Discovering Lairs:  Tracing Monsters to their Shamanic Roots in the Maya World

by Chris Loethen

Click to see a picture of a modern Maya shaman

Mayan Shaman


This paper seeks to investigate what role if any shamanic practices played in the invention of our ideas of monsters. Specifically, it examines the shamanism of the Maya and uses them as a possible model for other non-monotheistic cultures. The paper offers ideas regarding where our notions of transformation into anthropomorphic entities derive, and it suggests possible reasons as to how what were considered "animal protector spirits" or "animal companion spirits" have come to be regarded as evil and deadly--werewolves and vampires.


Although the popular conception may be that Hollywood is the imaginative motor of our myths, the truth is that their origins lie well beyond the Hollywood hills. Before there was the Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Wolfman, or Dracula there were stories about creatures who were half-man and half-beast. In fact, in seventeenth century France, the trial and execution, via burning at the stake, of a werewolf came to be a common place event. Even before then though there were these same odd personalities who were a mixture of man and animal. In Classical Greek mythology, there was Medusa. There were also satyrs, centaur, and even the Minotaur in the labyrinth.

While it might be plausible to argue that these creatures simply appeared in our mythology accidentally or all of a sudden. That kind of thinking seldom stands up to investigation. Too often stories remain stories, unexamined and unevaluated. However, there is something inherent in these myths--the merging of humans and animals into supernatural creatures--that seems to suggest a common denominator. Quite possibly, this denominator is a religion known as animism in which humans worshipped certain flora and fauna in conjunction with the heavens. These animistic faiths placed the shaman at the center of village life because he was seen as someone who could interact with the spirit world.

One of the most successful theocratic civilizations is that of the Maya. Their rulers wore multiple hats, serving as politician, general, and priest, and the central goal of each Maya ruler was to maintain the life-death cycle through shamanism:

Shamanism--the powerful psychological and spiritual process for re-creating the cosmos and turning death into life in all the dimensions of Reality--was the driving force behind every aspect of ancient Maya life.   (Gillette 1997: 117)

In fact the Maya believed that every "authentic" human being was a shaman-creator and built his/her resurrected bodies through self-sacrifice and deprivation. Combined with this was the notion of the ch’unel, or animal-self, that was linked to an individual’s existence. The perfection of these ideas allowed the Maya to become a divine, supernatural being that was often represented as having animal qualities--fangs, wings, beaks, or snouts.

When this is considered, it suggests a possible genesis for our own stories of werewolves and vampires--creatures who are half-man and half-animal--and it seems that these shamanic transformations that are derived from animism could be the seed for all anthropomorphic creatures of the night.

Could our stories of werewolves

Could werewolf stories derive from shamanic transformations?

be derived from shamanic rituals?

Maya Shamanism

The origins of Maya religion can be traced to cultural predecessors such as the Olmec and possibly as far back as the first overland immigrants from Asia:

Some of the scenes that confront us in these societies and in Olmec art--human-animal transformation and qualitative equivalence between humans and animals, ecstatic trance, guardian spirits and animal alter egos, journeys of the soul, animate and sentient physical and metaphysical environments, and the like--seem to come right out of that Archaic circum-northern Pacific shamanistic substratum we understand to be the foundation of all Native American religions. (Furst in Coe 1995: 69)

Regardless of its origin Maya cosmology was deeply routed in shamanism, a system of belief in which "the cosmos and everything in it are imbued with a life force or soul and are interconnected" (Reilly in Coe 1995: 30). For the Maya the "ahau" or lord of each independent polity (e.g. Tikal, Calakmul, Palenque, etc.) functioned at three levels. He was simultaneously a politician, general, and priest, and consequently his government was classified as theocratic.

