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Obsidian blades, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

What exactly was ‘obsidian medicine’?

Obsidian, a hard, brittle volcanic glass notoriously difficult to work, was a material with a wealth of symbolic, practical, religious and ritual value in ancient Mesoamerica. But was it also used for medicinal purposes? The Florentine Codex would suggest so: there is a lengthy reference to it in Book 9, in which sacrificial victims offered by the featherwork craft community of Amantlan to their gods were made to drink ‘obsidian medicine’ before being despatched to the gods. What exactly were they being treated with/to...? (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Representations of (obsidian) projectile points were commonly depicted associated with warriors. Codex Magliabecchiano, fol. 7r
Pic 1: Representations of (obsidian) projectile points were commonly depicted associated with warriors. Codex Magliabecchiano, fol. 7r (Click on image to enlarge)

According to the Codex, ‘in order that they [the victims] would not fear, that they would not dread death, they first made them drink what they called the obsidian medicine. It is said that apparently by means of it they deprived them of their senses, of their consciousness, so that no longer would they be afraid at the time that they cut open their breasts.... some... became quite deranged; quite of their own wills they climbed - ran - up to the top [of the temple] of the devil, longing for - seeking [death], even though they were to suffer, to perish.’ Powerful stuff! But was it ‘medicine’, and did it contain obsidian?
The word in Nahuatl doesn’t give us much of a clue: itzpactli literally does mean obsidian medicine, and in Nahua culture certain stones have always had medicinal properties. Indeed, Book 11 of the Florentine Codex actually lists ‘some of the stones which are also medicines’. So the idea, nasty though it sounds, is possible, if not plausible...

Pic 2: ‘Toltec [glossy dark blue-green] obsidian’ (the highest quality) (top); the ‘bloodstone’ (bottom). Florentine Codex Book 11
Pic 2: ‘Toltec [glossy dark blue-green] obsidian’ (the highest quality) (top); the ‘bloodstone’ (bottom). Florentine Codex Book 11 (Click on image to enlarge)

We should remember that the Nahua had a high reputation and respect for medicine, which they defined - significantly - as ‘knowledge of precious stones’ and to which they attributed a noble Toltec origin (Book 10) (pic 2). Earlier in the same book, a good physician is depicted as ‘a knower of herbs, of stones, of trees, of roots’. To give one example, the ‘bloodstone’ (eztetl) (pic 2, bottom) (so named as it appeared with a mottled-blood texture) was recommended for soothing a wounded, bleeding body.

Pic 3: Grinding (charcoal) on a metate, Florentine Codex Book 11 (L); ground obsidian on a metate (R)
Pic 3: Grinding (charcoal) on a metate, Florentine Codex Book 11 (L); ground obsidian on a metate (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

The eminent French anthropologist Jacques Soustelle sums up this ancient tradition in his classic work Daily Life of the Aztecs on the Eve of the Spanish Conquest:-
’The Mexican physicians understood the use of treatment founded upon a certain knowledge of the human body - a knowledge that was no doubt quite widely spread in a country with such frequent human sacrifices - and of the properties of plants and minerals. They reduced fractures and they splinted broken limbs. They were clever at bleeding patients with obsidian lancets. They put softening plasters upon abscesses and finely-ground obsidian upon wounds - “Ground like flour, this stone spread on recent wounds and sores, heals them very quickly” [Sahagún]”’.
But was it actually consumed as a drink...?!

Pic 4: ‘Eccentric flints’ (usually obsidian): on display, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (L); Toltec culture representing drops of water or blood (centre); Maya culture, Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels (R)
Pic 4: ‘Eccentric flints’ (usually obsidian): on display, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (L); Toltec culture representing drops of water or blood (centre); Maya culture, Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Another source comes close to the idea: in his classic work Diccionario de Mitología Nahuatl, Cecilio Robelo quotes Torquemada describing a highly esteemed and ‘mystical’ drink consumed by the king and his entourage that was said to infuse and invigorate the soul with valour and ‘unstoppable determination’, taken when swearing an oath at moments of great historical importance. This was itzpacalatl (also known as itzpactli), ‘water of washed obsidian’, a mixture of human blood (from sacrifices) and the residue from ritually washing obsidian blades used to sever human flesh.
Moreover, blood, hearts and obsidian were linked symbolically and ritually as well as physically: in iconography (pic 4), in acts of self-sacrifice, in burial rites (obsidian being the commoner’s equivalent of the noble’s jade stone placed in the mouth to represent [’serve as’] a heart in the next world)...

