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Corrinne Burns

How to cure the stiffening of the serpent: herbal medicine, Aztec style.

This article, by Corrinne Burns (right) and Randolph Arroo, was first published in the journal ‘Herbs’ (vol. 30, no. 3, 2005), and is presented here (with our own illustrations) by kind permission of the editor of Herbs. See below for more details of the Herb Society.

Working with ‘maticeuac’, a small herb ‘required as a cure by one who has the nose-bleed, who cannot stop it.’ Florentine Codex, Book XI.
Working with ‘maticeuac’, a small herb ‘required as a cure by one who has the nose-bleed, who cannot stop it.’ Florentine Codex, Book XI. (Click on image to enlarge)

“The good physician is a diagnostician, experienced – a knower of herbs, of stones, of trees, and of roots.” - “The Physician”, Florentine Codex, Book 10: The People.

The Hawthorn building, De Montfort University, home of the Leicester School of Pharmacy
The Hawthorn building, De Montfort University, home of the Leicester School of Pharmacy

A well-known predilection towards human sacrifice has darkened our retrospective portrait of the Aztecs, because we observe them though a distorting veneer of blood. However, there was a far more human and recognizable side to Aztec daily life. Sixteenth century manuscripts of Mexico represent a vast resource of medicinal potential that is still largely underappreciated in Europe. The Leicester School of Pharmacy and Phyto-Research Ltd in Loughborough are working towards deeper understanding of the uses of Aztec herbs.

Cover and first page of the Badianus Manuscript (original in the Vatican Library)
Cover and first page of the Badianus Manuscript (original in the Vatican Library) (Click on image to enlarge)

Two manuscripts – codices – produced in 16th Century Mexico, just after the Spanish Conquest of the Aztec empire, stand out and form the basis of the research.
The Badianus Manuscript (also known as The Codex Barberini).
After the fall of the Aztec Empire, the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco was founded for the Catholic education of the “natives”. The head of the College commissioned a young Aztec man, who had taken on the name of Martin de la Cruz and was an expert in the medicinal use of native plants, to write an herbal textbook that would impress upon Spanish royalty the great progress that was being made by the combination of native experience and Catholic education.

‘Curation of the head’ - the first of Martin de la Cruz’s herbal prescriptions, Badianus Manuscript
‘Curation of the head’ - the first of Martin de la Cruz’s herbal prescriptions, Badianus Manuscript (Click on image to enlarge)

The result, the “Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis”, completed in 1552, was the first herbal and medical textbook to be produced in the New World. It was originally written in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, but later translated into Latin by a professor at the college, the Aztec nobleman Juan Badiano. The book is often referred to as the “Badianus Manuscript”. Upon completion, the Badianus Manuscript was sent to the Spanish Court, but later found its way to the Barberini Library in the Vatican. The obscure manuscript once known only as “Codex Barberini, Latin 241” was rediscovered in 1929, and from thereon given the prominence it deserves.
Martin de la Cruz organized his herbal remedies according to body part – beginning, logically enough, with “the curation of the head”, and proceeding via “lousy distemper” and the “rumblings of the abdomen” on towards “signs of approaching death”.

The Florentine Codex in its present home, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence
The Florentine Codex in its present home, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence (Click on image to enlarge)

The Florentine Codex
Because the manuscript was intended to impress an important Spanish audience, the work was influenced by European medical opinion of the time, which was not so far removed from magic. As a result, another manuscript by Friar Bernardino de Sahagún, who went to Mexico from Spain in 1529, is preferred by those who wish to make a serious study of Aztec herbal medicine. Sahagún, who learned Nahuatl so that he could speak directly to Aztec elders, documented the lives of the Aztecs in the hope of protecting something of their culture from the crushing weight of Spanish occupation. Sahagún’s monumental General History of the Things of New Spain – or the Florentine Codex – is almost an Encyclopaedia Britannica of Aztec Mexico.

