USC Digital Folklore Archives / Folk medicine
Folk medicine
general

Carsickness Remedy

The informant (ST), a 19 year-old friend attending USC, is of Korean descent on her mother’s side, and grew up in Sacramento, California. She revealed to me an interesting home remedy of her mother’s while discussing alternative medicine and acupuncture over lunch.

Note: The initials ST denote the informant, while A refers to me, the interviewer.

——————–

ST: “Korean medicine is so weird. I used to get carsick when I was little, and my mom used to make me drink this, like, black … dirt liquid. [laughs] I don’t know.”

A: “Dirt? Like, from the ground?”

ST: “Well, she didn’t like, scoop it up … [laughs]. She bought it at this, like, medicine place, but … it was dirt!”

A: “Real dirt? Like soil? Mixed with what?”

ST: “[Laughs]. Yeah! Water. Hot water.”

A: “Did it taste like anything?”

ST: “It tasted awful! Because it was dirt!”

A: “[Laughs]. But did it work?”

ST: “I don’t know. I never felt carsick after. I don’t know if I was, like, distracted by how bad it tasted [laughs], or if it was, like, placebo or something. But I never felt carsick afterwards.”

——————–

I found this remedy immensely interesting because it flew in the face of what I accepted to be true about medicine; incorporating dirt and the uncleanliness it connotes into healing seemed counterintuitive to me. However, as I did some research, I found many scientific studies that supported the idea of “eating dirt”–more specifically, of ingesting the beneficial soil-based organisms present in dirt, which our current obsession with sterility in our food and homes has left us lacking, leading to weaker immune systems. The most fascinating part of this story to me, however, was that the remedy worked despite my friend’s doubts about its actual effectiveness as medicine. Growing up, my parents would try to cure me and my sister of our carsickness by playing road games with us (e.g. I Spy, etc.), and although they never gave us any actual medicine, the distraction they provided from our carsickness made it more bearable. I would be interested in doing more research to know if this “dirt liquid” can actually provide relief from carsickness or if it is, as my friend suspects, simply a diversion tactic.

 

Folk medicine

Garlic and milk to cure a cold

The informant is my mother, who is originally from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she grew up with her eight sisters. When she was visiting from Washington, D.C. where we currently live, I asked her and my aunts how they used to cure colds when they lived in Ethiopia. She shared this interesting anecdote with me.

Note: The initials NG denote the informant, while A refers to me, the interviewer.

——————–

NG: When I was younger, some people used netch shinkourt ena whetet [garlic and milk].

A: woah, really? why? isn’t milk bad for you when you have a cold?

NG: I don’t know. Maybe, actually.

A: Did it ever actually work?

NG: [laughs] I don’t think so.

A: So why do you think people do it?

NG: I don’t know! It’s, you know, it’s nice to feel like you’re doing something to help. [laughs]

——————–

I thought this was a funny example of the fact that some beliefs are unfounded, but are performed simply because they are tradition, or because the belief that the remedy will work is enough for those who perform it. Science has actually proven that there is no actual way to cure a cold, which means that in this way, every cold remedy will work, because the cold will go away by itself in a few days and you can attribute this to whatever remedy you used. I also thought it related to the fact that we like to feel some amount of control when we’re in a situation in which nothing can be done, because although we know there is no way to cure a cold, we all have cold remedies and things we do to try and “cure” ourselves.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Ginger and dough for colds

The informant is a 20-year-old friend from Los Angeles, CA whose family is Afghani. He volunteered this remedy during a discussion about cold remedies with a few of our friends.

Note: The initials JJ denote the informant, while A refers to me, the interviewer.

——————–

JJ: In my family, we use ginger and dough for sore throats and colds.

A: Dough? Like bread, dough?

JJ: Yeah. Sweet dough. You mix it, and then you turn it into a ball–ok, first, you add some sugar, flour, water…so you have your dough, and then you wrap it around a piece of ginger, and then you cook it.

A: In the oven?

J: No, in a pan. Just until it’s hot and crispy. And then, when you eat it, that’s supposed to help with your sore throat. I think it’s the ginger that does the actual, like, healing.

A: So what’s the point of the dough?

J: I don’t know. I don’t think it actually does anything. It’s like, just to make a…like, a container for the ginger. Because we didn’t want to eat straight-up ginger, so it was to make it taste better.

