Tlahui-Medic. No. 18, II/2004

Folkloric Medicinal Practices and Beliefs of the Ancient Nahua and Modern Curanderismo

Tesina del Diplomado de Tlahui-Educa
Medicina Tradicional de México y sus Plantas Medicinales

Student: Maya Marie Madrigal
Professor: Dr. Mario Roja Alba

Redwood City, CA. USA. January 3, 2004

Midnight Water Song
(Francisco X. Alarcón)

the eagle's
wing is
my fan

my people's
past is
my staff

my pounding
the only drum

this nightfall
this sagebrush
this cedar smoke

as I sing

of peyote's
flowering rain
in the desert

This paper is dedicated to my beloved grandmother, Irene Madrigal and to Don Alfredo, the medium for the spirit of Juan Pedro. All who taught me spirituality and how to walk the path of love as a 'spirit of the light' and who now join the angels as my guides.
 January 3, 2004


There are many different ways to attempt to understand the traditional medicine of Mexico. One can study from art historical, botanical, medical, anatomical, folkloric, anthropological and linguistic perspectives, to name a few. Although many of the beliefs and practices of pre-Columbian cultures survive, in whole and altered forms, amongst modern cultures, unfortunately for students and scholars alike, there is a gross lack of available primary sources to inform our inquiry into the ideology held by the Nahua culture of central Mexico. Fortunately, there are sources available and also some adventurous scholarly endeavors through the centuries, more so now than ever, to provide multiple ways of knowing about the medicine of the Mexico.

Medicinal Practices and Beliefs of the Ancient Nahua and Modern Curanderismo

Celebration of the Medicinal Grass, Amatlán, Morelos, México, 1984

The roots of Curanderismo, the system of traditional folkloric medicine practiced amongst modern Mexicans and Chicanos, is the result of the syncretism incurred by the historical conquest of the Americas and the subsequent rise of various medical philosophies. These include:

Judeo-Christian religious beliefs, symbols, and rituals; early Arabic medicine and health practices (combined with Greek humoral medicine, revived during the Spanish Renaissance); medieval and later European witchcraft; Native American herbal lore and health practices; modern beliefs about spiritualism and psychic phenomena; and scientific medicine (Trotter II and Chavira 25).

Though none of these contributors to the formation of Curanderismo can be said to be imperial over the others, historically the influence of the native indigenous beliefs and practices has been overshadowed by preferential interpretation in studies conducted through the lens of the Judeo-Christian heritage. It is the purpose of this paper to reveal the continued impact of pre-Hispanic medical traditions, specifically inspired by the Nahuatl culture.

Some challenges encountered in the process of researching this paper were the lack of available information on Curanderismo, the scrutiny and criticism one must have with texts on Nahua culture, and the knowledge that their beliefs and medicinal practices have long been overshadowed by misunderstanding, biased researching, and secrecy. Though I am grateful for, impressed by and indeed indebted to scholarly theory, it has become clear to me the subjective nature of most constructions of the ideology and culture. These works do not pretend to present beliefs actually held by the Nahua, but are attempts to present a synthesis of available material collected, categorized, and presented by modern academics. As well, primary sources must be considered biased towards presenting views and beliefs held by the educated elite of the time, and not necessarily representing the beliefs and practices of the majority of the ancient population. There is no 'truth', as such, available through research and I feel a keen uneasiness in presenting a merely a synthesis of these ideas, as they have been presented to me, rather I hope to add some new ideas to the discourse. There is a sincere desire within me to understand what concepts toward the nature of the soul and its interaction with the body that the Nahua held. I have been lucky to have prior experience in both the studies of Nahua culture, and personally with Curanderismo and natural healing practices. Many of the views to be presented in this paper are very much influenced by my own perceptions of healing, but I do not feel that this is unnecessary or to be faulted as biased mishandling of research material. My own theory and methods of healing are very much influenced, if not nurtured by traditional Curanderismo, the recovering of Nahua medical philosophy and practices, and natural medicine. My belief is that this does not take away from the integrity of the material to be presented, but rather enriches it by giving new interpretation.

In this paper, we will journey through the different scales of being, centered on spiritual constructs and components. We will begin this analysis with the largest and most complete entity and state, Teo, through the division of duality represented by Ometeotl, to some of the many world forces that particularly influence the destiny of one's soul, as symbolized by the calendar signs. Further, we will examine some of the most intriguing forces of animation and their centers within the body, identifying the centers most likely to be more universally held in the consciousness of the time to be anatomically related to spirit, the tonalli, teyolia, and ihiyotl. We will continue with a discourse on the spiritual aspects of the nagual in comparison to the before mentioned tonalli, that will further our understanding of the attributes and abilities of the human spirits. Lastly, some thoughts will be offered as to the relationship of the body, spiritual body (ies), and larger spiritual realm as understood through the natural human need to make sense of not only life but more so death. For it is common concern amongst most persons to wonder not only what composes their body with life and consciousness and to what purpose, whether there is a destiny or fate of the soul. These questions could be argued to arrive from the greater need to try to find a reasonable understanding to the question of what becomes of us and our loved ones after death? It has been said that the only guarantees in life are sickness and death, and from both of these unavoidable experiences in life perhaps the root of medicinal understanding in practice came into being. In most pre-modern cultures there was a link between religion or spiritual beliefs and practice to those medical, in fact a division often did not exist. We will see how the Nahua culture centered their world-view of a concept of spirit, that was synonymous with God, and Life. This life force manifested itself on all scales of existence, and which was symbolically invoked within these spheres to underlie the central connection of human life with the life of all of creation.

