young neighbor of ours in Kom Cħeen began to feel very poorly shortly before he was about to get married. We happened to see him and his mother at one of the hospitals in Merida and I asked what the problem was. The mother’s answer was that the doctors mentioned something about the kidneys. I said to my wife that if it is kidneys he will be dead within the month. Well in fact he did die as I mentioned. (My wife later mentioned that at the time she thought I might have some powers of a H-Pul Ya because I had predicted this death.) In any case, it was decided by the parents of the boy that in fact their son had been witch crafted, and the suspected patron was a girl who the boy had recently jilted for the girl to whom the boy was about to get married. The police were called in to investigate, but much to the disappointment of the parents no charges were brought against the jilted girl. The parents still believe though that this girl had employed a H-Pul Ya. In another case with a neighbor across the street from our house in Kom Cħeen is that his daughter found a freshly unearthed human skull in the backyard.

Pic 10: Detail from a mural on Maya culture, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City
Pic 10: Detail from a mural on Maya culture, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

For some reason the neighbor, who was in his seventies, decided that the skull was meant for him, and this was a sign that pul ya was at work. The day after the skull was found his whole family formed a procession to carry the skull back to the cemetery which is only around the corner from our house. At the head was the father carrying the skull in a box and chanting as he went. The next day he commented to me, “I don’t understand why anyone would want to do me harm.” About a month later he was dead. His daughter told us that her father just lay down in the hammock and gave up. Later one of our other neighbors mentioned that he thought that the skull belonged to his father, whose remains had only recently been disinterred following the custom, because of lack of burial space, of taking the bones out of the grave after two years and supposedly placing them in a bone box. As often is the case, the family members of this neighbor hadn’t gotten around to making the bone box, and so the father’s bones were left tied up in a cloth in the little preparatory house which is in the cemetery. This neighbor said that he went to check on his father’s remains one day soon after the event of our other neighbor marching back to the cemetery and that the package of the remains was missing the skull. How the skull might have gotten to where it was found is hard to know. Maybe a dog had carried it or worse maybe somebody had played a cruel practical joke. In any case, our neighbor’s death is placed as being the result of pul ya even though it seems clear that no such action had actually taken place.

Pic 11: (See accompanying text)
Pic 11: (See accompanying text) (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture 11 contains a sequence of photos showing where a coffin has been exhumed (A), the coffin itself next to the back wall of the cemetery (B), and the bone boxes where the bones of the disinterred are placed (C). The family of the deceased is obligated by the town to disinter their family member after two years which is the amount of time it takes for nature to do its work, leaving only bones, and for those people who are buried in synthetic clothing, their clothes. Often, for lack of money, the bone box is not immediately constructed and so the bones are bundled up and hung in the little building where corpses are prepared for burial. If the bundle hangs there for too long the cemetery caretaker will throw the bundle over the back wall, making it an excellent place for medical students to gather complete skeletons. In any case, there are plenty of skulls available for mischief makers and dogs so that they can travel to unwanted places.

Pic 12: A H-Men from Chichan Ha, Quintana Roo showing some of the items discussed here
Pic 12: A H-Men from Chichan Ha, Quintana Roo showing some of the items discussed here (Click on image to enlarge)

Most H-Menoob do not live by their profession alone but also make up part of the local work force. As a result they have much more contact with the rest of the town populace than does the average western medical professional. This in part might explain the ability of a H-Men to know a patient’s illness before the patient actually comes to him. Because H-Menoob must often work at other things it has become a custom to have Wednesday and Friday designated as H-Men days. That is, these are the two days of the week in which people feel that the H-Menoob will be found at home. This might not actually be the case as I have found out on occasion. For “emergency” cases at any other time of the week H-Menoob will usually make themselves available. (Once true in our culture as well, but no longer!)

