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:
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.
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.
The informant is a first generation Mexican-American student. She said that she spends a decent amount of time in Mexico still (she usually visits a couple weekends during the school year and goes for slightly longer periods during the summer). She visits a lot of family in Mexico, including her grandma, a lot of cousins, and aunts and uncles. She learned this folk remedy from her grandma during these visits.
The informant said that her grandma would use this folk remedy every time her or one of her brothers or cousins got sunburnt. She said that this was a fairly regular occurrence around her grandma, as she lived in a part of Mexico which was much closer to the equator where the sun was more intense.
When we would get sunburnt, my grandma would take the green goop from the inside of the cactus and rub it on our skin. I don’t know if it actually helped or anything… I think it might have… Anyway, uh, she.. It was, like, very slimy. And she did it all the time.
This folk remedy for sunburn seems to come directly from the terrain of Mexico, where cacti are very prevalent. It makes sense that her grandmother would learn and perform folk medicine that is readily available in the region where she lives. Furthermore, when I was collecting this piece of folklore, I realized that the informant seemed to look very fondly on what good be unpleasant memories of sunburnt skin. For the informant, this performance of folk medicine probably also recalls for her some of the comfort her grandma provides to her.
”There’s a lot of different rock formations from the Earth. I guess the crystals absorb energy from the earth and are supposed to have positive effects. I have a Himalayan pink salt crystal that’s supposed to clear out bad energy, make it drop down towards the floor. It’s supposedly good for allergies and things like that. Different crystals are supposed to affect your chakras. Blue crystals are for the throat chakra, and I think green are for the stomach. Quartz is supposed to amplify your existing characteristics. Tiger eye is supposed to help with lethargy.”
Many believe that crystals have metaphysical properties, and can aid in healing or even improve one’s spiritual wellbeing. The informant had her collection of crystals on hand as she spoke about them, and we examined each one in turn. Crystals are fascinating natural constructs to many people (my grandfather loved to collect and talk about them), and I find the idea that they can have some effect on a persons physical and mental state intriguing, to say the least. Some crystals do have the ability to emit electricity when put under pressure, so while I don’t necessarily know if I place full stock in their alleged abilities, I am also entirely open to entertaining the possibility.
“Whenever I’m sick, I usually just have a couple teaspoons of coconut oil each day and feel much better afterward.”
The informant, despite spending most of her time in Boston, grew up on the small island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Her dad still works there as a lawyer and she usually visits every Christmas and Spring Break when she’s out of class. After getting sick a few short weeks ago, she advised that I take some teaspoons of coconut oil to help knock the cold out. She explained that is has high levels of lauric acid which supposedly eliminate the coating of some viruses which makes them easier to be attacked by the immune system.
I asked her what made her think of something this random but she explained that it’s what people did when they got sick in St. Croix. Coconut farming is a huge part of life on the island and she also remarked that other parts of the coconut have many helpful healing qualities. I liked hearing about this remedy due to the fact that I think too many Americans are over dependent on antibiotics and unnatural substances to cure simple maladies. Something such as coconut oil is very natural and low cost and it was cool to hear that something so simple and unadvertised could help fix a common cold.
My informant is a college student, rapper, and avid pot smoker. He knows a lot of “stoner tricks” as he calls them, most of which he learned from friends in high school. These and other aspects of weed culture mean a lot to him because he sees pot as a way of bonding with peers and enhancing creativity. Uniquely, as far as I have heard, he also uses it as a form of self-medication; he has ADHD and takes Ritalin, but says that it makes him feel mentally cloudy and slow, and that weed, for him, clears things up and makes him able to focus more easily. Thus, pot is an integral part of his daily life, both socially and personally.
He heard about this method of enhancing a high from his best friend back home. Essentially if you eat a mango 30 minutes to an hour before smoking pot, the high is supposed to feel stronger.
He performed this piece of folklore—or rather told me about it—during a break in class, outside the classroom on a balcony.
“So what is this mango… thing?”
“Right! So, mangoes. Um, so there is a chemical in mangoes that is also in cannabis and I don’t know what that chemical is off the top of my head but it is essentially the chemical that opens up, it, it opens up to the, probably the receptors… I guess, are they technically enzymes? I don’t know. They open up the receptors in your brain and make them susceptible to receiving THC, so normally what would happen is you smoke the cannabis and you get all the different chemicals that are in the plant when it combusts, and some of those include the THC, some of those include those chemicals that are in the mangoes, and they would both kinda hit you at the same time so as the receptors are opening up THC is also filtering through so some of that THC is lost because it’s being filtered through before the receptors open up. So with the mango, what people do is you eat a mango like an hour before, and all your receptors are open so when you smoke, you don’t have to waste, like, it doesn’t have to take, your body doesn’t have to take time to open those receptors before, before the THC attaches to them, it just gets all of it at once. So you get a stronger high.”
“Mhm. So where’d you hear this?”
“My best friend Oliver told me. And then uh, and then there’s also like a timing element, too, cause if you do it like right before, it’ll just make the trip—not the trip, the high longer just because like, um, it’ll kind of open those receptors slowly as your brain continues to process the remaining THC that’s left over. But then like if you do it an hour before, then by the time you digest it it will have all kicked in, so then it’ll just make it stronger, it’ll hit you all at once. So there’s a timing element to that as well.”
“Cool. Have you tried this before?”
“I have! I have.”
“Does it work?”
“It does, but it doesn’t work to the point where it’s like, amazing. It’s just kind of like a little extra kick.”
“You don’t think that might be, like, a placebo effect?”
“Oh I’m sure there is somewhat of a placebo effect, but it’s a combination, like, part of it is placebo and part of it actually is that you’re getting higher. Because it does, it does do the work, I’ve fact-checked this and everything. It’s a legitimate thing, it’s not just a wives’ tale. I mean it started out as folklore, obviously, and it still is, but if you wanna look it up for yourself there is legitimate information on this.”
