Folk medicine

Folk medicine (народна медицина; narodna medytsyna). A store of empirical medical knowledge and practical preventative and therapeutic methods used by the people for the prevention and curing of disease. Based on the results of the observations and experience of many generations, folk medicine served to some extent as the source of scientific medicine.

Paleopathological research has established that early inhabitants of the territory of present-day Ukraine suffered from arthritis, osteomyelitis, rickets, syphilis, and tuberculosis. Various traumas were also frequent. Even in ancient times folk healers were familiar with some surgical procedures, even as complex as amputation (attested to by findings at the burial site of the Tardenoisian culture in Murzak-Koba in the Crimea) and trepanation of the skull (archeological digs in Kyiv and Vasylivka, Dnipropetrovsk oblast). Various primitive surgical instruments have been found at burial sites throughout Ukraine—for example, at the Scythian Chortomlyk kurhan. Skin diseases must have been quite widespread as early as the pre-Slavic age, judging by the fact that Ukrainian and other Slavic languages share common names for such diseases. The prevalent skin diseases, such as mange, eczema, scabies, sclerodermas, boils, ulcers, and warts, were treated by various methods. That the ancient Slavs possessed a good knowledge of medicinal plants is attested to by the fact that Slavic languages share common names for more than 10 of the plants basic to folk medicine: Ranunculus (buttercup), Achillea millefolium (yarrow), Malva sylvestris (high mallow), Pimpinella saxifraga (pimpernel), Origanum vulgare (marjoram), Mentha piperita (peppermint), Arctium lappa (burdock), Artemisia absinthium (wormwood), Tussilago farfara (coltsfoot), Inula helenium (elf dock), Valeriana officinalis (fragrant valerian), Plantago major (ripple grass), etc. Most of these plants were used for medicinal purposes by the Scythians and, according to literary sources, during the Princely era.

In Kyivan Rus’ folk medicine played an important role in the medical practices of court and army physicians, fortunetellers, sorcerers, and monks. Practitioners were able to diagnose and treat diseases such as jaundice, asthma, epilepsy, tuberculosis, malaria, arthritis, pleurisy, and typhus. Various methods of treatment, including the medicinal plant cures mentioned above, were in use. These cures were quite famous: the renowned medieval physician Avicenna recommended especially the so-called Rus’ medicines. Together with sorcerers and midwives, surgeons (rizal'nyky or rukodily) were highly respected. With the help of primitive instruments (knives, scalpels, saws, frames, drills), they performed such complex procedures as cataract operations and the removal of bladder stones. Pain-killing medication was used during surgery, and wounds were stitched together with hemp threads or gut strings.

With the development of official, and later scientific, medicine, folk medicine became increasingly isolated and was eventually restricted to rural areas. In the process it adopted many rational, if sometimes outdated, views from scientific medicine and at the same time preserved and developed its store of primitive knowledge and ancient medical treatments, often imbued with religious imaginings and cultist or magical rituals. In this sense folk medicine is a combination of rational and irrational, beneficial and harmful elements. Faith in folk medicine and its occasional success account for the use of folk remedies and the services of folk healers, not only by peasants and workers, but also by the intelligentsia and the urban populace. Many superstitions and outdated folk beliefs have been preserved, especially in the area of folk etiology—the identification of the source of disease. It is believed that diseases are caused by ‘the will of God’; by various magic spells or charms (the casting up of an object, liquid, etc), the administering of charmed potions, the sprinkling of water, the tying of knots, the casting of spells, the casting of the evil eye; by the moon, stars, and eclipses of the sun; by wind, water, or earth; by worms, snakes, and frogs; and by various demons and spirits (house spirits, vampires, demonic tempters, possessed and hysterical women) (see Demonology in Ukraine). Some diseases, such as plague and cholera, are personified as demonic beings. At the same time folk medicine often has an empirical explanation for a disease (infections, colds, lacerations).

Folk medicine was practiced not only by skilled folk healers, sorcerers, and sorceresses, but also, quite often, by the closest relatives of the sick person. On occasion the mentally ill and retarded were consulted, as they were considered to be ‘God’s people.’ Sorcerers had their own specializations and treated only one disease or some particular category of illness. In preventative medicine, in addition to a number of hygienic procedures (washing, shaving, haircutting, quarantining the sick), magic or cultist activities (plowing around a village, walking around a house, drawing magic circles, using lies and disguises to deceive evil spirits) played a prominent role.

Magical rituals performed on the afflicted individual were often part of the treatment. The disease was ‘driven out’ by sucking, squeezing, shaking, washing, blowing, and licking. Diseases were also ‘frightened off' by shouts, gnawing, pricking, scratching, beating, cauterizing, and so on, or they were ‘transferred' from the sick person to some inanimate object, plant, tree, animal, or other person. Sometimes the treatment involved manipulating objects that were or could have been related in some way to the illness. An important group of therapeutic practices consisted of charming a disease away by uttering magic formulas, incantations, and prayers, appealing to various natural and supernatural powers, or exorcizing the disease. Genuine medical treatments such as baths, massages, and bleeding (done by applying cupping glasses or leeches) are also used in folk medicine.

Folk medicine encompasses a wide variety of medical remedies and medications. Medicinal plants, an integral part of folk medicine, are widely cultivated in Ukraine. Poisonous plants such as Daphne mezereum (mezereon) and Veratrum viride (hellebore) are used in curing some diseases, such as rheumatism. In addition, various medications derived from animal products are used; some of these are effective, others completely unhelpful and even harmful. Many of the successful and beneficial remedies and resources of folk medicine are studied by specialists and researchers for use in scientific medicine.

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Bohdan Kravtsiv, Vasyl Pliushch

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 1 (1984).

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