[00:00:00] During the 1960s I was a student at Berkeley. I read Eliade’s famous book, Shamanism, and I thought, this is really an interesting topic. And when I went to Guatemala to do my research, I always, in the back of my head, wondered: Could there be any Mayan shamans, or was that [era] really all gone? Immediately I discovered that there were many, many different types of shamans, and they are just all over the highlands of Guatemala . So I was quite interested in finding out all I could about it. Well, I think I was a little bit too pushy. I think ethnographers are pushy, and I started going around to shrines and making a nuisance of myself. And, finally, some people approached me and said, “Do you want to know this area, or do you want to know about it?” Do you want to know it, know how to do it, or do you want to know about it, was basically the question. And I thought, “I want to know how to do it! I want to know what it’s really all about.” And then I found out, among living Maya people in Guatemala, that there are thousands of shamans, and that they are the leaders in the community, and that they are tied in with all kinds of other important areas of knowledge, and that, if you really wanted to learn anything of importance ethnographically, you would have to deal with people who are trained as shamans because they were the keepers of the knowledge in almost any area of the community.
[1:22:00] When I was in Guatemala, being trained as a day-keeper, I noted over and over again that people would be pointing to the sky and talking about things that I couldn’t see. And I discovered that learning the sky—learning what the asterisms are, how the sky changes in a given night, and how it changes over a year—was part of the earliest training you receive as a day-keeper. And that is why you are called a day-keeper. You are somebody who is keeping a calendar and an astronomical sense. I then began to read all of this fabulous literature about calendars and astronomy and so forth, relating to archaeology and to the epigraphic record, and I was stunned because there was no connection in the literature to the living people today. There was a dogma that Mayas had lost everything, were totally peasantized, had no connection to their historic or archaeological past. I found this was not true, and so I became fascinated in that. And then I paid a lot of attention to how astronomy relates to everyday life, and how midwives use watching the moon as she moves through the different asterisms in order to know where she was in the cycle for a woman’s birth. And I suddenly understood that this was the giant clock, and that this, of course, was very important and was very important to this day. Even though there are Mayas—lots of Mayas—who have watches, they still like to look at the sky and to know where they are in the astronomical world, because it connects you to cosmology. And astronomy connects to religion through a cosmological sense of the world.
Hawks & Corn
[2:58:00] I have done some publishing, and I have continued to keep records on migratory flights of hawks and particularly the Swainson’s hawk, [which] crosses Guatemala two times a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. The day-keepers are waiting for the hawks to arrive. It could be anywhere from March 15th to about April 10th; that’s the range. They study the sky for certain patterns, certain asterisms, and then they wait outside watching for these huge flights of hawks. There will be anywhere between two thousand and six thousand individuals in a single flight. And they know to watch for it, and they’ve been trained to watch for it ever since they grew up as little children. And when the hawks come is when you have to plant your corn. This is for a particular variety that grows at about 7500 feet in altitude. You notice what day it is on the calendar. Let us say it is 8 Monkey on the calendar, and you then know the corn will ripen on the same day-name, 260 days later. So it helps people with the sense of ripening. And what they do is they go out into the fieldtwenty days before that, and they bend over the stalks of corn in order to have the ears ripen in a more rapid pattern. This is something they’ve learned long ago, that this will push it to ripen on the day they want it to be ripened.
[4:23:00] As time went on, I began reading other things about shamanism, and I began to have my doubts about this area of shamanism because basically it was all men that were being described. Very rarely would a woman be described, or, if she was, she was an exception. I think they are wrong. I’ve begun to do a lot of research into those areas. Probably my biggest breakthrough was when I entered the area of Siberia and discovered that a good fifty percent of all of the classic shamans in history and today are female. And I would never have known that by doing the standard secondary reading. It is only when you start to do the primary reading, and when you begin to meet people, and you begin to go to conferences and meet women shamans, [that you] discover what is going on, that the classic shamanic dress, the costume, which always struck me as female, was indeed female clothing, and that most of the guys who were crossing over to become shamans were crossing the gender divide in order to do so. Then I started to meet archaeologists who said, “Well, this might interest you. Some of the earliest finds of skeletal remains of people who have clear shamanic artifacts in their tombs are female.” And now I have gone down that track, and I am finding more and more of the very earliest material to be connected with identifiably female bones and female shamanic equipment. I am not ready to say that shamanism was originally female and then eventually became male through cross-dressing and whatnot. I am not ready to make that extreme statement, although that would get a lot of attention and create a lot of debate. But I am ready to say that women have been shamanizing for at least as long—if not longer—than men.
[6:09:00] My work in gender in Mesoamerica centered on, and continues to be centering on, the knowledge of women who have been trained as day-keepers. I found out about this by chance, when I went to places where there were many day-keepers and there was a lot of praying and whatnot going on. There seemed to be a lot of women, and so I asked around about it. They said, “Oh, yeah, they’re the wives of the people who are doing this, making these offerings.” I thought, oh, okay. After a while, though, I began to realize that some of these women were making their own offerings and were there without men. And then, eventually. one day somebody said, “Well, of course, they’re all day-keepers—they’re all ajk’ij.” And I said, “Oh. You mean they’re all trained the same way?” “Oh yes, they all receive very similar training, but the greatest of all blessings is when you can train a couple at the same time.” In time, they got interested in training Dennis [my husband] and myself. We were then trained together at the same time. There were differences in our training, but the similarities were the overriding thing. Then, in time, I learned that there was a hierarchy. At first I thought everybody was just a day-keeper. Then I learned that that is just the entry level and that, after there, there are several paths. And one of the paths immediately for a woman, after being a day-keeper, is to be an iyom, which means a midwife. And at this level you are trained in certain things that are empirical about herbs, as well as other spiritual things. In this society only women are involved in midwifery. So it is a female path. Men, at the very same point, if they are to be trained, are trained as bone-setters. And bone-setters call on the power of lightning to fix bones. It is a very frightening and powerful force. So they get connected with a meteorological world. For women to get involved in helping to give birth to babies, help the mothers, and so forth, they’re all connected with the arts, and specifically with weaving, and with all of the symbolism of weaving, and the loom, and so forth. They work in that whole area of putting together weaving, pottery, and birthing. It was fascinating. Then I learned [that] above that level there were other levels of knowledge—people who were involved in certain kinds of herbal information and people who were then the head shamans, priest-shamans, for whole lineages, people who were the head of the entire community.
[8:32:00] There is a manuscript that is located at the University of Pennsylvania in their archives. It is only a copy. The original has been stolen; we don’t know where the original is, but it is a very good copy. It is not written in modern Quiché. The first thing you have to do with this document is to translate it into a more modern form of the Quiché language. Then you have to work with people who are shamans who know about calendars, because it is a calendrical document and it is in exactly the same format as the Dresden Codex. It has four registers that fall within less than a fifth of a millimeter in size from exact measurements. But we don’t know really what it was—if it was a copy of a hieroglyphic document that is now missing or if it is simply [the result of] somebody who had learned the colonial orthography (how to write it out in a colonial way) [and wrote] a codex to be used. It is absolutely fabulous because it dates from 1722, and it has some later marginalia from 1770-72 in it. And this particular calendar has an entry in it that talks about Venus, and talks about when it rises and what it does and what it is all about. When you sit with a computer and you find out what Venus was doing on the day in the calendar on which it is talking about, it is actually talking about an observable phenomenon. So this is the most recent written source we have that shows how Venus was used by the highland Guatemala Maya.