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Maya Shamanism and 2012: A Psychedelic Cosmology

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Shamans understand that the human brain “is modeled after the celestial vault and the human mind functions according to the stars, which are the ventricles and sensoria of the cosmic brain … there exists a close relationship between astronomical observations, cosmological speculations, and drug-induced trance states.”

—Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff (1982:176)

Part 1. Shamanism and Astronomy at Izapa

Observe Stela 6 from an early Maya site in southern Mexico called Izapa. This is a classic depiction of the shamanic journey into the underworld, into the raging maw of unknown dimensions of time and space, within the deep psyche yet buoyed on the undulating waves of the celestial seas.

Diagram 1. Stela 6. The shaman and the DMT toad at Izapa

What’s going on in this 2,000-year-old carving? Prominently, we see a frog or toad with its neck craned back and mouth open. In Maya symbology, the mouth of the frog, jaguar, or snake (or cave, even) symbolizes the door to the underworld. Its forked tongue sticks out and appears to jostle a tiny figure in a canoe. Shamans, traditionally, go on a journey into the underworld, and this carving clearly depicts precisely that. But there’s more going on here. Notice the little dots or holes on the toad’s shoulder. These are what scholars call “vision scrolls.” This toad has been identified as the Bufo marines species, whose parotid glands, located on it back and shoulders, secrete a powerful hallucinogen: 5-Meo-DMT. This compound is a relative of the better known DMT, but modern explorers of consciousness have reported unequivocally powerful experiences with the 5-Meo relative. It’s sometimes described as being abysmal, shredding all identity back to the unconditioned void, leaving the aspirant gazing into the bottomless maw of emptiness. Psychonauts like Terence McKenna who prefer hypnogogic, image rich hallucinations, have confessed to not liking the 5-Meo relative. Still, one can suspect that shamans of a certain gonzo bent would appreciate having access to this yawning abyss.

We don’t know how the early Maya shaman may have prepared the gland secretions, to enhance or purify the effects. One assumes that the substance was smoked, since ingestion requires an MAO inhibitor to be orally active. (The South American brew, Ayahuasca, is imbibed orally and consists of a DMT-containing plant mixed with an MAO plant.) However, chocolate was, and still is, grown at Izapa. Modern cacao has mild MAO inhibiting properties. Like tobacco, the ancient species of cacao was much more powerful. Perhaps there was at ancient Izapa a visionary shamanism fueled by toad juice potentiated by chocolate, what we may call cacaohuasca.

At the very least, Stela 6 preserves evidence that the Izapan shamans used a powerful hallucinogen. In addition, ritual mushroom stones have been found in this part of southern Mesoamerica, dated to Izapa’s heyday (400 BC – 50 AD). Although psilocybin mushrooms are reportedly no longer found in the region, there is documentation that they were once prevalent. A surviving mushroom cult among the Mixe and Mazatec Indians in the state of Oaxaca (further up the Pacafic coast from Izapa) may provide clues as to what the ancient Izapan mushroom religion was like.

The monuments of Izapa provide clues about how shamanism leads to profound cosmological models. The little shaman sailing into and out of the maw of the underworld on Stela 6 is amplified on Stela 67:

Diagram 2. Stela 67, Izapa. The Sun Deity Reborn at the end of the Age

The human figure on this carving is identified as a sun god, probably First Father (One Hunahpu), of Maya Creation mythology. He’s in a canoe which represents the Milky Way. This carving is located in the middle of the north wall of Izapa’s ballcourt. In Maya art, ballcourts represent the Milky Way. The little seating declivity in which First Father sits is a feature that is located along the bright band of the Milky Way in the region of Sagittarius – a dark rift caused by interstellar dust. This feature also figures prominently in Maya mythology, where it is called the Xibalba be – the “road to the underworld.” The First Father deity (also known as the first shaman) sits in this portal.

So, as on Stela 6, he is entering or exiting (or “in”) the underworld. His arms are outstretched, which is a gesture that means “period ending.” In the context of shamanism, this has several meanings. The Maya believed that, at the end of a cycle, time momentarily ends and the laws of the world are suspended. In the shamanic voyage, eternity or the timeless ground of manifestation can be accessed. Touching the root or source of the world, the shaman can divine secrets, foretell future events, and develop magical healing abilities. These ideas are eschatological in nature, involving the ultimate ends of things, and relate to Neoplatonic concepts of the individual soul and the world soul being linked (being, in fact, identical); their unity is revealed to seekers, initiates, and shamans “at the end of time.”

