Number 39, Fall 2002

Book Review
Healers cull from many traditions
by Dr. Peter T. Furst

Mesoamerican Healers

Mesoamerican Healers, Brad R. Huber and Alan R. Sandstrom, eds. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1001, 408 pp., 2 b&w photos, 1 line drawing, 2 figures, 3 maps, 31 tables. $50 cloth; $24.95 paper.

This book is, as Bernard Ortiz de Montellano says in his perceptive foreword, “medical anthropology at its best.” As such, it fills an important niche in the literature on shamanism and the practice of folk medicine or curanderismo in Mexico and Guatemala.

Most of the contributors have no hesitation in speaking of Mesoamerican shamans, even as they agree that there are many kinds of curers in Mexico and Guatemala and that only certain ones are shamans in the “classic” sense: men and women “divinely elected” in ecstatic dreams or through a severe life crisis, who consult the spirits in out-of-body travels, and use ritual and magical techniques of healing mind and body (through not necessarily exclusively so).

An important contribution is the historical framework of contemporary Mesoamerican curanderismo as a blend of indigenous, Spanish colonial and, through colonial Spain, ancient Greek, African, Arabic and Persian beliefs and practices, with an overlay of spiritism and scientific medicine.

Especially welcome are the historical chapters by Luz Maria Hernandez Saenz and George M. Foster on the Spanish colonial component, which includes the lasting influence of humoral medicine and the concept of “hot” and “cold,” and by Carlos Viesca Trevino on the evolution of curanderismo from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. These are not part of a shamanic heritage. But, as James W. Dow notes in his comparative study of central and northern Mexican shamans, of all the different kinds of healers it is the shamans who “are often regarded as the most powerful healing specialists” because they deal “with an emotionally charged world beyond ordinary perception” (p.67).

Dow also makes this useful distinction between two types of curing shamans. One is the “traditional shaman,” who bases his or her practice on a “coherent non-Christian belief system,” works with mythology of pre-Columbian origin, serves as religious leader, and is recognized as an authority on “an unseen spirit world known to almost everybody through myth.”

The other he calls the “curandero shaman,” who also practices magical healing but “without authority and prestige of religious leadership” (p.69). The latter kind is found mainly where the indigenous culture has been subjected to greater European influence.

There are also regional differences. Thus, Frank J. Lipp provides facts and insights on the differences and similarities between southern Mexican and Guatemalan shamans and makes this important observation: some shamans have a profound knowledge of medicinal (and visionary) plants and frequently employ them alongside magical practices.

Mexico is a rapidly developing country, and this applies as well to the spread of the biomedical model, a subject of the chapter by Margaret E. Harrison.

At the same time, as Alan R. Sandstrom, one of the editors, reports in his concluding chapter on the relationship and conflict between indigenous healers, modern medicine and medical anthropology, he has found “the views expressed by the biomedical people to be incredibly arrogant and distressingly pervasive.”

There is the underlying assumption, he continues, that people who seek the help of indigenous healers are “easily duped by charlatans in the guise of curanderos.” In his own long experience among Nahua-speakers he learned just the opposite (as I did elsewhere in Mesoamerica): some people may be fooled but others he found to be “extremely insightful and systematic in their evaluation of curing procedures as any scientist.”

Amen to that.

Dr. Peter T. Furst, a resident of New Mexico, is emeritus professor of anthropology and Latin American studies, State University of New York at Albany. An alumnus and former associate director of the Latin American Studies Center at UCLA, his work in ethnobotany and the religious use of visionary plants earned him the positions of research associate of Harvard Botanical Museum, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Museum of New Mexico. He was also elected foreign fellow of the Linnean Society of London. A much-published author, he is preparing an exhibition of the art of the Huichoi Indians of Mexico for the University of Pennsylvania in 2004. A more extended review of this book will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Anthropology.