The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 2/Székely Folk-Medicine


[Founded upon F. Kozma’s Inaugural Address, given before the Hungarian Academy of Science (May 8, 1882), entitled, “Mythological Elements in Székely Folk-Lore and Folk-Life.”]

THERE are about forty different diseases which are known by their popular names among the people. Any other disease, the name of which is not known, is simply called “a heavy illness” or “a great illness” (nyavalya in Hungarian).

According to their origin, the diseases may be grouped under two heads, viz. those which are contracted in a natural way, and those the origin of which is attributed to some superstitious cause. To the latter group belong, for instance, madness and its various symptoms (the patient is said to have been “deceived” or “tempted by the spirits”), and the illness is brought on by the evil spirit having possessed the patient; lunacy ( = somnambulism under the influence of the moon), the patient is carried off by goblins or “white women,” who make him dance every night; convulsions are also the doings of the evil spirit; some boils originate by the person stepping on to a place where a horse has been lying, or also by his walking into “outpourings” (where a liquid or some decoction of seeds has been poured out amidst witchcraft ceremonies);[1] wens are caused by trying to count the number of the stars, &c.[2]

In treating the different diseases either natural means are employed or charms are resorted to. Among the former the most prominent place is occupied by the deadly nightshade (atropa belladonna), which being a very powerful drug naturally commends itself to general use. The other drugs most frequently used are: lovage (ligusticum), common birthwort (aristolochia clematitis), henbane seed (hyosciamus) root of adder's tongue (ophioglossum), thorn-apple (datura), goosefoot (chenopodium hybridum), flixweed[3] (sisymhrium sophia), celandine (chelidonium majus), bear's-foot (hellehorus), yarrow (achillea millefolium), plantain or rib-grass (plantago), fruit of dwarf-elder (sambucus ebulus), burdock (the kind known as lappa major); also, linseed, the bark or blossom of various trees, horse-radish, capsicum,[4] pepper, "spice," cloves, aniseed, onion, garlic, &c., from among the products of the vegetable kingdom.

These drugs are used in preparing the various ointments, lotions, or baths, or are taken internally according to the nature of the complaint; when taken internally they are invariably, or with very few exceptions, administered in wine or spirits. Our "doctors" very seldom prescribe anything made up of purely mineral ingredients. Their pharmacopœia, however, includes incense, "almanach-tincture," "nothing," tar, gunpowder,[5] brimstone, vinegar, and ashes,[6] all of which are used in small doses, in making up the different kinds of ointments. The only medicaments taken from the animal kingdom are, perhaps: wolfs flesh, fowl's eggs, the outer skin of the hen's gizzard, the white fœces of the dog, the black excrements of the pig, and the ears of the rat.[7] These are taken internally, as a rule.

Some of these medicaments are quite harmless, but when the prescription runs as follows: "take 9 half-prunes and in each 9 capsicum seeds, 99 (sic) capsicum seeds in all"; or, "9 peppercorns, some spice and cloves, all pounded together, and mixed with half a quart of spirits," or, "a corresponding quantity of capsicum powder and white pepper in a quart of wine, and drink the lot, when the intermittent fever begins to torment you";—one cannot help shuddering when contemplating the overpowering effect which the above compounds must produce, and may feel inclined to "prefer the evil to the cure." And what must we think of the use of poisonous plants? There is one recipe which is as follows:—"Put a spoonful of hyosciamus seed into boiling water, cover your head with a table-cloth, and inhale the vapour on to your aching tooth."[8] Or, "make the insane person take in wine a mixture composed of atropa belladonna, ligusticum root, garlic and black excrementa of a pig, for nine consecutive days, bathing the patient in a bath prepared with the same mixture, and fumigate him after each bath with the fumes of the same ingredients!" You will agree with me when I maintain that all these cures are as many attempts against human life!

The number of these "doctors"—"doctoring men or women" or "learned men or women," as they are called—is very considerable per county or even per village.

