Folk-healers and their secret art
It can be said that the quest for curatives and treatments for ailments and diseases, is as old as humanity itself. Man has always sought to maintain health for himself, and the animals and plants that assured his sustenance. Yet the recognition of the properties of substances appropriate as curative remedies was not a talent that all were bestowed with, but rather one that few individuals initially acquired autodidactically. They accumulated a vast knowledge of the flora and fauna, natures’ seasonal and daily changes, and learnt of the usage of the presenting ampleness. They understood how to employ materials that their everyday living made available to them, and became skilled in deriving and producing from these mixtures that they believed to contain curative power. Then, embossed with traditional beliefs, and the customary divination of the locality at the time, they applied these recipes, often accompanied by ritualistic acts, to alleviate from illness and disease.
These healers were not a professional discipline, they were ‘skilled’, or ‘gifted’ members of individual families, farmsteads households or hamlets. They were therapists conducting cross-over practice. They were skilled herbalists, midwives, family-therapists, wound- and faith- healers, layman surgeons and keepers of traditions. There was great variety and vastness, beyond regions and countries, of the prevalent practices that they conducted. They were folk-healers, whose assistance was sought for the ailments of man, the ills pestering cattle, and not infrequently for the malevolence of a bad harvest. Such wise men and women, knowledgeable of the properties of plants, of active substances and their therapeutic function, capable of stirring up concoctions and remedies, were said to hold deep wisdom and were bestowed with much respect and reverence on account of their knowledge.
Much of folk-medicine was interwoven with the faith, customs, and beliefs of magic and demonology current at the time. Mythology tells of plant gods, that were worshipped and treasured, and suggests a deep connection of weeds and crops to a higher divinity. Much flora of the plant world, at the time, was venerated by the population, and the aura of specific plants was interpreted as retribution or curative essence of the gods ascribed to them. As such recipes conveyed or recovered today, have to be comprehended in the light of the time when they were written, and within the traditions in which they were developed.
The ingredients of potions were not solely of plant origin. Besides the curatives collected from the surrounding environs, plants or minerals, salves, infusions and brews frequently also contained the peculiarities of what was accessible. Recipes found in old scriptures or delivered down ancestral lineage have shown that there was in fact the use of animal material and even faecal matter. A very common folk-medical animal substance that was broadly used across many regions of Europe was the fat of dogs, Axungia Canis. This was known to be a curative remedy for rheumatic pains, and affections of the lungs.
The treatment of goitre had instinctively followed a centenary folk-medical practice of medicating with roasted sponge and the ashes of seaweed, long before iodine or a thyroid connection were known to be influential on the development of strumae.
The mould on bread was in the old days not seen with quite as much of the disgust that it arouses in us today. It was in fact eaten for its health properties. Our ancestors of old knew of the beneficial influence of ingesting such mouldy bread. The anti-bacterial effect of mould fungus was recognized in 1928 by Alexander Fleming who derived penicillin from this fungus. Undoubtedly this discovery marks one of the greatest achievements of conventional medicine. Penicillin has brought much advancement and extensive curative power to the treatment of the diseases of man-kind, yet stemmed from the ancient wisdom of folk healing.
Rooted in the deep connection to nature and its laws, observation and instinct undoubtedly were the prime tools to identify any healing substances. Only in later times where a body of such knowledge existed, was this passed on through the generations by the aged. This wisdom was considered a much protected treasure, was seldom written down, and rarely shared with outsiders of the family. What we know as folk-medicine today has a background that goes back into ancient times, and has evolved and grown over the years. It is an inherited wisdom.
Much of the material retrieved today, has not withstood the trials of modern medicine and has not been transcribed to modern medical use, but some of the findings unearthed have indeed baffled scientists and doctors of our time. Aside of the many controversial recipes and the underlying superstition and beliefs, they have been able to derive from this store of knowledge selective, but valuable information about potent curative natural medicines. As such the search for, and the research of recipes of old continues. It is evident that in Folk-medicine lies a hidden treasure of healing wisdom which cannot be rejected.
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