USC Digital Folklore Archives / Folk medicine
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Energy Healing with water

Informant is a water based energy healer. In the healing practice that informant is a part of, you submerge the crystal into water during a healing session. You submerge it in water to dispel bad energy. She learned this from shaman teacher.

Her friend is a fire based energy healer and they burn their crystals which is considered extremely negative by water healers.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Rakija-Croatian Brandy that burns like Hell

Informant FV is my grandfather who was born and raised in Split, Croatia. Rakija is a type of fruit brandy that is popular in Croatia and in other surrounding nations. As a young boy, FV grew up in a traditional Croatian family who upheld their culture through a variety of cuisines and spirits. Growing up, he was taught that Rakija is a natural remedy that kills any kind of bacteria, relieves stomach or muscle pain, and helps disinfect wounds:

“Rakija”or “Rakia”

What kind of drink is Rakija?

FV: “Rakija is an alcoholic beverage that I would say is an equivalent to brandy. It generally has a fruity taste to it.”

What areas are known to have Rakija?

FV: “Rakija is a very popular drink that is served primarily in Croatia, but also in neighboring countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, and Montenegro. It is usually served with ‘smokve,’ which are dried figs at the beginning of a meal. One of the most popular flavors in Croatia is called “šlijvovica,” which is made of plums. I prefer šlijvovica (shlivovitza) because it has a sweeter taste to it and it goes well with the dried figs or mixed nuts.”

When did the belief begin that Rakija could be used as a medical aid?

FV: “Oh who knows exactly when that came about. Ages and ages ago, but it has been a long known belief that it has helped heal certain types of pain if used correctly.”

What could you use Rakija for besides drinking?

FV: “Well, if you have severe stomach pain or the flu and you take a shot of it, the ingredients within Rakija help subside the pain. If you have an open wound and you rub a little bit of Rakija onto it, the Rakija will act as a disinfectant. It burns like hell but it gets the job done.”

Where did you learn this trick about Rakija?

FV: “Oh you learn about these remedies from family members and friends. It is a pretty common thing to know in Croatia. I learned about because I would always be doing something that consisted of me getting hurt, whether I was out playing with my friends or getting into some kind of trouble. Those who use Rakija for medical purposes agree that it does help with certain medical issues if used properly.”

Does Rakija have any importance to you specifically?

FV: “I enjoy drinking Rakija on special occasions, like on Christmas or Easter with figs or nuts. It’s a strong drink that is meant for certain occasions. Even though it is a type of spirit meant for drinking, it has serves as a medical aid. This belief that Rakija can cure certain things has been going on for ages and will continue to go on as it has shown to work.”

What context or situation is Rakija normally used in?

FV: “Well Rakija is a alcoholic beverage served at special occasions like parties, festivals, or on holidays. It is an iconic Croatian spirit that people enjoy drinking at these events. Rakija also comes in a variety of different flavors, one being “šlijvovica,” which is the plum flavor. This one you’ll find in a typical party setting or household.”


It isn’t a party until there is a bottle of Rakija on the table. For most Croatians, Rakija is a popular spirit used at parties or special gatherings. Not only is it a common spirit that is accompanied by dried figs or nuts, it is known in the Croatian culture as a medical aid. If you have not tried drinking Rakija or putting it on an open wound, then you are not at all Croatian.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Cow Manure as a Medicine

Background: C.M. is a 58-year-old woman living in Franklin Park, IL. She was born in Chicago, and has lived in the Chicagoland area for all of her life. She works as a nurse practitioner at Nye Partners in Women’s Health, and has been working there for 7 years. Before that, she worked at Loyola University Medical Center as a labor and delivery nurse. She is married and has two grown children.


Main piece:

C.M.: I heard this story from my dad. He told me that before he was born, and he was born in 1932, that his mother’s brother, his name was Georgie, but his name was actually just George. His last name was Wilming, W-I-L-M-I… I think? N-G.


Anyway, they lived out in Iowa on a farm, I think in Elizabeth, and they were using dynamite sticks to blow out the tree stumps out of the ground, ya know, to clear the land. One of them blew up and – he was there, he was too close – Georgie, and he got injured. He had wounds, terrible open wounds from the explosion. And in order to heal these wounds, they smeared cow manure on him, and they healed! They used home remedies because there were no doctors at that time, and this one worked.


Q: And how did your dad learn this story?


C.M.: My grandma told my dad, my dad told me, and now I’m telling you!


Q: Did the wounds heal completely?


C.M.: Yup! There apparently was no scarring or anything.


Performance Context: I interviewed the informant over the phone, as I am in California and she lives in Chicago. This remedy would be used out on the farm, especially in the early 1900’s, when someone got terrible wounds and there were no doctors around to prescribe any Western medical treatments.


