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Professor Vania Smith-Oka

Plants used for reproductive health among the modern-day Nahua

This article has generously been written specially for us by Vania Smith-Oka, Nancy O’Neill Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Fellow, Kellogg Institute for International Studies, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA.

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As we can see from other pages on this site the Aztecs’ medical knowledge was very sophisticated (see the pages written by Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, Michael Heinrich, and Corrinne Burns). The Aztecs had extremely knowledgeable physicians who used a large range of techniques (from decoctions [extracting fluids from hard plants by boiling] and poultices [soft medicated bandages to relieve inflammation] to bone setting and surgery) to treat and cure their patients. Their midwives were also particularly skilled in helping women and mothers through their reproductive health. Medicinal plants were of great importance in all of these healing practices.

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The modern-day Nahua
Medicinal plants continue to be of great importance to the present-day Nahua, the linguistic descendants of the Aztecs. The Nahua primarily live in rural or peri-urban villages and towns (Pic 1). Many of them have also increasingly migrated to large cities in Mexico, and even north to the United States. It is impossible to generalize about the Nahua people of today, as they number around 1.5 million and live in most of the states of central Mexico. Even Nahuatl itself is a highly variable language, with regional variants existing across the area. The cultural practices of the Nahua are also very different around the country. The Nahua of the Huasteca (a culture-area that covers several states on the east of Mexico, see Pic 2), for instance, hold very particular beliefs about the body and also practice very pre-Hispanic influenced forms of folk Catholicism (Sandstrom 1991) than the Nahua of Guerrero (Pics 3-6). So in the interest of non-generalization, I will focus this work on the Nahua of the Huasteca.

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As with their Aztec ancestors, plants make up a significant part of the medical techniques used by Nahua healing specialists and lay people. The Nahua have traditionally viewed illness and health as dynamic changes in the body. Health is maintained when the body is kept in equilibrium; illness comes about when this equilibrium is lost (Viesca Treviño 1986; Ortiz de Montellano 1987; Signorini and Lupo 1989; Sandstrom 1991; Smith-Oka 2008). The most common causes of disease for the present-day Nahua are spirits called ehecatl. These spirits can enter a person’s body and bring misfortune, illness, or even death.

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Alan Sandstrom (1991) carried out extensive research over many years on the traditional rituals and beliefs of the Nahua of the Huasteca. He saw how the treatment for illness among the Nahua consists of a series of techniques for removing the offending spirit from the patient’s body, which include complex rituals where a combination of prayers, invocations, medicinal plants, and paper cut into anthropomorphic figurines is used. An important part of the ritual is a barrida —ritual cleansing (literally: sweeping) — by which the body is cleansed of the disease-causing spirits (Pic 7). The healing specialist will restore the balance by removing the spirit from a person’s body. Offerings are made to the offending spirits who are coaxed from the body and exhorted to leave (Pic 8) (Gómez Martínez 2002).

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Though the healing techniques of the Nahua, and most indigenous groups, have changed significantly over the past few years with the increase in western medical care, medicinal plants continue to hold an important position in their health care. Non-personalistic views of illness have also entered into people’s ethos, wherein illness and misfortune are also brought about by natural causes rather than only from the spirit world or one’s inter-personal relationships. Treatments for such conditions also follow more naturalistic pathways (such as medicinal plants, massages, and even dietary changes). The concept of equilibrium, however, continues to be central to the Nahua people’s understanding of health and illness.

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Use of medicinal plants
Healing specialists are very knowledgeable about the plants that can be used medicinally and they regularly use them in their healing techniques—applying this knowledge in prescribing and using the plants to heal. Plants are carefully chosen based on the symptoms and possible causation of the illness that the patient has brought. This knowledge is based on a complex, indigenous, Nahuatl classification system very similar to the Aztec taxonomy of medicinal plants (Gates 2000).
The Aztecs divided plants into four classes, according to their uses: edible, medicinal, ornamental, and economic. Within each of these larger classes, however, the plants were also described by the way the five senses (touch, sight, smell, taste, and hearing) observed them; it was through these descriptions that the plant was then classified (Hernández 1942; Gates 2000). A very similar classification and taxonomy can still be observed among present-day Nahua that consists of four interrelated parts: (1) the type of plant it is, (2) its organoleptic property (its taste, smell, and/or texture), (3) its temporal quality (hot or cold—this refers to its humoral quality not its actual temperature), and (4) its shape. Each of these factors direct the healing specialist’s selection of a particular plant.

