Folk Medicine: Sugar Water

AR is a USC student born in the USA but whose mother immigrated from El Salvador. This is her describing how her mother would treat her illness when she was young.

AR.) When I was growing up, my mom would put sugar and water, warm it up in the microwave whenever we were sick or had a cold. It would cure everything; it was a magic cup of… she called it a certain thing, I’m blanking. When we were growing up, we had an ongoing story of her pretending to be a queen, me pretending to be a princess, and with the magic cup of sugar water, it would be like the magic potion that her servants would make for the princess, me. That made me laugh a lot. 

Me.) What’s the significance to you?

AR.) It worked when I was little. Thinking back to that, it’s sugar and water, I see that now, but when I was little I believed that this was the cure for any bad cold or any sickness. She’d give me other medicines, I didn’t care about those. I was a kid, I didn’t like those. Placebos, I guess.


Here we see a form of sympathetic magic taking the form of the simulation of drinking a “potion.” Even though it’s medically clear that there are no medicinal effects of sugar water, AR is insistent that it worked at the time. While this could be just viewed as the placebo effect, folk use of placebos long predates the scientific study of the phenomena. Therefore, I’d posit that this is a form of sympathetic magic. By ritualistically drinking a “potion,” the person who is sick will magically get better. This idea is bolstered by the presented imagery of queens and princesses, mimicking European fairytale tropes.