General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 29 Nov 2020/5 Flower
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How much of sobador (massage) culture is prehispanic?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Manuelito: Hello, I’m Mexican-American and my grandmother would give me and my siblings sobados. How much of sobador culture originates from pre-hispanic times? Especially things like curando con huevo, latido, empacho, and mal de ojo? Thanks, it’d be great to learn more about Nahua massage therapy! (Answer compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

A Mexica midwife massages a pregnant woman; Florentine Codex Book VI
A Mexica midwife massages a pregnant woman; Florentine Codex Book VI (Click on image to enlarge)

Very interesting question! Therapeutic touch/massage definitely IS ancient in the Americas, and, thanks to your question, we’ve added a new entry on this in our ‘Aztec Health’ section (link below). There are many illustrations in the Florentine Codex showing healers using their hands on patients suffering from a wealth of ailments.
Curando con huevo - the use of egg yolk or white combined with medicinal herbs to cure illness - is also pre-invasion in origin, and is mentioned in both Central Mexican and Maya sources. For instance, the Badianus Manuscript or ‘Aztec Herbal of 1552’ mentions several traditional remedies containing egg white (five examples) or yolk (ten). Some of these are confirmed in the Florentine Codex...

Applying a potion with egg white to treat a skull wound; Florentine Codex Book X
Applying a potion with egg white to treat a skull wound; Florentine Codex Book X (Click on image to enlarge)

For example, Book Ten of the Codex shows a healer treating a skull wound: after washing the affected area with urine and applying a maguey leaf sap, ‘chipili leaves with [the white of] an egg are applied, or a few toloa leaves with [the white of] an egg.’ Other conditions treated with egg white as part of a potion include eye treatment, ‘bloody sputum’ and the stemming of menstrual blood. Conditions treated with egg yolk include:-
boils, bloodshot eyes, swollen gums/glands/genitalia, wounds, psoriasis, bruised vein, parasite infestation and burns.

‘The possessed one’; Florentine Codex Book X
‘The possessed one’; Florentine Codex Book X (Click on image to enlarge)

When it comes to mal de ojo or ‘evil eye’, scholars have argued for many years over the extent to which the sources on this have been influenced, for better or for worse, by European theories and beliefs. This isn’t the place to go into great detail: we hope it will suffice to quote one of the world experts in this area, Alfredo López Austin:-
’Belief in the evil eye is one of the most widespread in the world. In very general terms it can be defined as the personal emanation of a force that surges forth involuntarily, due to a strong desire, and that it intends to injure whatever being is desired. Today the evil eye is talked about throughout all the territory occupied by Mesoamerica; but apparently both the Spanish name for the evil, as well as the European influence on this concept have been synthesised with varying beliefs or ancient Mesoamerican origin...’
As for empacho: we’ve come across this in reference to stomach disorders, also treated by the Aztecs with herbal medicines; however in his Diccionario de Mejianismos, Francisco Santamaría notes ‘Quebrar el empacho: se dice en Tabasco a la operación de curarlo por medio de la maniobra especial de restirar a uno el cuero del espinazo hasta la rabadilla’, which indicates an action of massage/manipulation on the back, though the word does not appear derived from Nahuatl. Latido we’ve not heard of!

Sources consulted:-
The Human Body and Ideology: Concepts of the Ancient Nahuas vol. 1 by Alfredo López Austin, trans. Ortiz de Montellano, University of Utah Press, 1988
The Florentine Codex Book 10: The People, trans. Dibble & Anderson, University of Utah, 1969
Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition by Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano, Rutgers, 1990
The Badianus Manuscript (Codex Barberini, Latin 241), John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1940
Diccionario de Mejicanismos by Francisco J. Santamaría, 3rd. ed., Editorial Porrua, Mexico, 1978.

Picture sources:-
• 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.

Aztec advances (14): therapeutic touch or massage

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