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Midwives and medicinal plants
One area where plants retain importance is in reproductive health; midwives regularly use medicinal plants in their practice attending pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period. From plants that must be eaten by a pregnant woman to help her baby develop healthily, to those used during labor to speed up the contractions, to others that are used in the post-partum period to help the uterus settle and help the woman get back to normal equilibrium, plants are used regularly and intensively to achieve good health.

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There are many plants that are used among the Nahua for maintaining women’s reproductive health. The texture of the leaves, especially if they attach to people’s clothing or skin, is an important aspect in a plant’s classification. For instance, women who frequently miscarry are told to take an infusion of a “sticky plant” ( Priva lappulaceae (L.) Pers.), which adheres to people’s clothes and skin) in order to help the fetus continue to attach itself to the uterus and come to term at the appropriate time. Also, young women who menstruate heavily are given a tea of another “sticky” plant ( Tillandsia recurvata (L.) L.) to keep their blood inside and not menstruate as much (Smith-Oka 2008). Conversely, plants that are irritating are used to stop a woman’s fertility altogether so that she no longer has any children or even menstruates. Such is the case of xiloxochitl ( Bombax ellipticum Kunth. —pronounced she-low-shoh-chi-tl), a plant that is also mentioned in the Florentine Codex (Sahagún 1963:206). (Pic 9)

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Many of the temporally cool plants are used to treat conditions related to birth. The birthing process—and the associated blood and fluids—are considered extremely hot and hence dangerous to other people. People who are particularly susceptible to the danger from blood are those who have weaker constitutions, such as the elderly, children, and other pregnant or lactating women. The birth fluids are considered so hot (and polluting) that they can burn and hurt someone who is unprepared and/or uninitiated in healing. Only a midwife is deemed able to withstand the polluting and burning properties of blood and bring the mother-baby dyad back into balance.

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In the case of the midwives of the Huasteca, they use a mixture of cool plants to bathe the mother and the newborn so that the balance of hot and cool is once more restored. One of the plants that is included in this healing mixture is Tagetes erecta L., known in Nahuatl as sempoalxochitl (which translates as twenty-flower—pronounced sem-pual-show-chi-tl; it is known in English as marigold). This plant is also important in religious and healing rituals carried out by healing specialists; it is mentioned briefly in the Florentine Codex (Sahagún 1963:214). Corinne Burns shows us in her page on this site how important sempoalxochitl (also spelled cempoalxochitl) was among the Aztecs. Interestingly, its temporal property in the past was as a hot plant used to treat cold illnesses. Among the present-day Nahua of the Huasteca it is considered a cool plant, able to effectively counteract hot conditions. It is worth noting, however, how one of its uses among the Aztecs was as a uterine wash during labor, which could potentially be the precursor to its current-day usage as a post-partum wash (see Pic 10). Another plant in the bathing mixture used by modern-day Nahua midwives is Arundo donax L., which was also used by the Aztecs for excessive heat (Gates 2000:79).

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Isihuayo and necaxantle
There are two reproductive health conditions among the present-day Nahua that are particularly interesting. One is called isihuayo (pronounced ee-see-wa-yo) and the other necaxantle (pronounced ne-ca-shan-tle). Both are related to a bodily imbalance in the woman’s body brought about by engaging (or refraining) from certain behavioral norms.
Isihuayo is used to describe an illness consisting of the displacement of a woman’s uterus. Organ displacement is a relatively common condition among people of Latin America (Berlin and Jara Astorga 1993), which is caused by a general imbalance in the body. It is the actual DISPLACEMENT that contributes to the person’s loss of bodily equilibrium. In this illness category particular organs or parts of the body shift from their original position and cause problems to the person’s health. In the case of uterine displacement, this usually takes place when a woman has been carrying heavy loads, has fallen or received a strong bump, or has had some sort of strong temperature imbalance (such as hand-washing clothes in cold water on a very hot day). (Pic 11)

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Necaxantle is also caused by imbalance, but this happens when a post-partum woman does not rest the sufficient amount of time (usually forty days) after giving birth and does not allow her body to recover. Her body begins to weaken and become wasted and thin, she loses interest in food, and experiences chills and body pain.
What is curious about both isihuayo and necaxantle is that if we really look closer at their causation we see that most of it has to do with women’s workload and lack of social support. Though most rural-living Nahua women work very hard cooking, washing clothes, collecting firewood and water, or tending farm animals, if they do not have additional hands to share the load (in the form of children, siblings, or parents) their work load becomes heavier and they are more likely to have a bodily imbalance due to exhaustion or weakness. In the case of isihuayo, a woman perhaps has no grown sons to carry heavy loads of water or firewood and no daughters to help with cooking and washing clothes. Thus the overwork leads to her weakness and, if during one day she happens to fall down, her uterus is most likely to become dislodged and displaced. The same is true for necaxantle, where if a woman gives birth but has no social support in the form of other women in the household to take on her chores, she has no choice but to begin working soon afterward. Her body thus has no time to recover and so becomes imbalanced.

