The universe, according to the Maya, as is commonly discussed, is divided into four parts, with a central axis that unites the cosmic levels, the earth, and the underworld.
The earth’s surface is described as a ring divided in four paths: north (white), south (yellow), east (red), and west (black), with a clearly established center. The celestial level is also divided into four parts sustained by gods: the bakab or pawajtuun. In the middle of the cosmos a gigantic ceiba tree rises up, and its roots are planted in the underworld’s nine levels, its trunk crosses the earthly level, and its leaves reach the 13 skies. There are many deities on each level of the cosmogram, and some humans can interact with some of them. Medicine is one of these possible interactions, and requires communication between deities and plants in order to regain the balance of health.
One afternoon, don Tiburcio Tzakum Cab (RIP), the healer and shaman of Catmis, Yucatán, told me that when his mother was pregnant with him, it was heard that he screamed and cried from inside his mother’s womb. This was the sign that he was to be born with the gift of healing, to see things others can’t, and that he could do a lot of good in his life, but also a lot of evil.
According to Javier Hirose,
Traditional Maya physicians consider that to be able to heal you need to be born with the “gift,” which can manifest itself in many ways: sleeping with eyes semi-open or moving them while asleep, having light-colored eyes (because it’s linked to Zamná, the mythical character with these kind of eyes, who founded Izamal), the presence of two swirls of hair on the head (the suuy, located in the soft spot of the head), and being shy during childhood (keeping away from the rest of the children and staying in a meditative state, but in touch with the “seven spirits” that accompany the person during the course of their life). That the baby talks or cries (three times) while still inside the mother’s womb is also taken as a sign of pre-destiny, while the ease and interest the child presents in learning names and the ways of preparing medicinal plants is also an important point of reference (Hirose 2008, 78-79). In a similar way, De la Garza indicates that people destined to possess the gift can manifest it in different ways: “having two swirls of hair, that indicates they are good and evil; talk or cry in the mother’s womb; sleeping with the eyes semi-open and moving them while they sleep; having light-colored eyes […] Additionally, the gift can be revealed on a dream.” (De la Garza 2012:230).
As a healer, don Ti could have access to the Maya cosmogram’s levels in order to interact with the necessary gods who could restore the sick person’s health if they were feeling pain or had contracted some disease (that could have been imposed by the gods).
Don Tiburcio had notebooks with stories and medicinal plants, in which he drew and colored the plants he used to heal, along with a detailed description of their uses and methods of preparation. During my visits to his house, he shared that being born with the gift implied a big responsibility to maintain the balance between good and evil, and the importance to heal and not be mischievous.
I met don Ti when he was 99 years old: healer, herbalist, shaman, sculptor, artist, and historian. He enjoyed showing the cave he had in his home, and from there telling us the stories of his life, his family, his town, and the creations he had made during his lifetime.
La historia de Tiburcio was published in 2013 to fulfill his wish to make his healing gift known as well as his artistic talents.
Editorial by Andrea Medina
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