Due to my local library having to limit access to the building in 2020, they raised the number of electronic titles patrons could check out each month. This has meant that I’ve come across many more titles than I would have if I had just browsed the stacks. As an example, I finished the Aztec Herbal by William Gates in a couple of days, having picked it up on a whim when searching for pagan books of magick herbs.
The book was originally published in 1939 and the copy I read was a reissue. The book consists of an introduction, a translation of the herbal from Latin, and an appendix that attempts to identify the mentioned plants. It’s easy to come away from the book frustrated at all the information and knowledge that was wiped out by colonization. What we’re left with is a narrow glimpse translated from its original Aztec to Latin for a European audience.
That said, there is information that can be gleaned from what was written down. The most surprising aspect was realizing that Aztec healers recognized mental health issues and offered treatment for them. The sources of the anxieties and disturbances they were treating were ascribed to winds, tornadoes, and other external phenomena (as opposed to the devils and evil spirits that contemporaneous Christianity blamed for such ailments). Seeing a line drawn between an external, and most likely frightening event, and the inner trauma that event might have caused, was interesting to read.
The herbal suggests that Aztec medicine involved materia medica beyond plants. Gems, bones, ash, the gizzard stones of particular birds, even excrement was included in various remedies. Having read about various European cultures that used items like boiled down cow urine, leeches, toads and more, this isn’t very surprising. In the absence of knowledge about bacteria, viruses, and anatomy, people tried everything to fix what ailed them.
In many of the remedies, the plants used weren’t just named, but the type of ground they grew in was also mentioned. I wasn’t clear on whether this was done to aid in identifying the plant, or if the conditions they grew in contributed to its efficacy. This is something I would like to know more about. I tend to consider not just the properties written in Cunningham and other magick herbals when looking at what plants to use in my healing work, but also the conditions surrounding the harvesting of the plant. I like to note where it was collected, what the weather was like, what astrological forces might have been in play. For me, these all add subtle energies that can either enhance or dampen the main properties of the plant. Did Aztec healers feel the same about the plants and other items that went into their remedies? I couldn’t tell from the book.
The original herbal was accompanied by full color illustrations of the various plants, but this edition only shares black and white reproductions of them. That, I feel, is a real failure. I understand publishing full color illustrations is an expensive endeavor, but that cost wouldn’t have been an issue in the e-book version. That complaint aside I feel that, As an introduction to Aztec healing (and possibly magick), this book is accessible.