Use of ‘tlatlanquaie’ a shrub used to treat stomach disorders, Florentine Codex Book XI
Use of ‘tlatlanquaie’ a shrub used to treat stomach disorders, Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Book 11 (“Earthy Things”) of the Florentine Codex is devoted to everything that lives or occurs in the Earth – from “four-footed forest dwellers” to the metals of the soil. The Aztecs’ devotion to herbal medicine is illustrated by the sheer space devoted to this in the book – the 2nd largest chapter in Earthy Things is given to herbs. (Only “Serpents and other poisonous animals”, are given more space.)
The Aztec elders who informed Sahagún’s Florentine Codex classified herbs as being hallucinogens (“those which perturb one”), blossoms, “all the different herbs”, and “the medicinal herbs”. The latter alone covers 142 distinct species with botanical descriptions, habitat, and detailed indications.

The entry for ‘cacaloxochitl’, Florentine Codex, Book XI
The entry for ‘cacaloxochitl’, Florentine Codex, Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Hot and cold
Like Europeans of the time, Aztecs believed that plants were “hot” or “cold”, and could be used to correct excess heat or cold in the body. Excess cold in the body was concomitant with the retention of water, and cold/watery illnesses like gout ( coacihuiztli, which literally translates as “the stiffening of the serpent”) would be remedied with the application of a hot herb. Interestingly, many of the hot herbs, such as yauhtli (Tagetes lucida), act as diuretics, removing excess water from the body. Yauhtli was frequently used together with the hot herb iztauhyatl (Artemisia mexicana), the leaves of which were ground in water and drunk. Conversely the root of the Tlalmizquitl (Prosopis juliflora, the mesquite tree) is “required by him whose body is very hot...it is the proper drink to cool his body”.

‘Cococxiuuitl’ - a rather fierce Aztec answer to constipation... Florentine Codex, Book XI
‘Cococxiuuitl’ - a rather fierce Aztec answer to constipation... Florentine Codex, Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztec pharmacopoeia
This is medicine from the people who gave the world chocolate, and some Aztec remedies sound attractive whether you’ve been taken ill or not. Sweet-smelling flowers – the Aztec word for flower is ‘xochitl’ - were considered to be medicinal. De la Cruz describes an attractive remedy for the relief of fatigue, requiring eloxochitl (Magnolia dealbata), izquixochitl (Bourreria humilis), cacaloxochitl (Plumeria mexicana, a frangipani described as being of “exceeding beauty”) and mecaxochitl(Vanilla planifolia). Together with a few other “sweet summer flowers”, a fragrant water is made which will give “gladiatorial strength to the body” of the patient who bathes in it.
The Aztecs’ love of sweet flowers is illustrated by the contempt they show for those that are not fragrant – poor old Tlalcacaloxochitl (Plumeria acutifolia); it may be a very popular frangipani now, but to the Aztecs it was “useless, without fragrance, it disappoints one”. It’s even worse for Tzompanquauitl (Erythrina americana), the naked coral tree – “nowhere pleasing, nowhere required, nowhere desired – they are sorry things”, which seems a bit harsh.

Using ‘toloa’, a ‘fever medicine’ to relieve gout, Florentine Codex, Book XI
Using ‘toloa’, a ‘fever medicine’ to relieve gout, Florentine Codex, Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Diarrhoea and wounds occupied a great deal of the Aztec physician’s attention. The latter is unsurprising for a people always at war, but given that the Aztecs had aqueducts for fresh drinking water and separate waste disposal systems, the incidence of diarrhoea seems odd. It has been suggested that this symptom was a response to the high levels of repressed anxiety that must have existed in such a violent society.

Given as treatments for digestive troubles are the cotztomatl (Physalis costomatl - incidentally the Aztec word “tomatl” is the root of our “tomato”); mecaxochitl, “for internal ailments”; memeya (a Euphorbia), good for “one whose abdomen goes resounding”; and the cococxiuitl (Bocconia frutescens), used for constipation. Apparently the latter cannot be eaten or drunk, but must be inserted in, shall we say, the other end of the alimentary canal. Sahagún’s informant warned, “It burns like chilli”. Fortunately he added that “not much is required”, for which the patient must have been grateful.

