“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.

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.”

Garcinia Longings

By Rini Barman

My digestive tract goes for a toss once seasons are about to change in Assam. I am speaking of that eerie intermediary period when the winds, too, aren’t very sure which direction to follow. With rising temperatures and global warming each year, weaker tummies only go from bad to worse. One cannot predict when the ghastly phenomena of multiple burps or dumps might occur. I have tried everything—eating bland, working out, sleeping early, chucking out midnight Netflix, and even taking mild antacids. 

Mother used to say I have a cursed tummy when none of her ‘gut’ suggestions worked. And a sour stomach is a lot to deal with. Imagine the dreariness amidst the super fast-paced nature of life—the speeding cars under the terrace, the local shopkeeper screaming to set up his tiny outlet of edible greens, the small children taking their dolls to the street for they now have no place to play. No time to slow down a bit and look back at the concrete urban disasters one has cooked for oneself.

When I asked their parents about their nonchalance, they told me the grapes are all sour. I had invited them to my terrace—I thought, well let’s have some thekera (garcinia peduncalata). Most of them had homes outside Assam. They’d not really tasted it and thought it was some black-coloured leaf.

Dried garcinia pieces. Credit: author.

 

My weekends are now often occupied in drying fresh thekera and storing it in small containers. I befriended a local fruit-seller; he too knows that an ill person has a dozen medical bills and he’d rather not fleece them. His name is Hemendra Deka, Hemen for short. His wife left behind twin daughters whom he has to feed by selling fruits and veggies by evening and milk by day.

Tangy Liaisons

Local proverbs tell us one shouldn’t eat anything sour alone: ‘sakala tengati okole nakhaba’. Doing so irritates the tummy more. The idea here is that sourness stimulates enzymes and makes one crave it more—greed, after all, is a vice. Thus, sharing sour fruits and vegetables is a sign of caring for each other—a kind of intimacy even. Elderly women also believe harsh tanginess can be injurious to health, and must be balanced out with sweeter stuff (like sugar syrup and jaggery) at weddings and social events. But to totally cut it out is to miss out on the spice of tanginess altogether. The term ‘tenga hoi gol’ implies it has gone all to waste—this is used liberally from rotten food to relationships. There’s also ‘tenga lagise’ as a synonym for tiredness to mean ‘I am now bored and sick of it.’ The reference to unpleasant tastes and rotten food as having gone ‘sour’ is quite interesting. 

Tanginess Spectrum

Basking in the winter sun isn’t a distant memory to me. I still find excuses to do it while peeling lemons, oranges, tamarinds, and other stuff like mixing chillies and salt with robab tenga, our very own pomelo (Citrus Maxima). The locals also consume the tender leaves of the edible garcinia and add them into their curries. A slight addition also adds a distinct flavour. The Northeastern region of India is home to a lot of piquant species—there’s a tanginess spectrum and a rich, rich palette. One cannot pin it down to an either/or.   

Sun dried garcinia pieces turn blackish. Credit: author.

 

To me, the sourness of thekera isn’t like lemon or the abundantly available elephant apple, ou-tenga—both of which are mostly consumed raw. But thekera is usually sun-dried and for usage later on. Amongst the diverse sour plants and fruits, thekera has a kind of moderate tanginess—the reason why it balances the stomach. Available and consumed across Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries, it works wonders with reflux ailments. Powdered thekera is a medicinal potion to ease digestive problems like dysentery; it also helps menstrual aches heal. 

No Quick Fixes

During that time of the month, I crave some tangy eating, unlike my cousin sisters who don’t have lemons or anything sour to prevent too much bleeding. What I do is dip one or two slices of thekera into boiled lentils or my fish curry. For those who enjoy more tanginess, you can soak thekera overnight in water and use it as a souring agent in your dishes the next day. My mother used to add thekera in case other kinds of vegetables like tomatoes were not as sour as she expected them to be. It worked as a quick fix back when I was a child. 

