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Perinatal Rites in the Ritual of the Bacabs, a Colonial Maya Manuscript


Abstract and Figures

Pregnancy and childbirth were among indigenous Maya women’s most dangerous life experiences, with very high maternal and perinatal death rates from pre-Hispanic times through the first decades of the twentieth century. This article contributes to the knowledge of colonial Yucatec Maya women through the interpretation of documentary evidence of three indigenous rites meant to facilitate women’s perinatal health and successful childbirth. This evidence is contained in the eighteenth-century collection of healing chants known as the “ritual of the bacabs.” The chants include those for cooling the steam bath used in indigenous perinatal treatments, for difficulty in childbirth, and for rites surrounding the disposal of the afterbirth. Through an analysis that combines philological approaches with ethnographic interviews of contemporary Maya speakers, this article provides new insights into the intersection between ritual and culture-specific notions of the body among the colonial Maya.
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Perinatal Rites in the Ritual of the Bacabs,
a Colonial Maya Manuscript
Timothy W. Knowlton, Berry College
Edber Dzidz Yam, Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios
Superiores en Antropología Social
Abstract. Pregnancy and childbirth were among indigenous Maya womensmost
dangerous life experiences, with very high maternal and perinatal death rates
from pre-Hispanic times through the rst decades of the twentieth century. This
article contributes to the knowledge of colonial Yucatec Maya women through
the interpretation of documentary evidence of three indigenous rites meant to
facilitate womens perinatal health and successful childbirth. This evidence is
contained in the eighteenth-century collection of healing chants known as the
ritual of the bacabs.The chants include those for cooling the steam bath used
in indigenous perinatal treatments, for difculty in childbirth, and for rites
surrounding the disposal of the afterbirth. Through an analysis that combines phil-
ological approaches with ethnographic interviews of contemporary Maya speakers,
this article provides new insights into the intersection between ritual and culture-
specic notions of the body among the colonial Maya.
Keywords. Maya, childbirth, ritual, ethnomedicine
Several decades of scholarship has elucidated many aspects of the child-
birth experiences of indigenous women in pre-Hispanic and colonial Latin
American societies (e.g., Bruhns and Stothert 2014; Kellogg 2005; Socolow
2015), including the Maya women of Yucatàn (Chuchiak 2007; Restall
1995; Vail and Stone 2002). However, given the patriarchal social condi-
tions of the colonial epoch and the resulting lacunae in the documentary
record, our knowledge of colonial Maya womens experiences is incomplete.
Ethnohistory 66:4 (October 2019) doi 10.1215/00141801-7683312
Copyright 2019 by American Society for Ethnohistory
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As in the case of colonial Nahua women in Central Mexico (Polanco 2018),
we know little of Yucatec Maya womens roles and experiences in the
domain of indigenous healing.Furthermore, pregnancy and childbirth were
among womens most dangerous life experiences, with very high mater-
nal and perinatal death rates from pre-Hispanic times through the rst
decades of the twentieth century (Sesia 2016). Even today, living at the
intersection of social and gender-based inequalities, indigenous Maya
women are at substantially higher risk of maternal death in Yucatán
(Rodríguez Angulo, Andueza-Pech, and Oliva Peña 2018). This article con-
tributes to our knowledge of colonial Yucatec Maya women through the
interpretation of documentary evidence of three indigenous rites meant to
facilitate womens perinatal health and successful childbirth.
Documentary evidence of the three perinatal rites under discussion
appears in the colonial manuscript known to scholars as the Ritual of the
Bacabs (Arzápalo Marín 1987; Roys 1965). This manuscript is among the
richest Maya-language sources on rites relating to the human body. Maya
treatments (both then and now) include combinations of herbal decoc-
tions, physical manipulation of the patients body, and ritual chants. The
Ritual of the Bacabs is a colonial compilation of these healing chants and
some herbal remedies, written in Yucatec Maya using a modied alphabetic
script introduced by the Spanish. Although the extant manuscript dates to
the late eighteenth century, the healing lore within it bridges pre-Hispanic
epigraphic records and the reports of later ethnographers working in Maya
communities. Scholars have long recognized these esoteric chants as among
the most important, yet notoriously difcult, sources of Maya culture to
interpret (Thompson 1970; Houston et al. 2009: 28). The chants are nota-
ble for the prominent roles of pre-Hispanic Maya goddesses (Knowlton
2015a; 2016) and for their use of archaic metaphors that appear in those
Classic period (AD 250900) hieroglyphic inscriptions that describe the
conjuring of divine forces (Knowlton 2010; 2012).
As Matthew Restall (2003: 12425) has noted, developments in
Maya epigraphy in recent decades enable the colonial Maya ethnohisto-
rian to not simply upstreamfrom modern ethnographic data, but also to
move forward to the colonial period from pre-Hispanic sources. With the
eighteenth-century manuscript as our datum, we employ a similar meth-
odology here as well. In contrast with similar texts collected in the course of
ethnographic research (e.g., Levi-Strauss 1950), the chants accompanying
colonial Maya perinatal rites apparently were written by indigenous heal-
ers for indigenous healers in a context historically distant from our own.
Therefore, we employ a mixed methodology that combines textual analysis
of a colonial Maya language manuscript with data from key consultant
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interviews with contemporary Yucatec Maya healers (h menob) as well as
free list interviews (Quinlin 2005) with a stratied sample of Maya lay-
people. This is done to enrich our interpretation of otherwise esoteric texts
by providing the necessary contextual information not fully accessible in
the extant historical record.
We argue that the Ritual of the Bacabs is one of our best Maya sources
for indigenous rites surrounding childbirth, even though it has not always
been recognized as such. We assert that manuscript pages 17489 contain
three distinct chants directed at three different concerns regarding child-
birth, although only one of these three has been consistently recognized
as dealing with perinatal rites. The pioneering ethnohistorian Ralph Roys
(1965) noted in his English translation of the work that the chant on
manuscript pages 17480 accompanied a ritual for the afterbirth, yet he
misidentied the purpose of the two other chants following it. For example,
Karl A. Taube (1998: 439) recognized that the chant on manuscript pages
18083, which Roys had identied as being for cooling a pit oven, is in fact
for cooling a steam bath (both of which during colonial times were called
Steam baths were important structures in traditional Mesoamerican
healing traditions, including for treating women giving birth. As Stephen D.
