“Very good are the words of the wise”: Plagues and Remedies of the Colonial Maya

By R.A. Kashanipour

Early Spanish settlers, administrators, and chroniclers frequently lamented how Old World diseases ravaged native communities in the New World. The famed Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas described the ferocity of the first epidemics: “Then came a terrible plague, and almost everyone died, and very few remained.”[1] We know much about the devastation, but less about the everyday responses of the victims of disease, especially in the Americas where death and destruction accompanied conquest and colonialism.

In colonial Mexico, native scribes and healers recorded local remedies and cures as they treated populations ravaged by endemic and epidemic sicknesses. During the eighteenth century, a series of anonymous Maya curanderos (folk healers) recorded local ideas of science and medicine in a manuscript titled Tratado de las siete planetas y otro de medicinarium (Treatise on the Seven Planets and another on Medicine). Commonly known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua, this work circulated beliefs and practices about the natural world as it passed among healers. The work synthesized European accounts of astrology with Maya understandings of the ritual calendar.

Title Page of the manuscript known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua. The work derives its name from a sixteenth century Maya shaman known as the Chilam Balam (Jaguar Priest) and the community in which the manuscript was written, Kaua. This image is of a Photostat from 1920 housed at the Library of Congress. The original manuscript is lost.]
Title Page of the manuscript known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua. The work derives its name from a sixteenth century Maya shaman known as the Chilam Balam (Jaguar Priest) and the community in which the manuscript was written, Kaua. This image is of a Photostat from 1920 housed at the Library of Congress. The original manuscript is lost.]

Healers recorded remedies for common afflictions and ailments that reflected the intertwined relationships of the colonizers and colonized. An early passage of the work admonished readers to hold the knowledge with respect and care. “Very good are the words of the wise. [These are] recipes in the Maya language for those Indians that want to understand this medicine. Arte, it is called for those who are sick, also for those that are strong and well. Very good are the words of the wise.” [2]

The healers of the Chilam Balam de Kaua recorded remedies in indigenous terms that often reflected European categories of disease. Cures addressed common illnesses, such as cough (en), cold (sis), fever (chakuil), and periodic epidemic diseases like smallpox (nohoch kak), yellow fever (vómito de sangre), or measles (sarampión). There were remedies for everyday afflictions: headache (chibal pol) and earache (chibal xicin). Others were punctuated with magical intervention, including sorcery (pulbil yaah) and evil flowers (mal floral). Treatments attempted to reduce the aches that welcomed life–childbearing (alancil) and painful swollen breast (ya umil chup)–and the pains that greeted death–bleeding (kik) and cancer (caanzeel). There were remedies to treat the difficulties of manual labor: wounds (cinpahal), swellings (chuchup), and broken bones (sayal bac). In total, the Chilam Balam de Kaua contains over three hundred and thirty remedies.

One of the numerous cures for fevers captures the interaction between Mayan and Spanish knowledge systems.

A remedy for fever (tzacal chacuil) by the ancient people, here is the consumption tree (nech bac che), its other name is fever tree. This is boiled in water to wash people who have a fever. [The affliction] is called weakness (nach bahal) in their language and this is ético in the language of the Spaniards. Then leaves of the plant should be taken with the leaves of the night herb (akab xiu), whose leaves are pleasant smelling. The same amount of leaves are mixed together and boiled until soft. They may be taken [this way]. When the water is half finished, the affirmed may be bathed with the hot water, as hot as can be allowed. Four or five times, this is done… When covered and cool, they may arise to chocolate (cacau) leaves and the night herb… The consumption tree is to be twisted with the chocolate plant.[3]

Fevers were undoubtedly common in colonial Yucatán. As with most Yucatec remedies, the application appeared straightforward and matched symptoms with treatment. The heat of the fever was to be broken with a simmering herbal bath, followed by a concoction of herbs with chocolate.

The record keeper, however, also noted that remedy’s pre-Hispanic origins, establishing a connection to the past. In diagnosing the affliction, however, ancient Maya knowledge linked with contemporary Spanish perspectives. These fevers were called nach bahal or ético and, as such, the remedy could apply to Mayas and Spaniards alike.

