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Peyote, Florentine Codex Book XI

Aztec advances (6): anaesthetics

This is the sixth 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). The main image shows a Mexica man consuming peyote as a concoction - from the Florentine Codex (Book XI). (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: A group of Lophophora williamsii
Pic 1: A group of Lophophora williamsii (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Anaesthetics... were used by pre-Columbian physicians in the Americas for a number of medical problems, such as bone fractures, gout, rheumatism, and neuralgia. American Indians also used anaesthetics for surgery, including brain surgery as early as 1000 BC...
’The Aztec... employed peyote (Lophophora williamsii) as an anaesthetic for many years before contact with Europeans. Aztec physicians used a lotion made from the root of the plant for health problems such as sore feet and headaches. Taken internally, a decoction of peyote served as a fever reducer[*]. Indians of southern Arizona and northern Mexico used peyote to dull the pain of large open wounds, snakebites and fractures. They ground the root of the peyote plant, prepared it as a poultice, and applied it to the injured area. Peyote’s anaesthetic properties were so effective that in the 1800s U.S. Army surgeons used the plant as a painkiller as well.’

Pic 2: Huichol bead craft depicting a blue bear with scorpion and peyote imagery
Pic 2: Huichol bead craft depicting a blue bear with scorpion and peyote imagery (Click on image to enlarge)

Peyote is a Mexican Spanish word, derived from the Nahuatl peyotl which most dictionaries translate as ‘cocoon’. Peyote has two entries, with one illustration (main picture), in the Florentine Codex, in Chapter 7 of Book XI, the first as a hallucinogenic plant and then in the listing of - almost 150 - ‘medicinal herbs’.
Peyote was - and is - sacred to the Huichol people (whose language has ancient connections with Nahuatl) and is common in Huichol imagery, still today (see pic 2).
* As a fever reducer peyote, like other hallucinogenic remedies, as Bernard de Montellano explains ‘the treatments had several objectives. As emetics [to make the patient vomit], they were eaten or drunk to eliminate phlegm, the proximate cause. Symbolically, they were ‘hot’ substances counteracting a ‘cold’ disease. Finally, as hallucinogens, they were a pathway to the gods, the ultimate cause...’
It’s interesting to note that in the colonial period peyote’s name was changed by local people to ‘Mary’s rose’, to avoid its detection by friars hell-bent on eliminating ancient practices.

Sources:-
Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield (Facts on File, 2002)
Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition by Bernard Ortiz de Montellano (Rutgers University Press, 1990)
Florentine Codex, Book 11 - Earthy Things, translated and annotated by Charles E. Dribble and Arthur J.O. Anderson (University of Utah Press, 1963).

Picture sources:-
• Image 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
• Other pictures: photos from Wikipedia (Peyote and Huichol).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 22nd 2019

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