The Odyssey
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Latin America Shawn Dispatch

Smashed Eggs and Sacrificial Roosters: Shaman Healing in Todos Santos

A woman weaving with Todos Santos visible in the background
Caption
Long before the Spanish brought western medicine and religion to Guatemala, the Mayan people were practicing their own medicine, which was deeply connected to their religion. Shamans, who are both the priests and doctors of the Mayan religion, practice rituals combining prayer and herbal medicine. These practices continue today, even after the 500 years of religious political persecution that the Mayan people have endured. Kavitha and I got the opportunity to meet one of these living shamans, Don Pedro, who lives high in the mountain village of Todos Santos.

Don Pedro's temple is a small adobe hut with a tin roof that is furnished only with benches for worshippers, a small candlelit altar and Christian icons that have replaced the Mayan deities. Don Pedro is a quiet older man who wears the red pants and brightly woven shirt that are distinct to the men of this village. Aside from the wise glint in his eye and the reverence with which the others greet him, it is impossible, just by looking at Don Pedro, to recognize his special and powerful position in this small mountain community. He speaks quietly in Mam, and my Spanish teacher, Jose, slowly translates his story.

Although Don Pedro is the grandson of his village's former shaman, he had no desire to be one himself because shamans have many responsibilities and they must live a very strict life. When he was fifteen, he had a very strange dream that three quetzales (Guatemala's sacred national bird) flew to him carrying the book of Maya. They told him that they had brought him this book because it contained the wisdom he would need to be a shaman. Since Pedro had no desire to be a shaman he ignored this dream for a long time, although it kept coming to him.

Some months after he first had the dream, Don Pedro became very sick. He was so ill that he went to the bathroom on himself and he could not even bathe or feed himself. His mother tried to nurse him back to health and while giving him a bath one day, she discovered that Don Pedro had three testicles. His father joked that three testicles meant Pedro would have many lovers and be the father of many children. But, his mother was more concerned and took him to the shaman to discover why. The shaman told them that this made Don Pedro very special. Don Pedro was to be a shaman, and he was sick because he had ignored his calling. This horrified Pedro, so he ran home and refused to believe it.

The next time he saw the shaman, however, the shaman reminded Pedro that it was his destiny to be the village shaman and that by ignoring this destiny he was invoking a terrible punishment upon himself. He told Pedro that if he continued to ignore it, the next lesson would be the death of his parents. Unable to face this, Don Pedro immediately agreed that he would become a shaman. The shaman then told him that his first patient was already waiting for him at home. Don Pedro was perplexed since nobody else knew that he had agreed to follow the path of the shaman. Who could want his help already?

When he arrived home he discovered, to his amazement, a woman with a very sick baby. Very distressed, she was frantically asking everyone to help her. Young Pedro looked at the infant and was surprised to find that he knew the problem. This baby had a condition known as evil eye syndrome, which arises when newborn babies are visited too much and receive too much attention. The Mayans believe that if a baby gets too much attention from many strangers too fast, the mind fills with a terrible blur at night which causes a fever. If immediate action is not taken the baby can die within three days. By instinct Don Pedro went into the fields and collected ruda, the herb needed to heal the baby. He prayed all night, and in the morning, the fever was broken and the child was saved. The news of this remarkable feat spread so rapidly that by nightfall, Don Pedro's house was filled with celebrating town people. The festivities lasted for two days and by the end, everyone in the village knew there was a new Shaman.

That was more than thirty years ago, and since then, many things in the valley have changed. But Don Pedro still practices his Mayan religion each day and worshippers join him for healing ceremonies in the mountains. There are four mountains surrounding Todos Santos and the local Maya believe that these mountains represent four Mayan gods. The shamans visit the mountains for several reasons: one mountain is worshipped for good health; another for rain; one mountain is god of the people; and the largest represents the mountains themselves and all that they provide.

Going to Don Pedro to be cured is not like going to a western doctor. To participate in a ceremony, you must first abstain from sex for 20 days. One must come equipped with several candles of different colors, turkey eggs, mineral water and a rooster. One must walk a whole day to the place of the ceremony and first throw the eggs on the ground, to ask the gods if it is okay to proceed. If the eggs do not break the ceremony must not continue. Why might the gods be unhappy? Perhaps one the participants was not celibate. If the eggs do break, the candles are then lit, each color signifying something different. Red signifies the blood of indigenous people under dictatorship, black represents the night and white is the light of day. Contact with the Mayan gods is first established when the candles are lit. Finally, the rooster is sacrificed and its blood represents the blood of the people.

Do you see this in Kavitha's future?
Caption
Although we did not get to participate in such a ceremony, the Shaman ended his presentation by predicting Kavitha's future. To contact the gods Don Pedro closed his eyes and chanted. He shook a small rattle and then took Kavitha's hand. He told us that Kavitha was a very nice person and very smart. He said that when there is a problem she deals with it calmly. Then he told us that she has a boyfriend who will someday be her husband. Although Kavitha is undecided about this, Don Pedro said that she should make up her mind because he is right for her. He ended by saying that she would live a happy life and travel to many countries! I don't know about the rest of it but it seems like the last part is true.

Shawn

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Abeja - No More Small Talk: Stories of the Civil War (kids version)
Kavitha - Juventud por La Paz - Youth for Peace
Abeja - 100% Culture Clash--Handle With Care

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