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Maya Medicine: Traditional Healing in Yucatán
Maya Medicine: Traditional Healing in Yucatán by Marianna Appel Kunow. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press; 2003. Hardcover; 152 pages. ISBN: 08263-2864-4. $29.95.

Kunow’s book reveals the practice of traditional Maya medicine by the local people of a small community in Piste, Yucatan, in Mexico. The Yucatan got its name rather whimsically when the Conquistadores of Cortez asked the Maya who greeted them on the shores of present day Cozumel, “What is this place?” Not understanding Spanish, the natives answered in Maya, “We don’t understand you” or “yuc-a-than.” This, in time, became Yucatan.

Kunow has written an ethnobotanical overview of traditional healing by interviewing 7 local practitioners over what seemed to be several years of field work.

The men are both farmers and healers, some of whom work part-time at the ruins of Chichen Itza as guides and archeological assistants. The women are herbalists and specialists in massage. The goal was to make a modern comparison with the work of classical Maya scholar Ralph Roys (Ethnobotany of the Maya, 1931) and another manuscript, The Chilam Balam Manuscript of Kuau, an extant Maya text (now housed in the Tulane University Latin American Library). The ancient Kuau text deals with medicine, calendrics and history. Roys’ text, written in both Maya and English, has defined Maya studies for decades. The author has attempted to determine how many of the plants named in the 2 texts are still in use today, and if still used, are the names and uses still as Roys and the ancient manuscript described? It turns out that most of them still have the same ancient names, and the uses have not changed much either. This is a useful bit of information for Maya ethnobotanists and anthropologists.

I had to wonder why she chose to call the curanderos “curers,” which is, of course, a direct but awkward translation into English. “Curer” sounds odd in English, but it is a small criticism in an otherwise well documented piece of field research.

There are 8 chapters, which altogether give a fairly good, but not extensive look at contemporary Maya medicine in Piste Village, located on the road between Vallodolid and Merida, Yucatan. She describes 7 different individuals who were willing to share their time and knowledge of plants and healing with her. Don Tomas, whom she met as a temple guide at the ancient Maya ceremonial center of Chichen Itza, introduced her to the other healers and was kind enough to bring her right to their doorsteps and give the very necessary introductions and sanctions, without which it would have been very difficult for her to gain their confidence. What struck me was how warm and welcoming the healers were to her, even charmed to be included in her scientific endeavors. There were only one or two who seemed suspicious of her intentions and refused to cooperate. For the most part her subjects were kind, accommodating, and very willing to share their knowledge of plants and healing. This is much to the benefit of all, for field ethnobotany requires that researchers have the opportunity to read, write, use tape recorders, and have access to other scientists who can identify and house the voucher specimens of each plant studied. In this way ethnobotany contributes to the national ancestral knowledge and the entire body of knowledge accumulated over generations of time.

One chapter is devoted to a peek at the domestic and daily lives of traditional healers of Piste and how modern-day mores, television, and tourists have impacted their lives and traditional practices. How fascinating, though, that they are still there in remote areas of Mexico, still using the plants, prayers, and magic instruments like their ancient ancestors did hundreds of years ago. I enjoyed the portraits of the 6 traditional healers that she interviewed and the pharmacist, Don Aldo, who integrates synthetic conventional medicines with natural remedies learned from his neighbors and customers in the town. This reads like a personal narrative in parts and ethnobotanical study in others. Kunow avoids some of the stuffy, impersonal jargon of science and instead takes a down-to-earth, simple approach in style and language. This makes the book an easy and informative read. The short biographies of each of the healers is a good insight into how the healing practices are kept alive by selfless individuals who care more about the welfare of others than their own.

Like the healers I have known in the 25 years of working in the field of ethnobotany in Belize, these men and women of Yucatan represent the masa, if you will—or the very salt of the earth. They, like my mentor, the late Don Elijio Panti of San Antonio, Belize, are humble, self-confident, spiritual, humorous, and devoted to a life of service to others with little thought of remuneration. They often live out their lives in anonymity and poverty—unless, of course, someone like Kunow becomes enthralled with their fascinating histories and brings them to the attention of the world. This is always fraught with danger as one would hate to see these simple folk bombarded by curiosity seekers.

Chapter 2 gives a useful list and explanation of other ethnographies and ethnobotanical studies in Yucatan and the Maya in general. This information alone is worth the price of the book.