For the ever-present gout the Aztec herbalist applied picietl (Nicotiana rustica, a wild tobacco) – also good for relieving tiredness.
Respiratory illnesses don’t appear all that frequently in the Aztec literature, but recommended for a chesty cough is the Tlaquequetzal (Achillea millefolium, or yarrow).
The activities of the Aztec warriors kept the healers busy. For “him who is pierced by an arrow”, the leaves and bark of the waxy chapolxiuitl (Pedilanthus pavonis) are applied to the wound, as it a preparation of zayolitzcan (Buddleia americana). The combination of agave sap and salt is a very regular occurrence in wound remedies - agave sap, when mixed with salt, forms a solution that kills bacteria by dehydrating them.

The interior of a traditional ‘temazcal’ steam bath, still widely in use today
The interior of a traditional ‘temazcal’ steam bath, still widely in use today (Click on image to enlarge)

The Nahua
Although the Aztec Empire did not survive the Conquest, the Nahuatl-speaking indigenous people of Mexico still practice a medicine based almost entirely on plants, many of which were also used by their Aztec ancestors. Together with the Aztec manuscripts, the skills of the Mexican healers could help to educate us about new sources of plant-based medicine – indeed, many ethnobotanists are keen to learn from Nahuatl herbalists, as Sahagún was in his day. But care must be taken to perform this sort of research in a way that respects the people and traditions of rural Mexico – so that the good physician would be happy to share his experience with us.

Need a tonic? Try this recipe. Take the sap of the yellow-leafed maguey (Agave atrovirens), and cook it together with some yellow chilli and tomato juice, and ten gourd seeds. Take after eating.
After that you may need some Aztec toothpaste. Take the root of the tlatlauhcapatli (Geranium carolinianum), together with some salt and chilli, and make a paste. Rub the paste into your teeth, if you dare. And for a mouthwash, try an infusion of iztauhyatl (Artemisia mexicana).

Picture sources:-
• Florentine Codex images scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Photo of The Hawthorn building, De Montfort University, taken from the homepage of the Leicester School of Pharmacy website
• Badianus Manuscript images scanned from our own copy of ‘The Badianus Manuscript (Codex Barberini, Latin 241), John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1940
• Photo of the Florentine Codex in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana taken from promotional leaflet issued with the Club Internacional del Libro facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Photo of temazcal interior by Ian Mursell.

[Overseas membership of the Herb Society is £38. Email
info@herbsociety.org.uk for rates or write to The Herb Society, PO Box 626, Banbury OX16 6EY, United Kingdom, or follow the link to their website]

emoticon The hard-working Aztec physician had to deal with such ailments as the “lousy distemper”, the “goatlike smell of the armpits”, and even those patients “harassed by evil wind”. Try asking the GP for something to treat that one. But you’ll be glad to hear that you can relieve your lousy distemper with a cocktail of deer horn ground in wine, and “octli” – a potent alcoholic drink made from the agave, and not unlike tequila. Cheers!

Research paper on Aztec health and medicine by Francisco Guerra
The Herb Society’s website
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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: It IS from the Florentine Codex! Remember this codex was a post-colonial document, written in Spanish as well as Náhuatl, a massive project coordinated by Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish (Franciscan) friar.
Mexicolore replies: Many thanks for correcting this, Thomas! We’ve now inserted the right image, which you kindly referred us to.
Mexicolore replies: Thanks for pointing this out, Cristina. A friend of ours was thinking of importing canned pulque to the UK recently, but so far no luck!
Mexicolore replies: No todavía, lamentablemente. Dependemos de la buena voluntad de amigos que tengan tiempo para preparar traducciones de las páginas individualmente... ¡Ojalá que pronto se nos aparezca por ahí algún voluntario!