Gods, diseases, and ailments: harmony and the punishment that the deities sent to those who disobeyed the social or natural norms


The Nahua people of the Mexican central highlands considered that health was the result of being in harmony with nature and the cosmos, likewise, illness was the rupture of that harmony and the punishment that the gods sent to those who transgressed the social or natural norms, being these illnesses mainly of internal origin; but there were others, those of external origin, that were produced by the surroundings, the environment or some supernatural force that acted on the convalescent.

Therefore, it was necessary to take into account the origin of the illness and thus proceed with the care of the sick person, taking care of the body and soul. Hence, the healing practice or what has been called pre-Hispanic medicine is an accumulation of knowledge about herbalism, animals, minerals, and the environment, summarized in recipes, prayers, incantations, procedures, and cleansings, oriented to globally attack the evils and ailments, whether internal or external, with the sole purpose of recovering the natural harmony of individuals.

López-Austin points out the great correspondence of the ailments with the dualities existing in the pre-Hispanic cosmovision: there were cold and hot diseases, wet and dry diseases, male and female, white and black diseases, good diseases caused by a divinity and bad diseases caused by man. The deities also played a double role in relation to health problems, since on the one hand they could be the cause of the ailments associated with their attributes, and on the other hand, they could protect and cure their followers of the same ailments.

Thus, for example, it was believed that the god Quetzalcoatl cured most of the diseases since he was the creator god of the fifth humanity, of the fifth sun, which is the one that governs us today. He was asked to heal respiratory diseases, the evil eye, headache and if it was about sterility, it was necessary to go to the feast in his honor in Cholula, preceded by fasting and austerity. Nevertheless, since he was the god of the wind, Ehécatl was the cause of cold diseases such as rheumatism, paralysis and muscular contractures, etc.

For his part, Xolotl, Quetzalcoatl's twin brother, was the patron of the monstrous, the double, congenital malformations, disabilities, and dysplasias that were considered as signs of the deity in certain selected individuals, so they were treated in a special way, considered in certain festivities as the same deity on earth. It was also asked to him in case of wanting to prevent an abortion being the interlocutor of the world of life and the dead.

Diseases related to humidity, cold, and water in general, were attributed to Tlaloc, who also caused deaths by lightning, drowning, skin diseases such as scabies, dropsy, bubbas that could well be related to syphilis or some venereal disease, as well as rheumatic diseases and cramps. Also, the Ehecame and Tlaloques, emissaries of Ehecatl and the rain dwarfs or minor gods, participated in the punishment or selection of individuals for the deities, they were associated with respiratory diseases, with gout or podagra, crippling and any type of paralysis or physical impediment associated with cold, for there was another type of motor incapacity associated with heat that produced body tremors or convulsions that were considered a type of palsy, which was said to be sent by the Cihuateteo or souls of women who became goddesses when they died in childbirth.

Other water ailments were related to Amimitl, for example, dysentery and diarrhea, perhaps because she was the deity of the lakes and of the appeasement of the waters, who also punished with the so-called chinamperas diseases: dry cough, acute cough that even led the sick person to spurt blood from the mouth, el romadizo which was a strong flu with a runny nose and hiccups. These same illnesses are attributed to Atlahua and Opochtli, a triad of deities that could well be the same.

Sahagún also mentions that Xipe Totec, our fleshless lord, was a divinity who participated in the ailments that afflicted the ancient Nahua by being related to dry and hot skin diseases such as apostemas and eye diseases such as conjunctivitis and cataracts; When the Spaniards arrived, smallpox was also attributed to him, for being a disease that was expressed through the skin and was called hueyzahuatl or great scabies and measles or tepitonzahuatl, small leprosy. Another deity causing great evils was Tezcatlipoca, Lord of heaven and earth, the all-seeing one, who sent epidemics, famines, and madness; also associated with stuttering, cleft lip, tongue diseases, and liver ailments, he was the patron of black magic and sorcery.

There were deities related to sexual evils, one was Xochipilli Macuilxochitl god of love, games, beauty, flowers, corn, pleasure, and sacred drunkenness; he was pointed out as the cause of "diseases of the secret parts", such as hemorrhoids and venereal diseases. He was the lord of the xohihua or persons of the male sex who practiced ritual homosexuality, as well as of prostitutes. Other evils of love were caused by Tlazolteotl, goddess of passion and lust, who provoked passionate love and carnal desire, but in the same way, she also withdrew it as a disease. She was pointed out as the cause of venereal diseases, convulsions, death by love, and dependence on the other, in many cases even causing madness. Other evils associated with this deity were rashes or "instep" and diseases that spread (such as herpes), which had a hot character and came from fire and internal heat.

Besides what the written sources point out regarding deities and evils, Jaén and Murillo (2005), make reference, from codices, murals, and ceramic figurines, to other evils that were disseminated in the Nahua populations, among those mentioned are the representations of achondroplastic individuals (dwarfism), the presence of dropsy, hunchbacks and monstrous men, among which Siamese twins and two-headed people stand out, some of them incompatible with life, as well as characters with club feet and micromelia (shortening of limbs). There are also figurines representing cleft lip, facial paralysis, others with a large abdominal development that may well represent a liver disease or the presence of parasites in the digestive system. Others indicate ocular disorders and pathologies such as strabismus, blindness, and eyelid edema.