——————–

Ginger is used in a lot of cultures for cold remedies; my mother makes ginger tea with honey for my sister and I when we are sick, so hearing ginger cited in another cold remedy didn’t surprise me. What I did find interesting was the dough; my friend included the dough as PART of the cold remedy, but also admitted that it actually served no purpose. Ginger was what was actually used to “cure” the cold, but the dough had always been included as part of the remedy when it was given to him. It reminded me of the many ways that parents try to make unpleasant things more pleasant for their children, not only in terms of medicine but also in general–for example, my mother used to put sugar at the bottom of my cups of milk to get me to drink them, and I know that some parents sing songs to their children to distract them when disinfecting scrapes and minor wounds.

Folk medicine
Foodways
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Material

Fertility Charms

Context: I was interviewing a 50-year-old female informant from Memphis, TN, who is a registered nurse. She grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household that kept strict kosher dietary laws and regularly attended temple. I was in her home and explaining to her the many different categories of folklore, so she would have a good idea of the type of information that I was looking for. When I mentioned the category of folk medicine, she seemed very intrigued and asked me what types of things could be considered folk medicine. I listed off a few examples, and she said, “Ok, then I definitely have a piece of folklore that is good.”

Piece: “Many years ago, about 21 or so years ago, me and my husband wanted to have our first child. We attempted to do so for a while but had a very difficult time conceiving. We, of course, sought out help from a medical professional, but for a while, many of our friends and relatives who knew we were having trouble having a baby came to us with personal and family items that they claimed would help us conceive. I did not take any interest in any of these offers. I remember one of my older relatives offered my husband and me a family blanket which she told us would definitely give us a baby if we lied under it during intercourse. Obviously, we turned that offer down immediately; it made us pretty uncomfortable. One of my closest friends at the time was very spiritual and worldly; she traveled a lot and spoke multiple languages. She came to me with something that was given to her by another friend when she was trying to have a baby. It was this small stone idol. I do not remember exactly what the figure looked like, but I think it was just a regular woman. It was held in this small stone box that could fit in my hand and the box had a detachable lid. My friend told me that when me and my husband were having intercourse we needed to put the stone container on our nightstand with the figure in it. And we also needed to take the lid off. We were eventually able to conceive and I became pregnant. This all happened soon after we used the fertility god, so who knows, maybe it helped some. After you are finally able to get pregnant, you are supposed to pass the idol to another person to help them have a baby. There was also something else that my mother gave me to help with conception. It was a pie made out of the citron fruit, which is similar to a lemon and used during the Jewish holiday Sukkot, during which it’s called an Etrog. I don’t think you’re really supposed to eat the fruit because it tastes terrible, but my mother insisted as she said it was sure to help. The citron pie definitely did not help.”

Analysis: There are surely many examples of folk medicines that do actually have effective medical benefits; however, there are also surely examples that have no medical benefits whatsoever. There is a category of folk medicine that does fall in between the aforementioned effects, and that is things that bring health through the placebo effect. This is when a subject experiences a response to something, usually a medicine, but only because they expected that thing to produce that result. The fertility god and the citron pie that the informant spoke about definitely do not work based on this effect because, of course, you cannot experience pregnancy unless you are actually pregnant. However, I do find it interesting that she only became pregnant after she used the folk medicine to which she did not have any objection but not after using the medicine which she very much did not like. While there is no way of knowing if a fertility god can actually help someone become pregnant, it can still functions as a ritualistic folk item.

 

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Wart treatment

Text

If you have a wart, cut an onion in half, rub it on your wart, and bury it in the backyard on a full moon.

 

Background

The informant learned this remedy from her mother and said that it was a very common one that she fully believed in when she was a kid. She said that not only did all of her friends know about this trick, but her husband who grew up on the other side of the country knew of a very similar remedy growing up. She believed it when she was much younger and practiced it frequently as she struggled with warts, but as she got older, she realized that it didn’t actually do anything

 

Context

The informant is a woman in her mid forties who grew up in the small town of Garner, Iowa (population: 2,000 as of 2018). She attended public school and grew up in a very rural area where she worked on the farm that her parents owned.

 

Thoughts

Warts are certainly unsightly and could even be embarrassing for a young child. Children can be mean and a child may be teased for having something that made them stand out in a negative way like a wart. Warts are also something that happen for seemingly no reason at all and are uncontrollable. Freezing off warts is possible, but the informant may not have had access to a doctor who provided this service being from such a small town. Because of all of these reasons, it makes sense that the informant practiced this remedy even though there seemed to be no scientific reasoning behind it. It gave her a feeling of control over this fairly uncontrollable blemish.

