University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Badianus Manuscript: An Aztec Herbal, 1552

The oldest known American herbal: “Little Book of the Medicinal Herbs of the Indians”

The people of North and South America also used medicinal herbs. Over thousands of years, the people of North and South Americans accumulated a vast store of botanical and medical knowledge, a fact that surprised many European explorers when they began their conquest of the Americas in the sixteenth century.

Tlazolteolt, Goddess of of Medicine Men

Tlazolteolt, Goddess of of Medicine Men

The Aztecs, for example, were expert herbalists. In 1552, during the early years of Spanish rule in Mexico, two Native American students at the College of Santa Cruz in Tlaltilulco, Martinus de la Cruz and Juannes Badianus, compiled a list of herbs that had been used as medicines for centuries by the Aztecs. Martinus wrote, and probably illustrated, the original Aztec text, and Badianus translated the work into Latin. Today their work, Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis which is Latin for “Little Book of the Medicinal Herbs of the Indians” is commonly called the Badianus Manuscript. Housed in the Vatican Library, The Badianus Manuscript is the oldest known American herbal.

 


For Nose Bleeds: Atzitzicaztli, Urtica chichicaztli (Water nettle)

For Nose Bleeds
Atzitzicaztli, Urtica chichicaztli (Water nettle)

The juice of nettles, ground with salt in urine and milk, poured into the nostrils stops the flow of blood from the nose.

The Mayans used the juice of nettles to treat nosebleeds. References to the use of nettles are found in the earliest pharmacopoeias of Europe. The water nettle, sometimes called chichicaste, grows throughout Mexico, Central America, the West Indies, and tropical South America.


For Injured Body

For Injured Body

Cortez and other Spanish explorers referred to the skill of Aztec doctors in treating cuts and bruises. The following is a rather complex, multi-herb recipe for the treatment of the “injured and roughly-handled body”:

The injured and roughly-handled body is to be anointed with a plaster made of tlahcoteocacatl [“Goddess of carnal pleasure grass”], centzonxochitl [“400 flowers”], xiuhtontli [“little plant”], axocotl [“water sour fruit”], tlayapaloni xiuhtontli [“little black paint plant”], the moss of any tree, cones of the cypress, seed of nettles, and the ayauhquahuitl tree [“mist tree”—a variety of pine]. One who has been roughly handled and beaten is to drink juice well prepared from the stalk of cohuanenepilli [“serpent tongue”], tlanexiaxihuitl [“bright tree”], chicomacatl [“gum cord”], flower of axocotl, and yzquixochitl [“popcorn flower”], tetlahuitl [red ochre stone], eztetl [bloodstone--a variety of jasper], teamoxtli [“stone plant”], liver of the aquatic bird huexocanauhtli and a few leaves of tlahtlanquaye [“joined stem"--a kind of pepper], which are to be ground in acid water.


For Lightning Stroke

For Lightning Stroke

One who is touched by heaven or struck by lightning is to drink a well-mixed potion made from the leaves of trees, namely, ayauhquahuitl [“mist tree”--a variety of pine] and tepapaquiltiquahuitl [“painted tree”], an unusually green cypress, the shrub yztauhyatl [“salty water plant”], the herb quauhyyauhtil [“wild or wood incense”] and teamoxtli [“stone plant”]. Whenever the potion is to be given, it should be heated over the fire.

Then the body should be rubbed with a plaster made of the herbs papaloquilitl [“butterfly eatable plant”], tlalhecapahtli [“earth/lowland wind medicine”] quauhyyauhtli, tlatlanquaye, huitzitzilxochitl [“humming bird flower”] and yztacocoxochitl [“white pine flower”], finally, containing all those herbs above which the lightning struck. . . . Besides, you shall instill a medicine into the nostrils, composed of white pearl, the root of tlahtlahcotic [“having many branches”--a purgative] and of all small herbs growing in a pleasure garden which has at some time been burned. He shall be suffumigated with the good odor of white incense, of the wax which is called xochiocotzotl [“flower pine resin”] and of the herb quauhyyauhtli thrown onto embers.


