According to written and oral chronicles transmitted from generation to generation, the tribes that populated Yucalpetén, now known as Yucatán, were quite adept in the study of plants and there were individuals who dedicated their lives to combating illnesses using herbs that had medicinal properties. These people were known as the h-men or dza-dzac, which translates into English as medicine man.

Valuable information on this particular subject was found in the Farmacopea Maya, the Maya Pharmacopoeia, written by Dr. Narcissus Souza Novelo (1875-1952), who was considered to be an eminent investigator of the flora of Yucatán during the 20th century. He was a doctor, a writer, and a botanist, but his brilliance was best seen in this last profession.

In the above-mentioned research, this scientist categorized three groups of people who used green medicine within the healthy Maya civilization: h-men (priest), dza-dzac (medicine man) and pulyah (witch doctor).

For the h-men, the priestly and medical functions were closely related. He led the religious cults, said the prayers, and made offerings – in many cases food – to the gods. At the same time, he diagnosed illnesses, told their effects, and performed healings through propitiatory, expiatory or exorcism ceremonies, or by administering herbs, bleeding the patients, or applying ventosa suction cups.

This person performed his job of spreading wellbeing amongst his peers. In his arsenal, on top of medicinal herbs, were his looking glass, called the zaz-tum, rattlesnake fangs, porcupine quills, henequen thorns and other vegetables, obsidian leaves (volcanic rock) or glass, with which they bled the patients, and some gourds called homa, that were used during the ceremonies to hold the sacred wine called balche.

It must be understood that the religious aspect was privy only to the men, while that of medicine man could be done by women, known as x-dzadzac. What is more, in many cases the h-men’s wife was a medicine woman.

He notes that just as a dza-dzac is a medicine woman, they were different from the h-men in that they could not perform religious rituals nor act as intermediaries between man and the gods.

To finish the story, he says, an h-men is not compatible with a pulyah (witch doctor), because while the first practices a sacred profession, the second practices black magic. And, he adds, among the pul-yahes there can be women.

It is said that Zamna, the high priest of the Itzaes, the most knowledgeable of men in Maya history, a man who dominated the sciences and arts, was an able and useful healer. He could decipher the secrets of the plants that grew in the jungles and with them relieve human pain, suffering and illness. As a naturist doctor, he went out to collect the herbs accompanied by his disciples.

Legend has it that on one occasion he discovered an agave plant; without realizing the stalk had thorns, it pricked his hand. When he felt the prick, he pulled away as his followers looked on mortified as his hand bled. One of them got so furious with that particular type of agave for hurting his dear teacher and mentor, that he cut the stalk and furiously smashed it against the rocks until it turned into a handful of strong white fibers. Zamna stopped the young person saying, “Life and pain are born together. Because of the injury that I have suffered, the most useful plant in my village has been discovered.” And since then, henequen has been intimately linked to the Maya men and women.

By Yurina Fernández Noa
Email: [email protected]


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