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

Unexpected Shaman (2) – two journeys to Chichen Itza

Jerome, my newly-found Mayan Shaman friend, was born in Belize, and had travelled before settling, for the present, in Yucatan, Mexico.

I had been surprised at how vividly alive the Mayan culture was in this part of Central America. It was not just a done-for-tourists thing, it was deeply real; an identity with a gentle, spiritual and creative race, even down to the carefully-preserved ancient Mayan language that an increasing number of the region’s people speak.

Initially, I had presumed that what was Mayan had been contained in what is now Mexico; but its peaceful ’empire’ had stretched far along the narrow strip of land that links the Americas.

“Everyone was poor in Belize,” he said. There was no regret in his words, it was simply how things were.

“How things are…” His eyes flashed the deeper meaning up at me as we sat, otherwise alone, in the quiet of his afternoon break at the resort, within what we have come to know as the ‘peace-hut’, due to its dearth of alcohol and noisy wedding parties.

I had noticed at our first meeting that, on his right hand, he wore a silver ring with a black design on its face; but every time I tried to study it, his hand turned side-on, as though the sigil was an ingredient not yet ready for the moment’s pot.

I’m not a fanciful person. Sue and Stuart will tell you, possibly ruefully, that I resist the spiritually ‘fluffy’ at every turn. But I  swear that ring was laughing at me…

“I’ll tell you a little about me, so you can see my journey, and how our two journeys have come together,” he said, openly enthusiastic.

I was not ready for the horror of what came, like a silent knife, into the next moment.

“When I was a child, four men came and strung my mother up in the village square. They were wearing black masks and they had a whip. They whipped her from the four corners of a square they had drawn around her in the dirt, and offered me the whip to also whip my mother, but I would not do it.”

He looked into my uncomprehending eyes. “She was loving but weak. She drank and took other things and lay with many men, selling herself. The masked men were trying to drive the devil from her flesh. They thought that having her son do it would break the curse of her addictions.”

I was overwhelmed at the sadness of the image. My eyes felt wet, inside. But not outwardly, as though unnecessary emotion had been warded away.

“I was three…” he said.

In the way that Shamans do, he shifted…

His face was shining at me, again.  “You will enjoy Chichen Itza,” he said. “I made my own journey there when I came to live in Mexico, though I had no money…” he looked at me and smiled. “There are always ways if you want it enough…”

He got up, leaving the storm of the moment swirling around the space where my head had been, as though the seven ancient planets were pulling my mind into a psychic pancake.

When he came back, he had a sheet of cleaning paper – the kind he got from the barista to wipe the Spanish lessons off the white-board. He unfolded it and took out his plastic hotel pen.

I always travel with a notebook. You can draw in a notebook, and, for me, ideas can tumble best from the mind and into sketches. When I have a big project on, like next April’s Jewel in the Claw, I use a Moleskine, with a vertical flip over cover. They are horribly expensive but tough and long-lasting. Tough is important: the body of notes and images in it will become the nucleus of the whole workshop for next April.

I never envisaged that something equally precious would occupy its newly-opened pages.


Still clutching his sheet of cleaning roll, Jerome watched, amused, as I flicked open the Moleskine to the spread which, on one face, contained the notes and drawings that I had prepared after our first meeting, that morning.

I had meant to indicate the blank page opposite for him to write on more easily, but, smiling, he put down his pen and began to study my scribblings.

He read them carefully, then looked up at me, laughing. “You are getting to know my soul,” he said, nodding his approval. The silver ring turned towards me. In the quarter second before he spoke, I recognised it’s Masonic significance…


I’m not a Freemason. I was raised in a Rosicrucian family, and that tradition has a degree of overlap. I do, though, understand Masonic symbolism to some depth.

Jerome continued: “My mother took her own life, and my father wasn’t much interested in bringing up a child, alone,” he said. “My grandfather – my mother’s father  – and my grandmother brought me up, after that. They were very kind.”

“He was the Mayan Shaman?” I asked.

“Yes, and he had predicted that one of his grandchildren would follow him, but he didn’t think it was me!”

I wondered how much of the trauma of his own daughter’s shame and death had coloured that view. I said nothing.

“But I had the light inside me,” he continued. “and I knew it – it was my friend and teacher – but in a very unstructured way; but it was the heart of it all…”
He flattened the fingers of his hand. The Masonic symbol was prominent. “One day the light disappeared and I was so much in despair that I wanted to die. I slept with a herbal poison by my bed, and when I woke up in the middle of the night, and the light inside me was still gone, I drank it…”

I studied his eyes carefully. This was so fantastical I wondered if I was being played… It’s a reasonable doubt in such circumstances and it took me right to the sharp edge of doubt and trust; a very uneasy place to be. For twenty-three years I ran a software company and I know that intelligent discretion is hard-won.

He waited, watching my inner turmoil, and, I think, knowing…

“When I fell into my death-slumber, I dreamt of two lengths of wood that crossed over at their bases,” he continued, softly. “Then, in the dream, they were nailed on a door and I wanted, desperately, to go through that door…”

He stopped, the memory searingly intense for him.

“That longing pulled me away from death and I survived. The morning after, I was very sick, but a stranger was drinking coffee in the village square. He was wearing a ring just like this – the two lengths of wood in the dream were part of the design on his ring.”

He tapped the sides of the Masonic ‘square’ the tool that forms the stone of the human into the refined cube of the adept. Had I known how prophetic that was to be, I think I would have shivered…

He sipped from his glass of water – he had refused my offer of coffee.

“I sat down with him,” he said. “although I knew I was only a child, and begged him to take me through that doorway…”

I could feel his intensity and his love for those to whom he had reached.

