Infectious and Epidemic Disease in History

Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker

Week 4.  Colonies

excerpts from
Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions That Today Live Among the Indians Native to This New Spain (1629)
by Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón (c.1587-1646)

About Those Whom They Call in Their Language
Tiçitl, Which Means Doctor or Seer

...I will begin this Treatise with the explication of the noun tiçitl.  Commonly it is used for what is expressed by our word "doctor," but entering more deeply into it, [we find that] it is accepted among the natives as meaning sage, doctor, seer, and sorcerer, or, perhaps, one who has a pact with the Devil.  From this arises the fact that it is taken for granted among the Indians that one of these people called tiçitl is sufficient as a remedy for any need and trouble, no matter how large it may be, because, if it is a matter of sickness, they attribute to him a knowledge of medicine; if of having angered God, Our Lord, or the Most Holy Virgin, or one of the saints, they make him powerful enough to pacify him or her.  Consequently, if he answers that the trouble or the sickness is [due to] the angered ololiuhqui, the peyote, or the forest god ..., or any such thing, the petitions and gifts start flowing to the tiçitl in order that he pacify and placate them or provide a remedy.  And thus, from an infidelity an idolatry commonly results, because the usual advice is that the patient make a sacrifice to the sun, the fire, the ololiuhqui, or to whoever it has struck his [i.e., the tiçitl's] fancy to say was the angry one.

[ololiuhqui:  "a thing that has become round like a ball";  Turbina corymbosa.  It is a woody vine with long ovate leaves and white flowers.  The name refers to the fruit which is a dry, spherical seedpod.  A decoction made from the ground seeds is used as a narcotic intoxicant and hallucinogen to which divinity is attributed.  It is used medicinally for a variety of ailments including fever, syphilis, constipation, pain, flatulence, tumors, inflamed eyes, broken bones and to stimulate the appetite.  Its root is ground up and drunk for swollen stomach or nausea and for its laxative properties.  It can also cause illness, and be consulted as an oracle.]
If the consultation is about something lost or stolen, or on account of a woman who has run away from her husband, or something similar, here enters the faculty of the false prophecy and divining, as has been pointed out in the preceding Treatises.  And the divination is made in one of two ways:  either through fortune-telling or by drinking peyote or ololiuhqui or tobacco for this purpose, or by ordering that another person drink it, and by giving the sequence that should be followed in it.  And in all of this there is an implicit pact with the Devil, who, by means of the said drinks, frequently appears to them and speaks to them, making them understand that the one who is talking to them is the ololiuhqui or peyote or whatever other potion they will have drunk for that purpose.  And the pity is that many believe both [the Devil] and the impostors better than [they believe] the evangelical preachers....

About Superstitious Cures, Beginning with the Head
Since the Indians are totally ignorant of the science of medicine, they reduce all of it to superstition, and whether it belongs to surgery or to medicine, they include all of it in more or less one kind of superstition.  And having to deal with this subject matter, it seemed to me that it would have more clarity and precision if I kept the order of the members of the human body in it, starting with the head and continuing through the eyes, ears, and the rest, and afterward [turning to] the cures that pertain to the illnesses of all the body, such as fevers, etc.

Considering what I have already said in other places about the name of tiçitl--which is suspect--these [doctors] use their manners of superstition.  And frequently it passes into witchcraft and a pact with the Devil -- under the pretext that they know how to cure.  Summoned for a headache, what they do is press the aching head with their hands -- and this they do for all kinds of pain -- and, pressing it, they say [an] incantation....

While saying this incantation, he continually presses the patient's temples, and upon finishing the incantation, he blows his breath on the head in the manner of applying a nostrum.  And with this he says that the cure has been accomplished.

But after the incantation has been said and this cleverness or activity has been performed, if the sick person does not feel relieved, he addresses an incantation to the water [Chalchiuhcueyeh]....

...[H]e sprinkles [the patient's] face with the water and, owing to the surprise and astonishment, or rather, owing to the coolness of the water, the sick person says he has been relieved....

But others, in place of the sprinkling of water, incense the head with the herb yautli which we call anise.  When the head is swollen, they apply piçiete [mixed] with the root of the chalalatli to it, with [an] incantation....

