Central America

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Central America – This region, stretching from Mexico to the northwest of Costa Rica, is home to many pre-Hispanic indigenous cultures, including the Olmec, Aztec, and Maya, as well as their Amerindian descendents such as the Quiché and Yucatec. (Some scholars prefer to identify the majority of this region as Mesoamerica, beginning only in the center of Mexico, and identifying the areas to the north as having more in common with southern North American cultures.)

Central American shamanism shares many characteristics with South American shamanism, including a complex, multilayered cosmos with human people and other-than-human persons, a shamanic calling (through dreams or sickness), initiation and apprenticeship, an ambiguous line between sorcery and healing, the use of tobacco and other nightshades to bring on altered states of consciousness, and a sophisticated understanding of illness involving soul loss and spirit attack.

There are also shared characteristics with southern North American shamanisms, with the peyote cactus used by the Huichol (Wixáritari) also a part of the Native American Church.

Pre-Columbian Aztec priest-shamans were called temoma, after the sacred bundles they carried on their backs during long journeys, especially the nation’s original migration. David Carrasco discusses their transformative powers and mediatory roles with the deities. Pre-Columbian Mayan shamanism involved priest-shamans who conducted calendrical divination, dream interpretation, spiritual healing, and ritual sacrifices. The use of fasting, bloodletting, and sleep deprivation, perhaps alongside hallucinogens, altered the shaman’s consciousness and enabled shape-shifting.

A complex view of cosmology informed by planetary observances and including an axis mundi at the center of the world permeated Mayan worldviews. Mercedes de la Garza (2002) identifies the Mayan rulers of the classical period as shamans and discusses their initiatory and shamanic practices.

Today’s Mayan cultures are equally complex and diverse. Quiché shamans continue to observe the 260-day Mayan ritual calendar, with a priest-shaman known as “the keeper of days” who uses the calendar in divination. Quiché shamans in Guatemala also perform blessings and other ceremonies, along with midwifery, dispensing herbal medicine, and a range of medical tasks. Yucatec shamans, on the other hand, endeavor to maintain harmony in human– nonhuman relations through mediation with spirits and by helping people to understand and fulfill their own role in the cosmos.

Interest in indigenous uses of psilocybin led Gordon Wasson to visit the region and generated a “shamanism tourism” industry that had detrimental effects on Maria Sabina and others. A more respectful engagement by Barbara and Dennis Tedlock has led to a more nuanced but still largely neo-shamanic interest in elements of local shamanisms, especially in relation to the gendered practices of women. Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santería, and Garifuna religion— all “possession cults”—are also influential in the region.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007


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