Folk Medicine

Folk medical beliefs and practices differ from culture to culture in Texas but have in common the process by which they are passed on-from person to person and generation to generation by word of mouth and imitation. Though most Texans have come to rely almost entirely on official medicine, others have continued to rely to a greater or lesser degree on folk medicine. These have maintained their beliefs and practices as a coherent system, rather than a seemingly unrelated collection of remedies, cures, and preventives.

Though Indian concepts of illness and cure varied from group to group, most ascribed some serious illnesses to deities, tribal enemies, or the maleficence of spirits. Tonkawas, for example, believed that spirits of the dead, particularly if not properly buried, would haunt those responsible and bring illnesses and other misfortunes upon them. One entering an area haunted by such spirits would soon die, and if a dead relative called to you in a dream, your days were numbered. By wearing small bags of herbs and roots next to the body, one could ward off bad spirits, which often took the form of owls or wolves, and the illnesses they could cause. This category of illness required the services of the medicine man, or shaman, whose office seems to have existed in every Indian group. The medicine man, an important man in the tribe, used divination and trances in diagnosing illnesses and relied on exorcisms, chanting, religious ceremonies, and supernatural powers in treating them. He also administered herbal remedies, sweat baths, and suction to remove objects thought to be supernaturally injected into his patients. The Apaches, who attributed much illness to malevolent spirits, used singing, drumming, applying amulets, the laying on of hands, and incantations to placate or expel these powerful forces. Texas Indians also used non-supernatural remedies. The Comanches, for example, had knowledge of the tourniquet and simple surgery and were quite effective in treating such injuries as broken bones and gunshot wounds. They gave a wide assortment of herbs and other medicines to treat illnesses. Herbal remedies included castor oil and euphorbia as purgatives, sassafras for pleurisy, and alder bark as a dressing for wounds. The Apaches used jalap, cinchona, guaiacum, peyote, and lobelia. Natchez Indian remedies included the red seed of the magnolia as a febrifuge, the wood of acacia for toothache, and Chaparro amargosa for amebic dysentery. Comanche snakebite remedies included oral suction, poultices of such plants as snakeroot, alder bark, and peyote, and the application of a piece of the biting snake to the snakebite.

Most cures and remedies in Anglo-Texan folk medicine reveal the practitioners as pragmatic folk who relied on whatever was available at hand to treat illnesses. Their home remedies included common household items-soda, coal oil, kerosene, sugar, whiskey, vinegar, turpentine, soot from wood stoves-to supplement the meager pharmacopoeia of paregoric, sulfur, alum, Epsom salt, camphor, asafetida, and medicinal plants like mullein, pennyroyal, anise, oregano, horehound, senna, sassafras, and other native roots, barks, and leaves. Mud plasters soothed and relieved the pain of insect bites and stings; vinegar soothed sunburn. A number of white Texans’ medical beliefs and practices are survivals or vestiges of a more primitive European past. For example, they used sympathetic or contagious magic to transfer illness to another person, to animals, to plants, or even to objects. One might get rid of a crick in the neck by rubbing the afflicted neck where a hog had rubbed its neck. Most wart remedies involve sympathetic magic: rub a wart with a slice of potato or stolen dishrag, bury the object, and as it rots the wart will disappear. Asthma may be cured by keeping a “Mexican hairless” Chihuahua dog in the house-the dog gets the asthma. Rattlesnake bites may be treated by killing a chicken and wrapping the warm body around the bite to draw the poison out. Magical words, formulae, incantations, and amulets were thought to be curative. Styes could be removed by recitation of the rhyme “Sty, sty, leave my eye; catch the first one passing by.” Rubbing them with a gold wedding band would also work. Copper bracelets were worn as a cure for rheumatism. A lead fishing sinker was worn on a string around the neck to cure nosebleeds. An ax was put under the bed to “cut” labor pains. Folk healers played an important role in such folk medicine. Certain people-particularly seventh sons of seventh sons-were presumed to have power to cure warts, to stop bleeding, to relieve burns, and treat other maladies. Usually, the healer touched or rubbed the afflicted spot while uttering a secret verse or reading a passage from the Bible, and the afflicted person was cured. Another important folk practitioner in early Texan culture was the midwife, who received her training and knowledge through the traditional folk process of apprenticeship. Midwives are still used by some people and are gaining acceptance as part of the medical establishment.