Houston (1996) has demonstrated, the cognate term pibnah appears in
classic Maya epigraphic texts referring to archaeological structures func-
tioning (actually or symbolically) as steam baths. And as we will argue in
this article, a third chant (ms. pp. 18389) is also for treating a complication
during childbirth. In total, these three chants provide a unique insight into
the relationship between the work of ritual healers (h menob) and midwives
treating women during the colonial period in Yucatán. Furthermore, we
hope that theresults of this analysis demonstratethe productivity of a mixed
methods approach to ethnohistoric reconstruction and interpretation.
Steam Bathing in Colonial Perinatal Rites
The rst chant we will discuss begins on manuscript page 180, where it is
labeled by the scribe as vtħanil u siscunabal pib lae,This is the word for
the cooling of a pib.Sweat baths are an important feature of autochtho-
nous Mesoamerican medical systems, and their use was prescribed in some
colonial Maya remedies (Gubler 2018: 117). Although no longer in regular
use in Yucatán today, at least two forms of sweat-bath structures are known
from the early seventeenth-century Motul dictionary of the Yucatec Maya
language. The rst was a more temporary structure called puc na che,
dened in the Motul (Ciudad Real 2001: 512) as a little hut made of cane
so as to take sweats in it(chozilla hecha de varas como para tomar
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sudores en ella). This description parallels the wattle-and-daub steam
baths still in use in some Tzeltal Maya communities in Chiapas (Groark
1997: 3031). A second, more permanent structure was known as the pib.
Today in Yucatec, pib refers only to the pit oven in which ritual foodstuffs
are cooked, but in colonial times it also referred to the bath or temazcal in
which those women who are about to give birth or who had recently given
birth are puried(baño o temazcal en que se puricaban las parturientas
o recién paridas; Ciudad Real 2001: 491).
The text of the chant for the steam bath includes a description of
dousing heated rocks counterclockwise in the four cardinal directions
(indicated by their respective color symbolism) to generate steam for heating
and purifying womens bodies during perinatal rites:
oxlahun pul bacin yn ɔonotil ha Thirteen pitchers of my cenote
water evidently,
oxlahun pis yn [181] batil ha Thirteen measures of my hail-
stone water
oc ti zintunil enter the steam bath stone.
same tun ualaccen t u pach chac
munyal yk
Already then I may stand be-
hind the red cloud wind;
[sa]me tun ualaccen t uu ich sac
munyal yk
Already then I may stand facing
the white cloud wind;
same tun ualaccen t uu ich ek
munyal yk
Already then I may stand facing
the black cloud wind;
\same tun ualaccen t uu ich kan
munyal yk
Already then I may stand facing
the yellow cloud wind.
(Ritual of the Bacabs ca. 1779: 18081. All translations by Timothy W.
Knowlton unless otherwise noted.)
Furthermore, the chant closes with what, when properly translated, is
a recognizable metaphorical description of birth that corresponds with pre-
Hispanic imagery:
colpay tun bacin [183] yn cah ti
x um xuchit
I forcefully remove the ower
bud then evidently.
pa a chi yɮam Open your mouth, Itzam!
he tun ɮilil Here is the unchaste woman
(Ritual of the Bacabs ca. 1779: 183.)
One area in which the Ritual of the Bacabs departs from contemporary
Maya healing chants ethnographers have documented is in the frequent
reference to pre-Hispanic deities, many of which have since been replaced
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by Christian saints (with the exception of the Chac storm gods). In this
chant, the image of the crocodilian god Itzams open mouth suggests the
common birth scenes of deities emerging from gaping reptilian jaws found
in much earlier classic Maya iconography (Taube 1994; g. 1a) on through
the Postclassic period (g. 1b).
Although today steam baths are no longer used in Yucatec Maya
perinatal rituals (Jordan 1993), there remains a concern with the physi-
ology of expectant mothers both before and after childbirth. In our own
Figure 1a. Classic Maya birth scene on ceramic vase with aged god emerging from
a gaping reptilian mouth (K1198;; Photo-
graph copyright by Justin Kerr; used with permission).
Figure 1b. The aged god Itzamna emerges from the gaping maw of a reptilian
being (Dresden Codex 4b).
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conversations with contemporary Maya healers, for example, children
born on the spiritually signicant days of Tuesday or Friday are thought to
possess a forcethat Maya people call kinam. In Yucatec Maya, the term
kinam often describes kinds of pain felt in the body. In their dictionary
of the contemporary Yucatec Maya language spoken in Hocabá, Victoria
Bricker, Eleuterio Poot Yah, and Ofelia Dzul de Poot (1998: 153) dene
kinam as painof an aching or throbbing character. In interviews con-
ducted by Dzidz Yam in January 2017, Maya speakers distinguish numer-
ous subtypes of kinam pains depending on the location and character of the
harm, including burning(eelel), shocking(léemléem), and stinging
(tóotoch) varieties.
Beyond referencing pain, however, kinam refers to a broader ethno-
physiological concept of the variable quality of things, with certain objects
and living beings having greater kinam than others (Villa Rojas 1980;
Ciudad Real 2001: 336; Knowlton 2018). Among the twentieth-century
Maya of Quintana Roo, community leaders and individuals known to
possess kinam were the ones chosen to operate the re drill during the
New Fire ceremony (Villa Rojas 1945: 122). The proximity of persons with
relatively stronger or weaker kinam is an important concern. For example,
proper marriage partners should be of comparable heator else one of the
spouses will become sick (Redeld and Villa Rojas 1934: 163; Villa Rojas
1945: 133).
To help resolve ambiguities in the documentary and ethnographic
record, Dzidz Yam conducted free list interviews in January 2017 in Yucatán
about what causes kinam in a person. Respondents composed a stratied
sample of thirty male and female Maya speakers between the ages of twenty
and sixty-four from the community of Yaxunah (population 637). The
transcriptions were subsequently analyzed by Knowlton using Visual
Anthropac software (Analytic Technologies 2003) to determine the fre-
quency and salience of items in the freelists (Bernard and Ryan 2010).