On another level, the “period ending gesture” indicates which sun (or day; kin = day and sun) the sun deity is. In Maya time philosophy, each day has its own face, meaning that successive days are different deities. In the calendar there are twenty different cycling days, but the four “pillars” of the year (the two equinoxes and two solstices) also have their special deities. The end of the solar year occurs on the December solstice, when the period of night is greatest and the year is reborn. For this and other reasons, the First Father solar lord represents the December solstice sun. The carving is encoded astronomical information. First Father sits in the dark rift in the Milky Way – a very specific celestial location. This suggests a cosmology with profound implications.

Let’s look at this cosmology via another carving at Izapa that is symbolically similar to the one we just examined. Stela 11 faces the December solstice sunrise horizon, confirming that the solar deity portrayed is, like the similar one on Stela 67, the December solstice sun.

Diagram 3. Stela 11, Izapa. The December solstice sun in the dark-rift of the Milky Way. This is the galactic alignment that culminates in the years around 2012.

Like the solar deity on Stela 67, his arms are outstretched. Yet here, he isn’t in a canoe, but in the maw of a frog deity that is very similar to the DMT toad on Stela 6. Remember, the mouth of the frog-toad is the portal to the underworld, the Xibalba be, the dark rift in the Milky Way. So, this is how the shaman journeys through the underworld in these iconographic portrayals. What is astounding about these mythic carvings is the unequivocal astronomical references. Let’s review what’s going on in the part of the sky referred to in these scenes.

The dark rift in the Milky Way extends north from the ecliptic (the path of the sun, moon and stars):

Diagram 4. The ecliptic, the Milky Way, the dark rift feature, and the precession of the December solstice sun into alignment with the dark rift. A = the position of the December solstice sun 4,000 years ago; B = the position of the December solstice sun 2,000 years ago; C = the position of the December solstice sun today (in era-2012).

The ecliptic crosses over the Milky Way at a 61 degree angle, forming a celestial cross that the Maya mythologized as their Sacred Tree, or Crossroads. The dark rift begins in the nuclear bulge of the Milky Way, which is the visually large area in which the center of our Milky Way galaxy is located. The sun, every year, moves once around the ecliptic; it thus crosses through the dark rift and the nuclear bulge once every year. The exact date on which this happens has been shifting, due to a slow movement called the precession of the equinoxes. This astronomical phenomenon is caused by the slow wobbling of the earth on its axis, with one wobble completed in approximately 26,000 years.

The shifting is best defined by using one of the solar year’s quarter points, such as the equinox; thus, the precession of the equinox. However, the shifting applies equally to the solstices. As a result, the position of the December solstice sun has been slowly shifting along the ecliptic for thousands of years, converging with, crossing over, and slowly passing background features such as stars, constellations and, most importantly, the bright band of the Milky Way. The December solstice sun will, in fact, be aligned with the dark rift in the Milky Way in the years around 2012. A striking fact in all of this is that the 13-baktun cycle of the Maya’s Long Count calendar – a period of 5,125.36 years – ends on the December solstice of 2012, December 21, 2012.

In this way, what is essentially imagery relating to the shaman’s journey into the underworld also encodes, on another level, a profound cosmology of galactic proportions. And that cosmology, what we might call a psychedelic cosmology, implicates another Maya tradition – the Long Count tradition that gives us the much discussed 2012 cycle ending date. According to the pioneering research I’ve pursued since the late 1980s, Izapa is the place that formulated the Long Count cosmology and the Maya Creation that goes along with it. I call this a psychedelic cosmology because powerful entheogenic substances were clearly utilized by the shamans and skywatcher working at Izapa.

The profound integration of celestial, psychological, ritual, and mythopoeic elements at Izapa bespeaks the psychedelic influence, because those tools of vision open the consciousness to higher states of awareness in which multiple dimensions are seen for what they are – mutually interweaving and interpenetrating aspects of a unity that is simply not apparent to the “normal” consciousness that functions on more limited planes of perception.

