Aztec medicine

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Drawing accompanying text in Book XII of the 16th-century Florentine Codex (compiled 1540–1585), showing Nahua of conquest-era central Mexico suffering from smallpox.

Aztec medicine concerns the body of knowledge, belief and ritual surrounding human health and sickness, as observed among the Nahuatl-speaking people in the Aztec realm of central Mexico. The Aztecs knew of and used an extensive inventory consisting of hundreds of different medicinal herbs and plants. A variety of indigenous Nahua and Novohispanic written works survive from the conquest and later colonial periods that describe aspects of the Aztec system and practice of medicine and its remedies, incantations, practical administration, and cultural underpinnings. Elements of traditional medicinal practices and beliefs are still found among modern-day Nahua communities, often intermixed with European or other later influences.

Spiritual influences[edit]

As with many other Mesoamerican cultures the Aztecs believed that the body contained a balance of three separate entities or souls: the tonalli, the teyolia, and the ihiyotl. This balance affected the health and life of a person.[1] The tonalli, which was commonly attributed with the disease of "soul loss", was located in the upper part of the head.[2] They believed that this life force was connected to a higher power, and the Aztec people had to make sure their tonalli was not lost or did not stray from the head. The teyolia was located in the heart. This entity has been described to be specific to the individual and stood for a person’s intelligence and memory.[3] The ihiyotl, which resided in the liver, was strongly attached to witchcraft and the supernatural. It could also leave the body but was always connected through the wind or an individual's breath, “...thus, each individual could affect other people and things by breathing on them.” [1]

The Aztecs practiced magic to avoid illnesses. They often wore amulets as protection. An amulet is a small ornament worn to keep away harm and evil.[4]

Illness from the gods[edit]

The Aztecs believed in a life after death, and a life heavily influenced by the gods. They believed in Tonatiuh (heaven) on the sun reserved for the strong and the heroes after death, and another heaven on earth. The Tonalamatl (religious calendar) had an impactful role on the Aztec belief system.[5] They believed that the Tonalamatl determined everything about the individual except their profession.[3] A person’s longevity, luck, sickness, and even their name was determined by the month and day they were born. The Tonalamatl was split into 13 months, each month representing a different god.[3] The Codex Vaticanus depicts the relationship between human organs and calendar signs, illustrating the magical significance certain organs or body parts held.[5]

Because the calendar had so much authority over a person's life, the day on which someone was born or got sick had great importance and usually gave reference to which god the individual had to pay respect to. It was believed that when you were sick, you were being punished by the gods for your sins in some cases. Specific sicknesses were linked to individual gods and their punishments.[3] Tlaloc, the water god, was responsible for sickness related to wet and cold, such as rheumatic ailments.[2] Tlaloc also was responsible for tremor, delirium and other symptoms of alcoholism for those who abused consuming pulque. To relieve these symptoms, people would travel to mountains and rivers of significance to present the god with offerings.[5]

The flayed god, Xipe Totec, was responsible for skin eruptions and rashes. Common ailments included scabies, boils, and eye diseases. The way to treat this disease was to march in front of others wearing the skins from human sacrifices during the second month.[3] After they did this, Xipe Totec would cure them of their ailments. When people broke vows such as fasting or celibacy, Tezcatlipoca would induce incurable disease.[3] Macuilxochitl (Xochipilli), would send hemorrhoids, boils, and other similar diseases.[3] There were many other gods as well, each connected to their own set of sicknesses.

Understanding the reason for the ailments was a primary way of knowing which god sent the punishment. The ailments themselves were often not enough as multiple gods such as the god of pleasure and the god of love used similar punishments. Both would send venereal diseases.[3]

The mother of gods (Teteoinam or Toci) was worshiped and followed by those in the medical field.[5] As the goddess of medicine and herbs, her image was always kept in view of medical practitioners


The word ticitl means "Aztec physician". [6] Ticitl is translated by Molina (1570) not only as the medical practitioner but also as the witch doctor dealing with horoscopes and fortune tellers.[3] In the Aztec medical profession- practiced by both men and women alike- did not have the social standing that could be expected as a result of their special training and their religious and astrological associations.[3]

