General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 28 Feb 2021/5 Monkey
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Therapeutic massage by an Aztec midwife treating a pregnant mother in a steam bath

Aztec advances (14): therapeutic touch or massage

This is the fourteenth in a series of entries based on information in the Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield (Facts on File, 2002). Believed to have been a universal treatment among the native peoples of the Americas pre-invasion, therapeutic touch or healing massage was common practice for Mexica midwives to treat pregnant mothers and to aid childbirth... (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore).

Illustration by Irina Botcharova and Leonid Nepomniachi from the book ‘Pasajes de la Historia Volume 1’, published by Mexico Desconocido / Conaculta, Mexico
Illustration by Irina Botcharova and Leonid Nepomniachi from the book ‘Pasajes de la Historia Volume 1’, published by Mexico Desconocido / Conaculta, Mexico

‘Therapeutic touch is a form of massage that is used for health rather than mere relaxation... The practice goes back hundreds of years in the precontact Americas... The Inca used therapeutic touch to treat rheumatism and lumbago... They developed a special tool to enhance the massage... The Aztec used therapeutic touch/massage in conjunction with the steam bath... [In North America] the Pima used it extensively for alleviating localised pain. Cherokee healers of the Southeast warmed their hands over hot coals before massaging their patients. They used massage to treat sprains, localised pain, and menstrual cramps.’
Book 6 of the Florentine Codex describes the Aztec practice during pregnancy: ‘The midwife fired, heated the sweat bath, where she massaged the pregnant woman’s abdomen; she placed aright [the unborn child]. She placed it straight; she kept turning it as she massaged her, as she went on manipulating her...

An Aztec midwife massages a pregnant woman in a sweatbath; Florentine Codex Book VI
An Aztec midwife massages a pregnant woman in a sweatbath; Florentine Codex Book VI (Click on image to enlarge)

‘And when the pregnant woman came forth from the sweat bath, at that time she massaged her. Many times the midwife massaged the abdomen of the pregnant woman. Sometimes it was even outside the sweatbath, nor was the pregnant woman bathed in the sweatbath. It was said she just massaged her raw.’
Massage was not just undertaken with the hands. In the traditional temazcalli or Nahua steambath - its powerful metaphorical name being xochicalli or ‘House of Flowers’ - the healer or attendant ‘switches’ or thwacks the patient with dampened maize leaves or bundles of long, and often fragrant, grasses and medicinal herbs to increase the flow of perspiration. The bathhouse - ‘an architectural personification of the warm, moist womb of the mother goddess’ (Sullivan) - has always served not only to clean - and purify - both body and soul, but also to help treat certain diseases and conditions - particularly bronchial and rheumatic but extending to stomach pains, wounds, bone fractures, swellings, poisonous bites, even traumas.

Bundles of maize leaves in a modern ‘temazcal’ steambath
Bundles of maize leaves in a modern ‘temazcal’ steambath (Click on image to enlarge)

Though most commonly associated with therapeutic support during pregnancy and childbirth, the steambath also aided recovery from a range of ailments - from exhaustion to bruising occasioned during violent play in the ritual ballgame: scholars have reported the presence near ball courts not only of skull racks but also of - quite large - steambaths, presumably catering for more than one sufferer at one time...*

Key sources:-
Temazcalli: Higiene, terapéutica, obstetricia y ritual en el nuevo mundo by José Alcina Franch, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Seville, 2000
Florentine Codex Book 6: Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy, trans. Dibble & Anderson, University of Utah, 1969.
Quote from A Scattering of Jades: Stories, Poems and Prayers of the Aztecs trans. Thelma D. Sullivan, University of Arizona Press, 1994, p. 247.

Picture sources:-
• Main and pic 3: 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
• Colour illustration - as noted above in picture caption
• Modern steambath: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 25th 2020

emoticon * - what we’d perhaps call teambaths...

Learn a little more about the temazcal...

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