Part 2. Psychedelic Cosmologies

Psychoactive mushrooms and other powerful mind-altering substances were being used in the area of Mesoamerica that gave birth to the Long Count calendar. This is an important factor to consider in explaining the rapid transformation from the Olmec to the Maya culture, the rapid birth of a new cultural paradigm. A new version of the old mythology sprung up at the same time – the Popol Vuh/Hero Twin myth – and was first recorded on the monuments of Izapa. The Hero Twin myth is an esoteric World Age doctrine designed to describe and explain, in mythic terms, the astronomical process by which the December solstice sun converges with the dark-rift in the Milky Way. The Long Count and the Popol Vuh arose within a context in which powerful consciousness-enhancing substances were being used. And the Long Count, we will remember, is designed to end during a unique era of astronomical alignment pointing right at the Galactic Center.

Could the use of hallucinogens explain how the ancient skywatchers became aware of the Galactic Center? Is it just a coincidence that the Galactic Center is near the crossroads believed by the Maya to be the place of World Age creation? Could the use of consciousness-enhancing drugs facilitate such awareness? And, we must ask, what mysteries does the Galactic Center contain? Did the Maya somehow access information or energies resident there? Does their cosmology reflect information obtained shamanically, intimations of a complexly interweaving multidimensional cosmos? The sheer profundity and nearly impenetrable insights that are clearly present in Maya cosmology suggests this is so. Maya cosmology is based in experiential insights derived from using shamanic tools of vision, and to get an idea of the kind of worldviews that arise in cultures that use these substances as viable sources of information about the nature of reality, we can look to the cosmic models devised by hallucinogen-using Indians in South America: the Desana, Warao, and Kogi Indians.

The Desana, who live on the equator in the Vaupés Territory of the Northwest Amazon, developed a complex geometrical cosmology. The founding myth of the tribe, which explains how their equatorial homeland was chosen, involves a supernatural hero who searched for a place where his staff, when held upright, would not cast a shadow. This is true for the equator on the equinoxes. The shamanic image of this event is that of the staff as a ray of sunlight, a divine sperm, which fertilized the earth. The guiding principle of the Desana thus is, as explained by ethnographer Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, a “search for the center,” for the “Center of Day” (1982:167).

The Desana envision space as a great hexagon bounded by six stars centered upon Epsilon Orionis, the middle star in Orion’s belt. Desana shamans also perceive this six-sided shape in the structure of rock crystals and honeycombs. The Milky Way is an important celestial dividing line for the Desana, and the entire celestial vault is envisioned as a cosmic brain, divided into two lobes by the great fissure of the Milky Way. According to Reichel-Dolmatoff, “The Desana believe that both brains, the cosmic and the human, pulsate in synchrony with the rhythm of the human heartbeat, linking Man inextricably to the Cosmos” (1982:171). Here we glimpse profound cosmological concepts developed by the ayahuasca-using Desana. Despite living simple lives as hunter-gatherers in the ever-dwindling jungles of the upper Amazon, the Desana utilize shamanic tools of insight and vision to arrive at a profound multidimensional model of the cosmos.

For the Warao Indians of Venezuela, the Earth is a flat disk floating in the cosmic ocean. A “Snake of Being” resides in the outer sea encircling the earth. The horizon thus serves as the outer rim of the Warao cosmos. The sky is conceived of as a canopy, supported at the zenith by the cosmic axis:

Diagram 5. The Warao cosmos. After Krupp (1983:320)

At the base of the cosmic axis lies a knotted snake – the Goddess of the Nadir – that has four heads, each facing one of the cardinal directions. At the highest level of the Warao cosmos, up where the bell-shaped canopy narrows, there is an egg-shaped place of shamanic power. Warao shaman journey to this supernatural zenith by ascending “ropes” of tobacco smoke. Tobacco is the only mind-altering substance Warao shamans use, but the strength and amount they use carry them into the lofty regions of hallucinatory trance. Thus, like the Desana, the Warao shamans’ complex multi-layered cosmology is informed by drug-induced journeys through the inner planes.