But life now is very far from such quick fixes. Hemen told me new fruits in the market are mostly chemically-ripened and that there is cutthroat competition. Local sellers are desperately juggling to make ends meet. “Raising daughters is no mean feat—you too must be careful, don’t eat tangy stuff all the time, tummies can be delicate at this age”, he advises me with his ‘fatherly’ basics, as he puts some thekera into my bag. 

I think of him dearly very often, wondering what his daughters might look like and how difficult it is to make do without a parent. My summer evenings are no longer filled with rum and whiskey but with thekera-flavoured water. Perhaps life too is going to be more of the same—a choice between dried tanginess and raw acidic toxins. I guess one has to keep swimming! 

Thekara cocktails on the terrace. Credit: author.

The Thekera Cocktail

Ingredients

  • 3 slices of dried thekera (soaked overnight in water)
  • Ice cubes
  • Rock salt
  • Sugar or honey
  • 1 medium glass of chilled water

The next day, strain the water  into a separate glass. Mix 4-5 tbsp of that into a glass of water. Add honey/ sugar and salt to taste. Add the ice cubes. Your humble cocktail is ready.

Thekara cocktails on the terrace. Credit: author.

 


About

Rini Barman is an independent writer and researcher based in Assam. Her interests include art and culture, ethnicity, folklore among others. Her essays have appeared in esteemed national dailies and magazines. She tweets @barman_rini.  

The Magic of Socotran Aloe

By Shireen Hamza

“The people of this island are without faith — and they are strong magicians. They originate from Greece.”

What?

I had been flipping through Ikhtiyārāt-i Badī‘ī, a Persian pharmaceutical manuscript composed in the fourteenth century by Ḥājī Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār (d. 1404). The British Library has many surviving manuscripts of this text, including one copied by the author’s son.[1] I was looking through each of them to see whether they included any Arabic-Persian glossaries, for an ongoing project. I was stopped short by the sentence above.

It was part of an entry on aloes. I read the entry from the beginning:

Aloes are of three varieties: Socotran, Arabic and Samḥābī. The best variety is Socotran. Socotra is an island close to the shore of Yemen. It is forty leagues [long]. The people of this island are faithless and are strong magicians. Their origins are from Greece. Alexander sent them from Greece to this island in order to make aloe. Their women are even stronger magicians.

I was beginning to wonder what this had to do with aloes. Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār continued.

On whole, the situation is so extreme that if they have a conflict with another person, and that person is present — or if they even focus on their memory of the person’s face — and they put a glass of water before themselves and begin to do magic, a drop of blood eventually appears in the glass. Then, they put the glass on their liver, heart or lung. That person falls dead on the spot. And if one were to open the person’s belly, they would find no liver. People exaggerate about their magic to this extent. The best type of Socotran aloes are the color of liver, smell like marw (Maerua), and are full of leaves [with juice] similar to gum Arabic. If someone has pain, massaging [the afflicted area] with this will quickly bring relief. It has the color of saffron and emits the smell of goose fat.

With that, I was abruptly returned to the familiar land of medieval Islamic medicine. What had these magicians to do with aloe? Livers disappear from the victims of magical attacks and reappear as the color of the best aloes — perhaps referring to the color of the juice extracted from the plant’s leaves. But this seemed a happenstance juxtaposition; the author drew no correlation.

Arid landscape and blur sky. Plan with wide lower leaves that are brown. Several long, spiny flowers that are bright red (narrow) grow out of it.
Aloe Perryi in Socotra. Credit: photo by Todd Masilko, accessed at Flickr.

 

Ḥājī Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār’s narration of the history of this object is unusual, for this text and for pharmacopeia in general. The rest of the entry continues in the usual way — Arabic aloes are also called Yemeni and Adeni aloes; aloes are hot and dry to the second degree, though some say to the first and others to the third, and Jālīnūs (Galen) says dry to the third degree, hot to the first; aloe is among the most beneficial medicines for the stomach, and for treating swelling and pain; it is a purgative for yellow bile; it pulls excess moisture and phlegm from the head and joints; it clears obstructions from the liver; with age, it turns black and loses potency; and so on. This story of the island’s magicians seemed to belong more to another kind of book.