Important kinam-causing items included exposure to sexual activity, to the
sun, to excessive cold (pasmo) or heat, to domestic animals, to winds, and
to cemeteries. However, by far the most frequent and salient cause listed
was exposure to pregnant women (gs 2a and 2b).
The managing of pregnancy before and after childbirth is not only a
concern for the pregnant women but for those members of the commu-
nity in proximity to her in her bodys charged state. Therefore perhaps it is
unsurprising that the Ritual of the Bacabs contains more materials per-
taining to perinatal rites than had been recognized by scholars previously,
but which a mixed methodology makes more apparent.
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Figure 2a. Causes of kinam among Yaxunah respondents, by frequency
Figure 2b. Causes of kinam among Yaxunah respondents, by salience
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Midwifery in Ritual of the Bacabs
Maya midwives have assisted births since pre-Hispanic times (Landa [ca.
1566] 1978: 56; Taube 1994). Attempts by the state to regulate midwives in
what is today Mexico began as early as the late eighteenth century, although
success was limited until the second half of the twentieth century (Sesia
2016). Biomedical intervention in childbirth in Yucatec Maya communities
has increased substantially since the late 1990s (Veile and Kramer 2018),
and contemporary Maya midwifery undoubtedly has been transformed by
training courses and certication programs conducted by Mexican public
health authorities (Güémez Pineda et al. n.d.). Nonetheless, we have found
that even where coordination between midwives and h menob (ritual
healers) has declined, memories of previous concepts and practices remain.
According to our contemporary Maya consultants, kinam is an
important consideration in birth rites and the practice of midwives. For
example, the excessive kinam of children born on Tuesday or Friday can
cling to the hands of the midwife by the time she has delivered her thirteenth
child. Although not often practiced at present, a cleansing ritual by a h men
(ritual healer) can prevent this excess force from being transferred to other
pregnant women in the course of the midwifes prenatal massage, to the
patients detriment. One healer described this as the vapor(y oxol)and
smoke(ubuɔil) of the kinam, which remains on the hands of the midwife
after so many deliveries (interview, 14 January, 2015, Yaxunah, Yucatán,
Mexico). As the second colonial chant under discussion demonstrates, in
the past this partnership between ritual healers and midwives extended to
addressing other perinatal issues, including obstetric crises.
These ethnographic interviews with contemporary Maya healers have
also contributed to resolving long-standing misunderstandings about the
purpose of some chants in the Ritual of the Bacabs. The chant on pages
18389 is titled v sihil tok, which Roys (1965: 61) translated literally as
the birth of the intand believed accompanied int knapping. This
interpretation seemed to be supported by the references to tok (int
blade)andhalal (reed), the latter of the kind from which arrow shafts
were traditionally made (Ciudad Real 2001: 241). Also occurring in the
chant is an invocation of four color-directional butteries (pepen), the
buttery being a martial symbol best known from the arts of Classic and
Postclassic Central Mexico (Berlo 1983; Taube 2001). These references to
butteries in the Maya chant are highly unusual for colonial texts, with
pepen only occuring once in the eight different colonial Books of Chilam
Balam transcribed by Helga-Maria Miram and Wolfgang Miram (1988:
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Nonetheless, the internal location of this chant in the manuscript
between two chants related to perinatal rites (pp. 17483) and two others
directed at constipation (pp. 189206) suggests that the chant might be
directed at a complaint regarding the lower body. During our interviews
with contemporary Maya healers, we learned that u sihil tok can refer to a
kind of complication during childbirth. One Maya healer explained to us
that in cases of a tok birth, the childs head cannot exit because of obstruction
by the placenta, perhaps describing the medical condition known as placenta
This condition is associated with obstetric hemorrhage and with
placenta accreta, major contributors to maternal death among contem-
porary indigenous women in Mexico and Central America today (Schwartz
2018b: 4345), and presumably in the past as well.
So what are we to make of the colonial chant? Several of the terms that
suggest martial accoutrements also have meanings in the context of mid-
wifery and healing. In ethnographically documented Maya communities,
the halal reed is traditionally used by the midwife to cut the umbilical cord
(Redeld and Villa Rojas 1934: 182). Moreover, tok can refer not only to a
int blade but also to a serpent fang or other such lancet used to puncture or
let blood (Bricker, Poot Yah, and Dzul de Poot 1998: 279; Ciudad Real
2001: 552). In the past such lancets may have served as the tool for clearing
the obstruction, although our consultant describes using the teeth of a comb
to do so in more recent times. And given the frequency of maternal death
prior to the twentieth century, the difculties associated with placenta
previa and other obstetric conditions certainly were life-or-death situa-
tions. The Mesoamerican notion of the parturient mother as warrior, well
documented for Late Post-classic Aztec society (Schwartz 2018a), might
help to explain the unusual buttery imagery peculiar to this colonial chant.
Even in the absence of the identication by our consultants of u sihil
tok as an obstetric condition, the chant makes reference to several elements
of perinatal practices known ethnographically. For example, early in the
chant the healer announces:
cħabtex y uɮil mehene Engender [2pl] his healthy child,
uɮiuile this blessed one!
ca ix u natab cuxanilon [184] And then he may understand
us living things.
kamex cħab Receive [2pl] the progeny!
y emel tun u cħab ti cab His progeny descends to the
earth then.
(Ritual of the Bacabs ca. 1779: 18384.)
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Kam (to receive) can refer to the work of a midwife, called in modern
Yucatec the woman who receives the baby(in modern orthography:
xkam chaampal; Gümez Pineda 2000: 324).
As mentioned previously, an important part of Maya midwifery past
and present is the practice of massaging the pregnant woman up until the
time the child is born. The nal massage involves manipulating the uterus
to its correct position and the baby to its normal position, ready to be born
(Redeld and Villa Rojas 1934: 360). This practiceis described in this chant
as well:
he tun bacin cin can uuɔtu
nak can
Here then I vigorously bend her
(Ritual of the Bacabs ca. 1779: 183.)
