© 2019 Tatiana Root

2019 — №1 (17)

Keywords: shamanism, diagnostics and treatment, healing herbs, Maya, traditional medicine, medical systems

Abstract: The article covers aspects of shamanism of various Mayan groups in Mexico and Guatemala, in particular, the practice of medical herbs usage. Revealed is the historical context of Mayan shamanism, continuity in healing methods and traditional usage of medicines. Pointed out are basic causes of illnesses, as seen by Mayan shamans. The text briefly reviews studies on the preservation and application of healing herbs in Mayan culture. The issue of medical systems interoperation; described are problems emerging when traditional medicine contacts biomedicine. The article lists some of the healing herbs most frequently used in Mayan communities, with their original Mayan names, scientific names and health benefits. Shamanic herbal healing is reviewed in connection with the preservation of cultural originality and linguistic richness of indigenous peoples, as well as a practice preserving the biological diversity of the highland Mexico and Guatemala rainforests.

Author info:

Tatyana Root is a post-graduate student at Yuri Knorozov Mesoamerican Research Center, Russian State University for the Humanities (Moscow).


Historically, the Mayan shamanism is divided into three periods

Classical period. During this time, the shamans were, as Y. V. Knorozov put it, “a special contingent”, particular members of society, who could carry out both priestly/religious and secular/administrative functions (de Landa 1955; Tozzer 1941). The colonial texts of Kʼiche and Kaqchikel called them “nawal winak” – “Nagual-people” – and described their supernatural abilities: shapeshifting into various animals (including a jaguar, a snake, a hawk, an owl, etc.), ascending to heaven, descending to hell, possessing great physical strength and sharp foreseeing eyesight. There is no mention of holy and medicinal plants and methods of their application in ancient texts, but there are references to chiefs’ abilities to heal with herbs and use hallucinogens. Moreover, various attributes are described. They served as signs of chiefs’ power as well. It was jaguar and cougar bones, deer legs and head, hawk tail, heron and quetzal feathers, black and yellow future-telling stones, tobacco, stone-carved mushrooms and special thorns for the blood-letting ritual. There are also mentions of “ablution herbs”, which apparently had healing abilities. And were medicinal plant (Garza 1998: 5)
Conquista period. We know much more about this time, mainly due to Franciscan and Jesuit monks, Spanish clergymen whose notes contained Indian treatment methods. The most prominent manuscript is undoubtedly a work “Report of the Affairs of Yucatán” by Diego de Landa. It is one of the most important sources which helped to prove accuracy of Mayan writing deciphering made by Y. V. Knorozov. Besides, shaman practices were described by Jacinto de la Serna1, Márgil de Jesús2, bishop Núñez de la Vega and others in the middle of XVII cent. At that time shamanic functions were varied. The shamans had different names according to their specialization: “ah pul yaah” for sorcerers and illness charmers; “uaiaghon” for magicians; “h-men” for healers; “chilames” for shamans able to prophet lying in trance on the ground (ibid.), and, probably, reaching this mental state with a herb called Xtabentun in Yucatec Maya language. There is a proof of shamans practicing medicine in some texts; confessions of sins and potions were used to treat illness. Diego de Landa wrote: “Of course, the Yucatans knew when they did bad things, and since they believed that bad behavior and sins cause death, maladies and sufferings, there was a custom to confess long before Christianization… Conjurers and healers treated the ill with blood-letting from hurting body parts. They did a toss-up both when executing their duties and in other cases” (Diego de Landa 1955; Tozzer 1941). A XVI cent. illustrated manuscript “The Codex Magliabechiano”1 runs as follows: “This is a depiction of an Indian bath-house called temazkale, where there was always an Indian by the doors, who guarded against illnesses. When the sick entered the bath-house they were given an incense called kopale (The Codex Magliabechiano 2013: 162)… when a man fell ill, a healer was called, a man or a woman, and the healer took twenty seeds of maize right away… cast them on a cloak to see the outcome of illness… if they formed empty space… it was a sign of decease. And if one seed covered another, the healer said that illness visited the sick constantly, and if seed fell separately… it was a sign of separation from illness and the sick would recover” (The Codex Magliabechiano 2013: 164). Yucatan witches used to put Tohk’u, (Datura stramonium) under pillow or give it to a patient to smell it and he would lose self-control (Garza 1990: 159). According to colonial texts and dictionaries the Mayan healers knew more than 200 illnesses, including sore throat, rheumatism, cancer, leprosy, fever, hemorrhoids, syphilis, jaundice, lichen, scab, hernia, tuberculosis, various tumors and ulcers, dropsy, asthma, eye diseases. Treatment included massage, blood-letting, dieting, bathing, enemas. Thеу had an idea of epidemy – “multum tzec, oc na kuchil”. Surgery was applied for tumor puncture, bone fracture splinting; human hair served as surgical suture. More than 400 plants were used for healing. They were consumed raw and dried, used as raw material for tinctures, epithems, plasters, ointments, powders and balms (Kinzhalov 1971: 273). The following quote illustrates how widespread ancient pharmacology was: “ Pharmaceutical procedures, medicine sale and dispatch carried out in tianquiztli or in markets” (Códice Durán, Tratado II,:10). Besides food divided in “hot” and “cold” according to its warming and cooling effects, like in Chinese medicine. Dieting depended on this division. For example, a man sick with fever had to eat “cold” food and herbs, a woman in childbirth ate “hot” ones. Honey was supposed to be “hot”, wild turkey meat – “cold” (Kinzhalov 1971: 275). The rituals of that time were performed in secret, as they were equated to magic chastised by Inquisition. One of the outcomes of the forced Christianization is emergence of an original religious syncretism; e. g., there were Christian saints who patronized shamans. Apostle Peter is a shaman patron among the Mayans. Moreover, that time is marked with the appearance of the concepts of “black magic” and “deal with the devil” (which was believed to be necessary for conjurers to shapeshift into animals and strange people like dwarfs, old men, hunchbacks etc.), or “familar” (Yucatec ual, uayob, an animal or any other living being a shaman could shapeshift into). Ancient Mayans didn’t have notions of such kind.