One of their number is, perhaps, famous for his or her treatment of a certain disease, while another may have a reputation for curing another kind of ailment. Such a qualification constitutes a never-failing source of revenue, and sometimes an heirloom in the family, who naturally keep their knowledge the greatest secret. This very secrecy forms a most serious impediment to the student of folk-medicine. In order to lessen the danger of losing such revenue by the secret being found out, the real fact of the matter is often enveloped in meaningless ceremonies. For instance, the gathering of the roots of the highly-valued atropa belladonna is not of everyday importance. The digging for these roots can only be carried on between the two St. George's days, and then only by the person who does the collecting stripping himself of all his clothes and by using certain charms and mumbling some mysterious words. Woe to him who undertakes the task without such preparation, because either the devils will carry him off, or the trees of the forest will fall on him and kill him. I have been fortunate enough to find out one of these secrets. A peppercorn, some spice, and a little salt, have to be put into a small piece of bread-crumb, all kneaded together and buried in the hole from which the root has been extracted, in order to satisfy the devil; and at the same time the Lord's Prayer and the Creed must be mumbled over once. It is not allowed to speak a single word to anybody on the way there or back or during the gathering itself. This, of course, is a precaution against eventual molestation or inconvenient questioning by troublesome inquirers.

In many cases the preparation of the drug is also carried out amidst similar mysterious and inexplicable magic words and the application tied to strict outer formalities. For instance, if the medicine is a liquid the doctor makes with his hand the sign of the cross over the vessel containing the healing fluid; and, dipping his fingers into it, sprinkles some of it on the ground, in order to let the devil, too, have his share. The water in which a patient has been bathed is to be poured into a running stream, before sunrise, in the direction of the flow of the water, and nobody must be spoken to on the road; nor is it allowed to look back.

To the natural medicaments belong also the local medicinal waters that are used by the people and some fresh-water springs, the latter being used for diseases of the eye. The affected eye is to be bathed with these waters, always before sunrise. The water drawn from a well on the first day of March before sunrise is said to possess universal healing power; many people, therefore, keep a supply of it, as much as will last them a whole year, in a closed vessel in the house.[9] Our popular tales, too, mention the miraculous spring which makes hands, that have been cut ofi*, grow again. And if cripples roll in the dewy grass of the meadow on a Friday night which coincides with the new moon, or if the blind wash their eyes with the dew, the maimed limbs of the former and the eye-sight of the latter will be restored again. (See "The Journey of Truth and Falsehood" and "The Envious Sisters" in Kriza's Collection.)

All these outer formalities which accompany such magic cures show an uninterrupted connection with religion. The performance begins in the name of the Deity, and while it lasts it is strictly forbidden to utter a single word of blasphemy; on the contrary, prayers have to be murmured, and the adverse influence of the devil has to be counteracted by some adequate means. All these facts clearly point to that epoch of our old heathen religion when the cure of the sick was the sacred occupation of our tátos[10] priests.

The people, not being able to explain the origin of some diseases, or ascribing them directly to some superstitious cause, as a matter of course resort to a treatment which is similarly based on superstition,[11] and thus we have arrived at the second group of cures, viz. charms.

There are several kinds of these, of which the following may be enumerated here:—

Lead-casting.—This cure is used for frenzy. A dish full of water is placed on the patient's back and a piece of molten lead of about the size of an eg^ is poured into the water, a short prayer being recited, which may run as follows: "My Lord, my God, take the frenzy out of this person's heart!" If the disease be of a graver character, the casting of the lead is repeated nine times; if less serious, five times only, and the dish with the water therein placed each time on a different part of the body. The various forms which the lead takes as it solidifies will indicate whether a man, a dog, or a creature having wings has caused the fright. When the final cast takes place they draw a cross[12] on the ground, and placing the dish on this sign they profess to pour the molten lead on those who are impure, saying the words, "This is not thine, this is somebody else's."

Pouring out water.—This cure is used against enchantment. The sign of the cross is made by hand, and a tumbler full of water is placed thereon; a glowing cinder, broken into three pieces, is thrown into the water with some such formulas as this: "Blue eyes, black eyes. I will wash it with water by hand. If the cause of the spell be a man, may his buttock burst; if it be a woman, then may her breast break out." Then they blow three times the sign of the cross over the tumbler, and make the patient drink some of the water, also three times; they then wash with the water his spine, forehead, nose, the soles of his feet, and the palms of his hands; and if in the daytime the remainder of the water is thrown on the eaves, if at night on to a broom standing behind the house-door, in order that nobody shall step into it, because if anybody stepped into such "out-pourings" he would be afflicted with some skin disease. People are particularly careful to guard little children from enchantment, and it is customary in order to counteract the spell to spit[13] on the child. ("Fie! fie! ugly one!") The power of enchantment is specially attributed to gipsy-women and men whose eyebrows are grown together. If, when throwing the glowing cinders into the water, two pieces sink to the bottom, the spell comes from a man; if only one, the patient has been bewitched by a woman.

