Unexpected Shaman (3) – The head in the jaws


I’ve decided there is something Shamanic about suffering. The past few years have been challenging for me in a very specific way: whenever I have approached an important event, particularly one where I have to ‘perform’ well, in a dramatic or ritualistic way… I get slightly ill.

This is not stage-fright. Apart from the odd deep breath, I just get on with it, trusting that the kind fates and the momentum of experience will see it done well. It matters to me that it is done well…

Last year’s vivid ‘Leaf and Flame’ workshop for the Silent Eye’s spring weekend was a classic example. I had a particularly demanding role as Sir Gawain in an enhanced version of the Green Knight story. What few of the rest of the group knew was that, for the duration of the weekend, I was on a strong dose of penicillin for a chest infection.

Stuart and Sue had given their all to create a ritual drama that was ground-breaking and I was not about to let them down. The event went well, though my ‘ghostly’ appearance at the end of Gawain’s ordeals may have had a dual cause.

I will not dwell on further details of this recurring syndrome, other than to say that this has been a repeating pattern for many years. Generally, I’m a very well and fit person. These ‘events of adversity’ may well originate within my self, however unconsciously. They have much to teach me about an internal state that needs to have ‘earned’ the upcoming bounty; that needs to find itself deserving of the gateway that may lie ahead, as child Jerome was, on the morning when he awoke, still alive and now turned away from death – and thereby pointed at a life finally protected by a (Masonic) brotherhood that loved him.

The Head of the Rosicrucian Order, AMORC, once led a group of us on an esoteric tour of Egypt, including, for a short period, the private use of the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid for a joint initiation.

On the morning of this momentous event, he said to us, “Do not question how you come to be here. Trust that it is enough that you are…”

Sometimes we listen and get it; sometimes we just listen and get it later; sometimes we don’t do either. It’s probably high-time my pre-event body listened… and that’s why I call this kind of suffering a Shamanic experience.

I don’t go in for a lot of soul-baring, but this level of psycho-physical interaction is exactly what we find when we uncover some of the low level ‘primitives’ that linger from our early psychological experiences and deeply colour our lives.

Within the Silent Eye, the three directors of the school (Sue, Stuart and I) act as personal supervisors for the students (we use the term: Companions)

our job is to be Supervisors of their own journey- and it is a journey – one of self- discovery across three actual landscapes, in what I now see is  a rather Shamanic way.

Our Companions have embarked with trust and enthusiasm. Our ‘guardian’ role, which we do freely and in our own time, is, emotionally and intellectually, to travel with them over a terrain which is nothing less than the shared humanity of the pivotal and sometimes very private set of responses that result when we prod the tyrant of the egoic self, sitting atop its ancient and symbolic pyramid.

And so to Chichen Itza. The day that Jerome had done his best to equip me for; the journey to one of the world’s most remarkable spiritual sites. It began on a rubbish dump, which is a lot better than a chest infection, so I knew things were going to go well…

Seven of us – a propitious number – sat looking at the assemblage of wrappers, paper cups and chocolate packaging that surrounded the dusty bank on the right-hand side of the minibus. We were looking right because to look left exposed the eye to the frantic motion of the highway – a mere six feet away. Cars, trucks and a not-infrequent phalanx of flashing and hooting police cars thundered their chorus against our turned-away left ear drums.

“Be here in a minute Signor,” said our driver, with more hope than expectation – watching us watch the rubbish and wince at the traffic.

But he was right. The bigger minibus that was to dock with the palatial full-size coach did arrive in the next few minutes, leaving the nightmare handover amidst the refuse a distant memory.

Jerome’s parting laughter rang in my ears. He had said I would have a very different journey to his, and I could sense how acutely he knew that to be true – as though he were there, smiling through the shimmering traffic.

