Context: The informant, a 20-year-old female college student who was enrolled in ANTH 333 during a prior semester, was eager to participate in my folklore collection. She shared some folklore with me that she has collected throughout her childhood and her time at USC. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant described a folk medicine used by her immediate and extended family.
Informant: So, one of the folk things my family does is that when I’m sick my father will give me this thing called cowlick tea, and basically it’s tea with cow droppings in it. I think it’s because cows eat grass, so their droppings are really good for you. And my dad’s grandmother was the one that started this apparently and she always insisted that my dad drink it. And now my dad believes in this cowlick tea because they’re from Oklahoma… and apparently that’s relevant. My dad’s grandmother was from Marshall, Texas, and she also has Native American Cherokee roots, so it could possibly be from that. But it’s used to alleviate the symptoms of sore throat, headaches, and other head colds. It’s also known for clearing nasal passages and it’s basically just made of cow droppings. And it’s given to anyone of any age to relieve themselves of the common cold.
Informant’s relationship to this item: Though the informant does not fully understand the proposed scientific benefits or the cultural origins of cowlick tea, the folk medicine is a practice she took part in growing up. The fact that the folk medicine has been passed down through multiple generations in her family makes her more inclined to take part in the family tradition and folk belief.
Interpretation: There are often folk medicines used for the goal of relieving people of symptoms of the common cold because there had not yet been a scientifically-proven method to cure someone of a cold. There is often a belief in American society that western medicine is a superior approach to other healing methods. However, many western medicines find their origins in folk medicines that have proven scientific health benefits. Additionally, western medicine is based on the belief in the mind body split, a theory put forward by philosopher René Descartes. The theory describes how a person’s mind and body are two separate entities and encourages people to think for themselves, rather than trying to find all of life’s answers in religious doctrine. While many folk medicines have proven health benefits, even the ones that do not point out a major flaw in the theory of the mind body split: the placebo effect. Sometimes simply the belief that one has been given healing medicine can actually improve their condition. Whether or not cowlick tea has any health benefits is not known by the informant. Regardless, her family members report feeling better after drinking it, and that could be a result of the placebo effect.