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.