Historical Death-Space

It is necessary to first realize that Curanderismo was born in what Taussig calls death-space (Taussig 6). Death-space is not merely the realm of the deceased; rather it is also a powerful domain of contact, where violence, syncretism, and endurance are connoted. The death-space relevant to the history of Curanderismo is the contact made five hundred years ago between the Spanish conquistadores/ missionaries and the people of the Americas, specifically, the subsequent conquest and conversion of the indigenous people of Meso-America.

More a contorted presence than a space, an eye-bulging dangerous presence at that, so full it is of half-rendered beings and amputees of history looking for a substantial body with which to act and re-enact, bursting the dams of memory (Taussig 6).

The death-space is an invocation of the past, it is the possession of the living by the (un) forgotten, degraded, abused, and celebrated spirits of history, to hear their stories, to enliven the present with their presence, for healing.

Post-contact, the Spaniards began a systematic demolition of pre-existing social and religious structures in order to succeed in a thorough elimination of 'pagan' beliefs and customs. Meso-American culture had previously been celebrated for it's many achievements, integral to this study is the fact that Nahuatl society had integrated the individual and social networks (including family, community, social status), with approved socially relegated norms of morality, duty, all founded within a cosmological, religious and medicinal framework. Highly organized and rigid systems of religious and medicinal practices were in place at the time of conquest. The two intrinsically interrelated systems were abolished violently, and as they were reserved for those of birth- right, the highly trained, many of the elaborate practices fell to be forgotten memories of the people at large. That which was retained was many of the ritualistic practices of the folk; mainly being the incantations, prayers, and spells used by the people of agricultural and rural areas, as evident from Ruiz de Alarcón's Treatise. In Mexico there is a vast and complicated history set within the death-space between the time of conquest and colonialism, and present times. But through independence, revolutions, countless injustices and reforms, what has remained constant is the necessity of la gente, the folk, to be self-reliant and strong, and to maintain cultural beliefs and values in the face of adversity and annihilation. This is the source of Curanderismo, the people healing the people through shared ideology, faith, and resources, not only to succeed in the desired medical result, but as an affirmation of identity.


This age of post-modernity allows for a reinterpretation of our present transient state of being through reconstructing our understanding of our histories. Post-modernity challenges the out-dated philosophies of separatism and dualities, opening up a third space, in which ambiguity reigns, which is likened to the borderlands, neither one or the other. Though dualism as a concept, in some form or another may be inherent to most cultures, it's culturally implied meaning and philosophy certainly are as diverse as the cultures they represent. As expressed by Murphy, there has been two developments of the notion of religion, that first expounded by Rudolf Otto which sees religion experience as purely 'numinous', a separate realm of sense and existence, as 'the other' in extreme. Mircea Eliade goes a step further by declaring religion a mode of dialogue between the two states of awareness, sacred/mundane, so that they are not so severely separated (Murphy 129). The next step is to come full circle back to indigenous beliefs which hold at the core that no separatism exists, as all is infused with spirit, and is sacred, nothing being without purpose or mundane. The main variance betwixt dualism noted in western culture and that derived of the Americas is the difference of justified dominance and aspired for harmony.

Certain dualism's have been persistent in Western traditions; they have all been systemic to the logic's and practices of domination of women, people of colour, nature, workers, animals-in short, domination of all constituted as others, whose task is to mirror the self. Chief among these troubling dualisms are: self/other, mind/ body, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, reality/appearance, whole/part, agent/resource, maker/made, active/passive, right/wrong, truth/illusion, total/partial, God/[hu] man (Haraway 177).

Whereas in most cultures of the Americas, as seen with the Nahuatl, the cosmos is an arena comprised of mutually compatible and reliant forces. One of the most empowering opportunities that post-modernity allows is the development of the awareness of who one is, not as a separate, autonomous, rootless creature but as the incorporated being of many movements and the synthesis of many peoples. Striving for expansive and holistic concept of the self, means to reenter the death-space and invoke its spirits repeatedly, the goal most often is understanding and the process itself, healing.

The self is the One who is not dominated, who knows that by the service of the other, the other is the one who holds the future, who knows that by the experience of domination, which gives the lie to the autonomy of the self. To be One is to be autonomous, to be powerful, to be God; but to be One is to be an illusion, and so to be involved in a dialectic of apocalypse with the other. Yet to other is to be multiple, without clear boundary, frayed, insubstantial (Haraway 177).