For Cough: Tlacoxiloxochitl [probably]  Calliandra anomala (stalky cornsilk flower)

For Cough
Tlacoxiloxochitl, [probably] Calliandra anomala (stalky cornsilk flower)

One troubled with a cough is to drink frequently the juice of the root of tlacoxiloxochitl peeled and ground in water, with part of which, mixed with honey, the throat is to be smeared. But if he spits blood, he is also to take this same drink before the midday meal. And it would be somewhat useful if he would merely nibble the same root in honey and chew it.

Ground and added to water, the flowers of this plant were said to improve eyesight and heal ulcers. Aztec physicians prescribed a decoction of the root against diarrhea and dysentery, and to relieve indigestion.


For Rumbling of the Abdomen

For Rumbling of the Abdomen

For one whose bowels are murmuring because of diarrhea, make a potion, let him take it with an ear clyster, of the leaves of the herb tlatlanquaye [“jointed stem”--a kind of pepper], the bark of quetzalaylin [“green water tree”], the leaves of yztacocoxochitl [“white pine flower”] and these herbs tlanextixiuhtontli [“gaudy little plant”], elocacatl [grain or maize], the tree tlanextia quahuitl [“bright tree”] ground in bitter tasting water with ashes, a little honey, salt, pepper, and (stone) alectorium, and finally picietl [“little fragrant tobacco”].

Tlatlanquaye was also used to drive away “chill of the intestines,” and elocacatl for tubercules of the breast.


For Injury of the Feet

For Injury of the Feet

It is not surprising that people who traveled everywhere by foot invented numerous remedies for foot problems. Aztec and Mayan medical texts outlined treatments for cracks in the soles of the feet, eruptions, swellings, and even for foot parasites like the chigoe (jigger flea).

For injured feet grind together these herbs: tlalhecapahtli [“earth wind medicine”], coyoxiuitl [“rose colored bell plant”], yztauhyatl [“salty water plant”], tepechian [“mountain chia”], achilli [flexible, reddish water plant], xiuehcapahtli [“plant wind medicine”], quauhyyauhtli [“wild incense”], quetzalxoxouhcaphtli [“precious blue medicine”], tzotzotlani [“glistening plant”], the flowers of cacauaxochitl [cacao flower], and also piltzintecouhxochitl [“noble lord flower”], and foliage of hecapahtli [“wind medicine”] and ytzcuinpahtli [“dog medicine”], the stone tlahcalhuatzin [bezoar stone of huatzin, a native bird], eztetl [“bloodstone”—a type of jasper] and tetlahuitl [red ochre stone], pale-colored earth…


Put some in a little tub over embers or a fire to heat it in water; and when the liquid has become hot, put the feet into the tub. And some part of it is to be inspissated by fire, and is to be applied to the feet; and so that it will not run off, the feet are to be wrapped in a cloth. Next day our unguent
xochiocotzotl [“flower pine resin”] and white incense are to be thrown on a fire so that the feet may become healthy from the odor and heat. Besides the seed of the herb called xexihuitl is to be ground, and when it has been pulverized in hot water it is to be put on the feet. Thirdly, apply the herb tolohuaxiuitl ["datura plant"] and briars ground in hot water.


For “Black Blood”

For “Black Blood”

Both the ground leaves and roots of the herbs quauhtla huitzquilitl [“wild spiney edible plant”] and tlatlanquaye [“jointed stem”--a kind of pepper] are to be cooked in water; to which are to be added a pearl, a wolf’s liver and our wine. He is to take the juice thus prepared as a drink. Before the mid-day meal he shall drink another juice pressed from good-smelling flowers of different kinds. He shall walk in a shady place, refrain from venery, drink our wine moderately, in fact, he should not drink it except as medicine. He shall engage in the very cheerful pursuits, such as singing or playing music and beating the tympans which we use in public dancing.

The Aztecs considered melancholia not as a visitation of an evil spirit but as a definite physical disorder. In translating the Aztec term for melancholia, Badianus used the words “black blood,” a common term in sixteenth-century Europe.


For Pain in the Heart: Nonochton azcapanyxua (Little Herb with Ants on its Shoots)

For Pain in the Heart
Nonochton azcapanyxua (Little Herb with Ants on its Shoots)

If one has pain or heat in the heart, the herb nonochton, which grows near ant hills, gold, amber, teoxihuitl [“sacred turquoise”], chichiltic tapathtli [“red coral”], and tetlahuitl [“precious ochre”] with the burned heart of a stag, are to be ground in water. The juice is to be drunk.