Sickness Personified: Clandestine Remedies from Colonial Yucatán (Part 2)

By R.A. Kashanipour

My previous post introduced how colonial Maya healers writing in Ritual of the Bacabs situated their remedies in line with deeply rooted traditions that saw sickness as aspects of supernatural relations. Let’s now return to the matter of personification and the fascinating remedy for fever, eruptions, and seizures. This is no simple sickness. It is, quite literally, a cursed affliction. “I curse you, little seizures!” the healer writes. “Whose erupting pox are you? Eruptions on the head and body, open eruptions, internal eruptions, fiery eruptions…” [1]

Ritual of the Bacabs  The first page of the work known as Ritual of the Bacabs.  The work was uncovered by the Maya bibliophile and collector William Gates in the early 20th Century and then sold to Princeton Library.  The entire work is written in a single hand but seems to be a compilation of remedies from multiple sources.  The remedies on the final folios of the work appear on the back of an Indulgence printed in Mexico City in 1779.  Courtesy of Princeton Library
Ritual of the Bacabs
The first page of the work known as Ritual of the Bacabs. The work was uncovered by the Maya bibliophile and collector William Gates in the early 20th Century and then sold to Princeton Library. The entire work is written in a single hand but seems to be a compilation of remedies from multiple sources. The remedies on the final folios of the work appear on the back of an Indulgence printed in Mexico City in 1779. Courtesy of Princeton Library

The colonial healer makes it clear that it is a painful, miserable experience. The healer notes as much by describing that the pox takes four days to swell and eventually burst. The afflicted “does not sleep, he does not lay down. No, because of the eruptions!” [2] The healer, throughout the remedy, addresses the sickness directly. First, he or she curses (quite literally) the affliction. Then, the healer situates the sickness as a bridge between the human and supernatural realms. Like people, the disease has familial relations. “By its mother, by its father, it claimed its mother the woman called Ix Hun Ye Ta, Ix Hun Ye Ton… What was the lust of its birth? What was the lust of its creation? And who created them? Yes, it was the father that created them.” [3] This affliction has a known mother and father who conceived it out of lustfulness. In this manner, the healer describes the disease as originating in desire, traits known to both the gods and humanity.

Once tied to the human realm, the curandero directly questions the fever, eruptions, and seizures in the natural world. “Who brings these bobote [smallpox] eruptions?,” the healer asks. “Who brings this bird?… Oh, yes, this is the creation of the red macaw, the white macaw, the black macaw… These are the birds, the birds that bring eruptions.” Macaws emanated from the jungles and, in this context, also stood as symbols of this disease. Going further, the healer also examines the natural connections of the disease by questioning its botanical relations. “Who is your tree? Who is your plant of fiery pox?,” After this interrogation, our healer discovers a specific botanical connection to the sickness. “It [the disease] comes with the arrival of the red chacah (chocolate) tree.” [4] In this manner, then, the healer finds that the affliction comes from the frontier, from the unsettled jungles of the Yucatán commonly called el monte [The Mountain]. Through the colonial period, this region harbored recalcitrant Mayas, escaped slaves, and those wishing to escape the authority of the Church and State. It was, for Spaniards and Mayas alike, often described as the dangerous home of violent communities, powerful animals, and poisonous plants.

This affliction, as our healer details, is a lustful creation that emanates from the dangerous interior of the peninsula. The painful and uncontrolled ailment stands as a physical manifestation of a violent and savage frontier. Much as the fiery pox and eruptions involved red (think blood!), the animal and botanical personification of the sickness involves red macaw and red chocolate tree. This, then, brings us to the remedy. “Drink chocolate [chacah] with two chiles [ik], a bit of honey [cab], and little tobacco [kutz]. It is to be drunk.” The actual recipe for the cure is exceedingly direct and simple. This illustrates that in responding to diseases, Mayan healers focused their attention on presenting remedies that built upon the traditions that characterized sicknesses as physical manifestations of the supernatural world. By personifying diseases, they created a framework to understand them, to situate them in the human environment and, ultimately, attempt control them. They also found a way to express outrage against the disorder that inhabited their bodies and societies. In this manner, colonial indigenous healers created order out of the chaotic landscape of sickness and disease.

[1] Ritual of the Bacabs, Princeton University Library, Garrett-Gates Collection, Mesoamerican Manuscript No. 1, folio 100.

[3] Ritual of the Bacabs, folio 102.

[2] Ritual of the Bacabs, folio 101, 103.

[4] Ritual of the Bacabs, folio 104.


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