Another documented practice mentioned in the chant is ɔuɔ(to suck),
the Maya term for the medical practice of cupping (Bricker and Miram
2002: 137). Cupping was part of the medical bloodletting rite (tok)oftheh
men observed by Robert Redeld and Alfonso Villa Rojas (1934: 17273),
which parallels the apparently pre-Hispanic practice of medical bloodlet-
ting noticed in the sixteenth century by Bishop Diego de Landa ([ca.1566]
1978: 47). However, twentieth-century Maya midwives practiced cupping
on pregnant women without bleeding them (Redeld and Redeld 1940:
7172), which is perhaps the practice discussed in the chant as well:
sam yn kamab u kinam Already I shall receive her kinam,
can pel t u ba yn chacal ba[c] Four times in my own esh,
cex can tul ti ku You four who are gods,
cex can tul ti bacabe You four who are skybearers.
sam tun ualaccen Already I shall stand up then.
yn tec ɔuɔte I shall suck it rapidly;
yn kam u kinam I receive her kinam.
he tun bacin Here it is then evidently.
cen ti ualhi It is I who stood.
(Ritual of the Bacabs ca. 1779: 186.)
Another relevant association recognized by scholars working with
other Mayan language communities (Prechtel and Carlsen 1988) is that
of midwifery with weaving. In our interviews with contemporary Maya
healers, a h men called in to assist with a difcult childbirth will pass a
cotton ball made up of thirteen threads over the body of the pregnant
woman (interview, 14 January, 2015, Yaxunah, Yucatán, Mexico). Already
by the twentieth century, backstrap loom weaving and its related equip-
ment were much less common in Yucatán than in some other areas with
Mayan language speakers. Nonetheless, references to it do appear in these
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colonial chants. For example, alongside the reed (halal) traditionally used
by the midwife to cut the umbilical cord, there is reference to the warping
frame (chuch; Ciudad Real 2001: 204) used in weaving:
bal tun bacin yn halal What is my reed then evidently?
yax kam It is the rst thing received.
lay tun bacin u uayasba yn
This is the icon of my reed then
bal tun bacin u chuchteil What is its wooden warping
frame then evidently?
[198] u natab yn x bolon puc
u uayasba u chuchteil
One might understand that my
Lady Nine Hills is the icon of its
wooden warping frame.
(Ritual of the Bacabs ca. 1779: 19798.)
Figure 3. The aged midwife goddess Chac Chel weaves using a backstrap loom
(Madrid Codex 79c).
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Lady Nine Hills is the title of a deity paired with Chacal Ix Chel
elsewhere in the manuscript (ms. pp. 12). Ix Chel is the goddess whom
Bishop Landa ([ca. 1566] 1978: 56) famously attributed the role of patron
of childbirth. The aged midwife version of this goddess, called Chac Chel,
appears both in Classic Maya birth scenes (Taube 1994) and engaged in
backstrap loom weaving in the Postclassic codices (g. 3).
The description of Lady Nine Hills as the icon(uayasba;see
Knowlton 2015b, 2018) of the warping frame is reminiscent of the warping
boards in human form used by contemporary Tzutujil Maya people in
Santiago Atitlán (Prechtel and Carlsen 1988: 125). Therefore, in this pas-
sage we may have a reference in a Maya language manuscript to the practice
reported by Bishop Landa ([ca. 1566] 1978: 56), who noted that the
sorceresses(indigenous midwives) attending a woman placed an image
of Ix Chel near her during childbirth.
As we have seen, even when signicant elements of past ideas and
practices are no longer current (such as the sweat bath and invocationof the
pre-Hispanic deities), data from ethnographic interviews can help resolve
enduring problems of translation and interpretation. Having established a
range of Maya birth rites and practices in the Ritual of the Bacabs not
previously recognized by scholars, we turn to an extended interpretation of
the single chant already known by Roys (1965) to be associated with birth
rites, that of manuscript pages 17480.
The Chant for the Afterbirth
As previously mentioned, three chants in the Ritual of the Bacabs address
rites surrounding childbirth. These include a chant for the afterbirth, a
chant for cooling a steam bath, and one for difculty in childbirth. Steam
bathing facilitated health by restoring vital heat during and after childbirth.
Despite the decline of steam bath use in Yucatán, the maintenance of vital
heat during the perinatal period remains a major concern in Maya medi-
cine. As Redeld and Villa Rojas (1934: 18182) describe for the twentieth-
century Maya community of Chan Kom: The new-born child and the
recent mother must be guarded from the various communicable evils, and
at the time of birth hotfoods and medicines are essential. . . . The midwife
may administer hotdrinks, or warm the mothers body with a re, for
cold, at this moment of crisis, is very dangerous.
These concerns and related perinatal practices are found in the Ritual
of the Bacabs as well, in the case of the chant for the ibin. According to the
Motul dictionary (Ciudad Real 2001: 301), ibin means most generically
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thread or net(tela o red) but also refers to the placenta. The polysemy of
this term is probably not circumstantial, given the widespread linking of
weaving and reproduction in Mesoamerican thought (Sullivan 1982; Taube
1994; Pretchel and Carlsen 1988). The placenta is subject to re-related
rituals in modern Yucatec Maya communities, as Redeld and Villa Rojas
(1934: 182) report: The afterbirth is either burned or buried; the preferred
place in which to dispose of it is under the hearthstones of deserted houses.
This practice, also, is a preventative of the danger of cold,for under such
an old hearth there are many ashes, and if the afterbirth is buried there, the
mother is thus warmed.The same feeling is present if the afterbirth is
As we will discuss, the colonial chant for the afterbirth on mansucript
pages 17480 follows much the same rationale, although the location in the
colonial text of the rite may apply equally to a steam bath structure or to the
traditional three-stone domestic hearth (g. 4).
Figure 4. Traditional three-stone hearth (koben) in the residence of a Maya
herbalist in Pisté, Yucatán (photograph by Timothy W. Knowlton, 13 June 2013)
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The section begins:
upeɔil ybin lae This is the chant for the afterbirth.
he tun t a nup Here it is in your spouse then;
tun top ɮilil The unchaste woman gives birth
max tun bacin u cool cit be Oh! Who is the mischief of the sire
then evidently,
u cool akabe the mischief of this night?
yx hun ɔit balche tun bacin
u cool cit
Lady One ɔit Balche is the mischief
of the sire then evidently,
u col akabe this mischief of night.