My Thoughts: I think that it is interesting how, without access to a doctor, people were able to come up with easy home remedies, coming from easily accessible material, to take care of the problem. However, I am curious how someone figured out that cow manure could be used as a healing salve in the first place! Folk medicines are not always superstitions, they can also be founded in fact. Many folk remedies eventually end up being validated in the scientific community, so it is possible that this one might, as well!

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Life cycle

Hilots in Filipino Culture

Background: Y.G.M. is a 49-year-old Filipino woman who works at Nye Partners in Women’s Health as the office manager. She was born and raised in Quezon City in the Philippines, and lived there until she was 25 years old. Y.G.M. self-identifies as Filipino, and as a result of her upbringing, Filipino culture is very engrained into her personal beliefs. She attended college at Mirian College, and received a bachelor’s degree in Communication Arts. Y.G.M. then immigrated to Chicago, Illinois with her family in 1997, and got her first job working at Citibank in River Forest, Illinois. She now lives with her husband in a suburb of Chicago.


Main piece:

Y.G.M.: So Filipinos also have superstitious beliefs like um a person called Hilot [hee-loht] which is an expert woman who can deliver um deliver a mother in labor so they are supposed to have supernatural powers to just deliver a woman without any problems and they are blessed you know to be in to help women in labor without any problems – kinda like midwives.  So it’s like they have supernatural powers to do that instead of taking women to the hospital.


Q: How are the Hilots chosen?


Y.G.M.: They say, like “oh I have that special gift from above to perform such a miracle,” like a special gift from God.


Q: Is it from a specific God or just all the gods?


Y.G.M.: All the gods. And up to this moment, they still believe in that.


Q: So they just self-proclaim themselves as Hilots?


Y.G.M.: Yes yes – uh huh.


Performance Context: Hilots would be used to help women during childbirth in the Philippines.


My Thoughts: I think that it is interesting how the Filipinos relate childbirth to a religious and magical process with the use of Hilots’ god-given powers to help women in labor. Instead of using “medicine” in the general sense to help with childbirth, this practice shows that Filipino culture believes more in religion and magic to assist with everyday life.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Tea Home Remedy (Folk Medicine)

My informant is Olivia. Olivia is a 19-year-old freshman at USC from Palos Verdes, California. She is of Irish and Italian descent and lived in New Jersey for a small amount of time growing up.


So what is this home remedy you were talking about?

Olivia: “So when I have a cough, or a sore throat or like I’m congested, my mom boils bourbon then puts water, honey, lemon, and I think that’s it and she makes a tea type deal”

Where did she get this?

Olivia: “She heard that from her grandpa who got that from his dad who is from Italy”

So it originated in Italy?

Olivia: “Yeah”

And your family has been doing that this whole time?

Olivia: “Yep and my cousins do it and everything”

Does it work?

Olivia: “For me yeah. I had it a few months ago and it was great, it’s soothing”

Does it have any meaning to you?

Olivia: “Umm no, just a remedy, maybe tradition. I think of my grandpa when I drink it because I would never think to give my kids alcohol”


Olivia’s folklore was folk medicine that had been passed down in her family for generations and originated in Italy. It’s cool to be able to track where these remedies and folklore come from when people are able to continue performing the folklore even when they move from it’s birthing place. To Olivia it is just a drink her grandpa made to help sooth a sore throat but she carries on this folklore by making and drinking the remedy and in turn telling me.


Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Salud, Dinero, Amor!

Folklore Piece

“So I went to a Spanish immersion elementary school; everything was taught to us in Spanish except for English. Um, and so, when anyone would sneeze, as kids usually do, there’s this  Spanish saying that correlates sneezing with health. I guess, you could say. So if you sneeze once, you say ‘Salud’, if you sneeze twice you say ‘Dinero’, if you sneeze three times, ‘Amor’. So you’re wishing someone health, money, and love after each time that they sneeze.”


Background information

“I don’t know why I did it. I guess I was sort of caught up in it. I mean, if you’re a little kid and someone’s screaming at you in Spanish, but it’s a happy scream, you’re like ‘Yeah! I’m a happy screamer too!’ But like everyone’s just happy yelling at each other. Which I think is a lot of the Spanish language. I learned that when I was really young, I mean I started Spanish when I was in kindergarten.”



“I don’t really say it anymore, but yeah, in general, people say it any time you sneeze, like saying ‘bless you’. But I guess it doesn’t really change in English. But I think it’s the same idea.”



I learned about this in my Spanish class in high school as well. Much like the term ‘Bless you!’ many of the native Spanish speakers I know weren’t sure why they say it. Generally, it’s to wish someone good luck: health, money, and love.