The materials for the remedy were exclusively comprised of wild herbs, tying the uncontrolled disease with the unconquered frontier. While most healers may have sourced domesticated plants from herb vendors (yerbateros), this remedy required plants of the forest. The cure required knowledge of Mayan biological landscapes; to produce this remedy, the healer needed access to the untamed frontiers of the province.

This remedy, like so many of colonial Yucatán, showed that “the words of the wise” involved the convergence of distinct traditions in the everyday practices of curing. The Chilam Balam de Kaua and other medicinal manuscripts from colonial Latin America illustrate the localized processes in the production and circulation of medical knowledge in the early modern world.

[1] Bartolomé de Las Casas, Historia de las Indias (México: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1951) 3: 270.

[2] Chilam Balam de Kaua (photostat reproductions), f. 7, Container 25,Ac. 4056, Indian Languages Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

[3] Chilam Balam de Kaua, f. 175.

Making Sense of Recipes for Amulets and Natural Magic, Kabbalistic Style (Marginalia Included)

By Agata Paluch

Among Jewish recipe books, both in manuscript and in print, a prominent place take manuals produced by the members of the educated rabbinic elite. For instance, one of the most famous rabbinic authorities and kabbalists of the seventeenth century, Moses Zacuto (1610—1697, active in North Italy) was an avid compiler of all sorts of recipes.[i] A compilation of his recipes survived in an autograph notebook, now in the Russian State Library in Moscow, Günzburg Collection Ms. 1448. It is inscribed as the Book of secrets which I received from my masters on the title page. In its first folios, the kabbalist collected a set of recipes gathered during his stay in Greater Poland. It begins with a six-folio piece marked as These are those [secrets] which I found in Poland:

Fig. 1: Ms Günzberg 1448, folio 2r, top. Courtesy of the Russian State Library.


It then proceeds with a two-page compilation introduced as These are the secrets called ‘properties’ which I also brought from Poland:

Fig. 2: folio 7r, top. Courtesy of the Russian State Library.


The secrets gathered by Zacuto in Poland belong thus to two separate subcategories, sodot and segulot [i.e., secretsand qualities]. The first category, in Zacuto’s parlance, refers to the applications of divine names in either recited adjurations or written amulets. These types of applications would be useful, for instance, to fend off evil by means of summoning and controlling guardian angels, to shield oneself from being harmed by weaponry, to reduce fevers, to bring good fortune, to save from badmouthing, to receive answers to questions posed in dreams, to open doors without keys, to urge love, to win when gambling, or to support women during difficult childbirth. This relevance of divine names is seemingly random—although some of the names require the combining of amulets and adjurations with uses of elements of the ‘material’ world, such as frogs, cat heads, or human and animal blood, the desired effect is ultimately produced by the very power of the divine names.

The second subcategory of Zacuto’s secrets comprises ‘properties’ [segulot], that is, those qualities of things which belong to the physical world and can be manipulated without resorting to the influence of divine names, and which reveal their hidden power in the process of elemental inter-reactions and transformations. Among those ‘properties’ learned by Zacuto in Poland, one can find recipes for domesticating pigeons, on confirming pregnancy, on preparing ink visible only under water, on healing toothaches, on concocting wondrous candles, or instructions for tricks and dice games. 

Fig. 3. Folio 7r: “9. To remove a stain of oil from clothes, take those dirty clothes and smear them with a moist soap with honey, and put aside for the night, afterwards wash it [i.e., the stain] off with urine. End.”


Among those instances in which the recipes of Zacuto could be useful, there are a number that could equally be changed by the employment of either natural qualities or amulets inscribed with divine names. In order to make sense of the ways in which various names and forces operate in the physical world, Zacuto explains their meanings according to kabbalistic theories on the margin of his notebook.[ii] And so, his extensive marginal comments provide an interpretive framework to help the reader in the process of making sense of the mechanisms of actions described in the main body of text. 


