The Mayan culture has a rich tradition of shamanism that is as wild and wily as any indigenous spiritual way. In Secrets of the Talking Jaguar, Martin Prechtel, a Puebla Indian who hitchhiked to Guatemala and landed in Santiago de Atitlan, relates his own initiation into Tzutujil shamanism by an irascible ninety-year-old wise man nicknamed Chiv. Nicolas Chiviliu Tacaxoy was a famous shaman in the Tzutujil tradition and he believed Martin had been sent to him to train.
It’s really quite a good story—Chiv, the initiating shaman was a respected elder in the village, a powerful healer and sage. Prechtel was a mess, an Indian kid disenfranchised by the simultaneous marginalization and forced assimilation of his tribal culture, set adrift by the early death of his mother, penniless, open to adventure and drifting below the border in Oaxaca and then in the Mayan Highlands. But his visionary justification for all the rough adventures that befell him served him well enough. He had the gift of seeing what happened as portents and milestones on a pilgrimage, his own journey to discover who he was.
Daily life in the colorful village is brutally hard and beautifully symbolic. Ritual is shot through with grace, miracles abound, the gods and the people live in an intimate alliance that must be renewed continually with celebrations, ceremony, contributions and veneration. Prechtel learns deep qualities of attentiveness and mental toughness. He undergoes difficult trials to prepare him to hold the teachings and the power of a sacred lineage. He drinks a lot of local moonshine and learns to listen for the true voices of the rain, the spirits and the wind.
I knew Santiago for some of the time Prechtel studied with his master and lived there as a respected shaman although I had no knowledge of him. I was an outsider without the curiosity or courage to penetrate the closed traditional society and there was no ancient shaman to invite me in. I saw—and feared–the army post at the edge of town, the unease at the assassination of the mission’s Catholic priest and the anticipated reprisals, and the unsmiling faces and breathtaking embroidery of the women in the market. I could sense much of what Prechtel laments about the destruction of the villagers’ culture and vivid spiritual life but he fills in the facts.
The world he stepped into in the 1970s as a guitar-toting vagabond no longer exists. The beliefs he was entrusted with, the skills he was carefully taught, the sacred Village Heart, the medicine bundle of objects that would help him to invoke the power of the gods, all accompanied him into exile—back home to New Mexico. But before he was forced to leave, he trained with a wickedly funny trickster and gave his own heart to the place and its people. As a traveler, I could only glimpse the outside edges of what was forfeit to a modern, uncomprehending world. Martin Prechtel captures the old truths in the pages of a book, keeping them safe for the day when they might emerge into the light of the Highlands once again.
Secrets of the Talking Jaguar Martin Prechtel | Penguin Putnam