David Shook – A note on ‘Lyrics for Herbs & Cures…’


David Shook
a note on ‘Lyrics for Herbs & Cures…’

While living in the South Central Mexican village of San Agustín Oapan, studying contemporary Guerrero Nahuatl, I was surprised to learn that contemporary Oapanecos have developed mnemonic oral poems and songs – ditties, really – to remember traditional medicines, many of which use the same recipes recorded by Martín de la Cruz in 1552 at the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, preserved today in the Codex de la Cruz-Badiano, or Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis. I recorded the utterances of Silvestre Adán, the patriarch of the home where I was staying, then translated them literally from the Guerrero Nahuatl into the English, before rendering them more poetically in English. I have left traces of the originals’ Nahuatl structure, including its noun-merging – like the term “bird-stones” for “eggs” – and directional punning – the verb xixi, which means “to shit,” ordinarily requires a directional prefix, but by eliding that prefix the original engages in a linguistic play meaning “to shit oneself.” These four examples come from a manuscript in progress, which includes eleven mnemonic ditties that match recipes from the codex and two contemporary ones, one likely originated from the 1970s cholera epidemic that affected the Balsas Valley region and another that addresses the funeral preparations of the drowned, a common cause of death in Balsas River communities.

read ‘Lyrics for Herbs & Cures to Accompany the Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis