The Eyes Stared out of the Rocks at Us… Shamans among the Petroglyphs

The world of shamans who use mind enhancing drugs to travel into other realms can be scary, as this picture of a petroglyph at the Three Rivers petroglyph site in New Mexico suggests. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Drums were beating in the pitch-black night and people were screaming. It was my first day as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the upcountry town of Gbarnga, Liberia in 1965 and I didn’t have a clue what was going on. All I knew was that the house had no electricity, my flashlight batteries were weak, and there was no kerosene to light a lantern. It was time to circle the wagons. I put the three folding metal chairs that served as my furniture up against the house’s three screen windows so they would come crashing down if anyone tried to break in. And then I laid down on the house’s only other furniture, a moldy mattress, hoping that whatever was outside would stay there. 

The next morning, I learned that someone had died the day before. I was right to be frightened. The newly dead among the Kpelle people are dangerous unless they are given a proper going away party. They hang around and do really bad things. A great amount of cane-juice, rum, had been consumed during the night to assure that wouldn’t happen. I had entered a world where offerings were left under giant cottonwoods for the spirit that lived in the tree, the lightning man could make lightning strike people,  justice was determined with a red-hot machete, chickens were sacrificed to carry messages to the dead, and Sam, the young man who worked for us, had scars marching up his chest from the teeth of the Bush Devil who had eaten him as a child and spit him up as an adult. 

The reason I am relating this story here is because the experience was so different from anything I had ever known (you can read about it in my book, The Bush Devil Ate Sam) that it was very difficult to comprehend. When you begin to explore the petroglyphs, or rock art carvings, that are found throughout the southwestern United States, the experience is similar. You enter a realm that existed from several hundred to several thousands of years ago among the early peoples of North America when there was no written language to explain what they were thinking or doing. At best, we can guess or get hints from modern day Native Americans about the meaning of the rock art. 

No one exemplifies the difficulty of comprehending the world of early Americans better than the shaman, a powerful figure who utilized trances and mind enhancing drugs to enter other realms and do battle with monsters that brought sickness, death, hunger and bad weather into our world. It’s a scary, dangerous place. Like Sam’s Bush Devil, the shaman was part doctor, priest, policeman, leader and judge. You didn’t want one as an enemy.

In the Southwest, the shaman’s drug of choice for his or her journeys into other realms was the plant Datura, which you have already met on recent posts of mine. Georgia O’Keeffe liked to paint the flower and I included one on my Valentine’s Day blog. Beside the plant’s beauty, it is a member of the nightshade family and a powerful, dangerous hallucinogen that may cause death (don’t try it at home). One of the characteristics of the drug is that it enlarges your pupils. European women once used one of its cousins to enlarge their pupils and increase their power over men (whoops, I meant appeal). Peggy has naturally large brown eyes. I get it. They named the plant belladonna, which translates beautiful woman. 

Both the flowers and the seeds located beneath and to the right of the flower were used by shamans to enable their journeys into other realms.

The enlarged pupils the shamans would have had experienced from consuming datura gave me an insight about the numerous large eyes we found staring at us out of the rocks at the Three Rivers National Recreation Petroglyph site in south-central New Mexico. We visited there in October as part of our Southwest tour. Could it have been that the shamans were watching us, warning us to be on our best behavior? We treaded carefully among the petroglyphs, making sure that we didn’t do any damage to the ancient rock art. 

Today’s photographs by Peggy and me will reflect the large eyes and other petroglyphs we found at Three Rivers that might relate to the shamans. Future posts over the next two to three weeks will feature different rock art themes (like snakes, for example) that we found at Three Rivers and other Southwestern sites we visited in October.

I had worked my way over steep terrain on the side of a cliff when I looked up and saw a 15 foot tall petroglyph looking out over the surrounding plains. My thought was that the eyes represented a powerful shaman and served to warn enemies away from the Three Rivers’ petroglyph site. An eagle outlines the lower part of the face and a storm rages beneath the eagle with lightning, thunder, clouds and rain. It’s possible that the lines rising above the clouds are snakes.
What we assumed were shaman eyes made large by datura stared out at us from numerous rocks. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
The mouth used a natural part of the rock. I wondered if the lines leading out from the face represented the journey of the shaman.
Note the dots around the eyes in this photo. The literature on petroglyphs suggests that the dots may represent datura.
I could be way off (and probably am), but I thought this petroglyph might represent a very extensive shaman journey emerging from the underworld on the left and traveling on in the right.
This photo shows a shaman bent over eyes. On the right, a road runner captures a snake. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)
A close up of the shaman that I took. Note his skeletal form and the circle with datura dots between his knee and his elbow.
Shamans take many forms. This one looks a bit devilish.
The horns on this shaman were from a bighorn sheep. Is he waving at you or warning you to stop. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
I’d say that this shaman with a huge hand and a minimal body is definitely saying to stop.
A number of faces pecked into the rocks also seemed shaman-like to us. Note this guy’s snake eyes.
I am not sure whether this face was related to a shaman. Maybe it was a selfie. Ear rings dangle from his ears. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Flathead here appears to be a shaman to me. I wonder if the circles represented some type of tattooing.
I couldn’t help but wonder if this guy was sticking his tongue out. Or is that his chin? I did note that all of the faces appeared to be frowning. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
I will wrap up today with my all-time favorite petroglyph from Three Rivers. I call him Boo.

NEXT POST: Wednesday’s photo essay (if I get to it since it’s my birthday week) will journey north to Sego Canyon in Utah and some very unworldly (UFO- alien-type) shamans. On Friday it is petroglyph snakes. Lots of them!

12 thoughts on “The Eyes Stared out of the Rocks at Us… Shamans among the Petroglyphs

  1. Some really impressive petroglyphs — Boo is kind of charming, if that’s possible? Didn’t know the shamans used Datura. I know it’s poisonous and we haven’t had any since dogs and cats moved in. Will keep away from it still as working out just how much is poisonous is a mug’s game 😉

  2. Either the shamans or the people looking at and drawing the shamans had quite the LSD trips!! Well, then again, they do say drugs make you paranoid – that would explain all the eyes are on you. lol

  3. Curt, you are quite the story teller. First you have me frightened for you as a young man in the Peace Corps. That night wasn’t very peaceful, glad you kept your head clear and found safety.

    The Datura I remember from your post. It is such a beautiful flower. Yet so deadly.
    Amazing how long humans have used drugs in a one form or another.
    The power of the Shamans was really – from what I gather – his reaction to datura.

    Amazing petroglyphs and yes, most of their eyes are enlarged. As their pupils were enlarged I doubt they could see very clear outwards. Maybe it was what
    they experienced in trance that made them powerful?

    Sorry for the length of answer, I find this fascinating.


  4. Fascinating about the eyes Curt and when looking at petroglyphs in the future I will certainly remember this post.
    Your description of that night decades ago in the Peace Corps made my hands sweat. I don’t think I would have had a wink of sleep.

  5. I love being reminded of all the different planes/worlds we can inhabit as humans and how natural this is for Indigenous Peoples, in contrast to our western / European culture which is so one dimensional and seems to be shrinking even more!

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