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Thursday, November 27, 2014

2600 B.C.-1200 A.D.: The Mayan will cure your asthma

The natives of Mesoamerica had specific remedies for asthma which included healing rituals, curing steam, and herbal remedies. (3, page ?) Even if these didn't immediately give back the breath of the natives, it provided a means of keeping their minds sharp and allowing time for their lungs to naturally heal.

In their 2010 book "Empires of the Maya," Jill Rubalcaba and Angela Keller said:
(Mayan diseases were caused) when the soul fell into disharmony. Therefore, curing the illness required shamans (medicine men) to return the soul to a harmonous state. Shamans dealt with disease on both a spiritual and a physical level. They made offerings to the gods, performed spells, burned incense, and examined the sacred calendar to remedy the spiritual problem. But they also attacked the physical cause of the problem." (1, page 125)
Healing Rituals:  It's difficult to determine what these healing rituals would have been like, although we can use our imaginations, or use our references to other native American cultures. Perhaps their was dancing, gesticulations, beating of drums, shaking of gourd rattles, singing of songs, reading of rituals, grunting, and chanting.

The shaman would resort to a book called the "Ritual of the Bacabs."  This was a book or text written by Mayan scribes to preserve Mayan tradition, and contains many references to the Mayan deities called the Bacabs.  The book contains a variety of rituals and songs for specific diseases, such as asthma.  The Mayan physician probably assessed the patient, and made reference to the book based on the symptoms presented.  

Here is one such remedy for asthma:
Four days have passed without the crushing of the large substance. For four days the face of the red Moon Goddess, the white Moon Goddess, the yellow moon Goddess has spasmed. For Four days the face of the red Itzamma has spasmed. Who created you? who hid you?  It's birth, the respectable birth, was created by me. It is he, the asthma, that was born." (2, page 104)
Peter Herman Signal said both the gods Itzamna and the Moon Goddess were needed to give birth to the disease and the cure.  (2, page 104)

Part of the ritual, and part of the healing process, involved bleeding.  The shaman would bleed an area close to the diseased part, although this was probably more with external injuries as compared to internal and "mysterious" diseases such as asthma. Sacrifices, probably mostly animals and plants, were often performed in order to please the gods and goddesses.  (3, pages 336-7)

Bleeding:  Phlebotomy was commonly practiced among the natives of mesoamerica and South America, but less so in North America.  Some North American myths include the act of bleeding, although it's believed this came from the whites and was added into the myths later on.  (7, page 179-181)

Divination:  Omens, or reading of signs of the gods in order to predict future outcomes and prognosis, were common practice among the natives of both North and South America. (3, pages 336-7)

Sucking:  This was actually a common practice of medicine men in all parts of the primitive world, including Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and America. It's also practiced among modern day primitives.  It involves the medicine man holding an item in his hand or mouth, a bead perhaps, and placing his mouth on the patient and pretending to suck out the poison (in this case the evil spirit).  He makes it look like he sucked the bead from the sick, which would be in the appearance of the bead.  (7, pages 183-184) (8, page 61)(9, pages 193-4)

Enemata:  This was used among most primitive tribes, and is an ideal method of entering medicines into the body.  The medicine man would use a hollow tube (perhaps a bone or reed) to insert with his mouth (or bulb syringe) the medicine into the anus.  The America Indians did this for diarrhea and hemorrhoids.  The Aztecs used wine and the narcotic parica. It was also used for other reasons, such as dysentry.  In North America syringes were made of a hollowed out bird leg, or from the stretched out bladder of a turtle, jauar, or other such animal. The Egptian goddess Isa is often depicted giving herself an enema with her beak, so we know this remedy goes a long way back.  (7, page 184-5)

Steam Baths:  Foster notes that "Masonry steam baths have been excavated at many Maya sites.  They were probably use as part of the preparation of religious rituals, and also as part of the healing ritual. If you were diagnosed with asthma this might be part of the ritual to heal you.  (3, page 336-7)

Herbal Remedies:  There are a variety of herbal remedies used by any member of the Mayan culture to prevent and heal the various ailments that plagued society.

Tobacco:  It was probably ingested in one form or another, as opposed to being smoked, as a remedy for asthma and a variety of other ailments.  (4, page 118)(3, page 337)

Sap of Ramon Tree:  Dried sap was inserted into gourds in order to make rattles for medicine men.  Perhaps in the process of doing this someone drank the sap, and realized it worked well for asthma.  (5, page 28)

Kanlol:  This was a herb that was probably ingested as a draught as a remedy for breathing ailments such as asthma.  While the Maya would not have known this, it is a diuretic that would have worked well for edema and dyspnea caused by heart failure. (3, page 337)

Strong Back:  Aztec men and women were known to carry large loads, and as a result suffered from back aches.  This herb got its name because it was used as an analgesic (pain killer).  Along the way it was also determined to be good for a variety of other ailments, such as asthma.  While the Maya would not have known this, it was an anti spasmotic medicine that relaxed muscles, including the muscles that wrap around the lungs that spasm and cause asthma.  (6, page 48)

Life Everlasting:  This was a plant that got its name from the fact that as its leaves land on the ground new plants spawn.  It was found useful as an asthma remedy.  (6, page 48)

Purslane Poultice:  This is a "pesky plant" that seems to grow everywhere: gardens, curbsides, doorsteps etc.  Many people get rid of it not knowing it's a remedy for asthma.  While the Maya would not have known this, it was an antiinflammatory good for back aches and asthma.  It's Spanish name was verdalaga. (6, page 48)

Surely there were many other remedies for asthma, although these are some of the main ones.  Chances are an asthmatic did not need to call a medicine man in order to feel better, because the American natives of both South and North America had medicine chests or bags that contained natural remedies.  There was also some degree of separation between supernatural and natural medicine, with an obvious overlap.

For example, if the disease was obvious, such as a cut on the foot, a mother might place a salve with a known herbal remedy on the cut.  If the person had asthma and the remedy was known, then perhaps a mother, or a wife, would utilize this natural remedy.  However, when the cause was not known, or if the natural remedy did not work, one did not hesitate to call for the shaman, or the medicine man.

There were obvious differences between the Maya, Aztec and Inca, although some of the culture was shared.  So there is a good chance that medicine among the Aztec and Inca, along with many of the tribes of the region, had a similar health and healing system.

  1. Rubalcaba, Jill, Angela Keller, "Empires of the Maya, 2010, Minnesota, Inforase Publishing
  2. Sigal, Peter Herman, "From Moon Goddesses to Virgins: the colonization of Yucatocan Maya sexual desire," 2000, University of Texas Press, page 104
  3. Foster, Lynn Vasco, "Handbook to life in the ancient Maya world," 2002, New York, Oxford University Press
  4. Sidney, John Eric, "Maya History and Religion," 1970, U.S., University of Oklahoma Press
  5. Nations, James D, "The Maya Tropical Forest: People, Parks and Ancient Cities," 2006, university of Texas Press
  6. Arvigo, rosita, nadine Epstein, "Rain Forest home Remedies:  the Maya way to heal your body and replenish your soul,", 2001, 1st edition, New York, Harper Collins
  7. Vogel, Virgil, "American Indian Medicine," 1970, London, Oklahoma University Press
  8. Prioreschi, Plinio, "A history of medicine: Primitive and ancient medicine," volume 1, 1995, NE, Horatius Press, 
  9. Sigerist, Henry, "A History of Medicine," volume 2, 1961, Oxford University Press
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