Shamanism and curanderism in Mexico

di Andrea Romanazzi

The Mayan multiverse and the cosmic tree

The Mesoamerican religious tradition derives directly from the first colonizers of the New World, t the Asian populations that 50,000 years BC they crossed the Bering Strait, together with their magical-religious beliefs including shamanism, the cult of ancestors and the belief of a multilayered universe that characterizes the cosmogony of these peoples. Like a giant Ceiba tree, divided into roots, trunk and branches, known universe is divided into three worlds, the middle one, where men live, the upper and lower, in turn divided into further levels. In the Mayan tradition, for example, the levels of the lower world are nine, through which the deceased had to explore the chthonic depths of the universe, to then ascend among the spirits that populate the 13 upper levels (fig.1).



Fig.1 temple of Uxmal, Mexico. Detail of the depiction of the nine levels in which the world below is divided.


The sacred tree characterizes the entire Mesoamerican shamanic tradition. Perhaps the most famous representation is the one proposed on the tombstone in Palenque, Mexico. In the Temple of the Inscriptions (fig.2), in particular in the “chamber of visions”, the shaman-kings entered into altered states of consciousness. It was one of the many Maya “places of dreams” where shaman-kings could reconnect with their guide or uay spirits, as well as access to Xibalbà, or “the place of fear”, astestify to the many wall reliefs depicting ancestors and divinities of the Underworld.


Fig.2 the temple of Palanque. Axonometric detail of the descent into the underworld

Alberto Ruz Lhuiller rediscovered the site in 1952. Removing a stone from the floor in a room of the temple discovered a secret passage that led, through a long stairway of 66 steps, to a crypt located in the center of the pyramid. He found was the tomb of King Pakal, controlled by the souls of five men found there buried just to guard the passage. Inside the crypt there is a slab-bas-relief (fig.3) best known for the extraterrestrial hypothesis, or rather as the depiction of an astronaut driving an ante-litteram rocket complete with respirators and manual controls. In reality it depicts a man, or more probably a shaman, intent on climbing the universal tree, which extends from the depths of the Otherworld, depicted by the open jaws of an infernal monster, the bone snake, up to the ultrafanic worlds depicted by the magical feathered bird, Itzam-Yeh, or “the magic spellmaker” that depicts the imposing natural forces as well as the ecstatic union of shamans with the divine. This universal tree will later be transformed into the most famous “Mayan cross” expression, for Christian missionaries who arrived in the New World, of the revelation of Christ even among the infidels. The memory of the sacred cult of the tree from which the Gods descend on the earth and on which the Universe develops is still present today in local folklore as in the ritual “of the flyers” of the Totonachis. Five men, dressed in traditional clothes, climb a very high pole. Reaching the top four of these are placed races around the body preparing for a sort of bungee jumping while the fifth plays the sacred instruments. Once the music is finished, the “flyers” throw themselves down from the tree towards the four corners of the globe. For some it would be a fertility ritual, in reality it could be the simulation of the gods who come down to Earth. Actually, however, fertility rituals were carried out among the Maya, for example in Uxmal there is a phallic betylic element fixed in the earth and strictly connected to the procreation cults. Fertility cults are then present in Chichèn Itza, literally “mouth of the wizards’ well”, from whom (“mouth”), ch’en (“well”) and itz (“magic”), where the cult of the Snake was worshiped , the sacred rattlesnake that changing skin becomes a symbol of life beyond death and of rebirth and universal regeneration.It is the symbol of the primordial male phallus but also of the sacred and sinuous feminine undulating movements.Therefore the snake in the act of eating the “Human, who comes out of his head terribly, is nothing but the symbol of a man’s ejaculation that comes out of the reptile’s body in its new life. Even the” phallic drainage “that was practiced by the Maya brings directly to the concept of Creation of the fruit of the phallic cult of fertility and of the orgasmic ecstasy of God. In the beheading rituals carried out with the Maya In reality, cutting off a man’s head guaranteed the opening of a passage for the Lord of the Underworld. he could return to Earth with his divine energy or itz through this hole. This is the reason for the bas-reliefs depicting monstrous creatures that emerge from the taken-off body of the sacrificed, while the blood splatters became energetic ejaculations able to restore fertility to the earth. An expression of a vegetable fertility creed, the ritual was certainly borrowed from the sacred-vegetational beliefs where the corn god was “sacrificed”, with the cut of the harvest, in order to ensure new life. He is reborn from his own ashes and floods the soil with his “blood”.


