Sickness Personified: Clandestine Remedies from Colonial Yucatán (Part 1)

By R.A. Kashanipour

“I curse you, little seizures! Whose erupting pox are you? Eruptions on the head and body, open eruptions, internal eruptions, fiery eruptions…” [1] So begins a highly ritualized remedy for fever, eruptions, and seizures from late colonial Yucatán. As I noted in my last post, sickness and disease were endemic throughout colonial Latin America and brought together distinct traditions of healing. As this remedy and the dozens of others from the manuscript known as Ritual of the Bacabs show, eighteenth-century Mayas of the Yucatán were not silent victims of disease. Instead, they understood sickness and infirmity as extensions of the natural and human world. They incorporated ancient traditions and firmly rooted healing in colonial context. And, as I would like to note in this post, healers personified and naturalized diseases to bolster their own therapeutic powers.

Before returning to this remedy, I want to touch on the manuscript source and then briefly make note of ancient traditions of Maya healing. Ritual of the Bacabs is a collection of healing incantations, prayers, and remedies written in Yucatec Maya sometime in the eighteenth century. This unique work, which today is held at Princeton University, addresses afflictions common to the colonial world, including pox (kak), difficulty breathing (coc), and difficulty walking (chibal oc). The devastating affects of disease are often noted as seizures (tancas). Several cures associate these outbursts with their origins, such as walking seizures (ah oc tancas), while others ascribe direct ties to the natural world as their sources, including macaw-jaguar seizures (mo balam tancas) and tarantula seizures (chiuoh tancas). The culturally bound ailment often described as madness (coil) regularly appears associated with extreme cases of the pox and seizures.

On the whole, the remedies of the text illustrate the ongoing revision of long-standing Maya traditions in the face of colonial institutions. In particular, in the pre-Hispanic period, infirmity and remediation were associated with the supernatural world and directly tied to the deities Ix Chel and Itzamná. In 1571, Diego de Landa, the second Bishop of Yucatán and infamous crusader against pagan practices, noted Ix Chel’s centrality to healing. “The physicians and the sorcerers assembled in one of their houses with their wives … they opened the bundles of their medicine, in which they kept many little trifles and … little idols of the goddess of medicine, whom they called Ix Chel.” [2] The two deities, the goddess of the moon and lord of the sun, were bound as husband and wife and mirroring elements of health and sickness.

Ix Chel and Itzamna This rollout image from a classic period pot depicts the goddess Ix Chel (center) caring for an ailing Itzamná (right) and a female healer (left) performing a healing ritual.  The leaves surround the infirmed and bedridden Itzamná most likely represent the purgatives used to induce the deer to vomit. A vulture appears underneath the old god’s bed, just to make clear that his condition is dire.  © Justin Kerr, K2794, www.mayavase.com
Ix Chel and Itzamna
This rollout image from a classic period pot depicts the goddess Ix Chel (center) caring for an ailing Itzamná (right) and a female healer (left) performing a healing ritual. The leaves surround the infirmed and bedridden Itzamná most likely represent the purgatives used to induce the deer to vomit. A vulture appears underneath the old god’s bed, just to make clear that his condition is dire. © Justin Kerr, K2794, www.mayavase.com

During the colonial period, local Church authorities attempted to root out any expressed association with ancient religions. In healing, however, it is clear they were unsuccessful. These deities, who were central to the creation mythology of the Classical Maya, were represented as powerful animistic forces in the healing text. In a remedy for a breathing affliction in Ritual of the Bacabs, both Itzamna and Ix Chel are invoked to harness the use of the powerful cardinal directions. The enchanter is to “for four days, shake the face of the red Ix Chel, the white Ix Chel, the yellow Ix Chel; four days he shakes the face of the red Itzamna.” [3] These supernatural forces figure prominently in the background of numerous remedies. They serve to root the cures in line with ancient traditions, which endured well into the colonial period.

The remedies of Ritual of the Bacabs represent a clandestine system of ritualized healing that directly built on past Maya practices. As a text designed for alienating and eliminating sickness, the curanderos that penned the work most likely identified themselves as a special Maya class of healers known as mak ik or benevolent shamans that controlled healing winds. In this way, they stood in line with ancient traditions, but were fully immersed in colonial experience.

In my next post, we will return to the issue of the personification of sickness as a means to frame healing. In particular, we will look how the curanderos of Ritual of the Bacabs animated diseases in order to position them in the natural and social colonial landscape of the Yucatán.

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

[2] Diego de Landa and Alfred M. Tozzer, Landa’s Relación De Las Cosas De Yucatan: A Translation. (New York: Kraus, 1966), 154.

[3] Ritual of the Bacabs, folio 65.

Words of the Wise: Colonial Maya Medicine

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. Over the next few posts, I will highlight overlooked medical manuscripts and touch on some curious and confusing remedies from colonial Yucatán.

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.

And 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]

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.]

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.