By Helen Jones Alvarado
We don’t know all there is to know about Aztec medicine. Still, we do have enough information to draw a general picture of what it was like to be a patient then. The Aztecs did not differentiate between science, magic, and religion, and instead incorporated all these factors in their daily lives.
Some standard tools used in healing were divination for diagnosis, plant medicine, altar sacrifice and offerings, and esoteric language. Practitioners held different titles, such as hechiceros (sorcerers) who were busy with magical work, and curanderos (folk-healers) who focused on holistic healing. Brujos (Witches) were often considered the root of certain ailments, and chamánes (shamans) were a sort of elite hybrid who could step in and out of the spirit world.
Much of the ailments that Aztecs suffered were attributed to brujos or gods and goddesses. Brujos were widely regarded as holding powers that could cause an array of physical and psychological issues that only another brujo was able to remove. Some focused on specific talents or gifts they had, such as the ability of “pressing” on the heart’s teyolía, or soul force, then causing illness or madness.
Many chamánes specialized in counter-witchcraft using powerful esoteric chants or songs that had to be enunciated with rigid precision. Gods and goddesses were said to have cast troubles on worshippers who committed a transgression, to which they could make amends by following a strict regimented ritual, offering, or sacrifice to restore their lives. The simple act of prevention was a common medicinal practice where the patient avoided certain things for the trouble they could cause.
Pregnancy was a big deal, and these women were plagued with a list of omens they had to avoid. Eating a tamale stuck to the pan could cause birth complications, and seeing a hanged person meant the child would be born with the umbilical cord wrapped around its neck. Viewing an eclipse could cause the baby to be born with a cleft palate, and many women placed an obsidian blade over their belly for protection from eclipses.
One tool worth examining further was paper made out of tree bark. This practice was regional, and its uses were most notably for offerings to gods and witchcraft. White paper was considered the good one, and the darker paper was utilized in black magic. The paper was cut into dolls that represented good spirits (white paper) and bad spirits (dark paper). Gender was determined by the presence of hair sprouting at the top (female) or none (male).
Sources, links etc: Works Cited “Brujerías Con Papel Indígena En San Pablito, Puebla.” Arqueología Mexicana, 17 Oct. 2017, arqueologiamexicana.mx/mexico-antiguo/brujerias-con-papel-indigena-en-san-pablito-puebla. “Hechicería y Curación Entre Los Coras y Huicholes.” Arqueología Mexicana, 28 Aug. 2017, arqueologiamexicana.mx/mexico-antiguo/hechiceria-y-curacion-entre-los-coras-y-huicholes. “Magia Medicinal Azteca.” Arqueología Mexicana, 19 Dec. 2016, arqueologiamexicana.mx/mexico-antiguo/magia-medicinal-azteca. “Plantas Medicinales En Teotihuacan.” Arqueología Mexicana, 9 June 2020, arqueologiamexicana.mx/mexico-antiguo/plantas-medicinales-en-teotihuacan.
Helen Jones Alvarado is a native of Monterrey, Mexico and is earning an MFA in writing at UTEP. A combat veteran, she is currently working on two collections: One short story series and one poetry series. Helen is a graduate of the Santisima Muerte Hechizeria Course (2020).