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Aztec arthritis treatment in the Badianus Manuscript

Aztec advances (4): treating arthritic pain

This is the fourth in a series of entries based on information in the Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield (Facts on File, 2002). The main image, from the Badianus Manuscript shows (left) the herb tolohuaxihuitl* with the caption ‘For pain in the side’: its scientific name is Datura stramonium and it’s commonly known today around the world as Jimson Weed. In Mexico its popular name is toloache, derived from Nahuatl. The Badianus commentary describes it as ‘one of the most widely known of the narcotic remedies of the Aztecs...’ (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: ‘Jimson Weed’ (Datura stramonium)
Pic 1: ‘Jimson Weed’ (Datura stramonium) (Click on image to enlarge)

‘The Aztec... used steam baths and bathing as part of their treatment regime. They also used datura (Datura stramonium), a sedative that relieves pain, administering it orally during or after the bath or steam bath. Aztec physicians applied a poultice of datura to the painful and inflamed joints as well. Atropine, the pain-relieving chemical in datura, was absorbed through the skin, providing relief as a local anaesthetic. (Atropine is used in some modern topical drugs for arthritis pain.) Aztec physicians were likewise familiar with the analgesic properties of capsicin, the chemical responsible for the spicy taste of chiles. Many analgesics used for arthritis treatment today contain capsicin.’

Pic 2: Illustration of the constituent parts of the plant Datura stramonium
Pic 2: Illustration of the constituent parts of the plant Datura stramonium (Click on image to enlarge)

The Badianus commentary contains the following summary: ‘Among the most interesting of the native Aztec remedies are the narcotics and analgesics. In bone setting, in operations, in making incisions as well as relieving painful bruises and other injuries, pain relieving remedies were applied externally or combined in potions to be taken internally. The most widely used narcotic plants were the numerous species of the genus Datura of which all representatives in Mexico possess narcotic properties.’

Pic 3: Narcotic herbal medicines, from top: tlapatl, nanacatl, peyotl and  toloache (bottom), Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 3: Narcotic herbal medicines, from top: tlapatl, nanacatl, peyotl and toloache (bottom), Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Toloache, alongside related varieties of Datura stramonium such as tlapatl - also known as toloatzin - and mixitl, was just one of several medicinal plants known to and used by the Mexica to treat gout (severe, sudden arthritic joint pain) and fever. Others included nanacatl, axin and picietl. All of these, if ingested, were hallucinogenic. The effect would be similar to that of peyote (in Nahuatl peyotl), a small cactus containing mescaline, known around the world for its ritualistic and medicinal use by native Americans since ancient times.
Such plants - whether chewed, smoked, eaten, drunk (as an infusion) or applied as ointment - were used by the Aztecs, as Bernard Ortiz de Montellano explains, in two ways:-
• as ‘hot’ remedies opposed to a ‘cold’ disease, and
• ‘in a religious, mystical sense, as entheogens (god-containing) remedies whose deities revealed themselves upon ingestion.’

Pic 4: Rubbing toloache onto aching joints; Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 4: Rubbing toloache onto aching joints; Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Thus’, continues Ortiz de Montellano, the plants were ‘partly a means of evoking influence over the ultimate divine cause of the disease’ - in the case of ‘cold, wet’, gout, the rain god Tlaloc and his assistants. The Mexica firmly believed that a deity ‘in a plant’ could cause intoxication, leading to the individual being possessed. The modern term for this ‘entheogen’ (literally ‘God within us’) has replaced the term very popular back in the ‘60s - ‘psychedelics’. This offers clues to the etymology of the plant’s name *tolohuaxihuitl: tolohua, whilst literally in Nahuatl meaning ‘to bow the head’, could either refer to the idea of dozing off under the influence (of something strong), or to the drooping flower on the plant (see pic 1), and xihuitl amongst other meanings, can refer to hallucinogenic plants or herbs. These powerful plants, then, had the power to send your spirit, in Alfredo López Austin’s words ‘on a magical flight to mythical time and space’ - ie, ‘on a trip’ as hippies would say.

Pic 5: Articulated joints of (fire) serpents on the outer rim of the Aztec Sunstone
Pic 5: Articulated joints of (fire) serpents on the outer rim of the Aztec Sunstone (Click on image to enlarge)

Scholars believe that gout was considered a ‘cold’ disease by the Aztecs, needing a ‘hot’ remedy. It was, as Ortiz de Montellano explains, ‘sent by deities of the Tlaloc Complex as punishment (the ultimate cause) but was also said to derive from cold winds and winds issuing from caves (the proximate cause).’ Gout was called by the Aztecs coacihuiztli - literally ‘the stiffness of the serpent’; interestingly, part of the cure for pain in the joints (pic 6) included mixing into the ointment ground up small snakes, scorpions and centipedes. The renowned flexibility of these creatures (pic 5) ‘contributed to alleviation of symptoms such as stiffness through sympathetic magic.’

Pic 6: Medicinal herbs recommended for treatment of ‘disease of the joint’, Flora: The Aztec Herbal, fol. 31 (detail0
Pic 6: Medicinal herbs recommended for treatment of ‘disease of the joint’, Flora: The Aztec Herbal, fol. 31 (detail0 (Click on image to enlarge)

Popularly known in Mexico as ‘the devil’s weed’, toloache has been used for centuries by the indigenous peoples of northern Mexico and the US Southwest both for medicinal and ritualistic purposes, inducing visions and hallucinations. It also has a nationwide reputation as a traditional love potion, regularly on sale as such in places like Mexico City’s famous Sonora Market.
We should end by stressing that these strong medicinal herbs should NOT be taken in large quantities - they have been proven to be very dangerous indeed...

Sources:-
Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield (Facts on File, 2002)
The Badianus Manuscript/’An Aztec Herbal of 1552’, facsimile edition (The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1940)
Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition by Bernard Ortiz de Montellano (Rutgers University Press, 1990)
Florentine Codex, Book 11 - Earthly Things, translated and annotated by Charles E. Dribble and Arthur J.O. Anderson (University of Utah Press, 1963)
Plantas de los Dioses by Richard Evans Schultes and Albert Hofmann (Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico, 1982; original in English).

Image sources:-
• Main image from the Badianus Manuscript/’An Aztec Herbal of 1552’ scanned from our facsimile edition (The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1940)
• Pic 1: photo of Jimson’s Weed: no source given, taken from Wikipedia (Datura stramonium)
• Pic 2: Iilustration: from “Koehler’s Medicinal-Plants’’ 1887, also taken from Wikipedia (Datura stramonium)
• Pix 3 & 4: images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 5: graphic by Phillip Mursell, based on line illustration of the Sunstone by - and courtesy of - Tomás Filsinger
• Pic 6: image scanned from Flora: The Aztec Herbal by Martin Clayton, Luigi Guerrini and Alejandro de Ávila (The Royal Collection, London, 2009).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Feb 24th 2019

emoticon The Florentine Codex says that toloache ‘relieves, drives away, banishes pain’ - especially in gout (commonly inflammation of the big toe). Maybe we should call gout ‘toe-ache’...

‘Toloache: Mexico’s Love Potion Numero Uno’
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