Indeed, this story appears often in Arabic literature. The earliest version is in “Accounts of China and India,” a travelogue by Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī, likely written in the ninth century. Attesting to the wide renown of these aloes, al-Sīrāfī begins his description of Socotra as “the place where Socotran aloes grow.”[2] According to him, Aristotle had instructed Alexander the Great to find this island, expel its inhabitants and resettle it with Greeks who could guard the aloe and export it — because “no purgatives (ayārijāt) are complete without aloe.” He then explains how these Greeks eventually became Christian — and how their ancestors remained Christian in Socotra, living there among other peoples. Another famous traveler, al-Bīrūnī, included a brief mention of the story in a pharmaceutical text he wrote in the eleventh century — the closest precedent to Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār. By the thirteenth century, several well-known authors included some version of this story in their work, like Yāqūt in his geographical text, al-Qazwīnī in his  “Wonders of Creation,” and al-Nuwayrī in his lengthy encyclopedia. While Islamic literature is full of stories of Aristotle’s advice to Alexander, some scholars have argued that these authors drew on Greek accounts that don’t survive, and that the story spread further through The Alexander Romances.[3]

“Alexander Visits the Sage Plato in his Mountain Cave,” a painted folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi made in 1597-1598, likely in India. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār says nothing of Christianity on Socotra. al-Sīrāfī says nothing of magic. But a few pages later, Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār translates a lengthy aloe recipe by Ibn al-Bayṭār (d. 1248), originally in Arabic. This and other citations of Arabic medical texts suggest that Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār could read Arabic, and may have taken his account from any of the texts mentioned here. But why?

Writing from far-away Shiraz, Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār dismisses the magical abilities of Socotran people as exaggeration. But though he disagreed, he included the story as part of the information in circulation about Socotran aloe, for the sake of creating a comprehensive entry. This is why he also included contradictory accounts of the hotness and dryness of this aloe. But did he believe that Alexander’s ancient interest in Socotran aloe was additional proof of its continued superiority to other varieties of aloe?

Modern botanical research includes a survey of a plant’s history on earth, a legacy of early modern Natural History. The discipline of Natural History does not translate easily to sciences before the eighteenth century in any region.[4] But there are narrative “histories” of certain substances within texts of ṭibb, Arabic and Persian medicine, as well as in encyclopedia, lapidaries, bestiaries and other genres. Origin stories appear alongside the most practical of information.

Objects, and especially plants, are difficult to pin down — they feel unstable as we follow them through different periods, geographic contexts and even textual genres. I imagine that Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār may have felt the same way. Perhaps by whisking his reader onto the scene of an ancient conquest, he felt that his enthusiasm for the remedy would come with a strong recommendation.


Postscript

The people of Socotra are currently struggling under very real conditions of occupation due to the ongoing war, cholera pandemic and COVID-19 pandemic in Yemen. If you can, please support the work of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation or comparable organizations.

Notes

[1] British Library India Office Islamic 3499

[2] Abu Zayd Al-Sirafi and Ahmad Ibn Fadlan. Two Arabic Travel Books: Accounts of China and India and Mission to the Volga. (New York: NYU Press, 2014): 122-123

[3] Mikhail Bukharin, “The Mediterranean World and Socotra,” in Foreign Sailors on Socotra: The Inscriptions and Drawings from the Cave Hoq Ed. I. Strauch. (Hempen Verlag: Bremen, 2012): 494-531, at 504-505.

[4] Karen Reeds and Tomomi Kinukawa, “Medieval Natural History,” in Lindberg, David C., and Michael H. Shank. The Cambridge History of Science: Volume 2, Medieval Science. Ed. David Lindberg and Michale Shank. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013): 569-589.