The enchantment is supposed to have power even over animals or flowers (Proverb: "May enchantment seize you!") It is against the effects of such a spell that they tie a red ribbon on to a foal's or calf's neck, and for the same purpose that they draw red tassels through a lamb's or kid's ears; this also explains why the sprays of flowers are hung with pieces of red cloth in every Székely house. The red colour is generally considered a preventive against enchantment.

Incantation is specially ueed as a cure for maggots[14] in animals. There are several formulæ, of which the following may be mentioned here:— The "doctor" starts off with a hair of the diseased animal, and walks along until he comes to a dwarf-elder (sambucus ebulus) bush, from which he cuts a twig; he splits this crossways, places the hair he brought with him into the split, and facing the east he begins thus: "10 are not 10, 9 are not 9, 8 are not 8, . . . ." and so on down to 1. Then he plants the twig into the ground and says, " May John Smith's two-year old white sow have the maggots again when I pull this twig out of the ground, fie! fie!" (spits on it). "May the maggots go while I am standing here, fie! fie! If she got them at sunrise, may sunset not find them here! If she got them at sunset, may they be gone by sunrise, fie! fie!"

The practice of splitting the elder-spray is also used for the cure of intermittent fever in man. The patient has to find a blackberry bush which has three branches shooting from the same root. He must then cut a twig from one of the branches and walk to the bank of a stream before sunrise, where he has to stand looking up stream and say the words, "May the fever seize me when I see this blackberry twig again!" whereupon he has to throw the twig over his head back into the water.

Another incantation formula is the following:—On five slips of paper write a formula mentioning the patient's name, &c. as under: "John Smith, of Newport, who was born on January 10th, 1850, has the three-days' fever. I 'admonish' you herewith that if by the eighth day you do not stop his fever, I will bind you, dry you, and put you in the oven, burn you, and let the winds blow you away." These five slips of paper are to be thrown, one by one, towards the fire-place for five consecutive mornings, and to be burnt in the fire on the eighth day.

Cases of sun-stroke also occur sometimes, and it is then said that the patient "has a blind sun in the head." The incantation in this case is carried out in the following manner: The enchanter takes a pot and fills it with water taken from a place where two streams meet and scooped in the direction of the flow. The water is taken home, and the pot placed over the fire, and nine balls of oakum, of about the size of hazel-nuts, and nine pieces of straw, with knots on them, thrown into the water. A dish is then placed on the patient's head, a needle thrown into it, the boiling-water poured into the dish, and the empty pot placed into it, bottom upwards, amidst words as the following: "White sun, red sun, green sun, blue sun, yellow sun, black sun! Blind sun! get out of this person's head, or the great sun will overtake you on the road!" These words have to be repeated nine times, and then the Lord's Prayer said. Thereupon the water is made boiling hot again, and the whole performance gone through nine times, the whole process occupying thus more than half of the day. Finally, the patient's head is washed in the water, and the water that remains is thrown into the stream—in the direction of the flow—so that the current may carry off the disease. The patient then has to get up every day before sunrise until he is recovered.

In the case of a person suffering from hot-fever, a cure known as "calling out the disease" is applied. Some person belonging to the patient has to strip quite naked, of an evening, and, wrapped into a bed-sheet, stand outside the gate, where he has to drop the sheet, and call out in a loud voice, "Let the whole village hear it; let it be heard! My son (or brother, father, &c.) is writhing with hot-fever. Whoever hears me, may he catch the disease!" This has to be repeated three times.[15] The calling-out may also be done standing under a flue or under the hood of a hearth.

I may also mention a few kinds of the lower class of charms, such as, for instance, protecting the cow's milk against wicked women or witches by fumigating the barn, or placing garlic and "Satan-shot grass" over the door or into a hole in the threshold, or by keeping a horse-shoe constantly in the fire, or by placing on one of the beams a piece of dough made with woman's milk and seven different kinds of spice mixed into it. Weasels are kept off by placing a distaff in the barn, &c.