The present time. Nowadays one can observe certain forms of shamanism that survived. The phenomenon is still based on the same ideas of shapeshifting and shaman’s clairvoyance and healing faculties. Bernardo Batelman, the author of the book on traditional medicine in Morelos state, writes: “There is no doubt, that most part of illnesses is of psychosomatic origin, because they are social. A healer comforts patients and gives them self-assurance, generously presenting them health with the help of herbs and magic, just like the ultramodern doctor treats with machines the patients who believe in technology. Because it is rooted in their culture” (Baytelman 1986: 22).

Succession of ancient and modern shamanism

The Mayan of our time still believe that a human life submits to the good embodied in gods of heaven and day, and the evil, presented by subterranean and nocturnal deities. Accordingly, there are lots of illnesses caused by these entities. There is also a persistent idea that pathologies depend on human behavior. Breaking social and moral norms provokes wrath of gods. Light penalties appear as ailments lasting for 3-4 days and they do not need a healer’s intrusion. On the other hand, severe punishments cause high temperature and other symptoms of diseases (Garza 1990: 179).
The Mayan concept of human internal device differs greatly from the conventional one. The example is given in the book “Sueño y aluminación en el mundo náuhatl y maya” by Mercees de la Garza2, who refers to William Holland’s “Medicina maya en las Altos de Chiapas”. Tzotziles, a Mayan tribe from the highlands of central Chiapas, believe that liver nests behind heart, kidneys are behind lungs and intestins wind around stomach. Breathing looks like air being pushed into stomack, then it goes to bowels and comes out through anus. If it doesn’t come out, the stomach stays inflated. It might be the reason why enemas were so popular among ancient Mayans both in rituals and treatment.
Since pre-Spanish times the Yucatanian Maya believe that internal organs preserve order relatively to the center below navel, where an organ (tipté) is situated; it has the shape of a small tomato and controls the whole body with pulsation. The organ equates to abdominal aorta. When tipté dislocates due to an incident, for example, the whole organism destabilizes, a process accompanied by meteorism, giddiness, pains, insomnia, sexual dysfunctions and other symptoms (Garza 1990: 180). This is mentioned in the manuscript “The Bacabs Rituals” (el Ritual de los Bacabes), and many of the ceremonies described are still carried out today.
Bacabs are the four entities holding the sky, the four parts of the world, the four colors. In Mayan medicine each Bacab refers to a definite human content: body, mind, emotions and soul. Before proceeding to healing a shaman prays to gods, and to the four Bacabs, according to the hierarchy of the latter. “The Bacabs Rituals” depicts the world with four trees, four earth and sky holders (Bacabs) in the corners and it appears as a stage for the healing ritual, where the four Bacabs help often a healer to fight with morbific entities. Most part of the rituals described in “The Bacab Rituals” is the characteristic trait of modern healing practices.
Tipté functions much like the Chinese energy center lower Dantian, situated three fingers below navel. Its main function is regulation of physical condition. If low on energy, whole health is affected and an internal illness may occur. Massage and hot potions are the methods used to relocate tipté back to its place. When an energy link between tipté and another organ is disrupted, body parameters change and it causes pains. Tipté feeds the venous system, heart pumps blood through the body and tipté returns blood to the starting point. A good curandero must take into account tipté’s condition for diagnostics (Garza 1990: 180).
The order of organs is so delicate that many Yucatec Mayan refuse to have surgery intrusions, because they can damage vital links between body parts. The organs move during pregnancy, this is why partera (a midwife) carries out many “sobadas”, or massages, to intensify blood flow and clear blood vessels (Garza 1990: 180).
