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Flight of the Shaman Volume 55 Number 1, January/February 2002
by Christine VanPool

Exquisite painted pots from the Casas Grandes region depict journeys to the spirit world.

The shaman is above all a connecting figure, bridging several worlds for his people, traveling between this world, the underworld, and the heavens. He transforms himself into an animal and talks with ghosts, the dead, the deities, the ancestors. He dies and revives. He brings back knowledge from the shadow realm, thus linking his people to the spirits and places which were once mythically accessible to all.--anthropologist Barbara Meyerhoff

In cultures worldwide, the shaman is a religious practitioner who acts as an intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds. The shaman, usually male, commonly experiences three phases in his spiritual journeys. First, he prepares to leave this world by entering a trance, often through the use of psychoactive plants, self-mutilation, sleep deprivation, ritual dancing, or fasting. In this state, he travels to the supernatural realm. During his flight, the shaman is protected by animal spirits from the dangers inherent in interacting with the spirit world, and often metamorphoses into the totem animal he represents. Once in the spirit world, he communes with supernatural beings, bringing gifts and prayers from his people, and gaining knowledge or assistance in healing, divination, successful hunts, or weather management. With his new knowledge, the shaman returns to the natural world to convey to his people what he has learned, completing the third phase of the journey.

Such a shamanic journey is played out on the painted pottery of the Casas Grandes region, which comprises northwestern Mexico, southern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona, and western Texas. I became intimately attached to this pottery following fieldwork in 1996 at the site of Galeana in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

Most of the major Maya sites of the Petén border on bajos, or seasonal wetlands, important resources for the ancient Maya.


The Casas Grandes potters produced effigies and painted vessels--all highly decorated with geometric designs--depicting men, women, macaws, owls, snakes, badgers, fish, lizards, and mountain sheep. The naturalistic images often are detailed enough to allow the identification of animal species. Many vessels even record ritual behavior that occurred in the past; for example, an illustration of the burial of macaws on one pot is virtually identical to macaw burials discovered in excavations at Paquimé. Clearly, these intricately decorated pots have tales to tell.

In the fall of 2000, I began to see specific recurring symbols and themes on the pottery. By exploring ritual scenes and noting associated geometric design motifs, clearer patterns began to emerge. I was soon able to isolate more than 80 motifs on the various vessel forms.


I also noticed an important trend: ceramic effigies of people smoking pipes and human figures painted on pots were decorated with pound signs and circles with a central dot. Digging through hundreds of photographs of other Chihuahuan vessels, it became clear that these designs were generally limited to the smoker effigy vessels and painted images of dancers wearing headdresses and of macaw-headed humans (supernatural beings). The smoking, dancing, and interacting with supernatural beings suggested the people depicted were shamans.

The pound signs and circles with a central dot came to serve as visual markers of shamans in the imagery on the vessels. Using these as a guide, I found I could identify the different phases of shamanic transformation on various pots. A selection of effigy and painted vessels, viewed collectively, portrayed the classic shamanic journey.

Christine VanPool is a doctoral candidate at the University of New Mexico, and is currently working for the office of contract archaeology, University of New Mexico, as a project director. She has been conducting research in the Casas Grandes region for six years. The project in Galeana was sponsored by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), the University of New Mexico (UNM), the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, and the Museum of New Mexico (MNM), and was under the direction of Rafael Cruz Antillón (INAH), Robert D. Leonard (UNM), and Timothy Maxwell (MNM).

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America