The Wayib: Maya Spirit Companions

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’uhK’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.



1 thought on “The Wayib: Maya Spirit Companions

  1. fortonma

    The fact that we know so much about Mayan ideology is unique in American archaeology. The Mayans were one of the few societies in the Americas to develop a written language. A centuries worth of linguists and Mayan archaeologists have worked to decipher the Mayan hieroglyphs. Their decipherment has allowed us to know the history of the dynastic rule of Mayan kings and queens, as well as get an unprecedented understanding of a Pre-Columbian ideology.

    With the coming of Europeans, much of the religion and beliefs of American were destroyed in the conquest and zealous conversion to Christianity. Since most of these religions depended on oral traditions, it was very easy for tribes to loose their cultural identity within a few generations. The Mayans though offer a unique opportunity for American archaeologists. With their beliefs preserved in their stone monuments and the few surviving books, we can get an unparalleled look into the world view of a Pre-Contact culture.

    While the Americas were home to a plethora of different cultures, it is likely that many shared some fundamental belief systems. The writings of the Maya may allow archaeologists of other cultural groups to reconstruct a tentative glimpse of the religions of other American societies. The concept of the wayib was particularly interesting to me. I am interested in studying the rock art (petroglyphs and pictographs) of the ancient cultures of the American Southwest. One common feature among the early rock art styles is shaman like figures, accompanied by small animals. These animals may take the form of snakes, dogs, deer, birds, or some weird hybrid creature. It has been interpreted that these animals are some sort of spirit helpers for the shaman. While time and distance may have separated these two cultures, it is possible that some shared ideologies existed among ancient American groups.

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