It is no wonder that the medical system Curanderismo has been created by la raza, the mestiza or mixed race. People of the indigenous Americans, of the European settlers, of those brought to this land from Africa, and those who came from the East. The identity of the people, just as in the past, is all encompassing and fluid, elements from all are accepted as truth is realized and dismissed when fault is found. The mestizos though relegated as the other throughout history, as have many conquered, enslaved, or battled people, know that no one here is truly apart from the whole. It is repeatedly noted and questioned, the capacity for people of the Americas to accept Christian doctrines, without ever truly making the full conversion and dismissal of native beliefs which is has been so desperately desired by the Church. It can only be stated, that generally this is how it has always been. The people are of an enormous faith, in the Great Spirit, in their religion- but this is coupled with the knowledge that no 'One' true faith exists to the exclusion of all others. The magic and religions of many peoples are all interpretations and symbolic of the same greater reality and source. What disorients humanity and our health as a people, is the misuse of power and influence, along with misunderstanding and fear- all which contributes to disequilibrium.

Three Levels of Curanderismo

Curanderismo is a medical practice, which is folkloric in roots, but syncretic in its acceptance and utilization of western medical techniques, though here specifically folkloristic methods shall be discussed. Trotter II and Chavira note three levels of activity amongst curanderos, being the material, spiritual and mental, the first being the most common and least demanding and the last being the least common and most advanced state (Trotter II and Chavira 73 &149). Each state shares common elements, for example the invocation of protection and prayer. These levels and methods are not in reality so separated as presented here, as many healers will use techniques found plural states.

The material level (nivel material) is where "the curandero manipulates physical objects and performs rituals conducive to treatment (Trotter II and Chavira 73)." Common tools used on the material level include candles, incense, agua preparada, oils, herbs/flowers, eggs, brooms, animals such as chickens or doves, crucifixes, rosaries, and pictures of the saints, stones/crystals, cards, ribbons/ rope, many types of amulets and charms, among others objects. For psychological, spiritual, or magical problems, the curanderos frequently combine the herbs, objects, and rituals into a special cure (curación) designed to eliminate a specific problem (Trotter II and Chavira 63). Problems and ailments, often called Mexican folk illnesses, commonly associated with the material level are the mal ojo, susto, caída de mollera, empacho, mal aire, desasombro, espanto, bilis, muína, latido, envidia, mal puesto, salar, maleficio (Torres 13-17). The ailments susto, desasombro, and espanto are described as varying degrees of 'spirit loss', which is very similar to Nahuatl beliefs concerning loss of 'shadow' or tonalli. Other problems commonly addressed are love, family, heath, work, or financially related.

I was treated by Doña Juana, a very good curandera in the village of Tepoztlán, Morelos. She diagnosed my illness by 'cleaning' my entire body with an egg, which she afterwards broke into a saucer. The form is assumed looked to her like a snake, which to was a sure indication that I had been hit by the aguajque, their Aztec term for the spirits of the air. The treatment was a vigorous massage with a warm lotion of herbs and oil on two successive days. On the third, the cure was completed by a bath in the temazcal. This aboriginal sweatbath was so low that I had to crawl into it. Then while I baked and sweated on the hot wet floor, my curandera gave me the best scrubbing I had ever had, with a handful of maguey fibre and coarse soap. Afterwards she beat me all over with a branch of moist leaves. When I was dressed and ready to leave, she gave me the branch to throw into the stream I had to cross on the way back, and told me to pray to the Virgin that the aguajque leave my body. She explained they are always thickest around streams and in the hills (Toor 147).

The purpose of healing often necessitates a ritual purification. Within many native traditions of the Americas, including the Nahuatl, this ritual is conducted through a sweeping of a space, the space around the body, or with contact to the body itself, with a bundle of herbs, sometimes burning. This method of incensing is called sahumerio (Trotter II and Chavira 85). In Curanderismo a broom is profusely used for la barrida or limpias, as a literal sweeping away of negative forces, energy, or aires (Trotter II and Chavira 63). Herbs, resins or substances commonly utilized in both older and present traditions include sage, chaparral, copal, mesquite, rosemary, and alcohol. Another ritual, which binds the power of negativity or black magic, is sortilegio, which very often involves the use of rope or ribbons (Trotter II and Chavira 86). Lastly, velaciones, or candle burning with prayer, is a common ritual for influencing situations at a distance, important is the color and positions of the candles (Trotter II and Chavira 88).

On the spiritual level (nivel espiritual) a curandero will be in communication with spirits in order to receive information and to heal. The curanderos specialized in this level are known as espiritualistas or mediums, and will attest to the diversity of spirits, their motives, their respective power and influence. "They are of different degrees according to the degree of purification to which they have obtained (Kardec 92)." Curanderos recognize the espiritus de la luz, which are spirit beings that are great protectors, companions, counselors, informants and healers. They are very much unlike the espiritus obscuros who are envious of true righteous strength of power, and seek to foster confusion, conflict, malady of emotion and spirit, and sickness of body. Many mediums have been fostered through Kardecism, which is a vast store of knowledge about mediumship and spirits, taken from Allen Kardecs' informative sessions with spirits through mediums. Those who work on the spiritual level are said to have the don, or gift, which could be likened to tonalli and ideas of destiny and capabilities. In the same way those who are encouraged not to become involved are said to have un cerebro debil, or weak head (Trotter II and Chavira 106). When one begins an apprenticeship to become a medium, it is called the desarrollo, or the development, the skill most necessary for a person working on the spiritual level being the ability to protect oneself. Taussig describes spirits of bajo luz-low level luminosity, as thus:

The low-light types hunger for light and are anxious to progress and hence can be bought through prayers and the Catholic mass to invade the bodies of ones enemy. Spirits of bajo luz are stupid, like dogs, and easily bought with the promise of a body. This creates problems (Taussig 72).