“They took me in, bending all their rules. They brought me up to be a 33rd Degree Mason, though my own inner truth remains at the heart of what I do.” He spread his hands in what looked like the rays of the sun. “They taught me the inner language of the Mysteries, with which I can have conversations like this…

He drank the last of his water.

“Mayan Shaman and ‘stonemason’: the perfect guide to prepare you for your journey to Chichen Itza, no?”


Not waiting for my answer, he took up his, pen (only it wasn’t till later that I remembered it was my pen), and for twenty minutes or so, told me what to expect and what to do when we got to Chichen Itza.

At the end, the single page of my Moleskine was dense with his characteristic overscribble, and what was left of my head was dizzy.

He stood up to leave. “You are already a priest of the mysteries, no?”

I nodded mutely. I had, in the short time with him, shared my own Rosicrucian and magical past, making him smile with much of the shared detail. He had also enjoyed my tour of the Silent Eye’s magical version of the enneagram.

He pointed to the page of his notes in the Moleskine pad. “Then this will be familiar…”

“Yes.” My voice had become a whisper in the intense heat. I realised I was very thirsty.

He laughed. “You will not arrive a stranger at Chichen Itza, but your journey will be challenged just as much as mine was – but for different reasons…”

I watched him skip off to take his next class, beneath the harsh afternoon sun.

He had not asked for money, nor for help.

His departing figure reminded me of a warrior and I was to learn, the day after, how apt that image was.

“We will meet again, my Brother,” he called back from between two tall pine trees that lined the walkway to the nearest pool.

Later, I would reflect on that, too…

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

Unexpected Shaman (1)


Jerome (not his real name, but those are his hands) had been teaching us some elementary Spanish.

We had been advised that the lesson was half an hour later than billed, but it had started on time. By the time we got there, the other two students were well ensconced in the picture cards that match local Mexican animals with their Spanish names.

I should have known then, really… Stuart, in particular, would have smiled, given the starring role the similarly sized Druid Animal cards had played in the previous year’s Silent Eye workshop – Leaf and Flame.

At the end of Jerome’s hour, he was drawing things to a close when he began to refer to the Mayan temple at Chichen Itza – our single destination for a very long day, tomorrow.
In response to a question about the geometry of its construction, he said, ‘You have to be able to see…”
The air had changed… I leaned forward as he explained, briefly, that his grandfather had been a travelling Mayan Shaman and had passed onto him the knowledge that the truth about the Mayan temples was not correctly told, but that was because few could see anymore. I nodded and smiled…

I asked a deeper question, how did such seers recognise each other in the time of his grandfather? He replied that they were the only ones with their eyes open.

He watched me watching him, reading my quiet but intense interest, and the way the sense of wonder on my face grew into a smile. I was back in the land of Carlos Castenada, but this was burningly real, not a book.

This was all in the whirling now, which was getting more unlikely by the second.

After a quick and gentle test on the Spanish cards, everyone stood up to go. He reached across to tap me on the fingertips and said he could stay for a while if I wanted to take our discussions further. Bernie was happy to do her own thing for a while, so the two of us continued our discussions.

“You are a Shaman – in the line of your grandfather?” I asked, knowing it was not a question. We have a Shaman of our own – Running Elk – who is very good at widening the experience of the Clan of the Raven, as our collective alter ego has become known, so I could detect the signs of another, decidley real one…

His eyes danced, challengingly, while his head nodded, slowly.
“We are hunters of men,” he said, gently. “The world has forgotten how to grow, inside. The earthen cloak from the Mother has set hard around the evil (which we later mutually agreed meant ‘ego’) that hides the light that was placed in us by the Sun.”

We sat back, considering each other
“We hunt the light in men so that we may teach them more,” he said. “Knowledge is useless unless it is shared. The Sun gives us light and heat, but the light of knowing grows in man’s heart – within the material of the Earth.”

He drew the diagram above. “These are the steps you will see at Chichen Itza.” He circled the two words ‘know’ and ‘respect’, linking them as a step. “Every day we climb a step – they are hard and need effort.”
He drew a third word, ‘love’, above the other two. “The work, the respect, the knowledge, build love when they are applied each day to: knowing myself; knowing others; knowing God – this builds love, and love reveals…”

We talked for an hour. I contributed what I could. He invited me back at 15:30 – his afternoon break.
It’s 14:46… I just wanted to share this with you. First Uluru, then The Feathered Seer, now Mexico. It’s shaping up to be quite a year…

I didn’t notice it at the time, but the deer card appears to be face up on the photo of the animal pack…

Stuart and Sue will be smiling… as they will at the analogy of ‘hunting’. But it’s my turn next year…

More when we’re back from Chichen Itza – one of the greatest of Mayan temples; where I’ll be equipped, rather unexpectedly, by a living Mayan Shaman… ‘a hunter of men’.

Am I safe out there, I wonder?

Running Elk is smiling… I can hear it.

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.

Temple of the Winds

In Yutacan, where Mayan mind

Once ruled a fabled land

A mighty structure stands its side

It is a temple of the wind


Tumul its name, once whispered wide

Upon this jungled horn

An ancient place, revered its past

Where paintings crown the work of sides


Where throngs of people shuffle past

The guardians used to stand

In stern Castillo, facing seas

To read the fates and seek what lasts


In thirteen, four, and nine beneath

The learned Maya homed

Within their Four their patterns bore

The lasting truth of their belief


Pale shadow now our vision sees

Of order once so fine

But stop the crowd and touch the wind

To feel the peace before decline.

©Stephen Tanham