While the Aztec priest often tended to the sick, if the illness was serious the ticitl was called in.[4] The good Aztec physician (is) a diagnostitian, experienced a knower of herbs, of stones, of trees, of roots. He has (results of) examinations, experience, prudence. (He is) moderate in his acts. He provides heath, restores people, provides them splits, sets bones for them, purges them, gives emetics, gives them potions; he lances, he makes incisions in them, stitches them, revives them, envelopes them in ashes.[6]

Ticitl were also skilled surgeons. They used knives made of volcanic glass to perform surgeries. After a tumor was surgically removed the ticitl would use crushed plants to cover the wound to speed its healing.[4]

Diagnosis and treatment[edit]

The Aztec system recognized three main causes of illness and injury: supernatural causes (eg; displeasure of the gods, imbalance with the supernatural and natural worlds), magical causes involving malevolent curses and sorcerers (tlacatecolotl in Nahuatl), and natural or practical causes.[3]

The procedures used by the ticitl were empirical and practical. [6] The Ticitl would often rub the body of the patient to remove the "magic dart". The magic dart was an object that they believed entered the body and caused an illness.[4]

The Aztecs had several misconceptions on the contributing factors of illness and health. Aztecs also understood there was a balance between hot and cold in medical practice, bearing resemblance to Humorism. For example, fever was thought to be caused by internal heat and was cured by using a purgative, digestive or diuretic to remove the heat from the body. In spite of their misconceptions of contributing factors, the medicine they used was highly effective for Aztec standards.[7] This is because they often obtained the desired results, like their purgatives successfully evacuating the body. They even succeeded, though less often, at correctly treating the ailment.This shows a strong empirical basis for their knowledge of medicine.

The Aztec are known for herbal medicine but there was a religious aspect as well. The religious side of treatment was varied based on which god issued the punishment and as well as what the ailments were. When seeking reprieve from the aliments imposed by the god of waters one would make offerings at rivers and mountains.[5] During the second month of the Aztec calendar there is a festival call tlacaxipehualiztl which was a festival honoring "the flayed one". This festival was an important event for those wishing to be cured from the aliments sent by the god. Those wishing to be cured would cover themselves in the skin of human sacrifices.[3]

Medical practices and treatment consisted of a combination of medical botany and an understanding of the supernatural.[3] Establishing a treatment for any given ailment depended first upon determining the nature of its cause, which could be the result of the supernatural or the natural. The presence of a disease could often indicate the existence of a communion with the supernatural world.[3]

The ticitl used plants, roots, herbs and barks to make medicines. Most of the plants used were sacred to the rain god Tlaloc. The two plants used more often were yauhtli and iztauhyatl. They used both plants to cure fevers, epilepsy, stiffness, swelling, colds, and coughs. The Aztecs also believed plants had magical powers to cure love sickness.[4]

Aztec doctors used plants and herbs in many ways. They often rubbed parts of the plants on the skin to relieve aches and pains . Sometimes the ticitl had patients inhale the fragrance of a plant or smoke from the burning plant. Often the ticitl would ground dried plants or combined them with liquids into medicines. Another favorite source of medicine was the sap from the maguey plant. They used the sap in the treatment of battle wounds and other injuries.[4] The adjacent table shows only the well agreed upon herbs in the list of hundreds that were used.[8][9]

Herbal medicine[edit]

Aztec Herbal Medicines From table 1 in Empirical Aztec Medicine[8]
Botanical name Aztec name Uses
Atermisisa mexicana Itztuahyatl Weakness, colic, reduce fever; coughing
Bocconia frutescens Cococxihutil Constipation, abscesses, swelling
Bromelia pinguin Mexocotl heat blisters in the mouth
Carica papaya Chichihualxo-chitl Latex unripe fruit for rash ulcer; ripe fruit digestive
Casimiroa edulis Cochiztzapotl sedative