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
general
Homeopathic
Magic

Pasar El Cuy

Original
“En Peru, se dice que cuando las personas estan enfermas, les pasan un cuy, lo frotan por todo el cuerpo. Cuando matan al cuy y lo abren, la parte que tiene el cuy mas oscura es la parte que esta enferma. Por ejemplo, si tienes algun problema en el igado, cuando abren el cuerpecito del cuy, el igado se ve mas oscuro, como, enfermo. Dicen que scientificamente hay como probarlo pero, bueno, yo no se.”

Translation
“In Peru, they say that when people are sick they pass a guinea pig through their body, they rub it all over their body. Then, when they kill the guinea pig and they open it, the body part that is dark on the guinea pig is the sick part. For instance, if you have a liver problem, when they open up the guinea pig’s little body, the liver will look dark, like, sick. They say that there are ways to scientifically prove it, but I don’t know.”

Context: The informant is my mother, a Peruvian woman whose parents both come from villages near Cuzco, Peru. She grew up in Lima, the capital and the most metropolitan city in Peru. Peruvian culture, however, is deeply rooted in pride about their myths and legends, and these forms of folklore are widely known. I actually inquired about Inca creation myths on my own, but realized that this is a prime example of folklore.

Analysis: This custom is highly recognized and highly debated in Peru. As we learned, I believe that the belief rate for this technique is much higher in Peru, but there have also been scientific attempts to debunk or confirm the scientific element of this folk medicine strategy and they determined that it does work, but no one truly knows why.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Legends

Ghosts and Paralysis

Context:

The informant and I are sitting in the USC Gould Law Cafe around 3:00 pm. She is a Chinese American student at the University of Southern California who was born and raised in Shanghai until she came to America for high school in Maryland. She recounts some of her grandmother’s traditions to cure paralysis. 

Body:

J: “So I got it from my grandma. So it talks about when people are suddenly paralyzed, they have to lie on their back and sometimes they blame it on a ghost. So, they actually say the ghost is dirty and you accidentally bumped into them when you were walking on the street because you can’t see them since they are a ghost but they want to get out – but they can’t. So you have to find someone who is specialized in the ghost theory and they will do some…they’re not like a magician…but they will do some sort of ritual/ceremony in order to get the demon outside of your body.”

A: “Kind of like a witch doctor?”

J: “Yeah like they will do different things like burn paper in order to cure and get out the demon from your body and then you can start to walk. I don’t know if it’s real, but what my grandma said is that it actually happened to one of her sisters and the witch doctor actually worked! I don’t know if she exaggerated some part of it.”

A: “Do you think that’s played into some of your grandma’s beliefs and what they have passed down to you?”

J: “I definitely think that it influenced her generation, but I don’t think it technically was passed down to my mom or me, but it’s still out there but we don’t actually believe it.”

A: “Do you think if you were to be paralyzed that your grandma would want you to have this treatment?”

J: “I don’t think so. What they say about ghosts is that there are less ghosts in the Western country like Europe and America they have less. Whereas in the eastern country, like China and things like that, we have more. Especially the rural parts like where the places aren’t civilized. Where it’s civilized with high rises, ghosts are scared of this because it’s crowded so they tend to move to the countryside and that’s where they are more active.”

A: “Is your grandma from a rural town?

J: “She was born in a rural town then moved to the big city when she was 16”

Takeaways/Thoughts/Analysis:

It is very intriguing regarding the informant’s grandmother and her beliefs that ghosts are stuck to people that then cause them to be paralyzed. This could relate to ancient Chinese medicinal cures as well for ailments and how she believes one has to perform rituals to rid one of the “ghost” of paralysis. This can also be seen as moe plausible due to the “FOAF” (Friend Of A Friend) phenomenon in which the informant’s grandma’s sister was cured from this ritual. An interesting note is one of her last sentences where she describes how ghosts are most active in the countryside since they are scared of cities. This could be due to the fact that usually rural towns are smaller and closer knit communities where stories are passed down more often and this plays into people’s beliefs. They also may not have knowledge on new medicinal technology. Whereas in the city, it can be a whole melting pot of many people from many places and this can cause some stories to be lost, and medicinal discoveries can be more easily known among an urban population.

 

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Gestation, birth, and infancy

Ghosts Affecting Crying Babies

Context:

The informant and I are sitting in the USC Gould Law Cafe around 3:00 pm. She is a Chinese American student at the University of Southern California who was born and raised in Shanghai until she came to America for high school in Maryland. She is describing Chinese beliefs about crying children and how there is a belief held that babies cry the most loudly when they have a ghost that is connected to them. 

