History
In the early 17th century, a Creole priest in New Spain discovered that his Nahuatl-speaking parishioners still practiced medicine and prognostications in the manner of their forbears. He was shocked that these "pagan traditions" survived in Catholic New Spain. He recorded many of them, and later, included them in a treatise to help other Catholic priests identify and correct, in his words, the dangerous "superstitions." Today, Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón's Treatise on the Heather Superstitions is a unique source on the 17th-century practices of traditional healers among Nahuas of central Mexico.
Visual Culture
An indigenous healer would have said the invocation excerpted here over a sick patient. It is notable for its inclusion of metaphoric couplets, a rhetorical device typical of the Nahuatl language. The "nine-times beaten one, the nine-times crushed one" is, for instance, a metaphor for the tobacco that the healer used. The invocation also inquires if the source of illness is "perchance Our Lady?", that is the Virgin Mary, or a saint? Despite Ruiz de Alarcón's claim that these spells were pagan, Nahuas had incorporated the cult of saints into their own worldview. Saints were thus instrumental in the healing rituals in the 17th century.

Images of these saints would doubtless have been found in the local chapel or church, the focus of both personal and communal devotion. If the healer found a saint's anger to be the cause of the patient's illness, Ruiz de Alarcón claims, the resolution was often to make an image of that saint, or to offer new, elaborate clothes to an existing statue. Elaborately clothed "santos de vestir" are fixtures in today's Spanish American Catholic churches. As art objects in private collections and galleries, they are often stripped of their elaborate finery, which once was evidence of their power to heal and protect the community of the faithful.







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