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Maya Medicine

Traditional Healing in Yucatán

Marianna Appel Kunow

Publication Year: 2012

This account of the practice of traditional Maya medicine examines the work of curers in Pisté, Mexico, a small town in the Yucatán Peninsula near the ruins of Chichén Itzá. The traditions of plant use and ethnomedicine applied by these healers have been transmitted from one generation to the next since the colonial period throughout the state of Yucatán and the adjoining states of Campeche and Quintana Roo.

In addition to plants, traditional healers use Western medicine and traditional rituals that include magical elements, for curing in Yucatán is at once deeply spiritual and empirically oriented, addressing problems of the body, spirit, and mind. Curers either learn from elders or are recruited through revelatory dreams. The men who learn their skills through dreams communicate with supernatural beings by means of divining stones and crystals. Some of the locals acknowledge their medical skills; some disparage them as rustics or vilify them as witches. The curer may act as a doctor, priest, and psychiatrist.

This book traces the entire process of curing. The author collected plants with traditional healers and observed their techniques including prayer and massage as well as plant medicine, western medicine, and ritual practices. Plant medicine, she found, was the common denominator, and her book includes information on the plants she worked with and studied.

Published by: University of New Mexico Press

Title Page

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pp. v

List of Tables

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pp. v

List of Illustrations

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pp. vi


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pp. vii

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1: Introduction and Setting

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pp. 1-5

A surprising number of practitioners of traditional Maya medicine are consulted by the townspeople of Pisté, a small town located in the center of the northern half of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. The curers I have come to know use a variety of indigenous...

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2: The Yucatecan Sources

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pp. 6-11

Ethnobotany is by nature an interdisciplinary field, and several different kinds of sources provide a context for my research. The sources include ethnographies and ethnohistorical works, as well as ethnobotanical and botanical studies...

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3: Portraits of the Curers

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pp. 12-31

I thought it would be easy to write about the curers of Yucatan, some of whom I have known and worked with for a period of five years. This group of individuals welcomed me into their culture, lives, and in some cases, into their families. They have trusted me...

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4: Acquiring Curing Skills

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pp. 32-41

Apart from the unique case of Don Aldo, who went to medical school as part of a Mexican government training program and later learned about plant medicine through exposure to Maya practitioners and books on European homeopathic remedies...

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5: Exploring the Spectrum of Curing Specialties: Common Practices

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pp. 42-58

During the course of both field and library research on the curers of Yucatan, I became aware of a number of different terms that seemed to represent different kinds of curers or curing specialties. The first part of this chapter contains the results...

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6: Common Treatments and Traditional Concepts of Disease and Its Cause

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pp. 59-73

This chapter begins by considering the plants listed in table 1 (starting on p. 71) that I believe to be among the most commonly utilized species in Yucatan today. Only those plants that were used in the same way by more than one curer are included...

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7: Relation to Colonial Sources

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pp. 74-97

Ralph Roys’ (1931) study, The Ethno-Botany of the Maya, was the first in a new genre of works on the subject in that he transcribed, translated, and analyzed Maya texts and manuscripts from the colonial period (including the Mena and Sotuta manuscripts...

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8: Conclusion

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pp. 98-99

The curers with whom I worked in Yucatan share a tradition of plant use and ethnomedicine. There is a fairly large set of plants that is considered to be useful or medicinal among curers in the northern part of the peninsula. I suspect that the plants in this collection are but a fragment...


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pp. 100-108

Appendix A: Plant Catalog

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pp. 109-138

Appendix B: Plants with Uses Similar to Roys (1931)

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pp. 139-140


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pp. 141-142

References Cited

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pp. 143-145

Index of Plants by Families

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pp. 146-147


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pp. 148-152

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780826328663
E-ISBN-10: 0826328660
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826328656
Print-ISBN-10: 0826328652

Page Count: 160
Illustrations: 36 drawings, 1 maps
Publication Year: 2012