Possession of the body by a spirit, usually follows this simplified form; anointing of the medium and clients with agua preparada in order to purify and protect, the lighting of candles or incense, a prayer of praise to God for protection, and the invocation of the spirit to enter the body of the medium. It is noted that when the spirit descends upon the medium there will often be a jolting of the body, heavy breathing, and bodily movements as the spirit 'seats' itself into the body. The reading, counseling, and healing then takes place until the spirit leaves, with the possibility of multiple spirits making their presence felt.

On the mental level (nivel mental) a curandero has the don for doing healing work through the capacities of their mind or head spirit, very much related to ideas of the tonalli. Ritual is thought of as not being necessary on this level, though very often in the interests of the patient one will be performed (Trotter II and Chavira 149). This level is the most complex and hardest to explain. Through the capacities of the mind the curandero will often read the auras or spirit body emanations from the client, or perform healing at a distance through corrientes mentales, or mental currents.

Disharmony and the Restoration of Equilibrium in Curanderismo

The natural state of the world structure is of order and harmony. Yet these forces are continuously in a flux, with energies and powers being dispersed within many entities. Within these structural bodies of human, social, and worldly, an unbalanced state is often the norm. Curanderismo holds that holistic approaches are the only ways to restore equilibrium and to maintain health, a theory which revolts against the western theoretical practices of separating the entity into imaginary self-contained parts, forming the notion that the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual body are distinctly unrelated. Health is only realized through careful management of ones morality and duty to ones self, family, society, environment, and spirituality, the aspiration for equilibrium comes from the belief that its disorder, or that disequilibrium is the cause of ill health amongst these interrelated circles of relations. Thus the necessitation of a healing practice which addresses disorders through many channels, each suited not only to the property in distress, but with the knowledge of its relation to other areas lacking balance.

This theory of health runs contrary to the western medical tradition, in many ways, one being the objective of western medicine to cure, which contrasts greatly from the intention to heal. In order to cure, one must believe that the disorder found within the body is not of the body, that it is 'the other' to be purged. The language of curing is very violent and militaristic, it is common to hear of 'the fight to live', a need 'to kill' or 'eradicate' the disease, and to hear remedies referred to as 'weapons'. The person afflicted is normally referred to as 'a victim of' or 'engaged in a battle against' the 'enemy', who is to those in hopes of a cure, is always death.

These views runs contrary to a process of healing, like Curanderismo, that seeks to aid the patient in realizing the cause of the disorder, whether natural or supernatural, borne of within or without, physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, to be met and approached in a supportive environment. The "enemy" is not death, for in many cases death is the necessary process needed for the patient to undergo in order to heal, and culturally is embraced or celebrated, not greatly feared. Curing is seen as an unsuccessful method, for the disorder most likely lies not in the actual disease or illness, but in the source causing the disorder, which if not addressed will only reoccur. Most important in the process of healing practiced by curanderos is that after the patient is ready to actively participate in the healing process, hopefully has the support of family, friends and the community, that the blessing of God be invoked. In Curanderismo, no practice, reading, or healing occurs that is not first appealed to and offered to the honor of God, and most likely also, to the courts of saints, angels, and espiritus de la luz.

Cosmic Life Force

The cosmology of pre-conquest Meso-America held that the universe in its complete form is the principal Teo, which can be translated as the concept of God. Teo is itself comprised of Ometeotl, the unified dual principles that are infinitely manifested in opposite yet complementary forces. Ometeotl is personified in the complex Mexica pantheon of deities as Ometecutli, the cosmic masculine essence and Omecihuatl, the cosmic feminine. Teo is not understood to exist within a static state of complete order and harmony, but is in a constant flux between order and disorder, balance and imbalance, which is Ometeotl. Of particular relevance to this treatise is the tension between health and illness and life and death as part of the human experience. Thus, a primary goal of traditional Mexican medicine is to return balance to the human body and it's spiritual centers. A person of optimum health could be understood to be in ixtli in yollotl or of "true face, true heart". This could be understood as that the person mirrors the complete integrity of their spiritual nature both in the way they project their self to the world, and within the intentions of their actions. The intention of healing the whole person is not only committed to the individual but is also projected unto the individuals' relationship with their family, community and the larger spiritual universe. This is due to the understanding that if any of these relationships are in a state of disharmony it will inevitably effect the health of the individual. This fundamental piece of wisdom was manifested in every aspect of Nahua culture, from city planning to religious ceremony. The latter can be seen as an advanced technology of communication between humans and the animated spiritual entities of the world used to constantly maintain harmony and order, and thus health and prosperity.