The Kogi, descendants of a spiritual and secretive group in Columbia, also created an astounding and complex cosmology whose religion, philosophy, and cultural traditions are comparable to the high cultures of Mesoamerica. In fact, the Kogi are often compared to the traditional Lacandon Maya of the Chiapan rainforest in Mexico. The Kogi utilize horizon observations of the sun as well as solar zenith-passage dates. Like the Desana, the entire Sierra Nevada in which the Kogi live is imagined to follow a hexagonal plan. The corners of this huge rock crystal correspond to six sacred geographical sites, while their counterparts in the sky correspond to six first-magnitude stars centered on Epsilon Orionis. The Kogi retain complex initiation rites involving multi-tiered levels of a shamanic priesthood, and place special emphasis on astronomical record keeping, which sets them apart from nearby tribes. The use of vision-producing substances was certainly a factor in the creation of their cosmovision.

These examples clearly illustrate the kind of complex multidimensional cosmologies that arise as a result of using vision plants to induce shamanic states of mind. The exploration of time and space is an eminently human drive. Mapping space gives rise to highly geometrized mandalic systems, a cosmology incorporating the multidimensional ecology of beings living in our world. Charting time is somewhat trickier, and involves very closely watching and recording the changing position of stars. I feel that this temporal aspect of cosmology building was also influenced and, indeed, facilitated by the use of powerful vision plants.

Part 3. Sky Clefts, Serpent Ropes, and Transdimensional Worm Holes

The “hole in the sky” is portrayed in Mesoamerican art as a Creation Place or birthplace. They are also called “sky clefts” and are considered to be portals to the Underworld, or Otherworld. A “sky cleft” is located in the highest point in the sky, in the center of the cosmic crossroads. (In Maya cosmovision, the Underworld is the night sky.) In terms of actual astronomy, we are talking here about the dark-rift near the Milky Way/ecliptic crossroads. Maya concepts of birthing involve deities descending along “serpent ropes” from the sky cleft. The Deity Nine Wind, illustrated in the Codex Vindobonensis, descends out of a sky cleft. Sky clefts are extremely abundant in Central Mexican codices, the symbolism of which can be traced back to Teotihuacan (150 AD to 750 AD) and, ultimately, to the Olmec cleft-head motif.

Various forms of sky clefts are also found in the Maya codices, demonstrating the widespread use of this very basic Mesoamerican concept. These sky conduits are portals to other realms through which deities are “birthed” and descend to Earth on serpent ropes, bringing with them otherworldly knowledge.

Diagram 6. Worm hole connections in spacetime. After Klein (1982:12)

In Mesoamerican ideas about world creation, cosmogenesis takes place via a kind of weaving process. Reality is thus undergirded by a system of threadlike links. In other words, spacetime itself is woven together in ways that human beings, stuck within the three-dimensional spacetime “fabric” of observable reality, cannot readily perceive.

This philosophical model developed by Mesoamericans thinkers is actually extremely progressive, for modern physicists also describe a network of threadlike links between distant places, quantum “wormholes” in spacetime that tunnel through a higher dimension. Physicists even joke about making faster-than-lightspeed journeys to distant stars by accessing these holes in space.

Did the Maya access these “wormholes” in their conjuring ceremonies? Did they “birth” into local spacetime beings from other realms? Did they travel to distant worlds through these “serpent ropes?” If we may indulge in a little science fiction or, perhaps, metaphysical fact, then we may propose a complex Maya science of shamanically invoking a “worm hole” in local spacetime, an opening to the transdimensional realm that ultimately gets its power from the Black Hole within the Galactic Center, and traveling through it to other worlds. The focus of this shamanic invocation is the Galactic Center, signified by the visible dark-rift; serpent cords descend and open, providing local spacetime access to the Cosmic Source and its eternal riches. In the deepest sense, Maya philosophers conceived of this “evocation of creation” or “ritual summoning” as a type of birth (Taube 1994).

But what does it mean for a serpent cord to descend and open? Who was traveling through the hole in space-time? Is such a scenario just a fanciful fairy tale, or could it have involved the actual activities of Maya kings and shamans? To begin answering such questions, we can consult Maya iconography, which frequently portrays ancestors who have been conjured through shamanic vision rites peering out from the mouths of serpents. These serpents are often shown descending from a sky cleft, and gods and ancestors also are born (or appear) into this world through these sky clefts. As one scholar wrote, “It is likely that this cleft is a pre-Hispanic form of the Glory Hole – a celestial conduit. . .” (Taube 1994:660). The Glory Hole is the hole at the top of the cosmic house. So, the sky cleft is a hole in the center of the sky, at the center of the crossroads designating the celestial throne. Since the center of the crossroads is the location of the sky hole as well as the celestial throne of Maya kings, ascending to the cosmic throne must have a lot to do with vision journeys, conjuring, king accessions, and magical birthing.