My informant is obviously very interested in having accurate information, and sets his stories apart from “wives’ tales” in stoner culture as truth and having been “fact-checked”. I found this interesting because upon asking him, most of what he thought was “wives’ tales” came from friends and most of what he thought was true he had fact-checked on online forums about weed. He uses scientific sounding words like enzyme and receptors to do this, which may all be true but certainly reinforces, at least in his mind, the fact that they are more true with scientific backup. His attachment to the truth reveals his attachment to being more “legitimate” within his identity as a stoner.
Informant: “I went to my friend’s farm in north Dakota, that’s where she grew up, you know on a family farm probably 50 miles away from the nearest town, and anytime they had an injury, if you stepped on a nail or something which is something you would do on a farm, what they would do is they would stick the foot in a bucket full of alcohol. You wouldn’t go to the doctors, you wouldn’t put antiseptic on it, you used alcohol. Like hard alcohol, like vodka or whiskey or something and that took care of the problem, that’s how they solved their infections, and prevented infections.”
Interviewer: “When did she tell you?”
Informant: “Let’s see, I went to visit her farm in like 1992, so this was only like 20 years ago, so relatively recent, but that’s what they did growing up.”
Interviewer: “What do you think of this particular cure?”
Informant: “Well, growing up in a city I thought it was kind of backwards because I’m used to just getting medicines, but it worked for them. They went to town once a week because of how far they lived from town and they only bought supplies once a week. So, for them to stop farming and drive into town to go get some antibiotics was like a big huge waste of a farmers time. So, instead they would just use a home remedy.”
Interviewer: “Sorry, but where does she live again?”
Informant: “Um its was like 50 miles west of the Minnesota, north Dakota border, so it was into the farmlands of north Dakota.”
The informant is a middle-aged mother with three-boys. She grew up in Minnesota with a large family in the suburbs of Minneapolis. As stated in the interview, the informant learned the lore from her friend when she went to visit her on her farm in North Dakota. The informant remembered this lore because she was surprised that they did not use medicine, but it still worked for her friend’s family.
I thought this was an interesting folk practice because it is very practical. This family would use the closest thing that they had on hand to deal with a particular medical problem, and these practices were still being used until at least 20 years ago. This folk practice really attests to fact that just because a remedy is a folk remedy does not mean that it is wrong.
The setting is over brunch over spring break. The informant is an undergrad student studying Health and Humanity. My relationship with the informant is not very close, but this brunch was to help us get to know each other better and talk. I was not intending to collect folklore from her, but we got on the topic of my hatred for pickles and she says, “Oh if you hate pickles you will love this. My sister gets really bad cramps in her calves and a family friend who is a doctor told her to drink pickle juice to help them. So she drinks like straight vinegar.” Disgusted, I ask, “Well does it work?” And my informant responded confidently yes. Apparently, drinking a small water bottle amount of pickle juice can cure cramps. I asked a doctor that I know if he had ever heard that and he said he hadn’t, but maybe next time I get a cramp I will try it.
Form of Folklore: Folk Belief (Medicine)
Informant Bio: The informant was born in Yerevan, Armenia, where she attended a Russian school. At the age of fourteen she and her family moved to America, where she was formally introduce to the English language and had to continue going to a school where the primary language was English. She has had exposure to both Armenian (from her youth and family) and American folklore (by living and studying in America).
Context: The interview was conducted in the living room of informant’s house.
Item: When you’re throat hurts, you take a wet towel… actually you take a dry towel and you wet it in vodka (you put a lot of vodka in it to make it wet). And you wrap it around your throat. And first you get a cold feeling and then it kinda warms up; as long as you feel the warmth, you keep it on. And apparently, that has the healing ability. Preferably, besides the towel, you put a plastic bag over the towel to keep it even warmer. And you could also do this for a stomach ache; you just put the towel on your stomach instead of your throat.
Informant Comments: The informant learned this folk medicine from her mother (of Armenian decent); when she was ill, her mother told her to do this and her throat stopped hurting. She believes it works and is mostly because of the heat that is causes by the vodka. She has tried other types of alcohol, but they did not work, so the informant believe there is something specifically essential in using vodka.
Analysis: It is no surprise that the heat from vodka can make a sore throat feel better. Whether, making it feel better is truly a sign that the vodka has a healing ability is another matter; perhaps it only soothes the aching that comes from having a sore throat without actually curing the sore throat itself. Since vodka is a common drink amongst Armenians and Russians, it seems that vodka is mainly used because it was the most available. Nevertheless, using this remedy to get rid of (at the very least) the pain of a sore throat (or stomach) seems to be successful and will most likely be passed down from the informant to her family members.
- Mix all ingredients in a saucepan
- Bring the mixture to a boil
- Cook slowly until it thickens to a syrupy consistency.
After the mixture is finished the sick person is supposed to drink it. My informant used this as a remedy for colds and congestion. She used learned from her mother. She used it on herself, her children, and her husband. Her children did not use this on their children, well at least her daughter didn’t. She thought it was gross and thought that Vic Vapor rub was a preferable substitute. The informant says hasn’t used it in years. She says it is because she is lazy, there other things on the market, and no one has the time to do that anymore.
This is an example of a tradition falling out of practice due to it being inconvenient. This bit of folk medicine was passed down through the family but feel out of practice because modern medicine is more widely available. It didn’t fall out of practice because it didn’t work or that modern medicine was better. It fell out of practice because it became impractical. My informant also grew up in the South and mentioned that folk medicine was popular because doctors were scarce. It came into existence out of necessity then fell out use when it became impractical.