[chalalahtli:  a tree with oblong leaves.  Also used to cure tumors.]
Having said this incantation, he blows on the head with his breath four times as quacks are accustomed to do in Castile, in which let it be noted, first, how much the Devil tries to imitate the ceremonies of the Church; second, how the number four is superstitious among the Indians, alluding to their heathen tradition of the fable of the sun, either because the Devil is imitating the Holy Scripture in the number four -- because of the generality that is contained in it -- or because, on account of his pride, he adds one to the number three, so mysterious among the Christians.  Be that as it may, they always observe this number four in their superstitions.

Having made the four insufflations, they consider the cure finished whether the patient gets well or not, because, deceived by the fraud of the incantation owing to the strategy of the Devil, they do not even know how to decide whether he has or not.

For Bone Fracture
For the break in a bone they usually plaster the affected part with an herb of this land called poztecpatli which means "medicine for breaks."  This they reduce to a very soft plaster, and on applying it to the part, they add [an] incantation....

With this they splint and tie the broken part, although badly, and they consider the cure finished.  And if it comes out crooked, they put the blame on the sick person -- for an excuse is never lacking, such as, he was restless, or someone entered who wished him ill, or some other similar superstition, because they never wish to confess there is a flaw in the efficacy of their incantations and spells....

The Cure for Tertian Fever
They commonly cure this sickness by pricking the patient's spine with a good needle.  Others incense the sick person with the herb called yauhtli, which is anise, [along with an] incantation....
[iyauhtli:  "an offered up thing"; Tagetes lucia, commonly called sweet-scented marigold.  It has an odor reminiscent of anise.  It is used as incense.  Medicinally, it is drunk for chills and gout, mixed with piciyetl and used for chest pain, and ground with other herbs to cure hiccups.]
With this they incense him and consider the cure concluded.

For tertian fever, an Indian woman, Petronilla, of the village of Tlayacapan, used to have a person drink a medicinal potion which was coanenepilli and rue, dissolved in water, and she added to [the herbs] another incantation similar to the others....

[coanenepilli:  "snake tongue"; Passiflora jorullensis.  Climbing and flowering vine frequently woody at the base.  Powdered cortex of the root is drunk in water thickened with ground maize for chest pain, or mixed with other herbs for fevers.  It is used to treat a variety of ailments including rash, impetigo, urination of blood or pus, pain, snakebite and pestilence.]
A Fraud for Urinary Sickness
The mental resources of these Indians are so scanty that they do not distinguish the causes of the sickness and they do not know, for example, that the remedy that took away the abdominal pain for one person might make it worse for another person.  It happens like that in the cure that they use for urinary sickness, since it is a single cure, no matter whether [the sickness] comes from proud flesh, or from a stone or a wound or a rupture, although I am convinced that they attribute the principal power to the spell.  Coming now to the cure, they prepare a medicinal potion from a yellow root, as I found it used in the village of Tepequaquilco, by a certain Magdalena Juana, the wife of Pedro Mayor.  And they accompany the potion with [an] incantation....

Having said this incantation, she gives [him] her medicinal potion that is from the root they call tlacopatli although perhaps they avail themselves of the tail of the tlaquatzi the unmatched remedy for obstructions to urine and to the other fluxes of the body, and even for difficulty in childbirth, and for this purpose it is used by all the midwives of this land, with which one could make an argument against these impostors that in such a case their spell or incantation does not accomplish anything.

[tlaquatl:  "a thing that is eaten"; an opossum.  The tail of the 'possum is ground into a powder and drunk for difficult childbirths, constipation, and to remove obstructions to urine.  Tail is used as medicine for expelling or extracting things from the body.]
About the Cure and Frauds for Fevers
For the cure of fevers they use many remedies, all wrapped up in superstition and frauds.  I shall put down here the most common ones.  The most common remedy that they use is a medicinal potion of a compound of four herbs of those of this land.  They call the compound tlanechchilcopatli.  The four herbs are (1) hueinacoztli, (2) xochimecatl, (3) coanenepilli, (4) xiuhcocolin.  They grind up these four herbs and mix them in plain water ... for the sick person to drink it....

Others use the superstitious ololiuhqui, and not only for fevers but also for all kinds of sickness.  And granted the so accepted and established superstition among these barbaric people, I am not surprised, because almost all of them adore this seed, and by attributing divinity to it, they consequently attribute power against all sickness to it, and at the same time they believe that, in addition to curing them, it will reveal the cause of the sickness to them.

Among others, Isabel Luisa, of the Mazatec nation, used this remedy, and she used to administer it dissolved as a drink....