Mexican shamanism

In mexican magical-religious traditions the god is not imagined as a primitive and universal entity, but through his most earthly manifestations. Everything that surrounds man, mountains, rivers, seas, forests, are the expression of the ch’ulel, the principle or divine energy. These manifestations are cultivated as anthropomorphic or zoomorphic which, in the Mayan tradition become the powerfulfeathered serpent, the lightning god Cauac that lived in the depths of the caves. Another famous gos is Quetzalcoatl the jaguar god, linked to the cult of death and resurrection depicted by the yellow and black spots on the skin that represent light and shadow, life and death. These pagan beliefs are absolutely not dead, even though 90% of the Mesoamerican area population that professes the Catholic religion.The missionaries who tried to graft it onto the pre-existing cults, “renamed” them with the names of Christian saints. The reality today still often Christianity only the religion of the facade.

In these traditions, shaman is a most important figure. He is often a priest and healer, he is linked to the energy imbalance and to the relationship with spiritual and supernatural entities. Shaman must strengthen the broken bond through the knowledge of traditional medicine and the help of the spirits.Mesoamerican and Mexican shamanism has its own well-defined characteristics as the use of hallucinogen plants.

The shaman who takes on these hallucinogens transforms or connects to his guiding spirit, thus becoming aware of his powers, then exploited to cure diseases through the medium of singing. Even today, both plant and animal hallucinogenic substances are widely used, such as datura, or bufo. In northern Mexico the use of peyote is still widespread, collected in special pilgrimages to the Wikuta, the sacred desert, which becomes an expression of the sacred together with the cult of maize and deer, creating a natural cultural “trinity”.

In other cases the power is given to the shaman by the ritual of the yagè, a hallucinogenic mixture obtained from the infusion of two plants, the Banisteriopsis Caapi and the Pychotria Viridis, which is prepared by sorcerers who are sincere before having hunted all the demons that can creep in the sacred drink. This ritual allows the shaman to “empty himself” and allow the entry into his body of the spirits of the gods, often replaced by the Catholic saints who have today almost completely replaced the native pantheon, or of the deceased who will thus give him divinity or healing indications. There is such a close relationship between shaman and hallucinogenic substances that in many native dialects the terms are almost as evidenced, for example, by the name of seripigaro, or, intoxicated by tobacco. However, not everyone can take these substances and become shamans.

Among the Huichol of the Western Sierra Madre of Mexico, descendants of the Chichimec or Teochichimec hunters and gatherers, in their Uto-Aztec language, the shaman, or Wixarika, “the one who honors the ancestors”, is “recruited” by the divine will that often manifested by a long illness. The subject must then follow a long training period of about five years which leads him to learn about the symbols, the offerings, the language of the gods and with the spirit guides. In particular, the alliance with the spirit guides is linked to rituals which consist in capturing the animal to use its blood. One of the most common is related to cutting the tail of a snake, without killing it, with whose blood the wrists, cheeks and throat get wet. A fundamental role is played by the knowledge of the magic of the aforementioned peyote, revered as a vegetation divinity that allows the shaman who swallows it to be in ecstasy. Long expeditions are made to recover this plant in the desolate land defined precisely as the “peyote desert”. There are so many mythicized tales of this journey from the sea to the west, up to the peaks of Wirikuta, the ancestral holy place of the Huichol. During these pilgrimages the objects of power are collected by the shaman and then used during his rituals such as the feathered wand used in fumigations, plants, rocks.

In the Mesoamerican shamanic tradition there is no sexual discrimination but the shaman can be both a man and a woman, as indeed in the ancient Mayan traditions, where, for example, it is told of Yaxchilan, a powerful shamaness known for her divination ability and her powers donated by the ancient serpent ancestors. Shaman women were even earlier in the Olmeche and Mazteche traditions. Normally, however, men have more community-related functions, while women are tied to a more domestic environment. Among the most common tasks we find those divinatory and those related to healing. In the Mesoamerican tradition evil is fundamentally spiritual and physical disturbance derives from an imbalance in the relationship with supernatural entities. Therapy must therefore be essentially magical, attempting to correct this disharmony.




