Among the most widespread of all Mesoamerican concepts is that of a “companion spirit,” a supernatural being with whom a person shares his or her consciousness. Understanding such an important, and different, concept requires differentiating between our worldview and that of the Maya. In order to do so, we must first “identify” what constitutes the “traditional” Western worldview. Western thought places a significant distinction between the natural and supernatural realms. Traditionally, we see the world as composed of two separate worlds. We use science to study the natural world, which we define as everything that can be observed. Western science has not traditionally been concerned with the supernatural though, which is often identified as anything unobservable. The Maya however, did not distinguish between the natural and supernatural realms. All things, whether animate or inanimate, were many parts of a single existence that is both visible and invisible.
The Maya believed that everything was imbued, in varying degrees, with a sacred essence. Rocks, trees, mountains, stars, the sun, living creatures, us, are all animated by this essence which they called k’uh. K’uh (“divine” or “sacredness”) can also refer to a deity, and is also the root of k’uhul ajaw (“holy lord”), the title of Maya kings. This sacred essence was part of the life force associated with blood, the heart, and breath, this life force is called ch’ulel in many modern Maya languages. This sacred essence also manifested itself as the wayib (way singular), invisible animal companions associated with living and divine beings. Every person had a way whose destiny was intertwined with their own. The wayib of Maya kings was the jaguar, and the animal was highly regarded, an altar commissioned by the sixteenth king of Copan was accompanied by the sacrifice of fifteen jaguars, honoring the spirit companions of the fifteen kings that came before him. The most powerful wayib were embodied in what we would define as “deities.”
These co-essences took many forms in the Maya region. There were reptiles, rain, dwarfs, balls of fire, comets, inanimate objects, or rainbows; others appear as huge deer, birds, flying jaguars, or other composite creatures. Most behave in odd ways or show unusual features such as great ugliness or bloodshot eyes. Many Maya deities, as well as shamans and priests who conducted rituals, were identified as being able to shape-shift, this probably has roots in the spirit companion tradition. Maya names also often included animals such as jaguar or turtle, and may also have roots in the pervasive belief in wayib.