Natural Folk Medicine

Natural Folk Medicine

Natural folk medicine has been widely practiced in the United States and throughout the world. In general, this form of prevention and treatment is found in old-fashioned remedies and household medicines. These remedies have been passed down for generations, and many are in common use today. Much folk medicine is herbal, and the customs and rituals related to the use of the herbs vary among ethnic groups. Specific knowledge and usages are ad- dressed throughout this text. Commonly, across cultures, the herbs are found in nature and are used by humans as a source of therapy, although how these medicines are gathered and specific modes of use vary from group to group and place to place. In general, folk medical traditions prescribed the time of year in which the herb was to be picked; how it was to be dried; how it was to be pre- pared; the method, amount, and frequency of taking; and so forth.

In addition, an infinite number of maladies have, over the generations, cul- tivated an assortment of folk methods for thwarting or curing them. Boxes 5–1 and 5–2 describe these phenomena as related to cholera and choking. All too frequently, the practices consist of both natural and magico-religious forms.

Box 5–1


Choking, an often fatal mishap, occurs when air is prevented access to the lungs by compression or obstruction of the windpipe.

Folk Beliefs It is widely believed that, throughout life, a person is at risk of all sorts of en- counters with spirits and witches that may cause choking. The alp (incubus, night- mare) strangles people to death; the glacial demon springs on a boy’s shoulders and strangles him to death; the poltergeist strangles a victim until he or she is half dead; witches pinch and attempt to strangle a person in bed; and Naamah, who is described in the Kabbala as a semi-human, deathless being, seduces men and stran- gles children in their sleep. If children are left outside on purpose, fairies strangle them, and mothers are warned to beware of the striglas, a wild and bad woman, who can catch hold of a baby and strangle it. It is widely believed that many ac- tivities, when undertaken by pregnant women, can cause the umbilical cord to be twisted around the unborn baby’s neck, choking and strangling it to death.

Prevention An expectant mother must avoid cords, such as by not wearing necklaces, or “wind string, yarn, or other material”; for that matter, she should “avoid seeing other women who do this” or stretching, and she is instructed never to “raise


106 ■ Chapter 5

her hands above her head,” “hang up curtains,” “sit with crossed legs,” “scrub floors,” or “walk through a hole in a fence.”

The Catholic ritual of The Blessing of the Throats on Saint Blaise (3rd century) Day (February 3) is related to the prevention of choking. Two burning candles are crossed over the throat and the following prayer is recited: “May the Lord deliver you from the evils of the throat, and from every other evil.” Other methods of prevention include the beliefs that 1. It is wise never to drink milk after eating choke-cherries. 2. One should not be eating while going over the threshold of a door. 3. If a person chokes without eating, it means that he or she told a lie, some-

one has told lies about the person, he or she is begrudging someone food, or the person’s demise might entail choking on the gallows.

Treatment Examples of advice regarding the treatment of choking include

1. If you swallow a fish bone, drink lemon juice or eat a biscuit; if you had choked in the early 1900s, you would have probably had to swallow a string with cotton on the end, which was pulled back up.

2. Swallow rice water or a raw egg. 3. Have someone pat or slap you hard between the shoulders. 4. Rub your nose. 5. Go on all fours and cough.

Choking is often a sign that foreshadows death, since it interrupts breath- ing and breath is the sign of life.

Sources: Thurston, H. (1955). Ghosts & poltergeists. Journal of American Folklore Society, 68, 97; Thompson, K. (1964). Body, boots, britches. Journal of American Folklore Society, 77, 305; Lee, K. (1951). Greek supernatural. Journal of American Folklore Society, 64, 309; Rivas, A. (1990). Devotions to the saints (p. 22). Los Angeles: International Imports; and UCLA Department of Folklore Archives.

Box 5–1 Continued

Box 5–2


Cholera is an acute diarrheal, infectious disease caused by a bacterium. It is fatal 10% to 50% of the time.

Folk Beliefs Cholera generates senses of mystery, fear, and dread; around the world, it was imagined in the form of a personified spirit and attributed to spiritual or human causes. The Eastern Europeans believed that a cat bringing home a baby stork after it fell out of the nest signaled the arrival of cholera, and Slavs saw cholera as a small woman with only one eye, one ear, and two long teeth.

HEALTH Traditions ■ 107

In India, cholera had many identities: the red flower mother and Marhai Devi, the goddess of cholera and the sister of the goddess Devi. In Italy, it was caused by the evil eye and/or an evil spirit, and in Sicily it was spread by rulers to get rid of people. In the American folk tradition, a change of the moon or a rainbow appearing in the west in the sign of the Twins signaled the arrival of cholera, and it was said that someone staring at a baby caused it. Others ratio- nalized cholera outbreaks by regarding dead oak trees in the yard or foods— such as dried beans, green apples, green fruit, and food combinations such as cucumbers and ice cream—as the probable cause.

Prevention Cholera was thought to be prevented by wearing wooden shoes to stop the seeping through of telluric poisons. A minister actually requested President Jackson to declare a day of fasting and prayer to halt a cholera epidemic. Fire and heat were popular methods, and when an epidemic hit Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1855 a physician burned barrels of pure tar beneath open hospital windows. Onions were a charm against cholera, and a bunch of onions could be hung in front of the threshold of the house. Tobacco smoke was found to slow the growth of many kinds of microbes, particularly those of Asiatic cholera.

Treatment The range of homemade therapeutic remedies consisted of the use of a single agent, simple combinations, and some rather complex concoctions.

1. Simple substances—such as castor oil; nutmeg; camedative balsam, a patent medicine; wormwood tea; muskrat root; lettuce milk; dewberry or low blackberry—were praised by a 19th-century physician. Pyroligneous acid, used to cure hams, was also thought to cure cholera.

2. When the simple substances failed to halt the excessive diarrhea, herbal remedies were combined and/or used with popular patent medicines, such as calomel followed by castor oil; a teaspoon of wood ash was added to a cup of warm water; and nutmeg was added to milk. Powerful pills were rolled with red pepper and asafetida, or a large spoonful of pepper was added to a cup of boiled milk.

3. More elaborate concoctions contained such ingredients as turpentine, cam- phor, capsicum, cajeput, and tincture of flies or a combination of opium, charcoal, quinine, tobacco juice, and burning moxa.

4. A very exotic ritual consisted of chopping off the head of a black hen, ripping the gizzard from its body, and putting it into boiling water for a few minutes. The gizzard was discarded and the patient had to drink the boiling liquid.

Sources: Gifford, E. S. (1957, August). Evil eye in medicine. Amer. J. Opth., 44(2), 238; Lorenz, A. J. (1957). Scurvy in the gold rush. Journal History of Medicine, 12, 503; Koschi, B. UCLA archive of California and western folklore, unpublished, Cannon, UT, no. 3173; Erickson. (1941). Tarboro free press, SFQ, 5, 123; Karolevitz, R. F. (1967). Doctors of the Old West (p. 71). Seattle: Superior; Van- Ravenswaay. (1955). Pioneer medicine. In Missouri, South Medical Journal, 48, 36; Kell. (1965). Tobacco cures. Journal of American Folklore Society, 78, 106; VanWart. (1948). Native cures. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 59(342), 575; N. N., Collection, Hyatt, H. M. (1935). Folklore from Adams County Illinois (p. 433). New York, other materials in the archives of UCLA Folklore Department (2002).

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