(Spell for Today) FOLK MEDICINE HEALING c. 2014


Folk medicine consists of traditional healing beliefs and methods used in
past cultures mostly by people deemed to have the healing power. As an part of a
culture’s knowledge and values, folk medicine is a system based on traditional
modes of conduct, of coping with sickness. Often sanctioned by the population’s
claims or religious beliefs, these popular practices are used to alleviate the
distress of disease and restore harmony in people who are emotionally or
physically ill, or both. Folk medicine’s lore is widely known among members of a
culture and is usually handed down from generation to generation by word of

In general, the system is flexible, allowing the introduction of new ideas about
sickness and healing practices, many of them borrowed from classical and modern



To implement the various folk curing practices, most social groups have
established a hierarchy of healers–beginning with the individuals affected,
their immediate families and friends, knowledgeable herbalists, members of the
clergy, faith healers, and SHAMANS, or medicine men. Many are consulted because
of their empirical knowledge of roots and herbs possessing medicinal properties.
Others are considered endowed with healing gifts because of station or accidents
of birth. The belief that posthumous children have such talents is widely known
in the United States. In the European folk-medical tradition, seventh sons and
daughters are said to possess unusual curing powers; the same applies to twins.
Often spouses and children of known healers are automatically considered to have
similar gifts. As in primitive medicine, many people affected by ailments that
are considered minor and natural treat themselves, with the help of family
members. A vast array of easily available herbal preparations known to most
members of the culture is used to effect a cure. More difficult cases suspected
to be of a magico-religious nature are referred to local healers who are endowed
with special powers. These shamans stage a variety of ceremonies and employ many
of the techniques used in preliterate social groups.



Native American folk medicine is popular in the less acculturated Indian
tribes. A notable example are the Navajos still living in their homeland.
Disease is considered a disruption of harmony caused either by external agents
such as lightning and winds, powerful animals and ghosts, and witchcraft, or by
the breaking of taboos. Three categories of folk healers are usually consulted:
first the herbalists, for symptomatic relief of minor ailments; if no
improvement is observed, then the hand trembler, or diviner, is called; finally,
the singer, or MEDICINE MAN, will carry out specific healing ceremonies
suggested by the hand trembler’s diagnosis. Ritual sweatbaths, drinking of
herbs, and elaborate sandpainting ceremonies characterize Navajo folk healing.



The hot-cold theory of disease ranks among the most popular systems of
contemporary folk medicine in the United States. In health, the human body
displays a balanced blending of hot and cold qualities. Sickness will ensue
if an excess of hot or cold foodstuffs is ingested. The basic scheme was
introduced into Latin America by the Spanish during the 16th century. Reinforced
by native cultural values, it became firmly embedded in popular Latin healing
traditions. The hot-cold scheme is applied to foods, diseases, and remedies. The
terms hot and cold do not necessarily refer to the temperature of foods or
remedies. Qualities are assigned on the basis of origin, color, nutritional
value, physiological effects of the food or remedy, as well as therapeutical
action. Among New York Puerto Ricans, for example, bananas, coconuts, and sugar
cane are considered cold, whereas chocolate, garlic, alcoholic beverages, and
corn meal are hot. Cold-classified illnesses such are arthritis, colds, and
gastric complaints must be treated with hot foods and remedies. Their hot
counterparts –constipation, diarrhea, and intestinal cramps–require treatment
with cold substances.



The medical folklore of black Americans contains elements derived from popular
European and African beliefs, blended with religious elements belonging to
Christian Fundamentalism and West Indian voodoo. The world is seen as a
dangerous place, prompting individuals to constantly exert caution because
of the whims of nature, frequent divine punishment, and the threat of witchcraft
practiced by hostile humans. Individuals are urged to look out for themselves,
be distrustful, and avoid the wrath of God. Sickness is broadly divided into
“natural” and “unnatural.” The former comprises bodily conditions caused by
environmental forces as well as God’s punishment for sin. Unnatural illness
represents health problems caused by evil influences and witchcraft after the
loss of divine protection; the magical intrusion of “animals” into the body and
the placement of a certain hex play prominent roles in the causation of disease.



Folk medicine is still popular among large groups of Mexican-Americans in New
Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, California, and especially in West Texas. Their
healing system, based on pre-Columbian indigenous lore, reflects a degree of
isolation and unwillingness to assimilate Anglo-Saxon culture. Moreover, the
inability of scientific medicine to offer relief for various categories of folk
illness further enhances the usefulness of these practices. Five types of folk
illness are most prominent: mal de ojo (evil eye), empacho (gastro-intestinal
blockage due to excessive food intake), susto (magically induced fright), caida
de la mollera (fallen fontanel, or opening in or between bones), and mal puesto
(sorcery). Prominent among Mexican-American folk healers is the curandero, a
type of shaman who uses white magic and herbs to effect cures. In the cosmic
struggle between good and evil, the curandero, using God-given powers, wards
against harmful spells and hexes. As in other folk systems, faith in the
curandero’s abilities is the essence of the healer’s continued success.



Folk medical systems, especially those ftinctionffig in a pluralistic society
comprising several distinct ethnic groups (as in the United States), govern
domestic healing activities to a great extent. Recently, the increasing
complexity, technicality, and cost of modem medicine have spurred renewed
attempts at self-medication and the use of herbal preparations, thus reviving
folk medical practices.

A number of folk remedies used *in the past are now manufactured as
pharmaceutical preparations prescribed by physicians. For example, rauwolfia is
an extract of the snakeroot plant, which was used for centuries in the Far East
for its calming effect. It is now prescribed by physicians to lower blood
pressure. Reserpine, a derivative of rauwolfia, has been used by psychiatrists
‘in treating severe mental disorders. Foxglove was first brewed by Indians to
treat dropsy, fluid in the legs caused by heart problems. This practice occurred
for hundreds of years before it was discovered that foxglove contributed the
active ingredients now known as digitalis. Today digitalis is commonly used to
stimulate weakened hearts.

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