(Ritual of the Bacabs ca. 1779: 174.)
The scribes introductory statement can be taken to mean either that
the text is the sung chant for the afterbirth itself, or that it is for the mid-
wifes massage to assist with expelling the afterbirth, as both are called peɔ
in colonial Maya. The chant proper begins by addressing the husband, who
alongside the midwife in Yucatán traditionally accompanies the wife during
childbirth (Redeld and Villa Rojas 1934: 181; Villa Rojas 1945: 140).
The pregnant woman is referred to here and elsewhere in the chants as
ɮilil, which the Motul dictionary glosses as that which is unwoven, is torn,
or for a woman to be corrupted(Ciudad Real 2001: 165). The obvious
reference here in the context of pregnancy is to a woman who is not a virgin.
Top in contemporary Yucatec is translated as chingar (to fuck)ornacer
(to give birth) (Martínez Huchim 2006: 230), although in the second
sense of the word it is more often pronounced top, which also means to
blossomas in fruits, owers, seeds, and even hatching birdseggs.
divine patroness of the pregnant womans ailment is Ix Hun ɔit Balche
(Lady of One Long-Thin Balche Tree). This is a reference to the divine
patroness of the balche tree (Lonchocarpus longistylus Pittier), the alco-
holic drink of which served as a purgative medicine during Maya festivities
(Roys 1931: 216), and also invokes its ancient association with both
drunkenness and erotic pleasure (Houston, Stuart, and Taube 2006). Fol-
lowing this identication of the pregnant woman and the divine patroness,
the chant continues:
canchelic tun bacin yn
chacal toncuy
My red heel is propped up then
.4. [white, black, yellow].
la tun bacin tin taccah yalan
u homtanil yɮamcab
I placed this beneath Itzamcabs
bowels then evidently.
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canchelic tun bacin yn met My trivet is propped up then
u met y it yn cat xani [175] Its trivet is the base for my cooking
jar also.
hunac pecni Greatly she writhed,
hunac chibalnici Greatly she hurt.
piccħin tun bacin t u ɔulbal Cast it violently then to its arbor,
ti y acantun to its lamentation stone,
tumen u na t u chũbin kinim because its mother is at the heaters
base reportedly.
can kin bin chellan t u chun
Four days [she] reclined at the
heaters base
tiba t u cħah u kinami as its kinam seized her there.
piccħin bin t u chun chacal
Cast it violently to the base of its
boiling mouth reportedly,
tiba t u cħah u kinami [xu]
nan xani
as the kinam of the lady seized [her]
there also.
(Ritual of the Bacabs ca. 1779: 17475.)
At this point, the chant describes the elements of the healing space. A
cooking pot, called the bowels of Itzamcab,is propped up by a trivet over
the re.
The pregnant woman is described as reclining near the heater
(kinib), which is either the hearth or steam bath re heating her body during
the course of her ordeal. The healer orders her or his tutelary spirits (pre-
sumably the Bacabs evoked in other chants) to expel the cause of the sick-
ness from the patient and into elements of the ritual space, such as an altar,
or lamentation stone(acantun), and the arbor (ɔulbal), the latter still
constructed over the offering table during some rituals in Yucatàn today.
Being near the re is a means of helping reinforce the health of the
woman who has given birth by heatingher, as discussed above. Likewise,
the woman is given hotdrinks to reinforce her health, in this case boiled
chocolate honey:
bal tun bacin u uayasba u
cabil yn ci
Then what evidently is the icon of
my pulques honey?
chacal chocuah [176] cab u
uayasba u cabil yn ci
The boiled chocolate honey is the
icon of my pulques honey;
chac bolay It is the jaguar.
tux bacin yn uayasba Where evidently is my icon
ca t ualhen yn tackabte u
homtanil yɮaamcab [a]yn
as I stood that I might touch It-
zamcab Crocodilians bowels?
(Ritual of the Bacabs ca. 1779: 17576.)
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The chacal cocuah cab (boiled chocolate honey) undoubtedly refers
to the honey that sweetens the chocolate [drink] given to mothers after
childbirth(Villa Rojas 1945: 58, 141; see also Redeld and Villa Rojas
1934: 183). In the colonial text, the chocolate is called the jaguar(chac
bolay). This recalls a comparable passage in the Book of Chilam Balam of
Chumayel that identies the chac bolay and chocolate with the balamte
(Roys 1933: 36, 111). The balamte is a particular wildvariant of cacao
that is sometimes used as well (Theobroma bicolor Bonpl.; Kufer and
McNeil 2006). The chocolate drink is prepared with boiled water, and
Betty Bernice Faust (1998: 616) notes in the context of a contemporary
Maya ritual that the frothing of the chocolate with a special stick is occa-
sioned by jokes about its similarity to sexual intercourse.
Furthermore, the chant contains multiple invocations of biting insects
such as ku sinic ants and several kinds of wasps:
piccħin tun bacin y icnal u
Cast it violently then in the presence
of its father evidently,
chacal ku sinic the red ku ant,
.4. [white, black, yellow],
ti bin t u cħah u chibali when the biting pain seized [her]
there reportedly.
oxlahun ɮucech t a ba You divided yourself into thirteen
cech chacal kanale you who are the red kanal wasp,
sacal kanale white kanal wasp.
oxlahhun ɮucech t a ba You divided yourself into thirteen
cech ah chuctie you who are this ah chucti wasp,
sacal ah chuctie this white ah chucti wasp,
cech ah chucuke you who are this ah chucuk wasp,
cech chacal tupchace you who are this red tupchac wasp,
sacal tupchacce this white tupchac wasp.
(Ritual of the Bacabs ca. 1779: 175, 177.)
