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Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Find newer posts soon at my forthcoming blog, Revolutionary Time.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Learning from a Mayan Shaman, #2: Purification

Landa's church, dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua
Izamal, the "Yellow City," contains what is left of a cluster of Mayan temples. These were lowered--the structures on top taken down--and the stones used to build a Catholic church and monastery over what had been the tallest pyramid. The church still stands. Diego de Landa Calderon, a Franciscan, supervised its construction in the 1560s. He collected valuable information about the Maya people, their culture, and their language. But he also conducted inquisitions into Mayan leaders' supposed attempts to sabotage Catholic conversions. Some of these investigations led to executions. Believing the Maya to be idolaters, he destroyed as many of their artifacts as he could, including most of their bifold books. I tell you all this to put Israel's work with us in context.

On our first day with Israel, just a few blocks from the church above, he conducted a purification ceremony next to an old temple. He stood over a circular altar on the ground about a yard in diameter. The altar included sacred objects, some of which were Israel's tools, candles, flowers, and a few of the group's possessions we thought might need cleansing--my watch, for example.

Israel's circle after the ceremony, many objects removed.
I didn't know what to expect from Israel's ceremony. I'd done a little reading (part of Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path, by Freidel, Schele and Parker), but hadn't taken much of it in. What was I being cleansed of exactly? What was corrupting me? Was I signing up for something like Catholic confession? That didn't sound good. I've made a few big mistakes in my life, but I've never hidden them, never let them turn poisonous in the dark. If my impurities were those I'd "caught" from modern culture, I would have been happy to kiss them goodbye, although I wasn't sure what habits or resources I'd be able to put in their place. And how exactly would Israel cleanse me?

I don't want to say much about what Israel did. He shares the skills he learned from his forebears as he
Israel with the conch shell.
sees fit. It's not up to me to make them public. And the others in the group who stepped up to be purified--each underwent a different rite--will tell or not tell what happened to them as they wish.  I only have my story, and I couldn't even see it all unfold.

What did the stones he was moving around and behind my feet signify? Why was he blowing his giant conch shell right next to my head? Why was he blowing it so long and loud? Was it necessary to wave that smoky substance all over me?

I was anxious about many things. I wished the rest of the group wasn't watching. Apart from my husband, I'd known these others exactly one day.

What if I didn't get it? What if this young man brought his wisdom to bear and it rolled right off me? What if my corruption was too deep?

What if everything Israel was doing was hocus pocus? A chorus of scoffing voices erupted in my head.

My purification lasted about ten minutes. Later a new friend from the group told me what he saw: Israel setting a black stone behind my feet--signifying something that had happened to me that I needed to leave behind--and blowing the conch shell to call my soul back into my body.

Whatever the nature of the ceremony, when I sat down afterward, under the trees that surrounded the altar, I was confident that Israel, this shaman, this doctor, could be trusted. He had helped me. I felt lighter, ready for something new.

More to come.

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Photos by Tracy O'Neill