The Nahuatl held similar beliefs in relation to health and healing, and definitely has contributed its roots to the growth of this philosophy within Curanderismo.

The equilibrium-disequilibrium polarity affected different areas: the natural, the social, and the divine. Man, a species in which all the forces of the cosmos meet in harmony, must maintain a balance in order to develop so that his existence and that of his fellow human beings in this world will not be unfavorably affected. He should be in equilibrium with the deities, his community, his family, and his own organism. In his search for happiness, enjoyment of earthly benefits was permitted, but not in excess or contrary to the interests of his community (Austin 267-8).

Though modern Curanderismo has been greatly influenced by Judeo-Christian concepts of the anima, parallelisms exist still between Nahuatl notions of the animistic centers and those held today. The Nahuatl found many animistic centers residing within the human body, Austin names 12 main groups, but the primary and most important of the animas were the tonalli, yolia or teyolia and the ihiyotl (Austin 199). These three centers of anima are very much related to the states of equilibrium and disequilibrium. "All three must operate harmoniously to produce a sane, mentally balanced and moral person. Disturbance of any one of them affects the other two (Austin 236)."

The Human Body and Spirit(s)

I have heard that one of the most readily identifiable symbols known across the world is the Calendar Stone of Mexico. This artifact is rich in iconography describing some of the most powerful mysteries of Nahua cosmology, especially in regard to this short discourse, the twenty-day signs of the sacred calendar round, or tonalpouhalli. We can think of these signs are merely signifiers of the days comprising the Nahua months, much likened to our Monday, Tuesday, etc., but to do that would be to ignore a larger meaning. The tonalpouhalli was used for many religious, spiritual and medicinal purposes. The date upon which a person was born or named determined their personality, destiny, and temperament. This relates the calendar day of birth to a person's tonalli, a center of animation and spirit, which will be described in the next section.

Nahua ethnoanatomical knowledge regarded human anatomy and physiology as integrated with the centers of animated spirit energies. A socio-cultural deconstruction of the Nahuatl term tonacayo provides insight into Nahua ideological beliefs in reference to the composition of a whole person. The first term, tona refers to the sun, the solar celestial entity, which through the day cycle is the basis of the sacred calendar, the tonalpouhalli. The day within this calendar on which a person was born determined their composition, personality and fate, as related to one of the major spirit centers, tonal. More will be elaborated on the use of the tonalpouhalli and tonal, at a later time in this text. For now in reference to the linguistic use of tona it is important to see the ideological connection between the sun, vitality, light, heat, and the spirit as a component of an individual's composition. The second term nacatl refers to the physical substance and material of the body, which is related to the earth, darkness, and cold. Therefore we can define tonacayo as the Nahua concept of a person being the holistic creation of body and spirit, as a form of substance unified and endowed with animated life. In relation to the inherent duality of ometeotl, tonacayo can be further defined through the sexes of tlacatl being male, and cihuatl, being female. Other components of tonacayo are tzontecomatl the combined head and face, eltzaccatl the organ system, nacayotl the muscular system, and tomio the skeletal system.

The human body is comprised of three major centers of animation, the tonalli, teyolia, and the ihiyotl; respectively these spirits are seated in the head, heart and liver. Alfredo Austin describes in his monumental ethnoanatomical study of Nahua culture twelve centers of animistic energy located in the human body. Austin arrived at these categorizes by utilizing Molina's text, Vocabulario, by categorizing selected terms that referred to the roles and conditions of animistic functions with locations or products of the body. It is important to note that he "does not pretend to describe categories that existed in the Meso-American world; they are simply a means of classifying and handling the material (Austin, 184)." In light of the subjective, albeit useful, nature of this study I have decided to focus on the three centers I believe to be most closely connected with the idea of human spirit, as understood by the Nahua. Many of the below mentioned centers were indeed important processes and symbols present in many pre-Columbian terms of 'flowery speech'. But it is difficult for me to want to translate linguistic metaphor and folkloric sayings into the beliefs of how spiritual energies and entities are seated in the body, the two are very different. Although poetry is indeed formed by belief and vice-versa, there is a great amount of artistic and imaginative license present that must be accounted for. For example, although we may say to someone today to 'have heart', meaning, 'be courageous', it does not follow that we believe that courage intrinsically arises from the heart. Courage and heart have a deep and long cultural association. The root of courage being 'Coeur' the Latin phrase for heart, and there are many such phrases in our language related metaphorically to the heart, it does not necessarily mean that the heart is seen to be the center of a particular and separate entity. These are challenges of this analysis, but be that what it may, these twelve centers of animistic activity are;

    1. yol, yollo heart
    2. el liver
    3. tonal irradiation contained in the body
    4. a the crown of the head
    5. cua upper part of head
    6. tzon hair
    7. ihio breath
    8. ix eye or face
    9. nacaz ear
    10. xic navel
    11. cuitla excrement
    12. tlail, tlael excrement