Pic 5: A obsidian blade in a bowl of water gave the Mexica protection against bad spirits...
Pic 5: A obsidian blade in a bowl of water gave the Mexica protection against bad spirits... (Click on image to enlarge)

A further connection with medicine stems from obsidian’s close association with - amongst other deities - Tezcatlipoca (famed for his black ‘smoking’ obsidian mirror). Alejandro Pastrana cites Fray Durán in referring to a black paste, representing obsidian, with medicinal properties: ‘They came from everywhere to the temple of Tezcatlipoca... to have the divine medicine applied, and they covered with it the part where they felt pain, and they felt noticeable relief... it seemed to them celestial...’
Being a reflective volcanic glass obsidian was also imbued with protective qualities: Pastrana gives an example from Sahagún -
’They had another superstition, they would say that to keep the sorcerers from coming into the house to do harm it was useful to place a black stone blade in a bowl of water [pic 5] behind the door or in the courtyard of the house at night, they said that the sorcerers would see themselves there and seeing themselves in the water with the blade they fled.’

Pic 6: Block of Mesoamerican obsidian. British Museum, cat. no. Am.9114-9115
Pic 6: Block of Mesoamerican obsidian. British Museum, cat. no. Am.9114-9115 (Click on image to enlarge)

Since obsidian was believed, like gold and silver, to be a divine secretion, such as seed - of celestial origin but residing below the earth’s surface - miners of obsidian may well have feared disturbing the earth’s innards, as they dug deep down into the ‘prohibited underworld’ (Pastrana). Not surprisingly, (protective) figurines of gods associated with obsidian (Tezcatlipoca, Itzpapalotl, Itzli...) have been found both in mines themselves and in obsidian workshops above ground. Miners had to perform important rituals dedicated to these deities both before and after physically entering the underworld. It’s no coincidence that one of the challenges facing souls on their four-year journey down to Mictlan was facing an icy wind that could slice through you ‘like an obsidian blade’.

Pic 7: Flint knives looming over bowls of agave wine (‘octli’) (bottom L); Codex Vindobonensis pl. 20 (detail)
Pic 7: Flint knives looming over bowls of agave wine (‘octli’) (bottom L); Codex Vindobonensis pl. 20 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

So where does all this leave us regarding ‘obsidian medicine’?
The answer lies in OTHER deities bearing associations with obsidian. In his masterful book on Tezcatlipoca Mockeries and Metamorphoses of an Aztec God, Guilhem Olivier notes ‘The deities of the agave wine and the drink itself are sometimes associated with obsidian or flint’, with flint knives appearing symbolically over bowls of octli (known as pulque in Mexico today) (pic 7). The eminent German scholar Eduard Seler was one of the first to describe the ritual alcoholic drink of the Aztecs as ‘the “cutting” drink’. Pulque deities, such as Patécatl (sometimes found as Pantécatl) can be seen carrying obsidian instruments (pic 8, left). And an obsidian sceptre with a spherical crown was an important accessory of Techálotl, another pulque god (follow link below to learn more).