Besides malicious entities summoned by dark shamans (brujos), sins and energy disbalance, there are other reasons for being sick, namely strong emotions: scare, spite, sadness or shame (Garza 1990: 181).
Diagnostics includes casting maize seeds, interpreting their position and colors (similar to how it was described in “Codex Magliabechiano”); egg rolling on patient’s body, throwing pepper seeds, and watching shaman’s own gastrocnemius muscle during treatment and in prophetic dreams. The main method is watching patient’s pulse in wrist and forearm veins. The pulse shows a shaman the type and cause of illness, e. g. witchery, and even gives the possibility to expose a malicious conjurer. Human blood is assumed to speak to a healer, who is able to hear and feel it. Sometimes the ceremonies are carried out at patient’s home, sometimes in a place where the soul was lost, and sometimes it is necessary to make pilgrimage to various sacred altars in valleys and mountains (Mercedes de la Garza 1990:185 – 186). Besides prayers and incantations, treatment may include body petrissage, sweeping, blowing, ablution, blood-letting, “sucking” illness out of body, drinking special potions and applying healing mixtures.

Interrelation of complimentary and conventional medical systems on the territories, inhabited by various Mayan groups in Mexico and Guatemala

In present-day Mayan communities modern medicine coexists with shamans, curanderos and parteras, who also possess shamanic abilities. Due to Mayan communities populating out-of-the-way rural regions or mountains and living in extreme poverty, community members have limited access to modern medical institutions or practicing doctors. According to statistics, given in the research of Q’eqchi Maya women’s reproductive health in Guatemala, 70 % of births are domiciliary, in 75 % of cases obstetrics is carried out by parteras, and 5.5 % of births happen without any medical care (Michel et al. 2016). It is parteras who can predict the birth of a “gifted” child in their dreams, by hearing “cries” of a yet unborn baby, discovering “empty belly” phenomenon, and other signs. Moreover, parteras can predict the birth of a future shaman by discovering an amnion (amniotic sac or water sac) on a newborn’s body. The color of the sac (white or black) reveals shamanic abilities. Interestingly, black amnion and twisted umbilical cord also indicate a gift of healer and nagual, a man able to shapeshift into an animal. Parteras oppose treatment of gifted babies in modern clinics, because they believe that doctors mistake a “shaman illness” and the aftereffects of shamanic wars for usual illnesses, misdiagnosing them. Medical malpractice performed on such babies results in their loss of gift or even life (Fagetti 2015: 15-52). Hence, due to economic reasons and limited access to settlements, shamans have much more possibilities to practice healing among Indians than any representatives of conventional medicine. There is yet another important aspect. Indian communities lead a secluded life and do not welcome strangers, to put it mildly. This condition prevents the emergence of modern medical institutions on their territories, since Indian communities do not want to allow clinics on their lands. Besides, a shaman’s and curandero’s authority is high, and rural people prefer to resort to their help. Thus, the Mayan women rely almost exceptionally on medicinal herbs during all pregnancy stages (Michel, Caceres et al 2016). The mentioned work “Medicina Maya en los Altos de Chiapas” by W. Holand narrates about efforts to build a modern clinic in Chamula, Quintana Roo. It took three general meetings and much time to win Indians’ trust in conventional medicine. Vaccination caused same problems. Moreover, even Spanish-speaking natives are hard to diagnose medically, because they talk about symptoms and complaints in terms of shaman healers and according to their classification of illnesses. Many natives visit clinics in search of medicaments for diseases caused by spirits and conjurers.