The tonalli is located in the head, and is given the following attributes, "a. irradiation; b. solar heat; c. summer; d. day; e. day sign; f. the destiny of a person according to the day of [his] birth; g. 'the soul and spirit' (Molina: totonal); h. something meant for, or the property of, a certain person (Molina: tetonal) (Austin 204)." The tonalli has been described as a person's 'shadow', which when separated from the body it inhabits, can led to serious health problems and possibly death if the separation is prolonged. The tonalli leaves the organism in both normal and abnormal ways and returns to it spontaneously or can be recovered through therapeutic procedures. It is said to resemble something like 'breath' or 'air' and in form be the likeness of the being it inhabits. Austin names this characteristic of the tonalli the possible reason why it is likened to a 'shadow', dismissing the contrast between the luminous quality of tonalli and the darkness of a shadow, both retain or emulate the form of the bearer. In regard to the connection between tonalli and destiny, it is believed that when one is conceived one first receives tonalli while intrauterine, it is the first 'irradiation'. Either on the day of birth, a culturally prescribed number of days, or on a more favorable day, within the 13day cycle, a child receives their destined day sign. The complex and intricate details of the many calendars, their personal, social, and spiritual implications can not here be described. Tonalli is also continued and inherited through familial ties, a common practice arising from this is the naming of children with familial or ancestral names.

Tonalli is the aspect of our spiritual nature that is everything we know, believe, or perceive about the world around us. As a spirit, tonalli is our unique personality and determines our life's destiny. A trait of the tonalli is its sensitivity to the exterior forces of the world. Abrupt, disturbing, or extreme circumstances are traditionally attributed to the partial or complete loss of this spirit, a condition known as susto. Susto is often the root cause of many physical illnesses and psychological imbalances, although it is not recognized as legitimate in modern medicine. Traditionally in many cultures native to the Americas, and Mexico is no exception, it is fundamental that a healer have the ability to deliberately send their own soul out into other worlds in order to retrieve and restore the soul loss in persons they endeavor to heal. In this way naguals (traditional sorcerers), brujas (traditional witches), and curanderas (traditional healers) expertly use tonalli to travel through dreams and visionary states and enter other spiritual dimensions as a practical development of their work.

A part of the person, a part of the soul or spirit, often becomes lost and wanders far, trying to find its way back. The causes of this separation are many but without the restoration of the soul illness continues and gets progressively worse. In many instances the healer must journey to the land of the dead to recover the soul and bring it back. The journey to the land of the dead involves travel to a territory that is described in similar ways in many countries and traditions. There is a low wall or demarcation which is present in the land of illness. Should the soul cross it the person usually dies, for few healers can go beyond this barrier and live. Some of the great shamans of many countries were said to be able to cross this line and return. For others, if the soul resides of this side of the wall, the shaman or healer can retrieve it and bring it back to the person's body (Buhner, 77-78).

In old Mexico, it was the practice to recover as much of a recently deceased persons belongings and creations to be buried or burned with their corpse, due to the belief that these physical items were imbued with tonalli of their loved one and had to be consolidated into completeness. The tonalli of the deceased needed to recover these parts of itself in order to be whole, and thus able to successfully travel the road of the dead to Mictlán, the land of the dead. In the case of illness as opposed to death, it is important to note that often times the lost tonalli does not wish to be returned to it's self in the body's physical form. It then becomes the role of the healer to both counsel and heal the disentombed spirit before it is ready to return or alternatively to bring it back forcibly, which is indicative of the different methods employed by different curanderas.

Tonalli and 'shadow' additionally come from destined strength and increase with age, experiences, power, and influence. This led to a mix of fear and respect for those possessing 'great shadow', like elders who have passed 52 and 104 years of age, and those known as the ticitl and the nagual (Austin 205-258). The ticitl was described by Ruiz de Alarcón, in his 1629 Treatise as "accepted among the natives as meaning sage, doctor, seer, and sorcerer, or, perhaps one who has a pact with the Devil" and also included those involved in midwifery, and the "woman fortune telling healer" (Alarcón 157-8).

They immediately consult some female fortune-telling healer of the ones the call ticitl, who almost always answers that the cause of the child's sickness is that he lacks his fate or fortune or star, for these three things are included under the noun tonalli in the Mexican language. Then this healer, seer, impostor, and, frequently, witch deals with the remedy by stating that the child has been abandoned by his fortune, etc., and that, if it is not returned to him and if his fate is not again favorable to him, he will never get well. These female healers are called tetonaltique, which means " the women who return the fate or the fortune to it's place" (Alarcón 161).

The nagual still persists today as a powerful sorcerer who has great supernatural knowledge and wisdom, among one of the most fascinating abilities of the nagual is to change form or shape-shift.

The people said that the dog was a nagual, a sorcerer who had turned into an animal in order to harm them. They told the reporter that they had beat the dog severely, and that when he ran off they saw him assume his human form, which was that of a man, wounded and bleeding, dragging himself to a neighboring hut. As a matter of fact, the man living there died a few days later from wounds (Toor 147).