Fig. 4. Folio 5r: “22. [Amulet] For love. Write with your left hand on your right hand these names: Anakta”m, Shem Yah, Shaday, Y”V. End.” In the margin: “Anaktam. From the name that is called ‘the name of the 22 letters,’ as I already explained. Shaday is [the name of] Yesod […].” [In kabbalistic theosophy, Yesod constitutes the 9th (penultimate) emanation in the decadic structure of the godhead.]


The divine names specified in many of the recipes are therefore incorporated in the broader theoretical scheme of the structure of divine emanations—a cornerstone of kabbalistic cosmology and theosophy. The letters of names function as a form of divine embodiment, a physical extension into the material world in which both the human and the divine meet. Such kabbalistic logic is applied all along the marginal text, wherein Zacuto attempts to translate acutely non-discursive terms into the explicative framework of kabbalistic theosophy, which for him provides the ultimate explanation of the mechanism of actions and transformations taking place on the physical level of reality. The autograph volume thus provides an example of self-reflection—on the part of the compiler of practical esoteric traditions—of a cognitive need to provide an epistemic structure to frame the recommended practices according to the established and authoritative kabbalistic knowledge, as expressed in the margins of the notebook.

Fig. 5. Folio 1r. Courtesy of the Russian State Library.


[i] On Moses Zacuto’s biography see I Raise My Heart: Poems by Moses Zacuto, a Scientific Edition, ed. Dvorah Bregman (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 2009), 5–24 [Hebrew]; Eliezer Baumgarten and Uri Safrai, “Moses Zacuto’s Kabbalah of Names,” Studia Rosenthaliana 46 (2020): 29–49. On Zacuto’s interests in practical knowledge see J. H. Chajes, “Rabbi Moses Zacuto as Exorcist—Kabbalah, Magic and Medicine in the Early Modern Period,” Pe’amim 96 (2003): 129–130 [Hebrew].

[ii] Kabbalah (lit. tradition) denotes a particular variety of Jewish esoteric knowledge that was concerned with the inner structure and processes taking place within the divine realms, on whose dynamics the practitioners intended to exert influences.


The Curing Chocolate of Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma of 1631

By R.A. Kashanipour

The Indies, personified as a maiden, give the gift of chocolate to the Atlantic world, personified as Poseidon. Front piece to Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma’s, Chocolata Inda, Opusculum de qualitate & naturâ de Chocolatæ (Nuremberg, 1644). Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.
“The number of people who drink chocolate is vast,” wrote the seventeenth century Spaniard, Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, “not only in the Indies, where the beverage originated, but also in Spain, Italy and Flanders, and particularly in the royal court.”  In the early modern world, the consumption of chocolate was ubiquitous across the Americas (as noted here).  According to Colmenero de Ledesma, a physician and surgeon who traversed the Atlantic to explore colonial Spanish medical practices and remedies, chocolate represented the great gift of the Indies (see image above).  

In Colmenero de Ledesma’s 1631 account titled Curioso tratado de naturaleza y calidad del chocolate , which represented the first full-length printed account dedicated to chocolate, the surgeon celebrated the beverage and confectionery for its healthy and healing qualities. “My desire,” he noted in the opening of the work, “is for the benefit and pleasure of the public, to describe the variety of uses and mixtures so that each may choose what suits their ailments.” Borrowing from indigenous traditions in Mesoamerica, chocolate fit a variety of uses. It could be everything from a ritual beverage to a healing elixir to an everyday imbibement.

Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma’s Curioso tratado de la naturalez y calidad del Chocolate (Madrid, 1631). Image courtesy of the the Bibloteca Nacional de España.

By the end of the seventeenth century, chocolate was popular across the Atlantic, particularly in the Europe’s imperial capitals and Atlantic port cities.  However, in spite of its wide-spread use at the everyday level, its consumption was the subject of confusion and consternation by skeptical physicians and the learned classes. Colmnero de Ledesma noted that many Europeans of the era debated its qualities and application.  “Some people say that it obstructs, others that it makes one fat. Some say that it soothes the stomach, while others that it heats and burns. And some say that they drink it every hour, even in the long-days of summer.  I stand to defend this confection … against those that may suggest that this beverage is not good and healthy.”

