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The Mayan civilization extended from Mexico to Honduras and included parts of Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador. Several million people lived in their city-states. Today about 7 million people are considered to be descendants of this indigenous civilization.
The Maya ancestors settled around 2600 BC. AD in Yucátan, and their culture flourished around AD 250. Around 900 AD, high culture declined, in the north the Maya civilization flowed into that of the Toltecs, in the south the survivors left the cities and returned to a simpler way of life.
The geography professor Jared Diamond summarized the reasons for the decline: First, too many farmers were growing too many crops in too much of the landscape; secondly, people destroyed the forest, the mountain slopes eroded and the arable land shrank; third, the quarreling Mayans fought for the shrinking resources; fourthly, climate change led to long-lasting droughts; and fifthly, the rulers did not tackle these problems, but instead asked for food from the farmers, had monuments erected and enriched themselves at short notice.
When the Spaniards conquered Central America in the 16th century, the major Mayan cities were overgrown by the rainforest. They drove out the indigenous people and killed all who resisted. European diseases caused enormous sacrifices among the locals who had not developed an immune system against it and were also weakened by hunger and exploitation.
The Spaniards also destroyed the chronicles in which the indigenous people wrote down their history, religion, culture and knowledge. Only four codices were spared the fire in which Diego de Landa burned the books.
Traditional knowledge of the Mayans
Many Mayan traditions have been lost, but the indigenous healing knowledge is preserved in the surviving codices. So they used the bark of the Gumbo-Lombo against sunburn, a begonia species against snake venom.
Today, science knows at least 900 plants that the Maya used as medicinal herbs, such as aloe and agave, papaya and passion flower. An all-round remedy was Turnera diffusa, a saffron mallow that smells of lemon.
They use the Damiana plant against fatigue and exhaustion, but also against insomnia. Damiana used the indigenous people of Mexico against asthma. It is diuretic and relieves cramps. It also promotes blood circulation in the abdomen and served as a sexual enhancer; the Maya brewed a tea with the leaves.
The medical system
A traditional medicine, which has its roots in the period before the Spanish conquest, has been preserved in Mexico to this day. However, since the written sources of the Mayan civilization are largely lost, it remains unclear whether the ancestors of today's indigenous people had the same ideas.
The Spanish conquerors destroyed the sources, but wrote down even known diseases including symptoms, treatments, medicinal plants and magic rituals to the locals, for example in the Ritual de los Bacabes and in the Libros de los Chilam Balam.
Accordingly, the indigenous people knew no difference between organic and mental illnesses, but they separated between the presumed natural or metaphysical cause of illnesses. If practical methods of curing complaints failed, the indigenous people quickly assumed a supernatural cause.
Generally speaking, diseases originated in a disturbed harmony. Body, soul, society and cosmic energy related to each other. Anyone who broke the rules of this wholeness became ill. The healers rely on both religious rituals and medicinal plants to restore balance.
“Bad winds” were supposed to cause disease by penetrating people's bodies. "Winds" denote both the air and spirits. Exposed to these "bad winds" were people who left the village / city area who were exhausted from work or sexually aroused.
What psychology calls trauma today also promoted disease. Children in particular who had experienced terrible conditions suffered from nightmares, sweating, diarrhea and lethargy. Grief could also trigger these symptoms.
The "evil eye" led to resentment. This could lead to the death of the envied if the malevolent went to a wizard who harassed the victim. Above all there was an idea of the cosmos, which divided the world into four directions, and assigned the colors white, yellow, black and red.
Similar to Chinese medicine, the Maya differentiated between hot and cold and considered a balance between the extremes to be the way to health. Anyone who was overheated and jumped into ice-cold water could get sick easily, for example from a headache. As in China, "hot" or "cold" does not necessarily mean the measurable temperature of food, but the presumed effect of the herbs.
Doctors and shamans
The chronicles of the early colonial period call various health care professions. This included the "healer, adept in cases of any art and occupation", who took. This corresponded to a shaman.
Then there was the ah ts’ak, a general doctor and surgeon, and the ah pul, a sorcerer who caused illnesses by magic. These sorcerers also focused on certain ailments. The ah pul unenel, for example, tiredly harmed its victims. The ah tok was a bather and bloodlayer, the ah ohel tu kinam xiuoob was a herb collector.
These Mayan medical specialists were ambivalent: they were able to treat and trigger diseases, heal and kill them.