Though very sensationalized and too commonly feared, both the ticitl and nagual are most often wrongly accused of wrong doings as a result of practicing an ancient tradition very little understood. They are proficient in the control of their body's different anima, and powerful in their methods of working in the intermingled world of 'natural' and 'supernatural' phenomenon. For more information on the nagual of the Yaqui, the books of Carlos Castaneda are illustrative of the depth and power of this magical path.


The yolia or teyolia is situated in the heart, and is not singularly believed to be the seat of consciousness. The heart center is the most significant and powerful center of the animas, and is unable to be separated from the body. Among the Maya K'iche it is said that the heart is attributed with the following qualities: all psychic powers, memory, will, faculties for reasoning, life, spirit and soul are found in the heart. Teyolia was though to be present not only in human beings and in animals. The sources refer to the heart of anything important; towns, mountains, sky, lake, ocean, etc. Problems of disequilibrium within the teyolia, are said to be caused by immoral behavior, pressure or 'darkening' of the heart, it being covered by phlegm, or through the impure doings of sorcerers, who will devour hearts (Austin 230-232). The significance of the heart, in the magic and religion of the Nahuatl is evident through the many superstitions and stories told of hearts being stolen or eaten. Additionally the knowledge that a great number of the most sacred rites at Tenochtitlan involved human sacrifice, as celebrated through the removal of the heart as an offering to the gods.

It was thought that not only sensation but also a certain degree of consciousness existed in the sense. If consciousness is in some way dispersed, it is logical to speak of states in which [hu] man (the ego more or less disseminated throughout the body) would repair to the predominant focus in order to carry out the most important acts of his existence. The heart can be reached, captured, read, seen; one can talk to it; it can be directed toward things. It is not identical, then, with that ego of which it makes up the most important part (Austin 190).

Teyolia is the energy that is channeled throughout our body and permeates us with potent vitality. Whereas tonalli is the center of our personal ideology, everything we perceive, know and believe, teyolia is our instinct, emotion, and will. The habits and obsessions we accumulate are also founded on our teyolia. Depending on the strength and character of an individual's teyolia, they will be more or less resilient to offence, the negative will or action directed onto one by others, and the hardships of mental and/or physical slavery.

Teyolia is linguistically rooted by the term yollotl, which signifies 'heart' and 'life,' the prefix to and te are possessives related to a larger sense of community meaning 'of the people,' thus we can define teyolia as the 'life of the people'. One aspect of teyolia is its specificity to the individual as the animated force that sustains our life, unlike tonalli who can leave the body freely and under most circumstances not cause death, teyolia only departs the body in physical death and is therefore responsible for our corporal life. The above definition of teyolia hints at the larger aspect of teyolia as related to all life. The essence of teyolia is the same essence that gives life to all creation. Two major Meso-American deities were known as 'Heart of Sky' and 'Heart of Mountain', these immense forms of yollotl symbolize it's omnipresence in both heaven and earth, this unification of the celestial and terrestrial realms represents the totality of this Great Spirit, teo. The infamous practice of heart sacrifice was born out of this belief of the universality of teyolia. The Mexica believed themselves to be the most powerful empire of the world, their grand capital Tenochtitlan to be the center of the world, and the epicenter of this architectural mirror of the universe, the Great Temple precinct. Further, the Mexica believed that their destiny as a people came with the responsibility of maintaining cosmic continuity, to ensure that life continued through the many precarious and vulnerable time periods of their sacred calendar the Tonalpouhalli. The ceremony of heart sacrifice was meant as an offering to transfer the teyolia contained within the body of the people, or the corporal realm, to the deities in the spiritual realm. The many deities of the Mexica pantheon required this vital energy to continue their life giving activities, to maintain time and therefore ensure the continuity of the cosmos. Life holds the alternate possibilities of harmony, order and prosperity or imbalance, discord, and destruction, and this life is essentially teyolia. The frightening reality for the Mexica was the possible total loss of universal life, a complete destruction that would leave nothing, the absence of movement and the dynamic fluctuation of ometeotl, would be the death of teo. Teyolia was in a real sense the fuel for the movement of the sun, and the food of the gods, for the Mexica. This is the connection of teyolia, as an organ and an individual spirit to 'the life of the people', directed through will and ceremony to the soul of the universe.


The ihiyotl, resides in the liver and is associated with breath and the 'airs'. This entity is extremely influential in its dealing with others, especially those of weak 'shadow'. They can emanate as a 'noxious forces' from both living and dead bodies, was replenished by air and the act of breathing, and it's powerful force of influence was attributed especially to pregnant/menstruating women, sorcerers, the dead and apparitions. The various psychic functions of the three entities go from the more rational of the tonalli to the more emotional of the ihiyotl, and the most important functions are those associated with the central entity, the teyolia (Austin 233-236).