Review of contemporary literature on Mayan medicinal plants of Mexico and Guatemala

In the beginning of XX cent. traditional Mayan medicine was attracting a growing interest and the number of research works increased. The fundamental work on the topic was Ralph Roys’ “The Ethno-botany of the Maya” (Roys 1931). In the 60-s and 70-s National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (INI, Instituto Nacional Indigenista) published works dedicated to traditional Mayan medicine, including the book by W. Holand “Medicina Maya en los Altos de Chiapas” (first edition was published in 1963) (Holand, 1989), where much attention was given not only to classification of illnesses in traditional shamanic medicine, healing rituals, but also to INI’s work to popularize conventional medicine in Indian communities, and clinic building on their native territories. One of the most cited works is Sandra Orellana’s “Indian Medicine in Highland Guatemala, The Pre-Hispanic and Colonial Periods” (Orellana, 1987), which gives description of 157 types of healing herbs and their application. An interesting reference source is “Plantas tóxicas de México” by Abigail Aguilar Contreras and Carlos Zolla (Contreras, Zolla, 1982). It contains toxicity characteristics of some medicinal plants, dangerous for usage but systematically applied in shamanic healing. Two research works on biodiversity and ethno-pharmacology are of great interest. One of them was carried out by a group of American and Canadian scientists, a Mayan shaman and three local shamans who consulted the researches. The results of a 4-year study was the paper “Q’eqchi’ Maya healers’ traditional knowledge in prioritizing conservation of medicinal plants: culturally relative conservation in sustaining traditional holistic health promotion” (Pesek, Abramiuk, 2009), it describes biodiversity of Mayan populated territories of Guatemala and Belize with climate zone and a list of medicinal plants used by local shamans. The second work is a joint research conducted by the scientists from University of Chicago and Guatemala University of San Carlos “Ethnomedical research and review of Q’eqchi Maya women’s reproductive health in the Lake Izabal region of Guatemala: Past, present and future prospects” (Michel, Caceres 2016). It covers problems of women’s health and research works of medicinal plants application in treatment of diseases and pain syndromes, obstetrics and menopause relief.