Traditionally thinking Mayan descendants still believe that healers / witches can send out bad winds. Healers are reluctant to work in another healer's territory because they fear that he will bewitch them. Even today, the main task of healers / witches is to remove damage spells from other specialists with magic rituals.
Today's Mayan descendants also know many different healers. The parteras are women who work as midwives, the Hueseros treat broken bones, sprains, strains and dislocations. The Curanderos treat sufferers whose home remedies fail. The Zahorines are interpreters of dreams and fortune tellers, the shamans use both medicinal plants and spiritual journeys.
Shamans call Catholic saints as well as Maya gods. They go to sacred places like caves and quote the triune god, the Virgin Mary, the winds and water spirits.
Treatment of diseases today
Traditional Mayan healers explain diseases naturally, psychosomatically or metaphysically. The boundaries between these aspects merge. To make a diagnosis, the healer first examines the exact symptoms and the course of the disease so far, like a modern doctor.
Then he asks for details about the social environment of those affected and recent events. Did anything unusual happen in field work or hunting? Have there been unexplained deaths? Does the sick have enemies? Was there an argument, is there an important conflict?
An essential element of any treatment of diseases is the close relationship between healer and patient. Successful healings are probably due to a method that we call talk therapy here. Psychotherapy is also about leveling out a mental imbalance, although not only are ideas about cosmic forces alien to them, but modern psychology strictly rejects such explanations.
The healer judges whether there is a natural cause, or demons such as the resentment of others. He goes into a different state of consciousness and concentrates on the sastun, a small stone in which he supposedly sees prophecies.
If, according to the healer, there is a natural cause, he uses various means, depending on the type of illness: teas, tinctures, enemas or smoke. For example, alcoholics drink a mixture of alcohol and zorillo. If those affected drink alcohol again afterwards, they must vomit.
Awas are the natural cause. They mainly haunt children and get into the body, for example, when the mother is disgusted by a certain smell or greedy for a certain food. The children's diseases point to the food that is at stake. Children with tomato-awas have red spots on their bodies.
The aigres, the bad winds, come into the body in different ways. The winds can come from (physically) dirty people, then cow dung and cold food help. Envious people send out winds that heat the head and cause tumors and anemia.
The color of the urine gives an indication of whether “warm” or “cold” treatments are popular. The healer treats warm illnesses with cold medicine and vice versa. By doing so, he means triggering a reaction that balances the temperature.
Excessive sweating and fever are classic warm diseases that are treated with cold agents such as avocado, papaya, melon or purslane. For example, paralysis or impotence are cold. Coffee, sweet potato, amaranth or orange can help.
Combating the metaphysical causes is more difficult. The healer / shaman tries to travel to the three planes of the cosmos in a state of trance in order to confront the "bad wind". It threatens the wind to destroy it if it does not leave the patient alone. The shaman calls numbers and good spirits in the ritual, and they are supposed to support him in the fight against the "wind". Treatments are said to be nine times and are most effective on Tuesday and Friday.
The spiritual superstructure is syncretic today. Christian rites are added to the remains of the Mayan cosmos, for example the shaman crosses himself or calls Christian saints, who in turn carry aspects of the Mayan gods.
The historical Maya made sacrifices to the gods to persuade them to heal. For example, they pierced their penis with a thorn and sacrificed the blood to the gods.
We also know more than 60 medicinal plants from the Ritual de los Bacabes, a tradition of the historical medical system.
Medicinal plants of the Maya
In 600 AD the Maya came into contact with tobacco and used it for ritual purposes, as can be seen in clay pots with traces of tobacco.
They chewed tobacco for toothache and throat inflammation, they used it as "toothpaste", they mixed it with lime and chilli to a paste that they chewed to stay awake. #
They rolled the leaves, lit them on one side and inhaled the smoke through the mouth to cure respiratory problems.
They made tobacco tinctures, rubbed their skin and protected themselves from insect bites. This tincture also helped against muscle pain and rheumatic complaints. The Maya also used this remedy for snake bites.
Today, indigenous people in Mexico use the leaves for headaches, soak them in alcohol and thus alleviate swelling, bruises and sprains. Tobacco pastes are said to help against acne.
The Maya consumed alcohol in excessive feasts. According to the missionary Diego de Landa (1524-1579), they brewed a drink made from honey, water and an unknown root.