Pic 13: A ‘zaz tun’ catches light and flashes it for the shaman to communicate with spirit beings
Pic 13: A ‘zaz tun’ catches light and flashes it for the shaman to communicate with spirit beings (Click on image to enlarge)

H-Menoob typically have an assortment of objects (nucul) which they use for various purposes. The following list includes some of the more common items:-
1) zaz tun (“clear rock”, a glass marble about 2 to 5 cm in diameter). It is common to have several zaz tunoob, and some H-Menoob always carry these with them in a little pouch called pauo. Aside from being used to divine the sickness of a person zaz tunoob are used to forecast events and to view a stranger’s personality and intentions. As an example of this type of usage, when I first went to see Don Antonio Hau I was taken by one of his sons to the milpa where he was working. As we entered the milpa he immediately opened his pauo and took out a zaz tun so that he could view me. I must have passed the test because he allowed me to come for several visits thereafter.

Pic 14: Smiling face ceramic figures from the Remojadas culture, Veracruz state
Pic 14: Smiling face ceramic figures from the Remojadas culture, Veracruz state (Click on image to enlarge)

2) Balam (“tiger”. Clay figurines, mostly pre Columbian pieces). The balamoob are frequently called on, especially in agricultural chants. It has not been explained to me why it is good to have these clay representations nor have I received a clear explanation of what powers these balamoob have although they are frequently called upon in ceremonies, but in any case if a H-Men should have some they are placed on the table (altar) during a ceremony. The English translation “tiger” or more exactly “jaguar” is the meaning which the word had in colonial times, but it seems that today this would not be a proper equivalent for the word. “Sacred being” would be a more appropriate equivalent translation for balam today.
The balamoob I have seen generally come to the H-Men through some acquaintance who works in road construction. In all phases of road construction Pre-Columbian artifacts are unearthed. Those workers who are aware of the value of balamoob to their local H-Men will pick up these pieces and take them back to the H-Men when they return home. The wide range of sources for the balamoob is due to the fact that those people who work on road construction range widely throughout southern Mexico and thus will bring back an eclectic mix of figurines.

Pic 15: A ‘x-tun - stingray stinger’
Pic 15: A ‘x-tun - stingray stinger’ (Click on image to enlarge)

3) X-Tun (“stingray stinger”, but may be a shin bone which has been sharpened to a point about 10 to 15 cm from the joint end of the bone, forming what appears to be a awl. There are pre columbian examples of the sharpened shin bones and one of the purposes of these sharpened shin bones were to aid in shelling corn.). This is used by H-Pul Yaob to throw pain into a person’s body. In theory the H-Pul Ya is able to mentally locate the victim and then “throw” the x-tun and pierce the target organ (heart, lungs, genitals, leg, etc.)

Pic 16: Typical table setting
Pic 16: Typical table setting (Click on image to enlarge)

4) Cruz, often pronounced Curuz in chants: a wooden cross with floral decorations and usually the letters INRI at the crossing point or at the top of the cross. These crosses are often referred to as “foliated crosses” in anthropological literature. The cross is the focal point of table arrangements when a table is being set up for a ceremony. The powers of the cross have never been explained to me.
5) Homa (a small drinking gourd usually less than 10 cm. across made from the fruit of the luch tree [Crescentia cujete]). These gourds, which are smaller than the ones normally used for household purposes (the normal sized ones ranging up to about 20 cm. and are called luch when used for household purposes), are used to contain whatever potions or liquids the H-Men may prepare. Most prominently the homa are used as containers of the mead called balche (see next entry) and are set upon the table during the various agricultural ceremonies. Another frequent purpose is to hang a pair of them in cħuyub (hanger), one on either side of the main doorway into a room of a sick person. Each homa contains a potion which is to aid either in curing the sick person or in keeping out the kakaz ikoob (bad winds) which are making the person sick.

Pic 17: ‘Homa’ and ‘chuyub’
Pic 17: ‘Homa’ and ‘chuyub’ (Click on image to enlarge)

6) Zuhuy Ha (virgin water). This is water taken from specific small cenotes which are generally covered with a flat stone. Not far from Kom Cħeen going towards the coast there is the ruin site X-Colelbil Ek Tun (Lady Black Rock). Around this set of ruin mounds there are several small cenotes with openings ranging from 30 to 50 cm in diameter. Depending on the rain fall, the water level in these cenotes is between almost surface level to about 2 meter below grade level during the dry season. I am not aware from how far away H-Menoob will make the journey to this site to collect the zuhuy ha from these cenotes, but in chants by a {itlalicH-Men in Tecoh which is some 50 km distant this site is mentioned. Most assuredly there must be other sites where zuhuy ha can be collected.