Ihiyotl was represented as the breath of the celestial Mexica goddess Citlalicue, She of the Starry Skirt. This animated energy takes the form of a cold dense gas that is often times visible when it escapes the body in death but soon becomes formless as it dissipates. Ihiyotl can be understood as both our attention and judgement. Attention is one of the most powerful tools of consciousness used by humans, after our 'word' or ability to communicate, to create an understanding of our life and of the world around us. Attention can be understood simply as focus or the concentration of our consciousness on particulars or within a state of being. Slightly more complicated is the use of attention by the nagual to put oneself or others in an altered state of consciousness. The attention as stated here is normally for most firmly settled in the ihiyotl and liver, but can be manipulated into other locations of a persons spiritual body, the result of a dislodged attention being an alternate perspective or being in a place of alternate awareness. Judgement is a natural partner to attention, because the process of giving one's attention unconsciously occurs simultaneously with inattention, the result being that all of our beliefs, perspectives, and understanding (tonalli) are created through the subjective determination of judgement. This is further illustrated by the attributes of ihiyotl being the source of our attraction to certain persons, animals or objects that become beloved and produces in the individual its 'appetite' as likened to desire or greed. It is likewise is the source of our abhorrence, hatred or loathing for persons, animals or objects. Lastly, the ihiyotl is also the animated spirit that obsessively judges itself and others relative worth, so that all things are found either good and right or bad and wrong in the understanding of ihiyotl.

The ihiyotl through its relative strength or weakness instills an individual with courage, strength, and empathy or vanity, laziness and apathy. It is a sickness of the human condition to mindlessly give our attention to persons, things and activities that do not support us in living a life of health, happiness, freedom and love. A person of weak ihiyotl gives their attention to improper behavior, such as gossip, to concepts and beliefs that are harmful, such as dogma and prejudice, and the persons who find agreement with these ways of perception. To varying degrees signs of weak ihiyotl could be indulging in patterns and activities that entrap the individual into feeling fear, insecurity, anger, jealousy and hatred. A strong ihiyotl is apparent in the person who is happy, secure, and gives their attention to persons and things that agree with actions based in love, faith and courage. An individual with a strong ihiyotl is aware of the different conditions and experiences of all things in creation, yet does not judge themselves or others out of a false understanding of perfection. If we understand that our perception and sense of life and all creation is a 'smoky mirror' created by our own mind, then life is a dream. In anthropology, this idea of our perspective as a dream could be termed as ones' personal world-view. However it is termed, the entity that maintains our constructed reality of the dream, which is our life, is ihiyotl.


In conclusion, study of elements of syncretism between the Nahuatl culture of old Mexico and the folk medicinal practice of modern Mexican and Chicano curanderos show many similar belief patterns and applications towards healing, it is an area that is little researched and should be explored more in depth. The study of this topic is important to provide insight into the medical ideologies of two historically related cultures in order to bridge an understanding between western medical traditions with those of the native Americans, and their descendants. Who have learned to create a truly unique practice that takes the best from both fields. It is my hope that this summary of some of the most prominent features of syncretism and related medical theory has been successful in supporting evidence of Nahuatl influence in modern Curanderismo. Topics for further exploration, that were unable to be fit into the size constraints of this paper include and analysis of the Hippocratic humors, Nahuatl hot/cold dichotomy as the same dichotomy is within Curanderismo, and the similarities between concepts of the ojo mal in Nahuatl and Curanderismo. A deeper study could additionally be conducted in relation to the influence of cosmological, calendric, religious and social customs and beliefs on both cultural medical practices, compared to and contrasted with Spanish medieval and renaissance culture and medicine. This field has yet to fully explored, and has great implications for future syncretism of medical theory as we continue to re-interpret our histories in light of post-modernity.


Alarcón, Francisco X.
1992 Snake Poems: An Aztec Invocation. SF: Chronicle Books.

Alba, Dr. Mario Rojas
2002 Medicina Tradicional de Mexico y sus Plantas Medicinales. Tlahui Educa.

Austin, Alfredo López Translated by: Bernard and Thelma Ortiz de Montellano
1980 Cuerpo Humano e Ideología: Las Concepciones de los Antiguos Nahuas, I./ The Human Body and Idealogy: Concepts of the Ancient Nahuas I. University of Utah Press

Buhner, Stephen Harrod
1996 Sacred Plant Medicine: Explorations in the Practice of Indigenous Herbalism. Roberts Rinehart Publishers.

Haraway, Donna
1991 "A Cyborg Manifesto" Simians, Cyborgs and Women. The Reinvention of Nature. NY: Routledge.

Kardec, Allan Translated by: Anna Blackwell
1989 Le Livre des Esprits./ The Spirits' Book. Brother of Life Inc.

Murphy, Joseph
1993 Santería: African Spirits in America. Boston: Beacon Press

Ruiz de Alarcón, Hernando . Translated/edited by: J. Richard Andrews and Ross Hassig
1984 Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions and Customs That Today Live Among the Indians Native to this New Spain, 1629. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman

Ruiz, Don Miguel
2000 The Four Agreements. Amber-Allen Publishing.

Taussig, Michael
1997 The Magic of the State. NY: Routledge

Toor, Frances
1947 A Treasury of Mexican Folkways. NY: Crown.

Torres, Eliseo
1983 The Folk Healer: The Mexican-American Tradition of Curanderismo. Tx: Nieves.

Trotter II, Robert and Chavira, Juan
1981 Curanderismo: Mexican American Folk Healing. University of Georgia Press.



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