occidentalis or Cassia alata

Totoncaxihuitl Astringent, purgative, anthelmintic, relieves fever, inflammation of rashes
Chenopodium graveolens Epazotl Against dysentery, anthelmintic, helps asthmatics breathe
Euphorbia calyculata Cuauhtepatli; chupiri Purgative, skin ailments, mange, skin sores
Helianthus annuus Chilamacatl fever
Liquidambar styracilua Ocotzotl; xochiocotzotl quanhxihuitl Rashes, thoothache, tonic for stomach
Montanoa tomentosa Cihuapatli Diuretic, oxytocic, cures hydropesia
Passiflora jorullensis Coanenepilli Causes sweating, Diuretic, pain reliever, poisons and snake bites
Perezia adnata Pipitzahuac Purgative, cathartic, coughing, sore throat
Persea americana Auacatl; ahuaca quahuitl Astringent, treat sores, remove scars
Pithecolobium dulce Quamochitl Astringent, causes sneezing, cures ulcers and sores
Plantago mexicana Acaxilotic Vomit and cathartic
Plumbago pulchella Tlepatli; tletlematil; itzcuinpatli Diuretic, colic, gangrene
Psidium guajava Xalxocotl Digestion, dysentery, mange
Rhamnus serrata Tlalcapulin Dysentery, bloody bowels
Salix lasiopelis Quetzalhuexotl Stops blood from rectum, cures fever
Schoenocaulon coulteri; Veratrum frigidum Zoyoyatic Causes sneezing, kills mice/lice/flies
Smilax atristolochiaefolia Mecapatli Causes sweating, diuretic, relieves joint pain
Tagetes erecta Cempohualxochitl Causes sweating, cathartic, cures dropsy
Talauma mexicana yolloxochitl Comforts heart, used against sterility
Theobroma cacao Cacahuaquahuitl Excess diarrhea, can cause dizziness

Montezuma I had beautiful, extensive gardens near the palace that astonished the conquistadors. The gardens showed the Aztec's integration with, and dependence on nature. Many skilled craftsman and gardeners were employed to maintain and improve the gardens. Houses, paths, trees, flowers, ponds and engineered water flow were all organized by skilled masonry. Within all of this natural engineering, many medicinal herbs were maintained for actual use. Nature was a part of Aztec life, and they saw herbs as beautiful as flowers. The Spaniards admitted that their own knowledge of herbs was very limited while the Aztecs seemed to know about every herb and its use.[10][11]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Sahagún, Bernardino : General History of the Things of New Spain: The Florentine Codex. Book X: The People, Their Virtues and Vices, and Other Nations. 1577.


  1. ^ a b Gimmel, Millie (2008). "Reading Medicine in the Codex de la Cruz Badiano". Journal of the History of Ideas. 69 (2): 169–192. doi:10.2307/30134035. JSTOR 30134035.
  2. ^ a b de Montellano, Bernard Ortiz (1987). "Caida de Mollera: Aztec Sources for a Mesoamerican Disease of Alleged Spanish Origin". Ethnohistory. 34 (4): 381–399. doi:10.2307/482818. JSTOR 482818.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Guerra, Francisco (Aug 2012). "AZTEC MEDICINE". Medical History. 10 (4): 315–338. doi:10.1017/S0025727300011455. ISSN 2048-8343.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Kramme, Michael (2012). Mayan, Incan, and Aztec Civilizations. Lewistown, Mo: Mark Twain Media, Inc. pp. Pg.106. ISBN 9781580376587.
  5. ^ a b c d e Medicine across cultures : history and practice of medicine in non-Western cultures. Selin, Helaine, 1946-, Shapiro, Hugh. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 2003. ISBN 9780306480942. OCLC 53984557.CS1 maint: others (link)
  6. ^ a b c Berdan, Frances F. (2005). The Aztecs Of Central Mexico. California: Wadsworth. pp. Pg.156. ISBN 0-534-62728-5.
  7. ^ Guerra, Francisco (Aug 2012). "AZTEC MEDICINE". Medical History. 10 (4): 315–338. doi:10.1017/S0025727300011455. ISSN 2048-8343.
  8. ^ a b Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard. (1975). Empirical Aztec Medicine. Science. 188. 215-20. 10.1126/science.1090996.
  9. ^ “Badianus Manuscript: An Aztec Herbal, 1552.” Herbs: Friends of Physicians, Praise of Cooks,
  10. ^ Castillo, Bernal Diaz del., et al. The discovery and conquest of Mexico. Da Capo Press, 1996.
  11. ^ Aztec Herbal Pharmacopoeia, Part 1,