Research on Mayan use of enemas

Throughout Mesoamerica there are indications that confirm the use of enemas, that is, instruments to introduce liquids into the lower digestive tract. Although most pre-Hispanic enemas were made with perishable materials such as gourds or bules, intestines and even rubber, some were made of ceramics and persist as archaeological evidence (Taube, 1998). There are abundant representations of the use of enemas in Classic Maya art, especially in Late Classic vessel scenes, but along with the archaeological evidence, we also have the colonial collections and current traditions of the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica (Taube, 1998).

Information from pre-Hispanic scenes and later testimonies clearly show that enemas had various uses in Mesoamerica: to cure, to purify and to introduce hallucinogenic and intoxicating substances into the body.

Medicinal enemas

The use of enemas to administer medication is well documented among the 16th century Aztecs. There are a lot of medicines that were applied anally through enemas, to cure diseases such as bloody urine, hemorrhoids, diarrhea, urine retention and persistent cough or cough with phlegm and blood. There is also knowledge that the medicinal use of enemas is applied in other parts of Mesoamerica, in addition to that practiced by the Aztecs. Among the contemporary Maya of the Guatemalan highlands, enemas are used to cure dysentery and constipation (Taube, 1998). Another interesting fact is that cacao (Theobroma cacao) was used by the Maya to heal sores and wounds through the application of enemas or as a psychotropic agent (Arias, 2013).

It is likely that enemas were also used in ancient Mesoamerican ceremonial purifications for the purgative qualities. Healing and purifying are closely related categories, and purification rituals were often part of the healing process. In some contexts, enemas must have been part of a ritual purification complex that included fasting, cleansing, and bathing, often in a temazcal.

Intoxicating enemas

In addition to their use for healing and purification ceremonies, enemas were used to introduce alcoholic and perhaps hallucinogenic beverages into the body, as these are more rapidly absorbed from the lower digestive tract. The use of hallucinogenic enemas is well documented among the native peoples of lowland South America (Taube, 1998). The Maya used enemas to administer these substances to attain more intense trance states more quickly. Researchers have discovered Mayan classic-period sculpture and ceramics depicting scenes in which hallucinogenic enemas were used in rituals; some figures are shown vomiting while others receive enemas. There are also anthropomorphic figures demonstrating the self- administration of psychoactive enemas (Carod, 2015).

There are few other direct references to the anal administration of hallucinogens in Mesoamerica. Alcohol, on the other hand, seems to have been the preferred substance for this purpose. The mouths of the vessels have spouts where the foam of the fermented alcoholic beverages can be seen. In Late Classic depictions, these vessels are sometimes marked with the phonetic glyph chi. In some Mayan languages as Chol and Tzeltal, chi means "pulque", "maguey", and other alcoholic beverages, while ah chi means "drunk." In Yucatecan cii means "maguey" or "wine" (Chávez, 2013).

Although the enemas contained alcohol, it seems likely that hallucinogens or other substances were added to enhance them. The presence of enema scenes and specific inscriptions identifying flasks as ''the dwelling place for tobacco'' (yotoot u may) support the claim that these vessels were used as containers for various forms of tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), including snuff, tobacco juice, or enema liquids derived from tobacco leaf infusions (Groark, 2010).

The enemas that appear in the polychrome vessel scenes are tube-shaped, with a large hole on one side. This is the typical form of Petén-style enemas during the Late Classic. Currently we can find almost identical bules that are used as tobacco containers among the Tzeltals of the Highlands of Chiapas (Taube, 1998).

There is a different use of enemas suggested: as instruments to enrich the digestive tract with probiotics, which have been proven to have beneficial effects on human health. In view of the topicality of the topic on the effectiveness of probiotics to inhibit the growth of intestinal pathogens, the history of pre-Hispanic enemas as instruments to apply probiotics is especially relevant (Lemus, 2007). The work of Lemus presents the hypothesis that enemas were also used as means to enrich the digestive tract with probiotics and prebiotics.

Today studies and Epigraphy and Iconography, popular test pits and stratigraphy

Still today the focus is on artifacts and architecture, but epigraphy (the study of hieroglyphic writing) has improved dramatically in the recent several decades, initially influenced by Tatiana Proskouriakoff, Heinrich Berlin and others. Iconography has been expanding since Michael Coe’s 1973 Grolier Club monograph, The Maya Scribe and his World.

A study made by De Smet and Hellmuth (1086) mentions the discovery of a crucial vessel that allowed the identification of other Maya vase paintings as enema scenes, and soon other were also led to believe that the ancient Maya took intoxicating enemas for ritual purposes. Many species have been proven to be used as enema ingredients such as: Agave species, Anadenanthera species, Brugmansia species, Ilex guayus and Lophophora williamsii.

Some recent studies like the one written by Gamboa et al. (2021) say that the use of enemas was not only part of ritual or therapeutic moments but could also have accompanied practices of a sexual nature in search of pleasure that, perhaps, generated addiction, as evidenced in the contemporary medical documentation.

Enemas finally accepted as featured research by Mayanists and other Specialists

Archaeologists today still focus on stratigraphy, middens, artifacts, and architecture. But today there are more Mayanists than a century ago. Today there are more stelae, more murals (San Bartolo and Holmul, for example), more ceramic scenes with provenance (the discoveries at Holmul and other Maya sites). When doing any iconography study that includes stelae, altars, lintels, etc., the percent of scenes of savage captures in warfare and subsequent human sacrifice is appalling. It is assumed that only the Aztec were gruesome slaughterers, but the Cacaxtla murals show otherwise. Plus, the number of Maya burials of what appear to be captives is sadly notable.

Later this year we will provide further documentation on enema iconography with additional information. Peter De Smet will also have additional information on the chemical aspects of the enema. It helps when scholars with different backgrounds work together.


References Cited

  • ARIAS, Jiapsy
  • 2013
  • Un vertiginoso viaje etnohistórico dentro de los “Imaginarios alimentarios” en el simbolismo del cacao en México. Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México. 19 pages.


Suggested Reading on
Enemas Mayas

  • CIUDAD, Andrés, IGLESIAS, Ma. Josefina and Miguel SORROCHE
  • 2010
  • El ritual en el mundo maya: de lo privado a lo público. Sociedad Española de Estudios Mayas. 488 pages.
  • HENDERSON, Lucia
  • 2008
  • Blood, water, vomit, and wine: Pulque in Maya and Aztec belief. Mesoamerican Voices, No. 3. 27 pages.
  • STONE, Andrea
  • 2002
  • Spirals, ropes, and feathers: The iconography of rubber balls in Mesoamerican art. Ancient Mesoamerica, Vol. 13. Pages 21-39. DOI: 10.1017.S0956536102131026
    Available online:


Suggested websites for
Enemas Mayas

Intoxicating liquor enemas: the extravagant ritual performed by the Mayans

The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications: Enemas

Return to Enema History Overview: Enema History in the Mayan Culture.


First posted Noviembre 21, 2022.

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