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Aztec day sign Deer, by Felipe Dávalos/Mexicolore

A new medicine - thanks to deer...

Many of us wonder how people around the world first ‘discover’ which herbs and plants contain positive medicinal properties and which are dangerous and to be avoided. Is it by trial-and-error, by accident, or by being at one with the natural world, giving humans a significant head-start? In pre-invasion Mesoamerica, being ‘in the right place at the right time’ and being totally in tune with their environment led to some intriguing advances. The deer, perhaps because it was the most hunted animal, was also considered sacred, as the guardian of all other animals in the forest, and as one of the twenty day/calendar signs for both Aztecs and Maya. It also gave up a healthcare secret that was to serve humans well... (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Atochietl, Badianus Manuscript pl. 24 (detail)
Pic 1: Atochietl, Badianus Manuscript pl. 24 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Europeans were deeply impressed by the advanced medical knowledge of the Mexica, to the extent that King Philip II of Spain financed the first scientific mission to the New World, under the leadership of botanist and physician Francisco Hernández de Toledo, who succeeded in collecting, cataloguing and describing the benefits to humans of over 3,000 Mexican medicinal plants - an extraordinary feat in its day. In his Historia Natural de la Nueva España (1577) Hernández provides us with an intriguing native treatment for wounds, based on the use of the plant atochietl (pic 1):-
’It was discovered that when deer were shot with arrows and felt wounded mortally, they would run toward it [the plant] and eating it would regain their strength and were able to flee more rapidly. It was thus discovered and it was found that it is extraordinarily beneficial for recent wounds particularly if they are poisoned.’

Pic 2: ‘The Wounded Deer’ by Frida Kahlo (1946)
Pic 2: ‘The Wounded Deer’ by Frida Kahlo (1946) (Click on image to enlarge)

As Bernard Ortiz de Montellano puts it, ‘The Aztecs clearly were keen observers of nature and used empirically derived medicines.’
Inspired perhaps in part by ancient wisdom and lore surrounding deer in Mexico - and by her own pet deer Granizo - the great Mexican artist Frida Kahlo painted her famous self-portrait oll painting The Wounded Deer (1946), in which she shares her pain and suffering with the world around her, finding solace in the image of the long-suffering deer. Long, long ago the deer shared its intimacy with and knowledge of the natural world of plants with its human predators, reaching out innocently to humanity...

Main source:-
Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition by Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick and London, 1990
Image sources:-
• Main pic: illustration created for Mexicolore by and © Felipe Dávalos/Mexicolore
• Pic 1: image scanned from our own copy of The Badianus Manuscript (Codex Barberini, Latin 241) Vatican Library An Aztec Herbal of 1552, edited by Emily Walcott Emmart, The Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1940
• Pic 2: image from Wikipedia (‘The Wounded Deer’).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jul 19th 2019

Learn more about Frida Kahlo and deer symbolism

Learn more about Francisco Hernández (Wikipedia)
Learn more about ‘The Wounded Deer’ (Wikipedia)
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