Graduate Liberal Studies Program

Course Descriptions

GLS 592: Mayan Culture, Shamanism and Creativity

Instructor: Betty Hahn Chancey

mayan calendar

En el pensamiento mesoamericano, nada es gratuito.
"In the Mesoamerican mind, nothing is gratuitous."

--Enrique Florescano, El Mito de Quetzalcoatl

"And of course there is the sky, and there is also the Heart of the Sky.
This is the name of the god, as it is spoken."

-- Popul Vuh, Quiche Maya Book of Council

"Maya." The word evokes a world of mystery and intrigue: abandoned jungle cities, archeological puzzles, lost civilizations of pyramid builders. But did you know that the word also refers to a vibrant culture of more than seven and a half million people still living in Mexico and Central America today? The ancient Maya were great visionaries who built massive stone temples of unparalleled grace. They were masters of astronomy and math. They created intricate sculptures and painted beautiful books filled with a complex hieroglyphic language. They dedicated thousands of years to understanding the cycles of time, which they encoded in sophisticated calendars of ritual and divination.

The modern Maya live a simpler existence today, but are not really so different from their ancestors in many ways. They weave and grow corn using the traditional methods. They keep alive many of the spiritual traditions of their ancestors. Shamanism, the world's oldest spiritual path, the animistic practice of the ancients, is alive and well in the Mayan world today. Devout Mayans practice centuries-old rituals. Shaman/day-keepers connect with ancestors, perform curative healings and keep count of the ritual calendar, which after thousands of years ends on the winter solstice of the year 2012.

In this course, we will examine the world of Mayan culture through the lens of a shamanic tradition that connects all things Mayan, both old and new. To the Maya, each human being is responsible for the continued creation of reality: creativity and spirituality are not separate spheres for it is only through creative ritual acts that the world can be transformed.

Course Objectives:

  • To understand, in general, what is meant by shamanism, and to examine in depth the unique Mayan shamanic tradition;
  • To understand the historic context of the Maya;
  • To recognize and examine the complex issues faced by contemporary Maya;
  • To study various syncretic religious practices of contemporary Maya;
  • To discover any enduring Mayan archetypes;
  • To uncover controversies and issues in the field of Mayan studies;
  • To consider and "weigh in" on various "New Age" ideologies about the Maya;
  • To learn to judge films, books, and ideas about the Maya with a critical and discerning eye;
  • To engage our own creativity while discovering the brilliant creativity of the Mayan people.

Required Textbooks:

  • Arvigo, Rosita,, Sastun: My Apprenticeship with a Mayan Healer. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994
  • Freidel, David, et al., Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path. New York: HarperCollins Perennial, 1993.
  • Menchu, Rigoberta, et al., I, Rigoberto Menchu. New York, London: Verso, 1984

* Additional readings may be placed on reserve in Randall Library and will be announced.

Note: Image courtesy of

Last Update: February 10, 2012