The Nahuatl Language and Traditional Medicine in Mexico
Andrea J. Vogt
Student of Modern Nahuatl, Beginners' Level
Doctoral Student, Medical Anthropology
As I prepared to leave for Mexico and a three-month study program regarding medicinal plants and the Mexican indigenous language Nahuatl, many North American friends and family members asked why I would want or need to study Nahuatl. "Do you really need to study Nahuatl to carry out your anthropological research in Mexico?" "How many people actually speak this language?" they asked. Even Mexican friends and new acquaintances are surprised by my interest in the Nahuatl language and indigenous culture. Thus I would like to take this opportunity to explain the importance of the study of the Nahuatl language -- in general, and in light of the interests of medical anthropology.
Statistics alone illustrate the importance of Nahuatl -- a 1990 census found that nearly 1,200,000 Mexicans over the age of five years speak Nahuatl. But numbers do little to elaborate on the impact that the Nahuatl language and cultures have had on the Mexican culture. For instance, foods such as chocolate, tortillas, and tacos, which are known throughout North and South America were produced and consumed by Nahuatl-speakers long before Columbus "discovered" the New World. And words such as coyote and chocolate, which have been adopted by both the English and Spanish languages are Nahuatl in their origin (derived from koyotl and chokolatl, respectively). The Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs and numerous other indigenous groups in Mexico, through years of working with the environment in which they lived, gained crucial knowledge and understanding of the plants, animals, mountains, rivers, and universe that surrounded them. This knowledge has been preserved through oral tradition and cultural customs and practices and still exists in indigenous communities today. However, this knowledge is in danger of being lost as macro-level economic and political forces encroach on indigenous communities, driving them to abandon traditional knowledge for the new, the modern, and the scientific.
The case of traditional indigenous knowledge of illness, healing, and medicinal plants exemplifies: 1) the importance of understanding the Nahuatl language in order to understand Nahuatl culture and medicine, and 2) the importance of preserving indigenous Nahuatl knowledge of medicinal plants.
Familiarity with the Nahuatl language allows us to more fully understand how the Nahuas viewed their world and their position within the universe. For the Nahuas, the medical, social, economic, moral, political, magical, religious, and psychological aspects of life were interrelated and continuously influenced one another (Austin 1984). The maintenance of health was dependent in part upon maintaining equilibrium and moderation. The Nahuas identified three entities of the human being: the tonalli, the teyolia, and the ihiyotl. Within the individual, the three entities should be in a state of perfect harmony with one another. Thus good health resulted from maintaining equilibrium with the cosmos, which included relations with fellow humans, the gods, the divine forces, the society, and with one's own organism. The Nahua understanding of illness involved a distinction between hot illnesses (in kokolistiij totooni) and cold illnesses (in kokolistiij sessej), which could be treated with hot and cold medicines (Castillo and Sabalza 1980).
Many Nahua medicines were derived from plants. The medicinal plant knowledge of the Nahuas is still employed throughout Mexico. This traditional medicine, rather than being viewed as a second-class type of medicine for the poor, should be viewed as a more natural, holistic, affordable alternative to synthetic, expensive pharmaceuticals produced and exported by international pharmaceutical companies. It must also be recognized that many members of indigenous communities have limited economic resources, and therefore have limited access to biomedical resources. Thus the preservation of traditional medical knowledge is crucial to the health of indigenous communities. Furthermore, many plant remedies employed by traditional indigenous medicine have proved to be beneficial to non-indigenous and non-Mexican populations as well. The following are just a few of the medicinal plants employed by the Nahuas in the past and are still employed by many Mexicans today to treat various illnesses.
The epazote (the name is derived from Nahuatl: epatl = skunk, tzotl = sweat or dirtiness) is used for gastrointestinal illnesses. The "flor de manita" (known as macpalxochitl or "mapilxochitl" in Nahuatl, both meaning "flower of the palm of the hand") is used for illnesses of the heart and the nerves. It is also used to treat epilepsy. The "flor de corazon" (known as yoloxochitl in Nahuatl, or "flower of the heart") is used for illnesses of the chest, to control fevers, and to alleviate illnesses of the heart (Bye and Linares 1987).
The Nahuatl language and culture have indeed contributed greatly to and continue to be of importance to the cultures and lives of non-indigenous and non-Mexican populations. However, macro-level forces such as globalization endanger the preservation of Nahuatl culture, language, and medicinal plant knowledge. Thus it is vital that Mexicans, Europeans, and North Americans alike recognize the value of preserving and studying the Nahuatl language and culture.
The following essay is written in Modern Nahuatl
In Tepatiki Moseualtin Mexhikatl
In tepati mouseualtin mexhikatl tlapatia kok se ken tepatiani in tlalnan Estados Unidos. In mouseualtin mochipa kiteki xiuitl pan milli, pan tepetl. Yehuan kixmati miek van kualli kinpatia van kixtililia in kokolistli tlen kipia itek isentech. Tsokene yehuan kichichiua num patli tlen kinma inkokoxkalis. Kitosneki tlen patli in mouseualtin achi kualli pampa kikui non xiuimej pan veyi xolatl van yehuan kichichiua kiposonia van inayotl kinkoniltia. Noki kitosneki nin patli achi kualli van amo patio. Inon kichiua tlen inmostin mouseualtin kualli mopatia pampa amo kipia miek melio.
Tikita noki in mouseualtin kipia inemilis kok se tlen nome amo mouseualtin. Noki kipia miek tlatoli tlen kin kauiliteke in kokoluan aztekatl van yekipia miek kauitl kuak oyekoke tlakakoyomej in tlalnan Espana. Nelli sekin veyi tlalnamakoyan in Estados Unidos kineki kin kouiliske tlamachtilistli in mouseualtin ipan in xiuimej tlen patia. Tin milia amo mokauakan yehuan achi kipia melio van yeko kauitl kin kuikuiliske.
Nikan ixnesi sekin xiuimej tlen kikui in mexhikas van ka yehuan tepatia. Tikpia nin epazotli, ka nin xiuitl mopatia in kokolistli in itek, noki ikuilaxkol. Noki tikpia macpalxochitl noso mapilxochitl. Inin xiuitl kikui inik kokolistli in yolotli van noki itsontekon. In tolohuaxihuitl (noki itoka tlazolpahti, tolohua, tlapatl, tzitzilapatl, toloatzin, van mixitl) kipatia in kokolistli tsinkualli van tlapoxaualistli. Kok se xiuitl tlen noki itoka tolohuaxihuitl kikuiaya inik in kokoa. Se xiuitl tlen itoka yoloxochitl kipatia in kokolistli itek ielpan van yolotli.
Inin patli achi kualli van kinpatia miek kokolistli ka inon mopaleuia in mouseualtin mieke tlakamej in mexhiko van in kok se tlalnan.