The ahau’s role of shaman consisted of him intervening on behalf of his people with Xibalba. He was responsible for setting events--war, ascension, sowing, and harvest-- in accord with favorable astronomical settings. At the heart of his power was his ability to transform himself into his animal-self, known alternately as the nagual, k’ul, ch’ul, or ch’ulel. As Reilly notes,

Trance and trance-induced journey are the focus of   shamanic  shamanic flight by nagualo, animal spirit companions. (Reilly 1994 in Coe 1995: 30)

It is this fundamental aspect, the transformation into an animal-self that corresponds so closely to our own anthropomorphic monsters and sometimes even heroes. We are all familiar with Dracula and werewolves, but even Superman and Batman undergo a kind of transformation into this alternate self that is similar to that of the shaman.

Additionally, at least one aspect of mesoamerican animism shares an important trait with its European couterpart. Those men chosen to be jaguar shamans, according to Furst (1995: 73), "are recruited from among men who survived jaguar attacks in the forest and are thus considered favored by the feline deity." This is very similar to our notions of vampirism and lycanthropy where the person, once bitten, is transformed by the bite into a powerful being capable shape-shifting.

The Wayob

One central aspect to Maya religion is the idea of the duality of the soul. The Maya saw one part of their soul as indestructible, invisible, and eternal. The Maya referred to this soul as "ch’ul," "k’ul," or "ch’ulel." The second soul, and the one this paper is concerned with is the one that the modern Tzotzil Maya term "chanul" which is sometimes defined as "supernatural guardian" or "protector: "This is a supernatural companion, which usually takes the guise of a wild animal and shares ch’ulel with a person from birth. The fates of the baby and the animal spirit are intertwined, so that what befalls the one affects the other for good or ill" (Freidel et al. 1993: 182).

This pre-Columbian ceramic dog has the face of a human.

Maya Wayob

The figure represents the transformed shaman.

This notion is tied to that of nagualism which is found throughout mesoamerica. These naguals are also seen as guardian spirits who take the shape of plants or animals. Like the chanul, the nagual, shares his fate with his other half until death. Additionally, some mortals and gods take on the shape of their chanul or nagual. For instance, Quetzacoatl’s nagual is represented by the feathered snake while the rulers of Yaxchilan would probably have chanul’s represented by jaguars.

Taking on the form of your chanul, results in the creation of an anthropomorphic individual who possesses both his own human traits and the traits of his chanul--fangs or spots in the instance of the jaguar. These anthropomorphic individuals are typically described as were-jaguars, when the chanul is a jaguar. When the chanul is represented by a different animal, the same system of nomenclature is applied with the prefix of "were" followed by the name of the animal. It should be noted that vampires would be an example of were-bats. With such a belief, namely that one has an animal soul that is bound to his "human" soul, it can begin to be seen how certain mythical creatures came into being. In fact, such beliefs are now documented thanks to recent breakthroughs in Maya glyph decipherment:

Nickolai Grube in Germany and the team of Stephen Houston and David Stuart in the United States have independently deciphered a centrally important glyph that reads way (Fig. 4.6) or "animal companion spirit." Way as "companion spirit" derives from the words "to sleep" and "to dream." In later times it also came to mean the act of transforming into a companion spirit and bewitching (in the Maya from of wizardry).  (Freidel et al. 1993: 190)

The Reality of the Shamanistic Trance

In order for this theory to be valid, one thing that must be demonstrated is the reality of the experience of transformation. Furthermore, not only must the shaman believe that he/she has actually transformed himself into either a deity or animal spirit, the populace must also believe in the reality of the experience. If they see his performance as mere humbug, then they will fail to buy into the hierarchy of power that has been established--one that places them in a subordinate position.

For the shaman, there can be little doubt about the reality of the experience. There is evidence that shaman were selected early in childhood and educated at Maya established schools. These schools taught them all they needed to know about performing their duties as shaman--divination, healing, calendrical calculations, etc. Once the shamanic way of thought was inculcated to the young, it became second nature.

Additionally, there is evidence that the Maya shamans used hallucinogenic compounds to induce their trance-like states during performances or rituals: "There is little doubt that the ancient Maya possessed extensive knowledge of hallucinogenic plants, and used these substances intensively, if only for ritualistic purposes. This claim can be supported not only by the archaeological evidence, but also by the contents of surviving codices" (Ripinsky-Naxon 1999: 10).