Medicinal herbs and their application

The Mayan inhabited territories, especially highlands and tropical rainforests, are rich in medicinal plants. It is vital due to the reasons stated above, namely limited access to modern medical care and severe economic conditions of the communities. In spite of relevance of shamanic healing among natives, civilization is making its way even in the territories inhabited by the Mayans. Natural forests are vanishing, and so do medicinal plants. For example, in Guatemala 41.9% of territory was covered with forests in 1980; the number reduced to 33.8% by 1990 and to 26.3% in 2003 (Michel, Caceres 2016). Local people and public agencies pondered over preserving of biodiversity. Present-time Mexican shamans gather herbs and plant then at home. There is a program of herbal gardens, run by the association of doctors tzotziles and tzeltales (Garza 1990: 187). It’s worth noting that besides medicinal plants there are medicinal animals, wild, as a rule, like possums and iguanas, medicinal clays, minerals, tars, coal and salt (Garza 1990: 187). For example, pulverized possum’s tail is used in assisting birth-giving and treating menstrual cycle delay. Fresh iguana feces are applied onto leukoma-affected eye. Tar extracted from bark is a sudorific, diuretic and laxative substance (Fern 2019).
Many hallucinogenic plants used in ancient times, like tohk’u (Datura stramonium) and seeds of xpuhuk (Tagetes lucida) remain medicinal herbs, but there is no data on their consumption for the purpose of immersing in trance. We do not have any information about ritual consumption of hallucinogenic mushrooms and plants among present-day Mayans, even their use as offerings, like it used to be in pre-Spanish times. But alcohol, tobacco and narcotic seeds tzite (Erithrina coralloides), necessary for shaman practices, are used up to now by other Mesoamerican groups like Naua, Mazateks and Mishteks. They also use mushrooms (Уоссон 2009:153), Xtabentun (Rivea carimbosa) and other hallucinogenic plants for future-telling and healing practices (Garza 1990: 188).
Q’eqchian tzite and Yucatanian Mayan chakmolche (Erithrina coralloides) is one of the most sacred plants for modern Mayans. They are used for future-telling. Tojolabal Indians use them in combination with with incantations to treat warts and skin diseases; people offer it cigars and brandy bottles, which they hang on tree branches, praying for cure (Garza 1990: 188).
Besides tzite, there are references to other psychoactive plants known to several Guatemala, Chiapas and Yucatanian Mayan communities, mainly due to their healing properties. Above all, two important medicinal plants of pre-Spanish times are mentioned. Si´sim (Artemisia Mexicana) consumed as tincture for abdominal pains and intestinal worms. Its leaves are chewable, they cure sore throat. Epithems made of chewed leaves treat ulcers (Plants For A Future, 2012). This is a sacred plant of Tlaloc, god of rain, thunder, fire and agriculture. In rituals it could be smoked as a cannabis substitute. Mexican folk medicine use its extract for better digestion. Si’sim tea stimulates appetite, cures cough and diarrhea. Its root treats epilepsy and is used as a means of birth control, since it can provoke menstruation and miscarriage. Yucatanian Mayans burn the herb as incense for headache relief (Preserving shamanism’s… 2016).
The second plant is Q’eqchian pericón or yerba Santa Maria, Kaqchikel kana kotzij eyan and Yucatan Mayan xpuhuk (Tagetes lucida), consumed as tincture or brew during a meal to ease stomach discomfort (the same tradition exists in China), or drink it instead of water. All parts of the plant have diuretic, anti-fever, narcotic, hypotensive and sedative effects. Moreover, it stimulates lactation, treats diarrhea, nausea, indigestion, colic, hiccup, malaria, fever, scorpion bites, and is used to remove mites (Fern 2019). Tlaloc sacred plant, used in ceremonies (Preserving shamanism’s… 2016).
Some solanaceous plants, like Kaqchikel p’ahakan or machcujychaj (Solanum nigrum, houndsberry), are known for their blood-cleansing effect when consumed stewed or as infusion (Garza 1990: 188). Besides, it is used as anti-inflammatory agent, aphrodisiac, sudorific, diuretic, anti-fever, laxative, narcotic and tonic agent (Fern 2019).
Yucatanian Mayans also use Chelik (Solanum torvum, turkey berry). Its leaves are an effective anti-bacterial aid. It treats cuts, injuries and skin diseases. The juice cures fever, cough, asthma, sore throat, rheumatism and gonorrhea. It also has a diuretic effect. Dried and pulverized leaves are used to treat diabetes. Chelik infusion is helpful for thrush. The root decoction can be applied to cure sexually transmitted diseases. Pulverized roots can be put into dental cavity to relieve pain. (Garza 1990; Fern 2019).
Xtabentun (Rivea carimbosa) is known as a magiс ritual plant, a nagual flower, used for shapeshifting into animals. This plant appears to be more important in rituals than peyotl. Used in medicine as a treatment for meteorism, sexually transmitted diseases, tumors and as painkiller (Roys 1931; Fern 2019).
Stramonium is widespread among Yucatan Mayans. It is called tohk’u or chamico (Datura stramonium, mad apple), matul in ancient Guatemala. Shamans give it out to sniff or put it under the pillow to find out the desired truth. They add it to chocolate to make a love potion. Chamuli Indians use the plant to treat poison plant burns. Stramonium is a spasmolytic and soporific drug. Its seeds are a good aid against asthma and Parkinson’s disease. The leaves infusion is used to cure sexually transmitted diseases. Poultices and rinsing can help in treating injuries, abscess, fistulas, burns, dropsies, fungi infections, tumors and severe neuralgias. Roots and leaves are used in enemas and as an abortifacient. Hot poultice can be applied on goiter. The plant cures digestive disorders, including spasms, peptic ulcers, pancreatitis, colics and urinary bladder inflammation. Besides, development of ethnopharmacology helped to extract some useful substances from stramonium: hyoscyaminum – relieves gastrointestinal tract disorders, cures peptic ulcers, pancreatitis, colics, urinary bladder inflammation; atropine – widens pupils and is used in eye surgery; scopolamine – sedates patients with schizophrenia and similar disorders (Garza 1990; Fern 2019).