My family does something similar where we change our “bless you’s” each time. The first one, it’s just a mild “Bless you.” The second, a bit louder, “Bless you!”, and the third “Take a sick day!” Each and every time.

These sneezing rituals are not uncommon; as we talked about in class it used to be believed that when someone sneezed, a bit of their soul left their body, hence the phrase “Bless you!” This general sentiment of wishing someone good fortune when something bad has happened to them could be the reason for the extension to this Spanish saying that the informant is talking about.

Interesting, too, is the informants reaction to being asked about its origins. She had no idea, didn’t claim to have any idea, and removed herself from the culture entirely. Even though she attended a Spanish immersion school, spoke in Spanish for a large portion of her life, and learned and celebrated an immense amount of Spanish culture, she still speaks of it as if it were entirely removed from herself.

This deals a lot with our class discussions about cultural identity and heritage. I think the informant might feel that, because her heritage isn’t of Spanish origin, she doesn’t claim ownership over the Spanish culture. There’s no right or wrong answer to this dilemma, only that the informant acts in the way that she feels most comfortable, which evidently is not identifying herself with the language or culture.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Warm milk with honey

As a child, my father was frequently given warm milk with honey mixed in as a sleeping aid when he was feeling ill. I asked him to describe his experience of this folk medicine:

“That was a sleeping aid and of course my—I mean, again, it’s a combination of the personal and the impersonal. When, when my Mom gave it to me, it was unbelievably precious, even then it was unbelievably precious. You would be awake, you would be taken downstairs sometimes, you know, in other words, it would feel very special and private. And the memory brings back the light. In other words, the 50’s—the 1950’s lightbulb—they were just different from what we have. And it brings back the softer light and all that kind of thing.”

My informant is my father, a 62-year old English professor in New York City. He was given this remedy during his childhood, but rarely gave it to my brother and I. Recalling warm milk with honey brought this thought to his mind:

“But there was a double sense. There was a sense that this is the way things are done in your house but that they’re going on all over the place too. And that you’re part of a larger world that does this. And it always surprises me that milk and honey is not in everyone’s lives.”

I think my father enjoys this folk medicine because it brings up memories of his mother, who died 25 years ago. But I find it really interesting that he did not pass it down to me. I imagine some folklore is so tied to specific people that it feels more like a treasure shared with him or her rather than something to be passed on. In this case, warm milk with honey may have been something my father wanted to preserve as a special thing between him and his mother. It may not have even occurred to him to pass onto his children, because it was so connected to the child within him. After all, it is milk and honey, two of the sweetest, most nurturing substances fed to baby. They tap into the baby within us all. So, this may be a piece of folk medicine that taps into only the baby within my father, and not the parent.

Folk medicine

Sana Sana, colita de rana



Nationality- Mexico

Primary Language- Spanish

Occupation- Construction Worker

Residence- Los Angeles, CA

Date of Performance- 3/17/16


Sana sana, colita de rana, si no sana hoy, sanera manana.

Translation- There there, ass of a frog, if it does not feel better today, it will tomorrow

This proverb was told by Francisco Garcia, he has heard it from hundreds of people in his city Zacatecas, Mexico. He typically heard it when he was a child and injured himself. A lot of times, they could not afford medicine or any treatment so his parents would just chant the proverb and he would believe he would feel better and stop crying. He knows that a lot of people from different cultures use the same proverb in order to let their child know that the pain and injury is not permanent because it will heal and feel better the next day. He first heard it when he was about 4 or 5 years old and has told it to other children as well as his own. If he ever comes in contact with a child that has  hurt himself, many times all it takes is saying the proverb and the child will cease to cry or feel hurt.

When Francisco had said the proverb, he says it with a smile on his face to let the listener who that he is smiling because he knows everything will be okay. You usually have to rub the spot that is in pain or their head and maybe say it multiple times if it really hurts until they stop sobbing or focusing on the pain.

Francisco is from Mexico and has heard it many times where he is from. I have heard it hundreds of times as well as a child when I would injure myself. My mother, auntie or any other close relative would chant the proverb to me and I felt that I was going to be okay despite the pain. My mother and auntie are from Honduras and they have heard it when they were children as well. The proverb has almost been to every Latin American Country and has spread to the United States. That is amazing since it is just one sentence that has been able to travel so far and serve as a placebo for many children. The chant has not changed much either since it is very simple and difficult to alter.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Sunken head remedy

Iliana Cuellar

“When I was a baby, the soft spot on my head caved which I guess just means dehydration. But my mom is very spiritual and she thought that she could take me to a “curandero” which is a spiritual healer (kind of like a witch) who then held me upside down by my ankles, poured honey on my soles, and smacked my feet which is said to be the cure for the sunken head.”