Colmenero de Ledesma suggested that the consumption of chocolate was both salubrious and satiating.  In the Curioso tratado, he offered a four-part discourse on the qualities of the confection, noting its universal humoral attributes.  “Chocolate, as the Indians call it,” he wrote, managed to contain the four critical elements of heat, humidity, cold, and dryness.  It could be oily and earthy, thick and airy, moist and dry, soft and hard. As a medicament, cacao, the “principal basis” of chocolate, served as an astringent and purgative.

The key to the varied uses of the confection, however, existed in the art of its preparation. By properly incorporating a wide variety of herbs and spices from the New World, chocolate could enliven appetites, elevate moods, and conserve one’s health.  Poorly tempered concoctions could cause illness. Hinting at the Spanish disdain for the subjugated native populations of the colonies, he suggested that the chocolate could also release debilitating qualities, writing that “[t]hose that mix maize, or paniço, in Chocolate produce harmfully release melancholy humors.” Nevertheless, the artful combination of elements could produce a healthy and restorative beverage. 

Colmenero de Ledesma’s Recipe for Chocolate

To every one hundred Cacao beans, mix two large chiles of the type that are called Cilparlagua in the Indies (or you may use the broadest and least spicy chile found in Spain). Add in one handful of anise seeds along with the leaves of the herb called Vincaxtlidos and the other called Mecasuchil [mecaxóchitl], if the stomach is tight. Or, as we do in Spain, mix in the six flowers of the Roses of Alexandria, which are beat into a power.  Add one pod of the Vanilla of Campeche, two sticks of cinnamon, a dozen almonds and hazelnuts, and a pound and half of sugar. Add in enough achiote to give it color. 

To prepare the beverage, Colmenero de Ledesma suggested that the ingredients be ground on a metate, explicitly reserved for grinding cacao. All ingredients, save the achiote, were to be dried and ground individually into a powder. Begin, he directed, by grinding the cinnamon, then the chile with the anise, then moving to the others.  Next carefully mix each pulverized ingredient into the cacao a little at a time. Finally, add the achiote.  Over a low fire, the pulverized mixture is to be seared and dried into a paste, which was to be spooned onto paper or a plantain leaf. The cooled paste would form a tablet that could subsequently be dissolved with water and sugar.

Consumed cold or warm, Colmenero de Ledesma’s recipe for chocolate would invariably have something novel to the seventeenth century palates on both sides of the Atlantic. In the Americas, chocolate was traditionally consumed as a frothy, spicy beverage, free of the sweetness of modern cocoa. Colmenero de Ledesma’s recipe, however, combined herbs and spices of the New World. It is noteworthy that the university-trained Spanish surgeon appropriated and Hispanized indigenous terms, including cilparlagua and mecasuchil, and established them as key colonized aspects of the concoction.  Moreover, the addition of sugar fundamentally redefined the experience of the beverage.  Rather than taking on the earthy and bitter qualities of the cacao, the sugar would have lent an overwhelming sweetness to the beverage.  

When produced with the right art and process, Colmenero de Ledesma suggested that his recipe for chocolate could be remedial, protective, and healthy. “Through my experience in the Indes” he declared, “when visiting a sick person in the heat, I was persuaded to take a draft of chocolate, which quenched my thirst. And, in the morning, if I had fasted, it warmed and comforted my stomach.” Within a decade, Colmenero de Ledesma’s curious treatment of chocolate would be translated and published in England, France, Germany, and Italy. Chocolate, to echo his own conclusion, was “no small matter, to have pleased all.”

Thomas Gage’s Chocolate Recipe and Regimen of 1655

By R.A. Kashanipour

Natives Offering Gifts to Thomas Gage
Image 1 – Gifts of the locals.  In this image appears as the frontpiece  of a German edition of Thomas Gage’s book of travels.  The idealized depiction includes representations of the ranks of the local population, including a  Spaniard, African, native, and a mixed ethnic casta. The Spanaird presents bowl of chocolate, while the others offer reeds, cloth, and poisoned toads.   See: Thomas Gage, Neue merckwürdige Reise-Beschreibung nach Neu Spanien (1693). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.

