Tag Archives: remedy

Finnish Tar Remedies

Informant Background:

My informant, KL, is my mother. Her father was born in Finland and immigrated to the United States as a young adult. When she was younger, her father would heat up pine tar in boiling water and have her breathe in the fumes if she as sick.

Piece of Folklore:

            When KL was sick as a child, she remembers her father heating up pine tar in boiling water and having her lean over and breathe in the steam to clear out a head cold. Tar would also sometimes be diluted and rubbed on her and her siblings’ chests for the same effect. She also remembers a saying: ”Jossei viina terva ja sauna auta ni se on kuolemaksi,” which roughly translates to “If vodka, tar, and a sauna cannot cure you, it is likely fatal.*”

*: A slightly different version of this saying is referenced in a Finish journal of social medicine:

Pietilä, Ilkka. “Kontekstuaalinen vaihtelu miesten puheessa terveydestä: yksilöhaastatteluiden ja ryhmäkeskustelujen vertaileva analyysi.” Sosiaalilääketieteellinen aikakauslehti 46.3 (2009).


            Tar was believed to have powerful medicinal qualities – everything from treating skin ailments to serving as an antiseptic and antibiotic. It was more or less considered a cure-all, and was often at hand because it was also used for sealing boats. Similar treatments for colds are still in common use across many cultures – breathing in steam is thought to help de-congest the nose, and similar chest rubs are used to relieve coughs.

Yeet Hay


Informant (A) is a Chinese-American student at USC.

Main Piece:

A: It’s like, I don’t even know how to explain it well, it’s like, not hot and cold, but some food just have like a hotter energy or colder energy, it’s like all of this [gestures to her lunch], but that’s yeet hay, and it’s like if you eat too much of it you break out, and bad things happen to you and you need to have a balance in your diet and literally my mom would be so horrified by how I eat.

I: Was there anything in particular that you remember? Like just any food that you remember that maybe your mom was like, oh—

A: Just like, in general, like I would be like, “Parents, I have a medical something” or “Please use Western medicine” and they’d be like, “No, you can fix your issue by not eating chips” like eat a fruit, the balance or whatever.


This conversation was recorded in-person over lunch. The concept of yeet hay was brought up as my informant noted her lunch wouldn’t be conducive with yeet hay.


Yeet hay (熱氣, zheng qi, lit. “hot air”) is a Chinese medicinal concept in relation to food and the body, drawing on ideas of homeopathic magic. As explained by my informant, eating foods with a certain type of energy would either raise or cool down the body’s internal energy/temperature, which in turn affects biological functions and conditions. The longstanding tradition of Chinese medicine is most likely what drives belief in the idea, as opposed to Western medicine which has sprung up only in the last couple hundred years. Of course, in my informant’s case, yeet hay seems to also be applied as a method to get children to eat healthier by using such a traditional/ancient belief as a method of persuasion.

An Italian Cure For Warts


My grandmother (and my informant) learned this folk remedy in her twenties when her mother-in-law, who was born in Italy, noticed my grandma had warts on her hand. It was something she taught me as a young child, and although I’ve never tried it, she claims she did and the warts on her hands have never come back.


In a natural setting, this piece of folklore is almost exclusively passed from one who has had warts and used the remedy, to one who currently has them and is in need of a remedy. And when being carried out, is only performed by the individual with the ailment. My informant also noted that when she practiced the remedy, she was traveling and in a place she knew she’d never go again, making it easier for her to find a spot she wouldn’t revisit.

Main Piece:

“You have to tie a string around each digit with a wart on it–and you can only use one hand. You have to wear it for a whole day, and at the end of the day you have to take a walk to a place you’ll never go again. On the walk you gotta bury it, and make sure you never-never-ever go back to that spot or the warts will come back!”


The other day, I was retelling this remedy to a friend of mine because she was curious about the project that I’ve been working on. As I told her about how the cure is conducted, she started asking things like, “why a place you’ll never go to again?” and “why do you have to bury the string?”. After taking some time to think about it, I believe this cure is a practice of sympathetic magic. In sympathetic magic, actions are taken which are representative of the change one wants to be made. In this case, each string is representative of a wart, wearing the string(s) for a day corresponds to the time one had already had the wart(s), and therefore burying the string in a place one will never visit again indicates the wart(s) disappearing and never returning.

Onions to Cure Fevers

Main piece:

(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)

Interviewer: Do you know any old remedies for- did your mother impart any useful cures onto you?

Informant: Their cure back then for things were like, if you had a high fever… I would get onions, and she’d [informant’s mother] put onions on my wrists and the bottom of my feet and wrap a white cloth around them. T – because the onion would draw out the fever.