Between the shamans, sometimes confused with them, we find the figure of the Curandero. Curanderism is a kind of holistic discipline that uses the power of herbs, combined with that of spirits, for healing and divination. This tradition developed in the recent past in Latin America and particularly in Mexico, in a mixture of local beliefs and the spiritualist culture that came from Europe and the United States neighbors. Curanderi, of both sexes, do not have a sacred text or a “school”, but each one practices his own practical-spiritual technique learned from experience. There is not a spiritual initiation but simply a real apprenticeship with a more “expert” one. Normally they receive, in their own homes, in a space specially set up with a temple, a sort of altar where the statues of saints or of Christ find sacred pre-Hispanic objects (fig.4 and VIDEO).

Fig.4 Interior of a house of a curandero in Chapas


However, curanderi exist that use drugs and / or come into contact with supernatural forces capable of revealing to them the causes of an illness.

The primary function is to be the doctors of the poor, often with real specializations. This is how we find the partera, or a figure similar to the Italian “mammana”, the one who supervises the birth and helps the pregnant women or the Hermanitas, the “little sisters”, visionaries, able to identify diseases and perform ceremonies of purification, called Limpias. The ritual consists in rubbing a mix of herbs, often on fire, known as pirul, on the patient’s body. At the same time some prayers are recited or alcohol is sprayed from the mouth. Then there are the vendetores de hierbas which, in addition to trading in plants, are very often healers. Another particularly well-known figure is the huesero, specialized in treating fractures and bone diseases, also through the temazcal technique, a sort of Mesoamerican sweat lodge.

Graniceros are another type of Mexican curanderi. Their initiation is essentially spiritual, they would be people who were struck by lightning or who had contact with spiritual entities linked to the world of atmospheric elements. In exchange for a material body in which the spirits dwell, they give them the ability to control atmospheric events as well as the diseases generated by the aire, spirits that manifest themselves as wind and enter people’s bodies filling the gaps left by the soul that for some reasons she moved away. Their task is therefore to recover the patient’s shadow and re-breathe it into the body. The particularly complex ritual involves a first diagnostic test via a rue-based limpia-pirul. If the herbs, after being passed over the patient’s body, once on the fire are crackling, it means that an aire is present. Then follows a healing ritual with eggs and offerings to the spirits of the aire. The egg is passed over the patient’s body, descending from the head to the feet and then broken and poured into a glass of water to examine the contents hoping that it has captured the air. In more difficult cases, a black chicken can be used as a transference which, after being passed onto the patient’s body, is left free in isolated places because it will itself become the material body of an aire.Diseases cannot have only a spiritual origin but can also be generated by a bruja, an evil sorcerer. In this case a foreign object, a stone, a thorn, an insect, bearer of evil, is introduced unconsciously into the body of a person. One of the best known centers for seeing these rituals live is the Tzotzil indigenous community of San Juan Chamula. Within the Church of the country (fig.5 and VIDEO), outwardly Christian, healing rituals are still carried out through the use of candles, eggs and chicken sacrifices.


Fig.5 Church of San Juan Chamula


The ritual of the Limpia albahaca and the egg


The latter, in fact, will act as a transference for evil, or will take over the disease that afflicts the client of the curandero. Among the many rituals, on which we will not dwell because they would require a study by themselves, there is that of purification, called limpia, through the use of albahaca, or basil. The curanderi, after having ascertained that the evil is of spiritual origin, make lotions with which they rub the body of the client surrounded by candles, roses and rose petals. Then with a fresh bunch of basil they tap the body of the same and “clean” it of negative energies. Subsequently, the bunch of leaves is placed in front of the customer who must climb on it and crush it with the intention of purification. Finally the curandero pours over these leaves of alcohol or gasoline and gives fire to the whole to cancel the negativity. Everything takes place between candles of different colors and combinations of the same (fig.6), as in a curious morse code, whose meaning is known only to curandero, and bottles of carbonated drinks, in particular coca-cola.

In fact a common belief also in other cultural areas, wants the disease to nest in the belly, so the eruption that follows the drinking of the sick is the scenic representation of the removal of evil. Another technique used by the curanderi, always based on a sympathetic-naturalistic magic, more than anything related however to the elimination of the evil eye, is that linked to the use of the egg. In the Mesoamerican tradition, if a woman, a child or a boy has restless sleep, diarrhea, vomiting and / or a feverish state they are thought to have been struck by someone. The traditional cure for the “mal de ojo” in rural Mexico involves a curandero passing on the body of the client an egg on the body to make him absorb the negativities. Afterwards the egg is broken into a glass and examined and then thrown away at a crossroads thus eliminating the evil. Obviously this, like all other rituals, can only be performed by the curandero because he is the holder of power and knowledge.