De Landa wrote: “The Indians were extremely uninhibited about drinking and intoxication; many evils grew from this; such as killing each other (...) wine they made from honey, water and the root of a certain tree they planted for it so that the wine became very strong and foul smelling; they danced, enjoyed themselves, and sat together for two and four to dine; and after eating, the gangs, who usually did not get drunk, brought out some large vats to drink, until there was a general commotion; and the women were very concerned when their husbands came home drunk. "
Such drinking feasts served a higher purpose. The Maya saw intoxication as a way to connect with spirits and gods. That is why they depicted drunks with serpentine lines on their mouths, which showed that the soul came out of the body. They brewed bark from bark, honey and water, chi from the juice of the agave.
They also used mushrooms that contain psilocybin and the venom of amphibians, which can be compared to LSD.
Chilli peppers, fresh or dried, were not only part of the Maya cuisine, but were an essential means of alleviating complaints. They used envelopes with chilli for muscle cramps and nerve pain.
Chilli dilates the blood vessels, promoting blood circulation. The body can then remove toxins and disease germs faster.
Chilli heats the body, it works against arthritis, it regulates the temperature - in hot countries it cools and warms in a cold climate. They work against allergies and stop the growth of viruses and bacteria. It releases the mucus from colds, clears the throat and throat.
The capsacin in the pods stimulates saliva as well as gastric juice, it accelerates the movement of the intestine and thus supports digestion. Because chilli speeds up your metabolism, it helps reduce weight. It helps the liver detoxify and drives urine flow. Chilli works against constipation and flatulence, stomach and intestinal problems. Because Capsacin stimulates the circulation, it also prevents thrombosis.
Cooperation instead of exclusion
The Mayans, along with indigenous people in North America, the Dalai Lama or "witches", are among the stars of the esoteric scene. A myriad of books on “the secret knowledge of the Maya” mixes malaise in modern times with presumably freely invented wisdom and a dash of mysticism, and this stew usually only has the name in common with the Maya.
The old high culture of Central America lends itself to such postmodern mysticism: on the one hand, its knowledge is still largely secret to this day, namely burned by the Spaniards. On the other hand, supposedly revealed secrets for miracle seekers and quacks are the elixir of their potions. In addition, the Maya believed themselves to be supernatural, which acts like a magnet in a scene that desires religious explanations.
The Maya recently caused a sensation because their calendar supposedly predicted the end of the world for December 2012. That was not true, because only one cycle ended this month (like a millennium among Christians in 2000), but the apocalypse disciples were only too happy to believe the non-existent prophecy.
For science, too, much of the Maya culture is in the dark. Even today, researchers keep discovering temples, tombs and entire settlements in the Guatemalan rainforest. The author Douglas Preston was inspired by the secrets of the Maya's lost writings for the novel "The Codex", in which an art robber knows the hiding place of a Maya codex that preserves the entire healing knowledge of the indigenous people; Scientists and pharmaceutical companies are now on the hunt for the mythical "White City" on the mosquito coast of Honduras.
Not only esotericists and novelists, European doctors are also interested in Mayan medicine today. Medical experts from the Mayan descendants traveled through clinics in Switzerland in order to exchange information about the treatment of cancer with doctors and doctors there. The research project at the Chair of Environmental Sciences and Social Sciences at ETH Zurich ran until 2015, in which the researchers held 65 interviews with healers from various Maya peoples.
Instead of mystical transfiguration or colonial contempt, Western doctors are concerned with education and partnership. Western knowledge system and Maya concepts could only be understood and evaluated in a cultural context. In addition to respect, it is therefore about openness and interest. The aim of the project is to summarize the Mayan knowledge about cancer. This in turn would also benefit the Maya descendants, who again have a written compendium on their medicine. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
Dr. phil. Utz Anhalt, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch
- Sven Gronemeyer: The indigenous medical system. Illness and healing. Housework as part of the language course "Language and Culture of the Yucatec Maya" under the direction of PD Dr. Nikolai pit. Bonn March 2001
- Dr. Hugo Icú Perén: Revival of Maya medicine and impact for its social and political recognition (in Guatemala) A case study commissioned by the Health Systems Knowledge Network, World Health Organisazion, who.int
- Edgar Caamal-Fuentes, Luis W. Torres-Tapia, Paulino Simá-Polanco, among others: Screening of plants used in Mayan traditional medicine to treat cancer-like symptoms, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Volume 135, Issue 3, June 2011, sciencedirect.com
- Anne Simons: Mayan Medicine, Mayamedia, 2000
- Katrin Kistner, Norbert Siklosi, Alexandru Babes, u.a .: Systemic desensitization through TRPA1 channels by capsazepine and mustard oil - a novel strategy against inflammation and pain, Scientific Reports, 2016, nature.com