Background: This happened in El Salvador, and as many people cannot afford doctors and hospitals, folk remedies and spiritual healing are the most common forms of treating illness.


Analysis: This is a ritual combined with folk remedy. It is not so much mixing ingredients together for homeopathic remedies that might work physically, but more a ritualistic healing. Holding the baby upside down might have been a somewhat logical response to a caving of the head- sending more blood to that extremity. However, pouring honey on soles does not seems to have much meaning beyond ritualistic and spiritual, and smacking feet also the same in that respect. Lack of access to formal doctors and medicine drive parents with sick children to witch healers.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Mal de Ojo

The informant, LF, is a 45 year old woman who grew up in Panama. In Panama, there are a wide range of cultural influences, including American Indian, Spanish, Catholic, and Carribean traditions, each with their own superstitions. Here the informant tells a story about a superstition and a folk medicine tradition that affected her own family:


“So there is the belief that some people have what is called in Spanish, “Mal de Ojo”, and it means that you have so much intense energy in you that if you look at something that is weak, like, “Oh, what a beautiful flower!” that it will die. So “Mal de Ojo”, when it comes to babies, it is believed by some people in my country that is very dangerous because babies are vulnerable and defenseless. If you have that power in you and you look at a baby, even though you can be admiring the baby and thinking about how cute it is- if you have Mal de Ojo in you, you can kill this baby. Just by looking at the baby, the baby will get very sick, and they may even die.

So, I’m telling this story because it is so widely believed. And my parents say that it happened in my family- that it happened to my brother. I was really young when this happened so I don’t really remember. The only thing I remember is my brother getting a very bad fever and being taken to the hospital many times. He was really sick. They took him to several doctors and nothing worked. Finally, they took him to a witch.”

Your parents took your brother to a witch?

“Yeah, they were desperate! We are talking about people who believe in science! But they took him to a witch- the witch was a man- he said, “Lay him down on the bed.” And they did. The witch said “Do you see what I see?” My parents didn’t know what he was talking about. The witch said my brother was showing the telltale signs that he had been “hit” with Mal de Ojo- “one of his legs is longer than the other!” And when my parents looked at my brother, they swear- they swear to this day- that one of his legs was longer than the other.

At this point my brother was burning with fever. This man said that the only cure for Mal de Ojo was to go to the person with Mal de Ojo who had looked at the baby, and ask for a garment, like a shirt, and ask the person to urinate on the shirt. And while the urine was still hot, to wrap the baby in the shirt. He said that as the urine evaporated, the fever would break and the baby would get better. But my parents didn’t know who it was who had looked at him. My mom says that the day before my brother got sick, they had been at a public bus station with a lot of people and many people had been playing with him and looking at him.

I don’t remember the rest of the cure exactly. I know it involved a lot of praying and asking for Jesus to help the baby. They also had to get Holy Water from the priest and spray it on the baby. It involved all many elements from both official religion as well as from witchcraft. Eventually my brother got better, but what the medical doctor said was “Listen, there are so many viruses out there that kids get like stomach viruses or upper respiratory infections, and they get a bad fever for days. Since you can’t really treat a virus with antibiotics, you have to wait until the virus is over.” So I guess my brother had a virus like that and it was a coincidence that he got better right after they took him to the witch.”

So you heard this from your parents?

Yes, from my mom.

Was it something a lot of people did?

I do not know if a lot of people do it, but since there are witches who make a living out of this, I suspect it’s really generalized- the belief that you can go to one of these guys and tell them “my boy is sick and I need a cure” or “I’m in love with someone and I need a love potion”. So I suspect that many people believe in that kind of stuff, Personally, I don’t.

So what does this story mean to you?

It means that when people are desperate, they are willing to do anything and believe anything in order to get an answer, or get better, or to stop being scared.

Was this a story your parents shared with other people or was it kept in the family?

I think it was in the family. I think it was a bit of a secret. It wasn’t exactly a happy story that they wanted to share with everyone- it was very scary for them.


My thoughts: Before the Spanish came to America, many American Indian cultures had rich traditions of shamanism and folk medicine. Clearly, some supernatural beliefs and folk medicines still live on in Panamanian culture that have origins in the country’s native populations. While something like “Mal de Ojo” may not fit into Western medicine, I thought the commentary about the places where you might catch the illness- public, crowded spaces like bus stops- may have some truth to it. It is easy for an infant with a weak immune system to catch a contagious disease in a public place were many strangers are playing with them. So whether the explanation is founded in the supernatural or the scientific, there is definitely wisdom in this folk belief.