Ripinsky-Naxon (1999) has argued that among the hallucinogens used by the Maya shamans were mushrooms, toad secretions, and water lilies. All of these things contain alkaloids that are psychoactive in nature. Furthermore, many of these things are depicted in Maya iconography and art in association with the ruling elite. In Temple 1 at Bonampak scenes (Figure 5:4) depict the dedication of the temple, and the dancers who celebrate the temple’s creation "wear water lilies to represent their status as denizens of the otherworld" (Freidel et al. 1993: 239). Additionally, Ripinsky-Naxon argues,

An analysis of the ethnobotanical significance of the Maya pictorial glyphs in the Dresden Codex, undertaken by Emboden (1983), offers a very good insight into the floristic diversity that formed the secular and religious life of the Maya. In addition to various food plants, such as maize, a plethora of medicinal and ritual plants is depicted, with a very high percentage of psychoactive plants among them (Emboden 1983 in Rapinsky-Naxon 1999: 11).

The fact that waterlilies are symbolic of membership in the otherworld illustrates the Mayan belief that they were vehicles to that world. Once the use of hallucinogenic compounds is established, it becomes clear that the shaman believed in the reality of his visions because hallucinogens, by their nature, created immensely real and spectacular visions like the one involving Lady 6-Tun, who saw her ancestor emerge from the mouth of a snake.  This experience has been depicted in Lintel 15 from Temple 21 at Yaxchilan.

lintel15.yaxchilan.bmp (76374 bytes)

The masses also believed in the reality of the shamanic transformation because of the dramatic stages on which these performance rituals were set. The massive pyramids of the Maya served as a giant stage that extended from the Middle World into the night sky. The shaman-kings would take to these stages at certain times to demonstrate to the people the legitimacy of his rule. Set against the dramatic backdrop of the temple and its huge plaster-faced gods, his ectstatic metamorphosis becomes an intensely real event for the audience of peasants. Additionally, we must not overlook the fact that the Maya, who are known to have burned incense during some of these ceremonies may have introduced a hallucinogenic compound into the fires to facilitate visions in the gathered crowd.

The European Conquest

One possible explanation as to how these protector spirits have come to be viewed negatively has to do with the Spanish Conquest and the influx of Catholicism. The Church regarded the practice of the native people, many of whom still worshipped the Classical Maya gods, to be idolatrous, and the missionaries sought to remove all traces of what was deemed "heathen."

When the descendants of the Maya came to be punished for practicing their religion, they may have felt that the spirits had turned on them. Certainly, negative associations must have formed in their mind regarding their ancient practices if for no other reason than that the practice of their religion often led to torture at the hands of their Spanish conquerors: "Throughout June [of 1562] this [inquisatorial court] questioned and tortured hundreds of Indians..." (Pagden 1975: 12). Furthermore, "Thousands of idols were collected by the friars in the course of their investigations, and the disinterred bones of suspected heretics already deceased, were publicly burned: the entire proceedings then closed with a solemn mass of penitence" (Pagden 1975: 13).

As if this wasn’t enough, the Catholic missionaries also pulled children out of their parents homes so that they could be properly educated in the "true" ways of religion: "The way the friars used to teach religious doctrines to the Indians was to take the children of the lords and chieftains and to send them to live in houses which each town had constructed for its own people to the monasteries" (Pagden 1975: 61). By removing the elite children (the probable successors to positions of power in Maya communities) the friars were able to essentially cut the head off of Maya culture.

The fact that these methods of "re-education" were successful is evidenced by an example of the modern Maya that Freidel relates (1993: 192): "Among the modern Yukatek-speaking Maya of Quintana Roo the ancient concept of way--the spirit companion of gods, ancestors, kings, and queens--connotes an evil, transforming witch, a person to be feared rather than admired." Although Freidel goes on to argue that many factors may be responsible for such a designation, he does indicate that at the Church may be at least partially responsible for this changed attitude in Maya peoples: "The modern designation of such beings as evil may have at least partly resulted from the suppression of indigenous practices and beliefs during the era of Christian domination" (Freidel et al. 1993: 192).