Interviewer: That was the belief?

Informant: Uh-huh.

Interviewer: But it – it worked? Would you try that again today?

Informant: No because it never ended up working.

Interviewer: (laughs)

Informant: I had to go to the doctor anyway and get a penicillin shot. But no I had to lay there for a week with onions until they found out the fever wouldn’t break so she would call the doctor and I’d go get a penicillin shot and then I’d feel better.

Interviewer: So how long would you go between changing the onions?

Informant: (laughs) Oh you get em changed every day. You get new onions.

Interviewer: Why do you think that was a thing?

Informant: Because they just had a belief that the onion, you know – you know how onions are stingent? And stuff like that? That that would pull – I don’t know why it had to be on your wrists and the bottoms of your feet. I was just a kid, don’t ask me! I just did what I was told! (laughs)

Interviewer: (laughs) True, true.

Background: My informant was born and raised in southern Illinois to very strict Catholic parents. She has strong Irish and Italian heritage. She grew up quite poor, as a family of farm workers with many siblings.

Context: The informant is my grandmother, and has always had a proclivity for telling stories, jokes, and wives tales. This piece was selected out of many from a recording of a long night of telling stories in a comfortable environment.

Thoughts: Though it apparently was not an effective folk belief, this folk remedy for fevers is quite interesting. It was repeatedly ineffective but the informant’s mother continued to try it, possibly to avoid the costs of medicine even if it meant wasting onions. Given that they were poor, I find that to be a very likely reason, along with the possibility that the informant’s mother was just stubborn – or that her ability to believe in things was strong as is reflected in her devout religiousness. The informant said onions are “stingent” which is not a word but which I believe means to have a strong odor. It is possible that the informant said stringent meaning strict, but that wouldn’t make much sense.

Diaper Rash

Main Piece: Diaper Rash

The following was an interview of a Participant/interviewee about a folk remedy that is passed within her community. She is marked as MS. I am marked as DM.

MS: Te voy a dar un remedio para lo rosado de los babies. Agarras y compras un manojo de hierba mora. La pones a hervir con agua suficiente para sentar un baby. Cuando hierve la agua y esta mas o menos la agua verde los pones en un traste donde el baby cepa bein. Cuando ya esta la agua tibiecita agarras y haciendas el baby por como una hora. Después, lo bañas completamente. Lava su partecita, o sus pompis bien bien lavaditas y lo dejas que se hore sus pompis. Vas agarrar aceite de olivo, 3 ajos, y los vas a quemar hasta que el ajo se pone cafecito. El aceite que queda, los vas a poner en el pompis del bebé con un trapo limpio. De ahí, vas a conseguir fecula de maiz y le pones poquito micena en sus pompis que se ore por quince minutos. Despues le pones su pamper y lo dejas tranquilo.


MS: I’m going to give you a remedy for diaper rashes. You put it to boil blackberry weed with enough water to sit a baby. When the water boils and the water is more or less green, put it in a container big enough for the baby to sit. When the water is lukewarm you sit the baby in the water for about an hour. Then you bathe it completely. Wash his/her parts thoroughly then let air dry. You’re going to grab olive oil, 3 garlics, and you’re going to burn them until the garlic gets brown. The remaining oil, you will put them in the baby’s behind with a clean cloth. From there, you will get starch of corn and you put little on their behind. Let this sit for fifteen minutes. Then you put their pamper and leave them calm.


The participant is 52 years old. She grew up in Michoacan, Mexico. Maria, who is marked as MS, is my grandma. When I was growing up, my grandmother was the one who looked over us while my parent was at school or work. She was able to take care of us with her home remedies that she learned from her grandmother’s. Below is a conversation I had with MS for more background/context of the remedy, which was originally in Spanish.  

DM:Why do you know this remedy?

MS:    I know this because I practiced this with my kids and my grandkids.

DM: Why do you like this remedy?

MS:  I like this remedy because it is effective and it does not affect the kids health.

DM: Where/who did they learn it from?

MS: I learned this in my hometown Michoacan, Mexico through her grandmother and her dad’s side.

DM: Why is this remedy important to you?

MS: This remedy is inherited from my grandparents. I saw this in my family for a long time. I want my future generations to have a reliable remedy and it has been passed down in my family and I want to keep it going.

Analysis/ My Thoughts:

I know there is an abundant amount of home remedies that all take care of one symptom like swollen tonsils. The people have the power to choose which ones they will use for themselves. I have never used this home remedy, but MS said it worked for her family.