Shaman were held in extremely high esteem by the Ancient Mayans and for good reason; not only were they healers who utilized the vast storehouse of plant life that circled them in the lush rainforests they called home, but they were the ones who communicated with the Divine in order to get answers to everything from the source of illnesses to discovering the will of the gods. As a matter of fact, all of humanity (at least according to the Popol Vah) was created in a divinatory ritual conducted by the gods. And divinatory rituals were, at least in early Mayan culture, performed exclusively by Shamans.
Yet Shamans are typically nothing more than a footnote in most texts. The Spanish conquerors destroyed the whole of Mayan written history except for a few codices (The Codex Borgia is one amazing and complete codex example), and did their best to erase the existence of Shaman and the high place in Mayan society by associating them with the “Devil” and “Pagan rituals.” The Spanish replaced Shaman with the priests that also existed in Mayan society as they tried to convert the Mayans to Christianity. Priests did exist harmoniously in Mayan culture, but the role of priests and Shaman were quite different from each other.
To me, one of the best explanations as to why the Spanish were so threatened by the Shaman of ancient Mayan culture is because Shaman often used substances that induced altered states of consciousness to communicate with the Divine. Mayans were actually quite versed in a wide range of psychoactive and hallucinogenic substances that ranged from Nicotiana rustica (wild tobacco that is far more potent than modern-day tobacco and often used exclusively for its psychoactive properties), to peyote (used today by American Indians), to Morning Glories (Aztecs) and Blue Lily (revered by the Egyptians). There is even detailed explanations that outline the use of the “poison” gland from the Bufo marinus toad, which has since proven to be quite a powerful hallucinogen.
In fact, the Bufo toad was held in extremely high esteem by the Mayans, and the hallucinogenic substance that the toad excreted was often blended to make the magical potions that facilitated communication with the supernatural. Like many Mesoamerican peoples, a fermented drink called “Balche” was made from the Balche tree (Lonchocarpus longistylus) and honey and was one of the core potions used for divination purposes. The secretions of the Bufo toad were added to this blend, it was consumed with cigars made of the Nicotiana rustica, or evidence, although less concrete, suggests that Blue Lily and/or Morning Glory was added to the brew for one purpose: to open a gateway to communication with the supernatural.
This assertion was further confirmed with Thomas Gage, who, in the seventeenth century, reported that the Pokomam peoples added tobacco and/or secretions from Bufo toads to their fermented beverages to increase the power of the beverage to transport them to the gods. And the below image is from my personal collection of Mayan artifacts, and one of my favorite as well; it’s the only vessel of its kind that I know of, depicting a Bufo toad with a ritualistic drinking vessel on its back that surely contained the psychoactive beverage that helped transport a Mayan Shaman to the Underworld:
There is even less documentation supporting the ritualistic use of mushrooms by the ancient Mayans, it’s not too far of a leap to connect the many figures depicting psychoactive mushrooms in the Mayan areas to the south, in the Kaminaljuyu tombs, and in dictionaries that were compiled immediately after the Spanish conquest. In fact, one mushroom called “Xibalbaj okox” (which means “underworld mushroom) was specifically mentioned in the dictionary as a gateway to the supernatural. But this fact was suppressed and history has done its best to minimize the importance of these kinds of substances and rituals that were central to Mayan Culture.
There is no argument that the Mayans were deeply connected to their environment. There is no argument that they had a very sophisticated and intrinsic relationship with their environment. They were mystics, philosophers and astrologers and existed for over 1,000 years, ruling an entire continent and coming up with a language, number system, and yearly calendar that scientists, archaeologists, and astronomers still revel about. Yet, as is typically the case, whenever the word “hallucinogen” is used in reference to anything intellectual or honorable, it is dismissed.
To me, there is no way any thinking person can ignore the simple fact that part of the reason the Mayans were so advanced in so many intellectual pursuits is partly because of their ritualistic use of mind-alerting substances to communicate with the “gods,” the “divine,” or whatever anyone chooses to call them. It simply doesn’t make sense to try to minimize the importance of some of the very things that could have been, in large part, responsible for the leaps in technology and thought that has allowed the Mayans to endure in our mutual consciousness to this day. But this has always been how the conquering nations operate, and especially in relation to the most violent religion in recorded history (the Christians).
I’ve often wondered why individuals who may have direct access to the Divine are so threatening to the conquering Christians, but as I did more research into the history and core beliefs of the Christian movement, it became clear: Only the Christian clergy have access to such things, and certainly a bunch of “savages” (as commonly referred to by the Christians) could never have such powers unless they were “pagans” or “devil worshippers.”
And this is part of how Christians brainwash their followers and maintain control over large populations; power is placed only in the hands of the elite, and the common man is certainly “too dumb” or at least not personally powerful enough to have any sort of valid contact with their creators without the help of the Christian clergy. And this is where it all goes so awry with me; I have touched the hand of the Divine, I have a belief system based on a well-thought out and carefully researched position that empowers me to make my own choices and to honor all that being human is, which to me, in turn honors my personal Divine in the most powerful way possible.