Pic 18: Balche in the corners and nine cups of ‘saka’’ (another drink used by shamans) make thirteen drink offerings in total - a sacred number for the Maya
Pic 18: Balche in the corners and nine cups of ‘saka’’ (another drink used by shamans) make thirteen drink offerings in total - a sacred number for the Maya (Click on image to enlarge)

7) Balche, called ritually Maben (ark, box), is a mead made by steeping the bark of the balche tree (Lonchocarpus longistylus / Lonchocarpus violaceus) in a mixture of honey (preferably the honey of the native bee) and water, preferably zuhuy ha (virgin water, see above). The mixture takes a couple of days to ferment. Everyone present at the ceremony drinks some balche, although nowadays this is often supplemented by a stiff belt of “aguardiente” (a clear sugar cane liquor produced locally in Yucatan).
8) Pom (incense made from the resin of the Copal tree (Protium copal) which is also called Pom in Mayan.) Crystals of the dried Pom resin are placed on burning charcol to produce incense. The incense burner in which the charcol and Pom are placed has a variety of names: Ppulut / Ppulut ppul / Ppulte ppul / Yub kak / Yuum kak.

Pic 19: Illustration of Bunchosia plants
Pic 19: Illustration of Bunchosia plants (Click on image to enlarge)

9) Zip Che (Bunchosia glandulosa). Five to ten sprigs, about 50 cm. long, of this shrub are picked and bundled to make a small broom. This broom is then used to “sweep” and “dust” the sickness from a person during a santiguar. Depending on the predilection of the H-Men performing an agricultural ceremony sprigs of the Zip Che are also placed on the table in a decorative fashion. Aside from the cleansing and healing powers of the Zip Che I am not sure the use of the plant has some special significance when used for decoration.
While Zip Che is the preferred source for making these brooms, in the case of scarcity the branches of some other bush-like plant are used.
10) Zuhuy Veladora (virgin vigil candle). The lighting of vigil candles is a common feature of Yucatecan rituals and ceremonies, and is not limited to being used by H-Men alone. Almost any spiritual act requires the lighting of at least one vigil candle.

Pic 20: Vigil candles
Pic 20: Vigil candles (Click on image to enlarge)

For transcripts and some of audios of a variety of H-Men chants go to http://www.famsi.org/reports/96072/textsrc/index.html. Go down the list of entries to “Modren Rituals”. In chant number 2 by Felipe Paz (lines rp040-rp091) the ruin site of X-Colelbil Ek Tun is mentioned. Felipe Paz lived in Tecoh, some 50 km from X-Colelbil Ek Tun. I never had the chance to ask him how it was that he knew about the ruins, and furthermore whether it was one of the sites where he collected Zuhuy Ha.

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10 & 14 (top): photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 2, 4, 13 & 18: photos by Bruce Love, courtesy of and thanks to mesoweb.com (follow link below to read ‘Maya Shamanism Today’ by Bruce Love...)
• Pix 3 & 6: images courtesy of and thanks to Joseph Johnston/Arte Maya Tz’utuhil (follow link below to artemaya.com)
• All other images supplied by and thanks to David Bolles
• Pix 12 & 16: original images from THE MAYA INDIANS OF SOUTHERN YUCATAN AND NORTHERN BRITISH HONDURAS by Thomas W. F. Gann, Smithsonian Institution, Bulletin 64. 1918
• Pic 19: original image from Niedenzu, F., Pflanzenreich, IV. 141, Malpighiaceae (1928).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Mar 02nd 2021

Read ‘Maya Shamanism Today’ by Bruce Love
artemaya.com
Feedback button