A similar series of events occurred after the fall or Rome when the Catholic Church came to be the most powerful organization in Europe. Those practices deemed idolatrous, unholy, or satanic were rooted out of towns and communities, often by force. Once again the association comes to be made in the minds of the populace between non-Catholic events, ceremonies, or rituals and evil. The two become synonymous. Likewise, the shamans of Europe whose transformations may have been as spectacular as those of their Maya counterparts came to be viewed negatively and so did their "animal spirits." It is possible that what were once seen as protector spirits, most notably the wolf, degenerated into a murderous monster in the minds of the most Europeans.


Religions based in shamanism share the fundamental belief that the shaman can transform himself into another self. Usually, that self is some kind of animal spirit, and typically, the animal chosen is from among the dominate predators of the region. The Maya elite routinely associated themselves with jaguars, snakes, and crocodiles. These animals, dangerous in their nature, served to raise the status of those associated with them. Likewise, in Europe, shamans associated themselves with the wolf.

Through the use of powerful hallucinogenic substances found naturally in their region, the Maya were able to witness their body become that animal spirit that they so highly regarded. Imagine the power, one must have felt when he witnessed his skin pulled tight to his flesh and heard the spine-rattling roar of the jaguar or when he witnessed his arm become as long and thick as a python. Not only did these hallucinogens allow the shaman-king ahau to relate his experiences in the Other World convincingly to their subservients, they may have also served to cause hallucinations in those witnessing the transformation from afar, either through mass hypnosis, the introduction of hallucinogens into ceremonial fires, or a combination of the two.

Once someone witnessed this transformation with his or her own eyes, there could be no doubt as to the reality of the shaman’s magic. It seems only logical that stories about anthropomorphic creatures would have sprung out of these powerful testimonials. These testimonials, over time would come to be accepted, and as long as the religion remained in tact, they would most likely remain positive creatures, symbolic of the health and power of the polity.

However, once a new power unseated the old and brought its own worldview into the arena, certain choices had to be made, and when a man or woman is punished for practicing the shamanic rites, often through torture, negative connotations between shamanism and its practice are hard to overcome. Possibly even, those things which once served to protect individuals come to be seen as menacing. This can be seen through the example of the Catholic church in the Yucatan and the perversion of the wayob. Yet, it should be stated that if the Catholics had not done this, it is likely that someone else would have whether it be those under the banner of Judaism, Islam, or perhaps some other competing religion which might have sprung right out of the rain forests of Central America.

What is important is that shamanism seems to have many links to what we have come to consider as monsters--werewolves and vampires/were-bats. What we should realize is that these creatures probably were once venerated and seen as protecting influences rather than menacing ones. By examining the way in which shamanism operated in the Maya world, perhaps we can gain insight into how it functioned in Europe before the Christian era. If so, we might just learn to snuggle up with a werewolf instead of loading our guns with silver bullets.

Works Cited

Freidel, David et al.
     1993  Maya Cosmos:  Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path
               William Morrow.  New York.
Furst, Peter T.
     1995  Shamanism, Transformation, and Olmec Art.  In The Olmec World:  Ritual and
               Rulership, edited by Michael D. Coe, pp. 69-82.  The Art Museum, Princeton.
Pagden, A.R.
     1975  The Maya:  Diego de Landa's Account of the Affairs of the Yucatan.  J. Philip
               O'Hara.   Chicago.
Rapinsky-Naxon, Michael
     1999  Shamanistic Cosmology of the Ancient Maya; available from
     ; Internet;
               accessed 24 April 2000.
Reilly, F. Kent, III
     1995  Art, Ritual, and Rulership in the Olmec World.  In The Olmec World:  Ritual and
               Rulership, edited by Michael D. Coe, pp. 27-46.  The Art Museum, Princeton.
Sharer, Robert J.                                     
     1994  The Ancient Maya.   Fifth Edition.  Stanford University Press.  Stanford,
Vargr, Unknown
     2000  Werewolf Movie; available from
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