Laurel Hanson ’23: Book VIII, Chapter VI (Of the Bixa or Achiote Tree)

Book VIII, Chapter VI

Of the bixa or achiote tree. This is no tree, but rather a plant or bush, and it is produced by itself in nature, as are all those which I have told you about, and it is also planted by the Indians.

Translated by Laurel Hanson ’23

The achiote is a bush or plant produced on its own by the skill and work of nature, as are all those which I have told you about. However, this one and the others are also planted by the Indians, when they want. I included this because it is related to the Indian’s paints made of achiote and genip. This plant or achiote is found on this and other islands, as well as on the Mainland, and they are one and a half times as tall as a man, give or take a little. The leaf is almost like that of cotton, and its budding fruits look like those of cotton, with the exception of a thick fuzz along certain veins on the outside of the bud that signal the separations or sections on the inside, within which there are several rosy or red-colored seeds that stick like wax and are even more viscous. From these, the Indian men make some balls with which they then paint their faces, mixing it with certain gums and making paints of a fine vermilion color. Using that color, they paint their faces and bodies with such a flair that they look like the devil himself. The Indian women do the same when they want to have their parties and areitos or dances, and the Indian men do so when they want to look good or when they go off to fight in order to seem fierce. Afterwards, this achiote is very tough to take off until many days have passed. It darkens the skin deeply, and they say that they feel very well using it, as it serves the Indians in this: when they are painted, even if they are wounded, given that the paint is red and of the same color as blood, they do not faint as often as those who are not painted with that red or bloody color. They attribute this to the virtue of the achiote because of its bloody color, which causes the blood to be less apparent than it would be on another Indian who has not been painted with achiote. This is a paint that, in addition to its unpleasant appearance, does not smell good due to the gums or things with which they mix it. They paint themselves this color, mostly to fight and appear fierce in battle. We should not marvel very much at this, as the Romans, when they triumphed, rode in cars with golden seats, wore palmed clothing, and had red-tinted faces in imitation of the element of fire. So says Cristoforo Landino[1] in the explanation or comment that he made on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Therefore, the wild people of this place already had someone to imitate in Rome, with these nonsensical paints. The ancient Romans were not the only ones with such customs, given that the British or English did so more completely and were accustomed to painting themselves with a certain ointment of an achiote or red color because it gave them a more frightening appearance in battle. So wrote the great Julius Caesar in his Commentaries[2]. The vices of the Englishmen of which he writes are even more surprising than the errors of the Indians, for Caesar himself says that ten or twelve of them would share one woman, mostly brothers with brothers and parents with sons. When the children were born, they belonged to the one who first touched the wife. Certainly, I have not heard anything similar about other people around the world, nor have I read or seen such a strange and wild custom in any generation of all that has been or is used in the world. Let us return to the history of the Indies. I say that this achiote is a valued color here among these people of this island and among many others on the Mainland, for the effects which I have stated.

[1] Christoforo Landino, on the twenty-ninth canto of Purgatorio of Divine Comedy

[2] Caesar’s Commentaries, Book V

Image: Illustration from Bertuch’s Bilderbuch fur Kinder, published in 1795