Formulæ are used also in these cases; as, for instance, when they strew millet in front of a barn they say, "May my cow's milk be taken away when this millet is gathered up again." The passage of goblins can be stopped by besmearing the doors, windows, and keyholes with a mixture of garlic, incense, and pig's excrements. To guard against the influence of the fiend, garlic has to be constantly carried about in the pocket.[16] The first food given to young chickens has to be passed through a wolf's throat; and bees, when they leave their hives for the first time in the spring, have also to pass through a wolf's throat, in order that they may gain strength and gather much honey. On the morning of New Year's day the cattle must be watered from off a silver coin, so that they may be guarded against any mishap. When sowing hemp the stockings or breeches are to be fastened high, so that the plants may grow high. By walking backwards three times round a wheat-field at night-time naked the wheat will be protected against a plague of birds.

There are innumerable charms to be found for every condition in life. They begin with the children's play, as, for instance, in the case of a game similar to the one known in England as "egg in the hole": the child guards itself against its playmate's luck by making a cross in front of his hole, and saying, "Fie! roll into my hole." It is my impression that in the case of all cures by charms the outer formalities, as they are used now-a-days, are simply the remnants of a more complicated procedure; in days gone by they constituted the outer cover, the purpose of which was to distract the attention from the real cure. I am confirmed in this view by the fact that some sorcerers apply quick-lime besides the blackberry-twig for the destruction of maggots in animals. Others, while curing intermittent fever by the aid of the five paper scraps recommend as an "auxiliary " measure that the patient should keep a strict diet during the eight days which are occupied by the cure.

Thornton Lodge, Goxhill, Hull.

  1. See description of cure by pouring out water.
  2. One day as I (translator) was travelling on the Northern Railway in Hungary, I noticed a woman who had cancer in the face. On mentioning this fact later on to an elderly lady, I indicated the spot on my own face, and drew an outline of the shape of the cancer. The old lady was very much shocked, and informed me that it was an exceedingly unlucky thing to do, as by so doing I myself ran the risk of being similarly affected in exactly the same spot.—(L.L.K.)
  3. The Magyar name means "wound-healing leaf," in all probability the same as the "wound-healing grass" in popular tales. See "Knight Rose" in Kriza's Collection.
  4. Capsicum powder (paprika) figures on every dinner-table in Hungary instead of pepper, and also plays the same part in Hungarian cookery as curry does in India.
  5. A mixture of gunpowder and spirits is also prescribed internally for ague.
  6. The kinds of fuel mostly used are wood, turf, moss, and, on the Hungarian lowlands, cow-dung.
  7. Live guinea-pigs are said to abstract rheumatism if kept in the same room with the sufferer.—(Budapest.)
  8. I have seen this done in Yorkshire.—(W.H.J.)
  9. The water obtained by melting snow collected in the month of March is said to have a beautifying effect on the skin, and is largely used for freckles. — (Budapest.)
  10. Name of the heathen priests of the old Magyars.
  11. It has been mentioned how wens or warts originate. They are cured by touching them with a piece of raw meat, which afterwards is to be tied up in a rag and buried in the gutter formed by the water dropping from the eaves. As the meat rots the warts gradually disappear.—(Budapest.)
  12. "The popular superstition holds that the witches, or any evil spirit in general, have no power on a cross-road. The case hence has occurred that patients who have succumbed to the torments of the evil spirit have been buried in graves clug at the meeting of two cross-roads in order to deliver them of their persecutors, at least after death. I am of opinion that the sign of the cross, so generally used at cures by means of charms, have no reference whatever to the sign of Christianity, but refer to the cross-road of mythology."—F. Kozma, at another place in his Inaugural Address.
  13. To spit into a person's face is considered a cure for stye in the eye.—(Budapest.)
  14. The larvae of a fly which deposits its eggs in the skins of animals.
  15. Influenza can be got rid of by rubbing the nose on a door-handle and calling out, "Whoever will be first to touch this door-handle may he get my cold."—(Budapest.)
  16. Horse-chestnuts are carried about in the pocket as a preventive against dizziness in some parts of Austria.