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Both these illnesses have to be treated by restoring balance to the woman’s body. In the case of isihuayo, this can be achieved through sobadas (massages) of the lower abdomen where a midwife slowly massages the uterus back into place. Medicinal plants are integral to helping a woman treat her isihuayo. For instance, Mentzelia aspera L. (known in Nahuatl as axcualisihuatl, pronounced ash-cua-lee-see-wa-tl) is made into a tea, which the woman must drink as long as her condition exists. This plant is known for sticking to people’s skin and clothes because of its prickly surface, a property that is believed will help the uterus attach itself with greater strength to its proper position (Pic 12). Another method of treating isihuayo is through a steam bath composed of Ocimum basilicum L. (Pic 13) and Piper umbellatum L. ( talachía and acoyo respectively). The woman must squat over the steaming infusion and allow the healing steam to enter her womb, which will make it stronger and allow it to regain equilibrium. Pedilanthus thytimaloides (L.) Poit. ( pilicxitl—pronounced pee-leek-shee-tl, see Pic 14) is used as a vaginal wash (see also Rodríguez López et al. 1998) that also allows the uterus to strengthen and return to its normal position. For most of these plants, a midwife is the one who recommends their usage and who helps with the eventual treatment, including their preparation and form of administration.

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Necaxantle only has one plant treatment, which is Solanum wendlandii Hook, known in Nahuatl as necaxancuamecatl (literally: the liana that eats necaxantle—and pronounced neh-cah-shan-cua-meh-ca-tl). A woman who suffers from this condition must bathe with this plant that has previously been broken up and mixed with well water. She will only be considered to be completely cured once she has rested enough time and her body begins to gain equilibrium: she is stronger and begins to gain normal weight.

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In conclusion
So as we can see from the medicinal techniques of modern-day Nahua midwives, they continue to have a strong reliance on a large number of medicinal plants, but they combine these with their own techniques, the most important of which is the sobada. The central element in the midwives’ medical treatments is to make sure that all the woman’s reproductive organs, and the body itself, are in equilibrium. It is difficult to say what the future will bring to the usage of medicinal plants among indigenous groups such as the Nahua, as the presence of modern medicine has frequently overtaken traditional medicine in small, rural communities (Pic 15). Perhaps programs encouraging indigenous groups to re-value their traditions and beliefs could be a step towards medical pluralism—where modern medicine is available, but local ideas are not lost and remain important in people’s daily lives.

• Berlin, Elois Ann, and Victor M. Jara Astorga
1993 Me’ Winik: Discovery of the Biomedical Equivalence for a Maya Ethnomedical Syndrome. Social Science and Medicine 37(5):671-678.
• Gates, William
2000 [1939] An Aztec Herbal: The Classic Codex of 1552. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.
• Gómez Martínez, Arturo
2002 Tlaneltokilli: La Espiritualidad de los Nahuas Chicontepecanos. Mexico: Ediciones del Programa de Desarrollo Cultural de la Huasteca.
• Hernández, Francisco
1942 [1572] Historia de las Plantas de Nueva España. Tome I. México City: Imprenta Universitaria
• Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard
1987 Caida de Mollera: Aztec Sources for a Mesoamerican Disease of Alleged Spanish Origin. Ethnohistory 34 (4):381-399.
• Rodríguez López, Teresita, Abigail Aguilar, and Humberto Macías Cuéllar
1963 General History of the Things of New Spain: Book 11, Earthly Things. Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson, trans. Santa Fe: School of American Research; Salt Lake City: University of Utah.
• Sandstrom Alan R.
1991 Corn is Our Blood: Culture and Ethnic Identity in a Contemporary Aztec Village. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
• Signorini, Italo, and Alessandro Lupo
1989 Los Tres Ejes de la Vida: Almas, Cuerpo, Enfermedad entre los Nahuas de la Sierra de Puebla. Mexico: Universidad Veracruzana.
• Smith-Oka, Vania
2008 Plants used for Reproductive Health by Nahua Women in Northern Veracruz, Mexico. Journal of Economic Botany 62(4):604-614.
• Viesca Treviño, Carlos
1986 Medicina Prehispánica de México: El Conocimiento Médico de los Nahuas. México: Panorama Editorial.

Note on picture sources:-
All photographs and map courtesy Vania Smith-Oka.
Many thanks to Cara Davies from the University of Notre Dame for her invaluable help with the images in this article.

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