E. N. Anderson and Felix Medina Tzuc (2005: 190) report that in
contemporary Quintana Roo, these ants and other stinging insects are
boiled together with roots of subin (Acacia cornigera) trees, in whose
spines they live, to produce medicines that enhance sexual desire in men
and women. Of course, their inclusion in the decoction here (cast into
Itzamcabs bowels) is not so much to induce sexual desire but is part of the
general goal of heatingthe woman during and after childbirth, sexual
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desire being an ethnophysiologically hotstate (Redeld and Villa Rojas
1934: 168). Stinging insects are also invoked in another perinatal treat-
ment, sweat bathing. Because the sweat bath is no longer used in Yucatán,
we lack the kinds of ethnographic descriptions that we have for other ele-
ments of perinatal rites. However among Tzeltal Maya communities of
Chiapas, wasps and bumblebees are placed in the mud walls of the tra-
ditional wattle-and-daub steam bath to insure that the bath bitesor
stingsthose within with sufcient heat (Groark 1997: 33). In the case of
the chant here, the biting insects are among the thirteen offering portions
cast into the boiling kettle over the ame. The division of offerings into
thirteen portions is a common element of Maya healersrites observed in
Yucatàn today by us and others (see Love 2012).
Finally, the re itself is personied in the ritual space where it receives
the offerings:
sam tun bacin a chib hun
y ahual uinicob
Already then you bite evidently, One
Enemy of the Peoples,
cech hunac ah kiname you who are the great Kinam,
cech hunac ah chibale you who are the great Biting Pain.
hek satalsat yan can This is the one who is completely
pardoned there in the sky,
satalsat yan luum completely pardoned there on the
t uu ich hun y ahual uini-
in the sight of One Enemy of the
sam tun bacin yn cumcint
can y ahual kak
Already then I caused Four Enemy of
Fire to increase evidently
y alan u homtanil yɮam-
cab xani
beneath Itzamcabs bowels there
oxlahun ɮucech t a ba tun
You divided yourself thirteen times
then evidently,
cech x mucuil kuɮyou who are the buried tobacco,
cech tin piccħintah ychil u
homtanil yɮamcab [a]yn
you who I cast violently into Itzam-
cab Crocodilians bowels.
(Ritual of the Bacabs ca. 1779: 178, 179.)
This personied re goes by the title of ahual (principal enemy and
adversary, who kills and destroysand vile thing, hurtful and perni-
cious) (Ciudad Real 2001: 58). This Yucatec term might be cognate with
the Colonial Kicheterm ajal, itself a loanword from Chol, meaning evil
spiritor demon.In the colonial Kichemanuscript of the Popol Vuh,
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ajal is part of the name of several of the disease-causing lords of the
Underworld (Christenson 2007: 116n236; Christenson 2008: 6667). Like
the stinging insects, the re spirit bitesthe woman who gave birth, and
who now is said to be completely pardonedin the eyes of this same deity.
Recall that the Motul dictionary (Ciudad Real 2001: 491) states that a
function of the steam bath was to purifythose women who had recently
given birth, and that is probably what is meant by the pardonhere.
The healer stokes the re beneath Itzamcabs bowels,both heating
the woman who gave birth and receiving the thirteen portions of ants and
wasps mentioned earlier. In addition to biting insects, thirteen portions of
buriedor hiddentobacco (x mucuil kuɮ) are cast into the re. Tobacco
is widely used in Maya medicine for exorcizing sickness-causing winds
(Villa Rojas 1945: 157). Its uses in contemporary Quintana Roo also include
serving as a poultice applied to the navels of newborns (Anderson et al.
2003: 172), which may be signicant given the topic of this chant. At the
same time, Yucatec Maya childbirth rites traditionally involve the crema-
tion or burial of the afterbirth beneath the hearth (Redeld and Villa Rojas
1934: 182). So it is also possible that the buried afterbirth itself is meant (as
auayasba [likenessor icon]) instead of literal tobacco. Indeed, in the
orations of Nahuatl midwives that Friar Bernardino de Sahagún recorded,
it is said of the newborn boys umbilical cord to be buried in the battleeld:
With this you shall make yourself an offering. . . . This precious object
taken from your body shall be counted as your offering of maguey thorns,
tobacco, reeds, pine branches(Sullivan and Knab 1994: 137). And
regarding the umbilical cord of the newborn girl, Sahagúns work reports:
You shall be the covering of ashes that banks the re, you shall be the three
stones on which the cooking pot rests. Here our lord buries you, inters you
(138). In either case, the health of the new mother is facilitated through this
cleansing offering.
We have argued here that the colonial manuscript known as the Ritual of
the Bacabs, though often enigmatic, provides a crucial bridge between
scattered sources of pre-Hispanic practices and ethnographic accounts of
Yucatec Maya birth rites today. Although previously not always recog-
nized as such, several chants of the Ritual of the Bacabs were used for dif-
ferent aspects of Maya perinatal rites during the colonial period. The indig-
enous Maya medical tradition involves ritual chants, herbal decoctions,
and physical manipulation of the patients body, all of which we have been
able to identify in the manuscript texts through the mixed methodology we
738 Timothy W. Knowlton and Edber Dzidz Yam
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employed. In this article we have established that chants for cooling a
steam bath used in perinatal ritual, for difculty in childbirth, and for rites
regarding the disposal of the afterbirth form a unit in the corpus present in
the manuscript. We also elucidated the important role that culture-specic
notions of the body, in particular the force called kinam, played in these
perinatal rites. We established that ethnographic interviews in present-day
Maya communities can aid in these colonial chantsinterpretation, yet at
the same time these chants invoke deities and accoutrements from the pre-
Hispanic era that contemporary Maya healers of today are largely unaware
of. As such, no single method of analysis is sufcient in the case of a colonial
manuscript as notoriously difcult to interpret as the Ritual of the Bacabs.
Although the use of indigenous consultants to aid in the translation of
colonial manuscripts (Tedlock 1996) and the ethnohistoric reconstruction
of elements of Maya medicine (Kunow 2003) is not new, we believe the
combination of key consultant interviews, free list interviews, and system-
atic methods of text analysis (Bernard and Ryan 2010) to be an especially
productive methodology. In the present case, this methodology has enri-
ched our knowledge of those rites meant to manage the dangers accom-
panying colonial Yucatec Maya womens experiences of pregnancy and
childbirth. However, such mixed methodologies might be applied pro-
ductively to other domains where serious impediments exist for the eth-
nohistoric interpretation of the surviving documentary record.