These processes and concepts are intimately involved in the understanding that the Milky Way is the Great Mother, and the dark rift is her vagina or birth place. It is the place of transformation that the prospective male king must enter in order to be reborn as the king, a divine being. That these things are templated upon the alignment of the December solstice sun with the dark rift in the Milky Way – on the 13-baktun cycle end date, December 21, 2012 – is mind-boggling. We can poetically describe the Maya’s end-date cosmology as follows:

King-shaman is born from the Jaguar Mother and, enthroned upon the lap of the Galactic Center, forever dispenses authority while communing with the sacred source – the Great Mother Goddess. The throne of the Jaguar Mother manifests when the First Solar King (the December solstice sun) joins with the Cosmic Mother (the Galactic Center).

Diagram 7. The Maya king enthroned in the Galactic Center

Underlying these activities and interests of Maya king-shamans is the role played by mushrooms and other psychoactive substances in the formulation of the Long Count and the Hero Twin myth around 300 BC – indeed, in the formulation of Mesoamerican cosmology as a whole. Given that these tools of vision were in use at that time, we should not be too quick to draw limits on what these king-shamans and astronomer-priests could or could not have accomplished. The Long Count calendar a Galactic Cosmology – is the unique result of a shamanistic experiment seemingly conducted in secret, over perhaps three hundred years in the dimly understood Pre-Classic era. The tools of cosmic knowledge used by the ancient visionary cosmologists of Mesoamerica to discover and fine-tune their Galaxy-centered cosmovision were the same ones used by seekers of gnosis in other times and places – vision plants.

In his introduction to my 1998 book Maya Cosmogenesis 2012, Terence McKenna wrote:

“Can the Maya dream of renewal at the conjunction of winter solstice and Galactic Heart redeem our civilization? I believe that it can play a significant part, and that part of the resacralization of the world that must accompany any valorization of post-historical time involves the recognition of the deep power and sophistication of the aboriginal mind—not only the ancient aboriginal mind, but the contemporary aboriginal mind as well. As we awaken to the power of the moving sky, as we awaken to the powers that inform and illuminate many of the plants that have found their way into aboriginal medicine, as we struggle with the vastness of the universe of space and time and our place in it, as we do these things, we follow in Maya footsteps.”

The galactic knowledge encoded on the carved monuments of Izapa, in the Creation Myth and the Long Count calendar, was discovered within the context of the use of mind-expanding plants and preparations, the pharmacopia of traditional shamans. The integration of movements in the outer sky and movements in the inner collective psyche of humanity is a non-dual unification that psychedelics can reveal. What I’ve termed a “galactic cosmology” is named so not simply because it utilizes the galaxy as an armature of the sky’s shifting, but because it perceives human evolution from a heightened, enlarged, galactic level. After being lost for centuries, this galactic cosmovision is now reemerging. With its attendant spiritual teachings, it promises to help us restore our deep connection to nature, the universe, and our true selves.

Parts of this essay were published in my article “Through the Smoking Mirror: Astronomical Alignments and Mayan Shamanism,” in Conference Proceedings of the American Psychotronics Association, July 2002.

Full sources to citations in the text can be found at

John Major Jenkins’ pioneering work to reconstruct ancient Maya cosmology began with his early books, Journey to the Mayan Underworld (1989), Mirror in the Sky (1991), Tzolkin: Visionary Perspectives and Calendar Studies (1992/1994), Mayan Sacred Science (1994/2000), The Center of Mayan Time (1995), and Izapa Cosmos (1996) and culminated in his groundbreaking book Maya Cosmogenesis 2012 (1998). He is also the author of Galactic Alignment (2002), co-author of Pyramid of Fire (2004), and has a 3-CD audio program coming out with Sounds True in September 2007, called Unlocking the Secrets of 2012: Galactic Wisdom From the Ancient Skywatchers. He can be reached through his website:

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