Texas-Mexican folk beliefs and practices constitute a coherent, logically consistent system in which theories of etiology and treatment correspond with social and religious beliefs. Illnesses may be divided into two major classes, mal natural (natural illness) and mal puesto (illness caused by Satanic powers under the control of witches). Natural illnesses may be the result of sin, of excess indulgence, or of excess anger or admiration. Many Mexican Americans rely on the intercession of the Virgin Mary and the saints to cure natural illnesses and control the devil’s powers. Folk illnesses include susto, fright or terror usually treated by “sweeping” with “brooms” made of special plants and herbs; and empacho, timidity or incapacity ascribed to blockage of the digestive tract and treated with massages and herbal potions. Mal de ojo is a syndrome associated with the English term “evil eye.” It occurs when someone looks at a weaker person with excess admiration, and its treatment includes prayers and rubbing with a chicken egg. Caída de la mollera, sinking of a baby’s fontanel or soft spot, an often fatal illness, is treated by such practices as holding the child upside down over a container of water or rubbing the roof of its mouth. Many less serious illnesses such as nosebleed, headache, and stomach ache are treated with household remedies, often made from herbs. They number in the hundreds and include such remedies as yerba buena tea for stomachaches, aloe vera for burns, and a number of other illnesses. Folk medicine for minor ailments is usually in the charge of the mother, grandmother, or aunt in an extended family. More serious illnesses, including those noted above, are usually treated by a semiprofessional medical practitioner, usually called simply la señora. Midwives remain popular in many areas and often become local neighborhood healers. Sobadores (massagers or folk chiropractors) treat bruises and sprains and set broken bones. The healer par excellence in the culture is the curandero, who receives power to heal as a sacred gift from God and is the sole source of treatment for brujería (witchcraft), though the local priest might also be consulted. Attitudes vary toward the two competing medical systems. Even in the same family some members favour institutionalised medicine, and others stick more with the folk system.

Black folk medical beliefs and practices in Texas, derived from African and European folk medicine, consist of home remedies, herbal remedies prescribed by root doctors, and treatments administered by conjurers. Home remedies, the most common form of folk medicine today, were once used to treat the majority of illnesses not likely to be fatal. Many of the remedies reveal the practicality of rural African Americans, who used what was at hand to treat their maladies. The cures included catnip tea for colic, garlic, Epsom salt, and vinegar for high blood pressure, corn-shuck tea and ice water for measles, tallow on a flannel cloth warmed and put on the chest to relieve congestion, redroot tea for stomach pain, honey and apple cider for arthritis, and honey and alum for coughs. Bee stings were treated with snuff to ease pain and draw out the poison, bleeding from cuts was stopped with soot from the stove, snakebites were soaked in kerosene. Some remedies required faith, since the logic of the treatment was not apparent: placing a broomstraw on top of a baby’s head cured the hiccups; in case of nail puncture, the nail was driven into the chimney to keep down soreness and prevent lockjaw; a dime under the upper lip, or scissors or keys hung down the back of the neck, stopped a nosebleed; tea made from dirtdauber nests helped to induce labor; carrying a buckeye in the pocket helped rheumatism. Another important concept of illness-particularly life-threatening illness-was inherited from African ancestors and mixed with popular beliefs of whites. Some blacks of earlier days attributed sudden deaths, especially those accompanied by delirium, to witchcraft or voodoo. Death was often thought of in terms of the soul leaving the body, and many taboos surrounded the treatment of dying or dead people. If offended, the spirits of the dead might return to cause great mischief. One took special care to avoid contact with ghosts, using both disguise and such propitiations as gifts or flattery. Proper burial procedures, however, would prevent the restless dead from haunting the living. Witchcraft, the use of spiritual power for evil purposes, was thought to be responsible for a great number of life-threatening illnesses. Witches, having sold their souls to Satan, were believed to inherit a number of supernatural powers with which they could plague man. The most serious illnesses, particularly those thought to be of supernatural origin, were treated by all-powerful “root doctors” or conjurers, descendants of the African medicine man with his supernatural powers. Such painful and bothersome but usually nonfatal illnesses as boils and constipation, as well as such maladies as insanity, ill luck in courting, and sudden or unexplainable calamity, were sometimes thought to be a result of witchcraft. One could get protection from witchcraft through charms and through the ministrations of conjurers.


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