Traditional Andean Maladies

As a sub section of the part of the questionnaire dealing with perceptions and understandings of health and illness (see The Spiritual Source of Health: of God and Wak'a) respondents were questioned on a list of conditions that are typically Andean, as to whether they believed in them and if they did, how they understood them, whether they had any personal experience of them and if so, what treatment they employed with them. These conditions were briefly described in Of Mountains, Moons and Rainbows.

Do you believe in:

  • Mal/malaire/malviento/aire, maladies caught from ‘evil air’/wind
  • Susto/espanto, ‘soul fright’/shock/dissociation
  • mal de ojo (ojeado) evil eye
  • agarrado del cerro, affected by the hills/mountains
  • la luna, moonstruck
  • cuichig, affected by the rainbow
  • hualambario/acapana, affected by the energy of small powerful local tornadoes
  • brujería, witchcraft
  • San Gonzalo,
    o otro Santo como
    San Martín, Catholic ‘Witch Saints’
    with the power to inflict harm
  • castigo divino, divine punishment
  • mala suerte, bad luck
  • envidia. envy

All the conditions specified above are a part of the ‘Andean Health Axis’ which stretches from Colombia in the north down through Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia and versions of many of these conditions are commonly found throughout this extensive cultural-geographic region, although their actual history, which is to say, for what time span have these conditions been acknowledged, is impossible to say. There is, for example, no consensus upon whether the group of conditions associated with ‘mal’ are even of pre-Colombia origin at all, or whether they represent the impact of Christian concepts of ‘evil’ (‘mal’) and might also include distinctively African notions from the presence of large numbers of African slaves in the Americas throughout the colonial period.

These conditions do tend to divide broadly into two groups however: those which are related to geographical features or phenomena (agarrado del cerro; luna; cuichig; acapana) and may well therefore be autochthonous Andean and those which are clearly of European origin (brujeria; San Gonzalo; castigo divino and mala suerte). Envidia (envy) is slightly less clear in its origins, although it might possibly derive from earlier Inca notions of social maladies like laziness and theft. It is one of the seven deadly sins in the Old Testament list too. Envy is often seen as the root of much malign behavior wherein neighbour harbours resentment against neighbor, causing them to seek the services of an intermediary (yachak/shaman, witch, witch-saint) to harm the one envied.

Salasaka Yachak

In the communities of Salasaka and Ugsha, these ailments were generally given some credence by most people, but in the community of Zuleta, with its heavy exposure to the outside world in the form of hacienda and the influence of international tourism, more people were encountered who did not really believe in any/many of them at all. Also, people who are clearly very devoutly Christian (mostly Catholics), or (the relatively few) who had achieved a secondary or higher level of formal education, were also far less likely to believe in these conditions, particularly those associated with malign spiritual influences or forces, or those that suggested a capricious or punitive divinity.

The commonest belief was in the condition malaire (illness caught through being exposed to negative environmental/wind borne energies) and many people had either experienced it personally, knew someone who had, and had treated family members for it. The treatment of performing a spiritual/bodily cleansing with the application of a live guinea pig, or with application of nettles, or other sorts of herbs, or by the blowing of aguardiente or even holy water over the sufferer was sometimes carried out by people in their own homes, rather than having recourse to the services of a yachak or a curandera. Only if the illness was perceived as severe was it then deemed necessary to seek more professional assistance.

Brugmansia sanguinea

Guinea pigs, Otavalo

About this blog entry

This blog entry was posted on Friday 16th February 2018.'s picture
Dr Elizabeth Currie

Dr Elizabeth Currie is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Experienced Researcher and Global Fellow at the Department of Archaeology, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of Health Sciences, University of York.

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