A plant known in Tabasco as dormilona found its use as a sedative and soporific. Mayans call it Múuts’il xiiw. It is described as a wild plant, which closes its leaves when touched. Scientific name is Mimosa pudica (shy mimosa). Indians drink its infusion as a sedative, add it to bathing water, put the leaves under the pillow in case of insomnia. Enemas with dormilona gum treat intestines inflammation and ulcers. The plant cures snake bites, dysentery, toothache, high temperature, bleeding and hemorrhage; it also boosts tissue regeneration after burns. The tincture is used to treat alcoholism. Root extract and seeds have emetic effect. Ethnopharmacological research works show that the extracts of the plant have mild diuretic effect, supress duodenum contraction, promote regeneration of nerves and ease menorrhagia. Relieves menopause and hysteromyoma symptoms (Garza 1990; Michel; 2016).
Chalche (Pluchea odorata), a flowering Asteráceae plant. It stimulates sweating, has diuretic and spasmolytic effects. Suppresses spasms and convulsions in case of diarrhea, intestines pain and menstruation. Reduces reddening and pain in case of hay fever. The latest ethnopharamcological research works determined anticancer effect (Orellana 1987; Gridling 2009).
Tobacco – K’uts, K’uuts,Kuuts (Nicotiana rustica, Nicotiana tabacum). It remains one of the most important medicinal herbs. It is used in case of snake poisoning, injury infections, lichen. The plant cures sore throat and upper airways catarrh. Tobacco has emetic and natural insecticide effects. Tobacco and lime mixture is still in use as a means from hunger and fatigue, as well as for ritualistic purposes. Tzeltal Indians say that the mixture is sacred and healing: it cures fright and exorcises evil spirits from the sick person (Garza 1990; Holand; 1989). Shamans use tobacco and alcohol in most rituals to cause ecstatic states, which are necessary to speak to gods and gain supernatural abilities. Besides smoking, Tzotzils drink tobacco, blending it with hot water or brandy. The mixture causes an altered state of mind.
Chicalotl (Argemone mexicana). A sort of poppy originally found in Mexico, now widely cultivated in many parts of the world. The whole plant has painkilling, spasmolytic, emetic and sedative effects. It treats cancer and epilepsy. The decoction made of leaves helps in case of liver and spleen diseases, jaundice and whooping cough. A tincture of young leaves relieves fever, cough and cold. The roots are used for chronic skin diseases treatment (Garza 1990; Fern 2019).
Xu’ kuy kok’ (Justicia pectoralis). A hallucinogen contained in Ayahuasca, an entheogen. A boiled mixture with lemongrass, sugar, water and hibiscus flowers is a cough syrup. Pounded and water/rum-soaked leaves and stems are a poultice for cuts and bruises. They can be chewed or crumbled and then applied on injuries for fast regeneration. The plant has antiemetic effect. The decoction is used for stomach disorder, fever, influenza, and whooping cough and as an antifebrile component for bathing. A tincture made of young leaves is a good hair rinser in case of alopecia. The plant contains coumarin and umbelliferone (Fern, 2019).
Hub’ub’ (Souroubea gilgii). It is used as a treatment for conjured illnesses (Roys 1931). During ethnopharmacological research works Souroubea proved potent in relieving anxiety. Its bioanalysis discovered presence of betulinic acid, an anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor and anti-AIDS agent (Puniani, Cayer 2016).
All the above mentioned plants are medically applicable: they relieve pain, treat dropsies, fractures, rheumatism, asthma, ulcer, podagra and convulsions; these are the same illnesses, which the Mayans treated with medicinal plants in pre-Spanish period. Besides, almost all the plants are entheogenic. Indians often mention that these plants are dangerous, but there is no mention anywhere of them used in shamanic ceremonies, of them eaten or used exclusively for causing hallucinogens. Due to this reason one may suggest that even if there used to exist ceremonial or future-telling consumption of hallucinogenic plants, this knowledge was lost long ago. Still, this statement is not obvious, because many shamans are unwilling to talk about consumption of hallucinogens. For example, Mercedes de la Garza writes in “Sueño y alucinación en el mundo náhuatl y maya”: “When we asked don Anselmo Perez, a Tzotzil shaman, whether he had ever consumed intoxicating plants or mushrooms, he changed the subject, looking in another direction”. Another shaman, don Carmelino Martinez, when describing his own initiation, affirmed that no one gives away the secret of the herbs. He also noted that the reason for keeping silence was not shaman’s bad temper, but this knowledge’s potential to harm other people. Given all above mentioned plants are psychoactive, the shaman’s fears are justified. There is no full list of medicinal plants used by the Mayan shamans, because different Mayan groups live in different climatic zones, they give herbs various names and their quantity is rather large. Various sources list 160 to 2235 plants (Pesek 2009, Michel 2016).