Body:

J: “So ya know when babies cry really loud during the night? This is blamed to ghosts. Because what they say is that babies are really vulnerable since they are just born and this is kinda like a life stem. When a baby is born, it’s like a small stem then they grow into a tree later. So it refers to their life as a stem and when they are first born, they are really vulnerable so little things like the wind can hurt them so that’s why babies sometimes can see ghosts because they’ve just been born and are more likely to see ghosts than adults.

So when they see a ghost, they can’t say it because they don’t know how to talk. So sometimes when a ghost haunts them in the night, they start crying and crying and crying and some kinds of ghosts will stick to the baby so that they baby will cry for a long time. Like every night they will cry. So what they do is some ritual ceremonies to get it out. Because a lot of babies tend to cry, but only a certain amount of babies cry really loud at night…every night. They have a certain name for them. **See image below for Chinese characters** So that’s the name.”IMG_1342

A: “So that’s for children that cry a lot at night?”

J: “Yep, like during the night some people will hear a baby cry at night and they will call them this.

A: “So to calm the babies at night then, they perform rituals to calm them down?”

J: “Yep”

A: “Have you ever heard of this happening in your family or friends lives?”

J: “One of my mom’s friends actually. But he is kinda old and my grandpa’s age. His grandson would always cry during the night. It didn’t happen after the day he was born but it actually would happen when he was two years old then he would always cry at night. So our friend actually found someone to perform the ritual and he stopped crying at night! It’s weird!”

Takeaways/Thoughts/Analysis:

This contribution that babies cry loudly during the night due to a ghost “sticking” to them can be seen as rational especially since babies don’t know how to communicate what they are seeing or experiencing except for them to cry. This can also be seen as more credible due to “FOAF” (Friend Of A Friend) where the informer had a family friend where the ritual was a success to calm the crying child! The ways of ridding the ghost seem to be rooted in ancient teachings and practices that were passed through from generations. The child’s crying can also be associated with a ghost because a child’s cry can be very aggravating as I am sure it would be to have a ghost possessing your body. To stop the crying and thus, “rid the ghost,” performing such rituals to make it go away would help the child sleep better and thus the care takers as well.  

 

Customs
Folk medicine
Foodways
Material

Jewish Penicillin – Chicken Soup

Genre: Folk Food/Medicine

 Abstract: Jewish penicillin is chicken soup. It spans across all religions, but is known as Jewish tradition that is used to heal injuries and illness. The recipe appears to be passed down through the mother’s lineage and is said to make people feel better and heal the soul and mind.

 

Background: The interviewee, referred to as RD, is a Jewish-American mother living in the south. She grew up in a Jewish household and has not strayed from the religion. She practices conservative Judaism and attends Temple on a monthly basis. The item of folklore in topic is chicken soup, also known as, Jewish Penicillin. The topic came up when a member of a household came down with a head cold and RD suggested she make chicken soup, a tradition she learned from her mother. A couple days after, the interview occurred.

 

Interview:

S: Okie dokie, I’m going to start with where did you first like learn about how chicken soup was Jewish penicllin?

RD: From my mom. Yeah passed down. Whenever I was sick, she always made chicken soup.

S: Do you see this as something common across like the Jewish religion?

RD: Oh definitely. Even when my kids go to go to college, Hillel1 sends notes out to the parents: if your kids get sick, and you wanna send them chicken soup with matzo balls. Let us know and we will send it to them. It’s universally known to every Jew and non-jew, actually. It spans religions.

S: So do you see this in Christianity at all?

RD: Well it’s not in Christianity, but even Christians know about chicken soup. I mean when (mentions Christian friend) had back surgery and stuff, I brought him chicken soup and he was like “Oh, Jewish penicillin this will make me better.” So it’s definitely, it’s outside of just the Jewish religion, but, I don’t, I mean if you’re asking if Catholics are making chicken soup, I highly doubt it. (laughs)

S: All right. But if there is a traditional way to prepare this Jewish chicken soup, that’s different than regular just chicken soup. What is it?

RD: Yeah, well yeah. You use a kosher chicken. I’m just trying to think what else is, uh, I never made a I never made a not kosher traditional chicken soup. And then a lot of time people put the matzo balls2 which regular chicken soup doesn’t have.

S:  Do you think that it actually works or is it kind of just like a a thing that you know, it’s kind of placebo effect?