In A New Survey of the West-Indies of 1655, the English friar Thomas Gage celebrated the ubiquitous consumption and qualities of chocolate throughout the early modern Spanish Atlantic World, particularly in New Spain. “Chocolate,” wrote the Dominican priest, was consumed in “all the West-India’s, but also in Spain, Italy, and Flanders, with approbation of many learned Doctors in Physick.”  He lavishly described chocolate as “unctuous, warm [with] moist parts mingled with the earthly” all the while defining it as “one of the necessariest commodities in the Indias.” Gage noted that seemingly everyone in seventeenth-century Mexico and Guatemala imbibed in the frothy and sweetened beverage. According to the friar, Indians produced it, women demanded it, Spaniards celebrated it, and doctors healed with it. [1]

Arriving to Mexico in the port of Veracruz in 1625, Gage reported that his first meal among his Dominican brothers was a lavish affair in which “no fowls were spared, many capons, turkey cocks, and hens were prodigally lavished.” The entire party was entertained “lovingly with some sweetmeats, and everyone with a cup of the Indian drink called chocolate.” In the Maya highlands of Chiapas, two cloisters of Dominican nuns, “talked about far and near,” were renowned not for their spirituality and devotion, but rather for their skill in making chocolate. The consumption of beverage was so commonplace that the bishop of Guatemala threatened to excommunicate women that consumed chocolate during Mass, presumably in lieu of the Eucharist. [2]

Thomas Gage, "Chapter XVI - Concerning two daily common Drinkes, or Potions," A New Survey of the West-Indias, (1655), 106.
Image 2 – Thomas Gage, “Chapter XVI – Concerning two daily common Drinkes, or Potions,”  A New Survey of the West-Indias, second edition (1655), 106. Courtesy of the Kislak Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Gage detailed a recipe for the Mesoamerican “chocolatical confection” that was a rich mixture of indigenous and European herbs and spices.[3]

Put into it black pepper which is not well approved of by the physicians because it is so hot and dry, but only for one who hath a cold liver, but commonly instead of this pepper, they put into it a long red pepper called chile which, though it be hot in the mouth, yet is cool and moist in operation. It is further compounded with white Sugar, Cinnamon, Clove, Anise seed, Almonds, Hazelnuts, Orejuela [anona], Vanilla, Sapoyall [mamey], Orange flower water, some Muske, and as much of these may be applied to such a quanitie of Cacao, the several dispositions of Achiotte, as it will make it look the colour of a red brick.[4]

To prepare properly, he noted that the ingredients must be dried and ground with an Indian metate. The cinnamon and chiles were to be first beaten with warm water and powdered cacao. Subsequently the anise and other herbs and spices were to be individually added to the confection before being “searced” or sifted to remove the shells and hulls. Finally, powdered achiote was to be added to enrich the beverage with a hearty color and earthen flavor.[5]

Far from a mere observer, the friar admonished the regular and remedial qualities of a fine cup of chocolate. “For myself,” he wrote, “I must say that used it twelve years constantly, drinking one cup in the morning, another yet before dinner between nine or ten of the clock, another within an hour or after dinner, and another between four or five in the afternoon.” When he needed to study late into the night, he “would take another cup about or seven or eight at night, which would keep me waking till about midnight.” This four to five cup-a-day, twelve-year regimen of chocolate kept him “healthy, without any obstructions or oppilations, not knowing either ague or fever.” However, if on occasion, he neglected his regular routine, he found himself weak and infirmed with a “stomach fainty.”  He was, in other words, completely habituated to the consumption of chocolate.[6]

[1] Thomas Gage, A New Survey of the West-Indias, second edition (London: E. Cotes, 1655), 106, 110.
[2] Gage, 23.
[3] Gage, 107.
[4] Gage, 108.
[5] Gage, 108.
[6] Gage, 109.

Additional Resources:

Sophie Coe and Michael Coe, The True History of Chocolate (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996).

Martha Few, “Chocolate, Sex, and Disorderly Women in Seventeenth-and Eighteenth-Century Guatemala,” Ethnohistory 52:4 (2005), 673-687.

Marcy Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010).