His sentiments were amplified by the sense of containment in the events of the day, ahead. Everything was programmed to the minute. We were to spend the morning in an ‘authentic’ Mayan village, including an optional swim in a Cenote – one of the many places where what looks like a small, freshwater lake is established by the collapse of the rock above an ancient and pure underground river. The Yucatan peninsula is predominately limestone and the underground rivers are responsible for the existence of human life, here. Without these, Yucatan would be a desert… and the Maya would not have existed; well, not here, anyway…


This water, like Shaman-folk, is clever. It knows where to flow and it knows when to break through to the surface.

They are very beautiful places, these Cenotes; and have a great sense of peace about them. The water feels really good on the skin, and the sense of a baptism in the unchanged life-waters of the Maya is not lost on those who can feel the connection.


But no Chichen Itza. Not yet, anyway. After the swim, there was shopping and lunch. The purchase of a Mayan horoscope (with funds going to local villages) and a look around the very simple huts of the reconstructed dwellings. Then, we were finally on our way to the only place most of us wanted to be.

I could feel Jerome smiling across the kilometres at me, daring me to lose faith that this could be special, could be spiritual – as in ‘touching the real’, the causal layer of existence against which the human constructs its reactive life according to its fears.

The comfortable coach sped, intently, towards its target…

It’s getting really hot in the rays of the Sun. There was a man whose head was eaten by a jaguar… no, no, no, that was just the glimpse of a poster on the outskirts of the gathering town..

I sipped some water. It was very hot, even on the air-conditioned spear… Spear?


His name was Manuel. He was our English-speaking guide. He must have seen six decades or more. He learned English in his twenties as a tool to lift him out of the poverty of the everyday life around him. He was of Mayan descent and spoke the resurgent ancient language, fluently.

Within two minutes of him beginning to speak, I had fallen for the magic in his voice. Curling, lyrical, urging… could he, too, be a … stop it! I was getting obsessed, and the rays were shining from right above us, it seemed…

Manuel’s eyes, like his voice, shone with the invisible song of gentleness. He was not a fan of Mel Gibson and said that the latter’s films of severed and bloody heads bouncing down the steps of the Chichen Itza pyramid had done more damage to the living spirit of the Maya peoples than the Toltec mercenaries who actually carried out the desecration of Chichen Itza a thousand years ago…

“We were not violent,” he said. “We were seers of the spirit of the earth and the way it moved through the heavens. We took the best of our young people and tuned them into the music of that spirit, into our priests. Then we asked them to sing; and those that brought forth new music became our high priests; and these would compete to become the warrior – the single warrior in that journey around the sun…”

His soft eyes did something strange as he continued. “And then that single warrior would pass from this place and take our spirit back to its father, the Sun. And life, having touched true life, would begin, again.”


And the huge teeth were slipping down in slow motion over the head of the man, but he was smiling, triumphant – unlike the poor replicas of the eaten skulls, lined up in their tens, a few dollars more… The two were such an obvious contrast, weren’t they?

Skulls and Jaguar

Manuel paused to take breath, but he was not breathless, despite Mel Gibson. Instead, he was preparing the verbal arrow of what came next… pointing it so that it released itself at an exact moment where the endless stalls of animal masks petered out and the limestone wall fell away and the great pyramid of Chichen Itza hissed itself into your consciousness. The throngs of people were still there, but they were running…


There were four notes, four harmonics, in that hissing sound. Four harmonics that could kill with a single blow…but it was not a song of death.


The four notes were preceded by a snarl of challenge. I raised a head made weary and slightly dizzy by the endless hot sun, to follow the direction of his gentle speaking… The tiredness from the heat seemed to flow upwards, into the air, forming something. The heat that was left was full of energy and life…

…and the huge, counterpoint, black jaguar, made of atoms that were not limestone, raced across the vast square of what had once been endless and perfectly paved stone and right at me.

(To be continued…)

Other posts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven – end

©Stephen Tanham

19 thoughts on “Unexpected Shaman (3) – The head in the jaws

    1. I am only just realising the potency of that beautiful creature – more to follow in a couple of days. We’re off to Wales tomorrow to do the prep for ‘The Prisoner of Portmeirion’ weekend.

      Liked by 1 person

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