RD: (3 seconds) I don’t know, but every time people are sick, chicken soup always makes them feel better. (laughs) In their soul and their mind. It does work. Yeah. There’s been so many like articles I’ve read ya know, how does chicken soup help so much?

 

1: A place for Jewish collegiate students to worship and attend synagogue and services throughout the year.

2: A traditionally Jewish food that is unleavened  to replace noodles during the holiday of Passover when only unleavened food can be consumed.

 

Interpretation:

While RD can not track the origins of Jewish penicillin beyond her mother, she does acknowledge that it is very well known across all religions but especially prevalent in Jewish families. She mentions how her mother passed it down to her which is an interesting point to bring up because Judaism itself is passed through the mother’s bloodline. The matrilineal culture of being Jewish and feeling the need to take care of her family might influence a Jewish mother to use a recipe to take care of her family.

RD also mentions how the term itself, Jewish penicillin, transcends religion and is universal. While she acknowledges that Christians know about the idea of it, she almost guarantees that they do not cook it the same. So why is chicken soup associated with Judaism? In the 12th century, a “Jewish physician, Maimonides, started the chicken soup-as-medicine trend when, in his book, On the Cause of Symptoms, he recommended the broth of hens and other fowl to ‘neutralize body constitution.’” and claimed that it played a role in curing diseases like asthma and leprosy (Koenig). This could be the main root of why chicken soup as a healing aid is known as Jewish penicillin. Most of the people reading Maimonides’ work were most likely Jewish, thus, they were the ones to use his remedy on a regular basis. The popularity of the soup within Jewish religion and its magical healing powers are so closely tied due to the advice of a physician that the Jewish people trusted because he was relatable and shared the same values.

RD also mentions that it heals the soul and the mind and it works as a remedy pretty much every time. So, is it a placebo or does it actually work? Physically, according to a study by Dr. Stephen Rennard, “the soup inhibited the movement of neutrophils, the most common type of white blood cell that defends against infection” (Parker-Pope). So, scientifically, it does work. Beyond the heat of the soup breaking up mucus, there is a chemical effect of the soup causing patients to feel better. Mentally, knowing that the food that is being consumed should make one feel better, people are more apt to buy in and use it as a remedy. Whether it be heartbreak, physical ailments, or illnesses, Jewish penicillin seems to have the power to cure across religions and cultures.

 

Citations:

 

Koenig, Leah. “Chicken Soup Around the World.” My Jewish Learning, My Jewish Learning, 15

June 2009, www.myjewishlearning.com/article/chicken-soup-around-the-world/.

 

Parker-Pope, Tara. “The Science of Chicken Soup.” The New York Times, The New York Times,

12 Oct. 2007, well.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/10/12/the-science-of-chicken-soup/.

Childhood
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
folk metaphor
Folk speech
Protection
Proverbs

The Whiter the Bread, the Quicker You’re Dead — Health Proverb

Text

The following piece was collected from a young woman from Denver, Colorado. She will hereafter be referred to as the “Informant” and I the “Collector”.

Informant: “Before I went vegan, my dad would say to us whenever he thought we were being unhealthy. He would say we weren’t allowed to have white bread, only wheat.”

Collector: “What did he say?”

Informant: “He would say, ‘The whiter the bread, the quicker you’re dead.’”

Collector: “Haha…that’s good. What do you think he meant?”

Informant: “Oh, obviously he was just trying to scare us into believing that if we ate unhealthily, we would die…haha… kind of mean but pretty effective, as far as I can remember.”

Context

            The Informant learned the piece from her father when she was a child. She believes its meaning is pretty clear – if you eat unhealthy food, like white bread, then you are more likely to reap the consequences. The Informant believes that it was simply a saying used to frighten children into eating more healthily. She has always remembered the saying because of its catchiness, but also because when she made the decision to become vegan, she also gave up white bread. She laughs now at the fact that her father can no longer remind her that if she eats white bread, she may die sooner.

Interpretation

            I believe this saying to be very interesting but not uncommon within a parent-child relationship. It is easy to understand the many ways parents try to persuade their children to act correctly and do the right thing. This is just one of the many examples of that form of parenting. “White the bread, the quicker you’re dead” is reminiscent of the saying “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”. In both cases, these sayings serve as a warning to a child – to be healthy and safe. But looking deeper, the saying can serve as a reminder that you reap what you sow – if you do something that will negatively affect you, there is no one to blame but yourself.

[geolocation]