[The accompanying] incantation is based on the opinion -- so established among the Indians which almost all of them believe -- that the ololiuhqui is a divine thing.  As a consequence of this, in this incantation she refers to the custom of the veneration which they pay it among the Indians, which is to have it on their altars in the best little boxes or little baskets that they can afford, and to offer incense and bouquets of flowers to it there, and to sweep the room and, with great care, sprinkle it with water....  And with the same veneration they drink the seed, closing themselves up in the places like someone who might be in the sancta sanctorum, with many other superstitions.  And the excess with which these barbarians venerate this seed is so great that they even, as out of devotion, are accustomed to sweeping and sprinkling with water the places where the bushes -- which are some very thick vines -- that produce it are found.  And [they do] this even though they may be [growing] in wastelands or ground covered with brambles.

In order to give authority to her fraud, this Indian woman, Lucia, a Mazatec by nation, related that, upon her giving ololiuhqui to a patient, a strange person had appeared to him, saying that he was the ololiuhqui and he had consoled him, saying to him, "Do not be troubled, for soon you will get well, for you have sought me.  You were not looking for me yesterday or the day before."  With this story this Indian woman had given as much authority to her fraud as if it had been based on some divine revelation.

Everything reported in this chapter about the root [sic] of the ololiuhqui holds likewise for the root [sic] called peyote, which they venerate to an equal degree.

Others for the illness of fevers use enemas, using at times ololiuhqui or peyote for herbs, and at times atlinan or other herbs: and whether it be the one or the other, the method is to grind it up and dilute it in cold water and to inject it as an enema....

For Fever Sickness and Other Illnesses
For fevers and other illnesses, a certain Don Martin Sebastian y Ceron, an inhabitant of Chilapa, famous for his frauds and superstitions, used a fraud somewhat different from the ones reported, one single thing serving or trying to serve as a cure for many sicknesses, based on the incantations with which he used to accompany them.  The medicine was water in which he had thrown, with his incantations, twelve maize kernels and mixed the juice of the herb called atl inan.  He would pick up a vessel of water and conjure it, saving:
[1] Come, my mother, Chalchiuhcueyeh [the water].  Who is the god, who is the illustrious being that is already destroying my vassal [the patient], that already wants to hide him thoroughly [wants to really kill him]?
Then he continues by invoking the medicine:
[2] Come, my sister, Green Woman [the atl inan].  Let me go in order to take you to Seven-caves-place [the stomach].  Wherever is it that the green palsy, the dusky palsy, the yellow palsy [the pain], is sitting, where is he hiding?  Go in order to rub the nahualli-guts with your hands.  You will not bring shame on yourself [do your duty properly].
Having said this, he shifts the address to the twelve maize kernels and says:
[3] It is I in person.  I am the priest.  Come, my mother, Chalchiuhcueyeh.  It is I in person.  I am the priest.  Come, my older sister, Tonacacihuatl [the maize kernels].  Already it is at this moment at last [now is the time for action].

[4] Who is the god, who is the illustrious being that already is destroying my vassal?  Let him just quietly leave.  Let him just quietly move aside for me.  Indeed already it is over there that he is being awaited.  Indeed already it is over there that he is expected, at a place where people are prosperous, in a place of property owners.  Let him move aside for the poor man [the patient].  Let him not covet [harm] him.  Let him leave immediately.  Will it be by-and-by tomorrow, will it be by-and-by the day after tomorrow that he will go?  Indeed it will be immediately at this moment.  If he will not go, if he will not leave, I am indeed the one who knows what I will do to him.

Having said this, he throws the twelve maize kernels in the water and then he squeezes the herb atl inan into the water and gives it to the patient to drink.  And this is all the cure, and it is general for all the sicknesses, because they are so defective in intellect.

About Fortune-telling Using Maize

Oxomoco and Cipactonal
Ancestors of the Human Race and Inventors of the Art of Prophecy

Fortune-telling with maize is the second most important [kind of fortune-telling].  They use it in all the cases which have been mentioned in the fortune-telling with the hands, so that they feign it to be the general remedy for things stolen, for missing persons, for sicknesses and their causes, for their cures and healings.  They use this fortune-telling in the following manner.  From an ear of maize or from among a lot of maize, the fortune-teller selects the most outstanding and beautiful kernels.  He chooses sometimes nineteen kernels and sometimes twenty-five; this difference depends on the different ways they place them on the cloth on which the fortune is told.  Having chosen the said kernels, the seer bites off their nibs with his teeth.