Pic 8: Pulque deity Patécatl bearing a large obsidian knife (L - Codex Vaticanus 3773, pl. 90, detail); and holding a ‘pulque enhancer’ (R - Codex Borbonicus, pl. 11, detail)
Pic 8: Pulque deity Patécatl bearing a large obsidian knife (L - Codex Vaticanus 3773, pl. 90, detail); and holding a ‘pulque enhancer’ (R - Codex Borbonicus, pl. 11, detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

But we’re not talking here of ‘standard’ pulque: there was a super, knock-out ‘augmented’ variety which contained a special root or herb - sometimes called a ‘pulque enhancer’ - giving it an almost lethal kick. Interestingly, it was Patécatl who was said to have discovered these magical roots that were added to aguamiel (‘honey-water’ - the sweet sap of the maguey agave before it is fermented). The root, called quapatli or ocpatli was always shown as a folded, knotted two-strand cord (pic 8, right). Perhaps the effect of adding this root was, like other drugs commonly found in ancient Mexico, hallucinogenic. Fray Durán mentions such powerful ‘wines’ more than once, usually ‘in connection with men about to endure a terrible fate...’ (Berdan & Rieff Anawalt, vol. 2).

Pic 9: Examples of excessive drinking in Aztec times, with the ‘pulque-enhancer’ root clearly visible; Codex Mendoza, fol. 70r, detail (top), Codex Tudela, fol. 70, detail (bottom)
Pic 9: Examples of excessive drinking in Aztec times, with the ‘pulque-enhancer’ root clearly visible; Codex Mendoza, fol. 70r, detail (top), Codex Tudela, fol. 70, detail (bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

Whilst supposedly restricted to ritual and ceremonial use, examples in the codices clearly show the pulque enhancer root linked to scenes of (commoner) drunkenness; in the case of the Codex Tudela (pic 9, bottom) the root is actually entering the vat of pulque!
In conclusion, then, ‘obsidian medicine’ was for the Mexica a simple metaphor for super-potent pulque, given to sacrificial victims in the build-up to their departure from the world both to deaden their senses and to encourage them to waltz up the steps of the temple-pyramid with positive enthusiasm. The mind, literally, boggles...

Sources consulted:-
The Florentine Codex, Books X and XI (Eds. Charles E. Dibble & Arthur J. O. Anderson), School of American Research, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1979
Daily Life of the Aztecs on the Eve of the Spanish Conquest by Jacques Soustelle, Stanford Uni Press, California, 1961
The Human Body and Ideology: Concepts of the Ancient Nahuas by Alfredo López Austin, Vol. I (trans. Ortiz de Montellano), Uni of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 1988
Diccionario de Mitología Nahuatl by Cecelia A. Robelo, Ediciones Fuente Cultural, Mexico City, 1951 (2nd. ed.)
Mockeries and Metamorphoses of an Aztec God by Guilhem Olivier, University Press of Colorado, 2003
The Codex Mendoza by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt (Vol. II), University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1992
• ‘La Obsidiana en Mesoamérica by Alejandro Pastrana, Arqueología Mexicana no. 80, Jul-Aug 2006, pp.49-54
• ‘The Symbolism of Obsidian in Postclassic Central Mexico’ by Alejandro Pastrana and Ivonne Athie, in Obsidian Reflections: Symbolic Dimensions of Obsidian in Mesoamerica (Eds. Marc N. Levine and David M. Carballo, University Press of Colorado, Boulder, 2014
A Guide to Tequila, Mezcal and Pulque by Virginia Bottorff de Barrios, Editorial Minutiae Mexicana, Mexico City, 1980.

Picture sources:-
• Main pic: photo by Ana Laura Linda/Mexicolore
• Pic 1: image from the Codex Magliabecchiano scanned from our now copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1970
• Pix 2 and 3(L): 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
• Pix 3(R), 4(L) & 5: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 4(centre): photo by and courtesy of Alejandro Pastrana
• Pic 4(R): photo by Michel Wal, Wikipedia (‘Eccentric flint’)
• Pic 6: photo © Trustees of the British Museum
• Pic 7: image from the Codex Vindobonensis scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pic 8(L): image from the Codex Vaticanus 3773 scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1972
• Pic 8(R): image from the Codex Borbonicus scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pic 9 (top): image from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clarke facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Pic 9 (bottom): image from the Codex Tudela scanned from our copy of the Testimonio Compañía Editorial facsimile edition, Madrid, 2002.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Nov 26th 2018

emoticon Q. How would you describe an Aztec sacrificial victim who’s been given ‘obsidian medicine’?
A. STONED...

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