1 We use the colonial orthography for Maya terms throughout this paper in order
to maintain delity to the original sources as well as to facilitate comparison of
this colonial material across epigraphic and ethnographic sources:
b voiced, glottalized bilabial stop
ɮvoiceless, plain alveolar affricate
ɔvoiceless, glottalized alveolar affricate
ch voiceless, plain alveo-palatal affricate
cħvoiceless, glottalized alveo-palatal affricate
h voiceless, laryngeal spirant
j voiceless, velar spirant
c voiceless, plain velar stop
k voiceless, glottalized velar stop
l voiced, alveolar lateral
m voiced, bilabial nasal
n voiced, alveolar nasal
p voiceless, plain bilabial stop
p voiceless, glottalized bilabial stop
z/s voiceless, alveolar fricative
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x voiceless, alveo-palatal fricative
t voiceless, plain alveolar stop
tħvoiceless, glottalized alveolar stop
u/v voiced, labiovelar glide
y voiced, palatal glide
a low, central, unrounded vowel
e low, front, unrounded vowel
i/y high, front, unrounded vowel
o low, back, rounded vowel
u high, back, rounded vowel
Phonemic tone is not usually marked in colonial-period Yucatecan alphabetic
texts, and therefore is not represented in transcriptions of these texts here.
Neither vowel length nor the glottal stop are consistently represented in colonial
Yucatecan alphabetic texts either; when a vowel is represented by two letters
(aa, for example), this may represent either VV or a long vowel.
2 Dzidz Yam observes in these chants a progression from irrealis to realis lan-
guage familiar to him from contemporary Maya petitionary speech.
3 Dzidz Yam notes that many of the causes documented ethnographically have to
do with bodiesexposure to, or processes involving, koko kik (hot blood).
4 In modern orthography: kalal,tóokyanik beyo(it [the childs head] is
trapped, it is tóoklike that) (interview, 14 January 2015, Yaxunah, Yucatán,
5 Other terms for midwife, such as x alansah (she who facilitates birth) are also
used in modern Yucatec.
6 Dzidz Yam has documented similar practices of burning and disposal of the
umbilical cord outside the edge of the community in contemporary Quintana
Roo during eldwork in August 2017.
7 There are several examples in the Ritual of the Bacabs manuscript of evi-
dent confusion by the scribe putting it to writing whether a plain or glottalized
consonant was meant by the orator dictating the chants, so either reading is
8 For analyses of chants where the parts of the hearth are identied explicitly with
parts of the god Itzamcabs body, see Knowlton 2015b, 2018.
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... Several anthropological or ethnobotanical studies indicate that the leaves of L. longistylus are used as a treatment for asthma and headaches, and as an antitussive agent. The beverage has also been associated with antiparasitic effects, certain laxative and antibacterial effects, and finally, as a narcotic effects when used in a balché extract (Crane, 2001;Carod-Artal, 2015;Knowlton & Yam, 2019). Some ingredients that are present in the bark or added during production have exhibited some interesting properties. ...
In Mexico, close to 200 fermented products have been described, of which, approximately 20 are beverages. They were obtained through rustic and ancestral fermentation methods by different indigenous Mexican communities; most of them were used in ceremonies, agricultural work, and other occasions. For their elaboration, different substrates obtained from plants are used, where uncontrolled and low-scale spontaneous anaerobic fermentation occurs. In Mexico, some of these products are considered as nutritional sources and functional beverages; the study of those products has revealed the presence of multiple compounds of biological importance. Additionally, elder generations attribute healing properties against diverse illnesses to these beverages. The aim of this review is to highlight the available information on twelve traditional Mexican fermented beverages, their traditional uses, and their fermentation processes along with toxicological, chemical, nutritional, and functional studies as seen from different areas of investigation. In the literature, pulque, cocoa, and pozol were the beverages with the greatest amount of described health properties; sendechó and guarapo were less characterized. Polyphenols, gallic and ferulic acid, anthocyanins and saponins were the most abundant molecules in all beverages. Finally, it is important to continue this research in order to determine the microorganisms that are involved in the fermentation process, as well as the organoleptic and beneficial properties they lend to the traditional Mexican fermented beverages.
In this chapter I explore the paradoxes involved in the representation of birth as a passage through centipede maws. While I will concentrate on this creature, some of these observations also apply to representations in which birth was denoted by emergence from the maws of various kinds of serpents (Taube 1994: 663). After reviewing the iconographic links between centipedes and childbirth, I argue that Classic Maya images find correspondences in sixteenth-century sources from highland Mexico, where centipedes and other poisonous creatures were often associated with female goddesses, feminine sexuality, and sorcery. I explore beliefs attested in mythical narratives that show a consistent association with femininity, menstruation, and reproduction in Mesoamerica. I suggest that the connotations of centipedes and other poisonous creature in modern mythical narratives are significant to explain their role in Classic Maya religion and art.
Full-text available
The Ritual of the Bacabs is an eighteenth-century Yucatec Maya language manuscript containing over forty healing chants and numerous remedies for a variety of illnesses. In this paper, I reconstruct features of colonial Maya ontology through an analysis of those healing chants accompanying treatments involving fire and heat. In particular, I demonstrate that the manipulation of fire and heat in autochthonous healing was a means of managing kinam, a ‘force’ which Maya past and present discern as a relative quality of things and people. Managing kinam occurs as the healer acts upon the material ‘icons’ (uayasba) of beings involved in the rite, including indigenous deities, medicines, and parts of the healer's own body. Furthermore, in contrast with Western semiotics, I argue that these chants exhibit a colonial Maya ontology in which uayasba signifiers are considered co-substances rather than substitutions.
