Image: Angèle Kamp

Nature is medicine: On Maya herbalism

05 | 06 | 2020

Plants’ healing properties are appreciated and taken advantage of, even to this day, in the world of the Maya.

With admirable discretion, plants are the silent bearers of wisdom. They’ve also, since time immemorial, been part of the medicinal traditions of peoples who live in proximity to them. They’re an essential element of such peoples’ mythologies and cosmogonies. This is the case with Maya communities who, to this day, use multiple plants for healing and therapeutic purposes. The custom has survived the passage of time to be treasured.

Many references to herbalism as a healing method in Maya cultures have been recorded since pre-Hispanic times. Some experts even track these practices to Olmec culture, arguing that the heritage is far older than even the Maya. The Chilam Balam, one of their principle religious works, makes several references to disease, calamities, cures, and medicinal plants.

For the Maya, disease was closely related to moral and therefore to religious issues. Health involved a quest for personal and social balance. Practitioners of such medicine, beyond employing herbs to cure, used other methods. These included leeches and punctures made with animal and plant spines. Such knowledge was punished after the conquest but was also recorded and preserved by European chroniclers, missionaries, and monks. One of the most important books on Mayan tradition of the colonial period is Diego de Landa’s Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, (Relationships of the things of Yucatan).

Maya plant wisdom has been handed down from generation to generation. It’s common among today’s Maya communities to sow healing plants in home gardens. As medical knowledge, it’s linked to the milpa systems of production, with ancient social relations of mutual aid, and with cultural manifestations that make up the identities of these groups, their shamanic traditions, and their ritual collection of medicinal plants.

Some of the medicinal herbs most commonly used by Maya peoples include lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), boatlily, or Moses-in-the-cradle (Tradescantia spathacea), peppermint (Mentha piperita), hibiscus (Malvaviscus arboreus), wormwood (Artemisia mexicana), aloe vera, fringed rue (Ruta chalepensis), achiote (Bixa orellana), toad grass (Epaltes mexicana), and key limes (Citrus aurantifolia). These are used in both infusions and baths, soaks, and in skin applications. Mixed with alcohol or honey, they become ointments and lotions for the treatment of headaches, bronchitis, and other respiratory conditions, high blood pressure, diabetes, and skin problems, among many others.

Invaluable as an accumulation of wisdom, today it’s at great risk. The conservation, celebration, and sharing of knowledge of this tradition has become more important than ever. It’s one of the essential missions of the Baktún initiative. Since 2012, the project has collaborated with multiple organizations to preserve the culture of the Maya (a living community). It’s part of the heritage of the world, too.

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