The integration of medical systems is raising two interrelated problems.

  1. Shamans do not reveal comprehensive information about medicinal herbs because of intense interest from people who might use it for non-medical purposes. Many plants are psychoactive, and, depending on their quantities and methods of preparation, they may cause altered states of mind, or even a lethal outcome. The plants containing toxic substances need to be handled with great caution when used in medicinal drugs. Thus, an unskilled person must not be admitted to handling these plants. We must not forget the issue of drug traffic legislation, that puts shamanic healing in a rather precarious position and makes shamans over-cautious in passing the knowledge.
  2. Human factor is very significant in shamanic treatment. A shaman “leads” every patient, knows their inmost secrets thanks to his gift and because he and his ancestors have been living in the community for a long time. He knows all the inhabitants in person, and it is only he who can determine the cure and the dose for the patient. He also knows every herb growing around, and he gains this knowledge through learning and introduction to sacred practices. It is of great importance for shaman to preserve connection with the habitat, the herbs he uses for healing (as a rule, every shaman has individual assortment of plants), and the patient whom he knows well. On the one hand, it resembles personified medicine popularized in recent time. But, on the other hand, it makes transferring Mayan shamanic practices to a different environment rather complicated. Besides, there is another detail: plants might have different effects on different ethnicities. And a cure proved effective for natives may be useless for strangers.

Despite some integration problems, the medical systems still tend to cooperate. The analysis of essential oils of various medicinal plants is conducted in order to identify their healing properties. Moreover, in Mayan territories of Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and Honduras there are ethnobotanical and ethnomedical investigations aimed at discovering, describing and preserving biodiversity of medicinal plants. One of the strategies for preservation of species diversity may be programs on saving cultural heritage and traditional lore. It is important not only from the point of view of nature conservation. Languages are disappearing with overwhelming pace around the world. Just 6000 spoken languages remain today, compared to 15000 in use 70 years ago (Pesek, Abramiuk 2009). Culture, lore, native medical skills, history itself are vanishing following languages. For example, discovery of prostatine, a chemical substance suggested to be effective against AIDS, owes to Samoan language. The native speakers knew healing properties of Homalanthus Nutans (mamala tree). Qʼeqchi Indians and their language helped to find Souroubea gilgii (Souroubea), a liana, showing same properties as the plants described above. Thus, a complex approach to working with traditional knowledge is needed. It is necessary to promote and introduce selected traditional healing methods in national strategies of public health service. This would make it possible to save and restore cultural and natural diversity, using preserved territories and thoroughly controlled forest reserves. One of the vital stages of this strategy is connection between ecology and economy by means of medicinal herbs trading. This strategy may prove viable since such development doesn’t imply loss of forest resources, including medicinal plants.


[1] Tianquiztli – a trade square, a market, and also the constellation of Pleiads.

[2] “The Bacab Rituals” – an 18-th century manuscript in Yucatan Mayan language. The author is unknown, it might be a compilation by several authors. The book contains magis formulas, rituals, healing methods and recepies.


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