Then he spreads out in front of himself a cloth doubled and well stretched out so that it does not wrinkle; then he puts on it one part of the kernels according to the quantity that he chose.  The one who chose nineteen puts on the right side four very similar kernels, face up and with points toward the left side.  He puts an equal number with the same order [on the left side] and then four others without order in front of himself and keeps seven kernels in his hand.  Others put four each in each corner and keep nine in their hand, which add up to twenty-five in all.  Others put seven in each corner and toss two in front without order and keep nine in the hand, which add up to thirty-nine in all.

Without our lingering on the number, which is not to the point, and coming to the execution, the seer, after having arranged the kernels on the said cloth, begins his fraud with those that remain in his hand, shaking them in it and tossing them in the air and catching them again many times.  And then he begins [an] invocation....

And at the time that he says the invocation he traverses the space that he has created with the stretched-out cloth at full speed with the hand in which he holds the kernels, moving his hand along the edge of the cloth over the maize kernels that he placed on it.  And the invocation is addressed to the maize kernels and to the fingers of his hands, as if attributing divinity to them.  After finishing the words of the incantation, he tosses the maize that he had in his hand into the middle of the cloth, and he judges the fortune according to how the maize kernels fall.  The rule that they usually, have in judging it is that, if the maize kernels fall face up, the fortune is good -- for example, the medicine about which he is consulted will be good, or the lost person or thing that is being sought will show up -- and the contrary if the maize kernels fall face down.  This kind of fortune-telling, among others, was used with high repute in the village of Oapan by Magdalena Juana, the wife of Don Melchor Gutierrez.

When they use this fortune-telling for other purposes, they change the words, accommodating them to the end they seek....

And they are believed like prophets -- to the very great detriment to the peace and the health of their souls and those of other people -- with all the basis for success being in whether the maize kernels fall face up or face down, and also in falling far from or near to the one who throws them.  The first is chance, and the second the fortune-teller freely executes, throwing the maize kernels with more force or with less -- less if he wants them to remain nearer.

About Fortune-telling Using Maize in Water
Others tell fortunes with maize by throwing it into water, preceded by the incantations and invocations in almost the same way as has been described above, except that they conjure the water, as if warning it to show and reveal what they are in doubt about, as I will speak of in another place with regard to the women impostors that they call tetonaltia, who show the face of the sick child to the water, conjuring it in order that it show or find the child's fate, which in the language they call tonalli and return it to the child.  The ones who use this fortune-telling make great gestures during the performance, preparing themselves as if for some very arduous business.  Dressing in their best, they place in front of themselves a somewhat deep vessel of clean water and then pick up the grains of maize with the hand, and with great energy they say the incantation, and at the end of it they throw the kernels into the water, and very quickly they lean down to see the result in order to judge it.  They consider it a happy omen if the maize falls fully to the bottom of the vessel and, on the contrary, as unhappy if it floats at the surface or remains somewhere in the middle.  And thus they judge it.

It is to be noted that the outcome of this fortune-telling depends totally on the will of the fortune-teller, because if he wants the maize to sink, he chooses sound, fresh, and firm kernels, and if he wants it to float, he seeks very old and worm-eaten kernels.

This fortune-telling was used among others by Ana Maria, the wife of Gaspar de Morales, in the Marquisate, in the village of Xoxouhtla.  And I shall not write at more length about it because it is completely consistent with the preceding ones although of less substance -- all being of none.

Go to:
  • Treatise against the Serpentine Disease... (c.1510) by Ruy Diaz de Isla (1462-1542)
  • the writings of an anonymous author in Tlatelolco (1528)
  • the Florentine Codex, or Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España (c.1579), created under the supervision of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (c.1499-1590):
    • Physicians, from Book X
    • Ailments of the Body and Medicines Suitable to Use for Their Cure, from Book X
    • The Plague Named Totomonjztli, from Book XII
  • Brief Relation of the Gods and Rites of Heathenism (c. 1629) by Don Pedro Ponce, Beneficiado of the District of Tzumpahuacan
  • A Briefe and True Reporte of the New Found Land of Virginia (1590) by Thomas Hariot (1560-1621)
  • "June 2001:  And the Moon Be Still as Bright" (1948), in The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1920-  )
Weekly Readings
Lecture Notes