I was greatly struck by the similarities of Yucateca Maya medicine and the practices of Don Elijio—not surprising, though, since Don Elijio, a Guatemalan Mopan Maya by birth, was trained by an elder who had migrated from the Yucatan during the Caste Wars in the early 1900s. So the thread of similarities on this tapestry of healing was expected, yet still a great verification of the homogeneity of the Maya medicine practitioners in the region.

Another chapter explains how the 7 healers learned their craft. They describe 2 primary modes of acquiring this knowledge. One is to apprentice with a family member or village elder. This method assumes a great deal of inherent desire to learn and to serve as a healer. The second method is to be chosen as an apprentice by the balams or Maya spirits, who give instructions through dreams. Some of the healers had these dream-time classes for several years. This is most encouraging for those of us who worry that these banks of indigenous knowledge will disappear.

If there is an oversoul of balams watching out for the continuation of this precious knowledge by becoming supernatural teachers, then we need not be quite so concerned with the demise of traditional healing systems. It is all in the hands of the gods anyway. Some healers are instructed and aided in their healing practice in this way for their entire lives, as was my teacher. From the age of 30 until the final year of his life at 103, Don Elijio was gifted with hundreds of dream visions from the Maya Spirits. While the healers of Yucatan describe “little old men” who appear to the male healers and “little old women” who appear to the female healers, Don Elijio told of different Maya personages who would teach him about plants and give him advice on how to go about healing specific clients, if the Maya Spirits thought he did not quite understand the ailment or the remedies.

Chapter 5 lists the different types of Maya healing practices observed by Kunow. Among them is prayer, which predictably was the most important component of their practice. These prayers are addressed to both Maya spirits and Catholic saints, who are requested to assist with the healing of physical, emotional and spiritual ills. The healers call upon them through prayer to remove all supernatural ailments such as the evil eye, evil winds, curses, and bad luck.

Ceremony and ritual have always been a part of Maya daily life. Ceremonies for the fields and agricultural crops are conducted by the male priests, who are known as h’mens. Ceremonies for spiritual cleansing or limpias are performed by both men and women. Kunow reports that certain ceremonies can be performed only by men and others are performed only by women. This, too, is in keeping with studies of the ancient Maya.

These healers use both medicine from plants and pharmaceutical drugs like aspirin and antibiotics. Kunow states that she does not see this as a problem of modern contamination but rather evidence of the flexibility of the healers. Massage is practiced by both men and women, but massage done by women specifically refers to massage for the womb before, during, and after pregnancy. There was only one midwife interviewed and that was for only one session, so not much information on women’s health and healing in Yucatan could be gathered. Only one reference was made to a plant to be used for ovarian infection, but the name of the plant was not given.

The sastuns or crystal magic instruments of the h’men are the intermediary between the world of men and the spiritual forces that oversee the Maya people. Reading the translucent sastun (sas in Maya is light and tun is stone) enables the h’men to see if the illness is caused by natural or supernatural forces. Some use crystals for divination and for telling fortunes, which is referred to as “saccar la suerte” or “pull out your luck.”

Chapter 6 attempts to explain to the reader how the Maya villagers view the concept of hot and cold in foods, medicines, and states of being. This is a good attempt and would be helpful for a student new to the field to use as a primer, as the concepts are explained in a simple and clear manner.

There are 36 black and white illustrations of plants done by the author herself.

A chapter at the end of the book, the Plant Catalog, was the most interesting for this reader as it lists the plants she collected with their Latin names, some common names, and their traditional uses. This is the first time I have seen a recipe for making the ceremonial drink bal-che ha from the bal che tree (Lonchocarpus longistylus, Leguminosae). I will certainly try to make the brew as soon as I can. This section is erratic on posology. It is posology (type of preparation, dosage, duration of use, mode of administration, etc.) that makes a text on medicinal plants truly informative and ultimately useful. This tells the reader if the bark, the root, or the leaf is used as an infusion or a decoction, or if a treatment for infection is taken as a tea or a poultice, etc. This makes the book much more satisfying for plant enthusiasts. Also, it would have been useful to list more of the common names in this section in Spanish, as having only the Latin binomial and the Maya name would make the plants difficult to identify and to compare with other texts. Ultimately, the plants need to be known and used for the knowledge to remain alive for future generations.

In all, this is a well done basic overview of Maya medicine in a small Yucatecan village, and the information gathered is representative of Maya medicine throughout Central America.

Kunow shows respect and admiration for the healers. Photographs would have been a useful addition to help these healers come to life, but her descriptions were also helpful. She is to be congratulated for making this contribution to the archives of Maya medicine in Mexico.

—Rosita Arvigo Ix Chel Tropical Research Centre San Ignacio, Cayo District, Belize