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Deaths due to maternal causes remain an important biomedical, social, and public health problem. Developing countries report the highest number of maternal deaths, with the majority occurring in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean, and finally East Asia and the Pacific. The hypertensive diseases of pregnancy (preeclampsia and eclampsia), obstetric hemorrhage, and puerperal sepsis account for the majority of maternal deaths, with their relative prevalence varying according to the country. In the poorest areas, obstetric hemorrhage represents a tremendous challenge for the health delivery system. In Mexico, maternal deaths occur mostly during delivery or the immediate puerperium. In the state of Yucatan, located in southeastern Mexico, year after year there are maternal deaths of women living both at the municipal seat and in nearby communities. Even though there is a health system organized by levels of care, those people living in municipalities distant from the state capital do not have services to assist them during obstetric emergencies until a hospital is reached. Moreover, there are sociocultural factors that prevail in the cases of maternal death among indigenous women that need to be considered when designing and implementing preventive actions. In this chapter, we discuss the characteristics of maternal deaths occurring among indigenous Maya women in Yucatan, Mexico. In addition, we describe the maternal health needs, knowledge, and practice, not only from the perspective of the health personnel but also from that of other actors involved in the health-disease-care process of indigenous pregnant woman with obstetric complications.
Since the sixteenth century, Central Mexican tiçiyotl (Nahua healing knowledge) has been portrayed as a male-dominated system akin to Western medicine. This has made Nahua women invisible in broader discussions of tiçiyotl. Though the historiography acknowledges that women were titiçih (healing ritual specialists), the scholarship has primarily focused on their role in midwifery. This article first uses early modern Spanish dictionaries to underscore discrepancies in the vocabulary used to describe indigenous healers. Then, using evidence from two sixteenth-century proceedings against Nahua women in Central Mexico (in conjunction with other primary sources), this article demonstrates that female titiçih were not analogous to Spanish midwives. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century female titiçih-like their ancestors-were practitioners of tiçiyotl who gazed into water, hurled corn kernels, applied salubrious materials, and communicated with deities through entheogenic substances to keep their communities whole. Moreover, this article argues that scholarship must decolonize tiçiyotl in order to explore and understand its complexities. This can only be achieved by moving away from Western terms and frameworks that do not adequately describe Nahua ideologies.
We examine the medicalization of birth in a Mexican Yucatec Maya farming community over the past 65 years. Our findings are drawn from longitudinal demographic data collection (1992–2014) and 56 maternal ethnographic interviews. We describe and contrast the maternal experience of three cohorts of women whose reproductive careers transpired in the context of energetic and epidemiologic transitions: Cohort 1 women had their first birth from 1950 to 1977, under conditions of traditional midwifery, subsistence farming, and energetic stress; Cohort 2 women had their first birth from 1978 to 1999; a time of energetic transition as laborsaving technology and some medical care was introduced; and Cohort 3 women had their first birth from 2000 to 2014, a period of increasing modernization and epidemiologic transition. Hospital births have become increasingly common since the late 1990s and are associated with increased birth complications, medical interventions, nonelective cesarean section procedures, postpartum rest periods, and increased formula feeding, as well as decreased maternal intrapartum support. Still many Maya mothers retain several traditional practices; some visit the traditional birth attendant (midwife) for prenatal and postnatal care, and prolonged and intensive breastfeeding is still the norm. Infant mortality rates from Cohort 3 are higher than Mexico’s national average, but in Cohorts 1 and 2, they were lower than Mexico’s national average. A number of unique factors may have contributed to the maintenance of low maternal-infant mortality in this community, even in times of energetic stress and when biomedical care was lacking. These include the effective Maya midwifery system, intensive breastfeeding practices, and a sanitary water supply.
Aztec society had a complex and well-organized set of belief systems and rituals that surrounded pregnancy and childbirth. Their religion included a pantheon of deities—Tlazolteotl, Chalchiuhtlicue, Cihuacoatl, Coatlicue, Tzitzimitl, and the Cihuateteo—who played a role in maternity, midwifery, and childbirth. As a result of the Franciscan friar and pioneering ethnographer Bernardino de Sahagún and his corpus magnum Historia general de las cosas de nueva España, a great deal of firsthand information is known about how Aztec society viewed pregnancy and childbirth. This chapter reviews historical information regarding reproduction in Aztec society, including the role of the midwife, or tlamatlquiticitl, as well as examining birth ceremonies and rituals and the occurrence of maternal complications and death.
Maternal death continues to be a major public health problem among indigenous women in Mexico and Central America. When compared with nonindigenous women in the same country, and in some cases the same region, indigenous women can have a severalfold increased risk of dying as a result of becoming pregnant. The large majority of these fatalities are preventable, but unfortunately many are the result of the factors described in the Three Delays Model of maternal death. There are many conditions, both direct and indirect, that can result in the death of a woman from pregnancy. However, in Mexico and Central America, the most prevalent causes are the hypertensive diseases of pregnancy, obstetrical hemorrhage, and infection. In order to understand the diverse nature of the causes of maternal death among indigenous women, it is important to have some knowledge of how and why these pregnancy-associated disorders develop. This chapter addresses the three most frequent causes of maternal death among indigenous women of Mexico and Central America—hypertensive diseases (including preeclampsia and eclampsia), obstetric hemorrhage (including uterine atony, placental abruption, retained placenta, and placenta accreta), and infection (including puerperal sepsis).
Congratulations to H. Russell Bernard, who was recently elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences"This book does what few others even attempt—to survey a wide range of systematic analytic approaches. I commend the authors for both their inclusiveness and their depth of treatment of various tasks and approaches." —Judith Preissle, University of Georgia "I appreciate the unpretentious tone of the book. The authors provide very clear instructions and examples of many different ways to collect and analyze qualitative data and make it clear that there is no one correct way to do it." —Cheryl Winsten-Bartlett, North Central University "The analytical methodologies are laid out very well, and I will definitely utilize the book with students regarding detailed information and steps to conduct systematic and rigorous data analysis." —Dorothy Aguilera, Lewis & Clark College This book introduces readers to systematic methods for analyzing qualitative data. Unlike other texts, it covers the extensive range of available methods so that readers become aware of the array of techniques beyond their individual disciplines. Part I is an overview of the basics. Part II comprises 11 chapters, each treating a different method for analyzing text. Real examples from the literature across the health and social sciences provide invaluable applied understanding.