In this way, the accumulation of diseases that these sources indicate surpasses by far what the archaeological record shows us, but both dissertations are complemented by bone analysis, although in this one we can only establish the diseases that left their mark on the bones, even so, they give us a very broad picture of the living conditions and health of ancient populations.

The pre-Hispanic bone record

The first point to highlight is osteoarticular diseases, which were widespread in pre-Hispanic populations, affecting mainly the adult population. They appear in the union points of the bones that generate movement (joints) and are degenerative, painful, and immobilizing ailments, having a greater incidence in elbows, knees, hips, and spine. They are divided as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and infectious arthritis depending on their origin or way of affecting the bone elements. They can also be associated with occupational activity and others, more specifically, with gender.

The second group of ailments are catalogued as ailments that result in inflammatory processes, a product of the body's reaction to specific pathogenic agents, or a bone reaction to non-specific agents. Among the first ones, there are the bones affected by batteries such as treponema in its three main variants, syphilis, yaws, and bejel, the first two being present in America, as well as a fourth manifestation called mal de pinto, produced by a treponema that directly affects the skin. Tuberculosis is another clear example of a bacterium that generates a specific inflammatory process, but it manifests itself secondarily in the bones as a product of a serious infection of the respiratory and/or digestive system, mainly damaging the spine and producing changes similar to osteomyelitis.

The group of non-specific inflammatory processes is called osteitis, in which it is difficult to establish the pathogen that caused the bone reaction, the most common being staphylococcus. When only the cortical surface of the bone is affected, it is called periostitis, but if the infection penetrates the bone and can reach the medulla, it is called osteomyelitis. The most common way of contracting osteomyelitis is as a consequence of trauma with exposure of the bone, through which the infectious agents reach the bone tissue more easily.

Developmental and metabolic disorders constitute a third group in the study of old diseases. The first arises as a consequence of a malfunction of the secretory glands, being an example of this disorder the acromegaly or disease caused by the imbalance of the pituitary gland, where the facial region has a greater growth with respect to the rest of the skull. Macrocephaly, which is an abnormal increase in the size of the skull which may be caused by hydrocephalus or by a tumor or chronic subdural hematoma. Gigantism and dwarfism (pituitary), are the product of the imbalance of the pituitary gland, in the first one, there is a disproportionate body growth, affecting mainly the extremities; while in the second one there is no body disproportion, only short stature. Osteitis fibrosa, which is the decalcification and softening of the bones, which can become deformed or break, is caused by a malfunction of the parathyroid gland, affecting more the bones of the limbs and spine.

The most commonly recorded alterations of metabolism in bone fall within what are called osteomalacia, which are alterations in calcium metabolism and assimilation of vitamin D. They are a good indicator of population stress because they arise in response to imbalances that occur over long periods of time in people's lives. They are a good indicator of population stress because they arise in response to imbalances that occur over long periods of time in the life of people, so they have more incidence in adults and the elderly, who show a delay in the anabolic and regenerative processes; when they affect the skull, they produce subsidence of the vault. Another metabolic alteration is known as osteoporosis or porotic hyperostosis, also a consequence of the lack of vitamins C and D, which cause a decrease in bone density and thickness. They are lesions in the form of pores or holes as a result of the reduction of the external lamina or compact bone, allowing to observe the region of the cancellous bone.

A type of alteration that has attracted attention in most of the world's populations are congenital alterations, these are malformations resulting from inherited disorders, or are also the product of external influences, injuries in the fetal stage, or a combination of both. The most common refer to the so-called craniosynostosis, which indicates the early closure of some cranial suture redirecting its growth; other types of alterations are dwarfism (achondroplastic) and some spinal alterations such as spina bifida, spondylitis, and vertebral fusion, mainly of the cervical spine.

The tumors or neoplasms form another group of ailments present in the bones, they are abnormal growths of cells, either by size, by their number, or by both. They can be benign or malignant, the latter being primary or metastatic. Benign tumors include osteomas and osteochondromas, while malignant tumors are classified as chondrosarcomas, Ewing's sarcoma, fibrosarcoma, and osteosarcomas. In general, cancers that spread to bone tissue in the form of metastases come from breast, kidney, lung, prostate, and thyroid cancers.

Among the health conditions evaluated in bone are also traumatic injuries, which are abrupt changes that cause damage to the bone, such as fractures, breaks, wounds, sprains, burns, contusions, and dislocations, among the most common. Oral ailments, on the other hand, indicate the general state of health of individuals, as well as certain aspects of their lifestyle and others related to their culture and socioeconomic situation, with the most frequent pathologies being caries, periodontitis, abscesses, and dental calculus.

It should be concluded by noting that there are multiple sources to approach the study of ancient diseases, from written sources, ethnographic studies, or bone evidence, however, we must highlight the wisdom of pre-Hispanic societies in which a series of procedures and experiences that led the healer to a global conclusion about the ailments that afflicted individuals in a particular way, associating the evil with a divine origin and with an earthly one, as well as the region of the body and the soul that were affected, in the same way, the cure tried to include each of the personal aspects, so it consisted of herbal, mineral or animal-based medicines that were combined with cleansings, massages, and rubs, accompanied, in addition, by prayers, chants, and magic devices, integrating mind, body, and spirit.

By Pablo Neptali Monterosso Rivas and Isabel Bertha Garza Gomez, Source: magazine El Tlacuache via INAH Morelos Center