folk medicine

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folk medicine

folk medicine, methods of curing by means of healing objects, herbs, or animal parts; ceremony; conjuring, magic, or witchcraft; and other means apart from the formalized practice of medical science. In nearly all ancient and preliterate societies disease and death were and are attributed to the workings of malevolent beings, spirits, or forces. Complex rituals and medicinal applications were devised to heal these ills. Many such cures coincide with what modern research has proved effective. Taking castor oil has been advocated by sailors for centuries and is known today to be the source of essential vitamins; the age-old successful application of bread mold and soil fungi to infected areas corresponds to the antibiotic practice of modern medicine. There remains a widespread belief in the curative powers of certain plants or animal parts shaped or colored like the diseased part of the body: hence, red poppies for blood disorder, spotted plants for skin eruptions, and trefoil plants for heart trouble. Preventive medicine and ritual to produce sickness in one's enemies have also been popular. Native Americans of South and Central America, among others, perform purification ceremonies and hold festivals for cleansing and to ward off the evil eye. Medicine men, shamans, and other doctors credited with magical powers generally massage, draw liquid off by suction, or blow upon the diseased area. They recite ancient formulas and incantations to cure or banish illness, both physical and mental. In all cultures most medicinal lore is handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. When written down, it formed the beginnings of medical science. In the United States in the 1960s and 70s, there occurred an enormous expanding interest in folk remedies, herbal medicines, vitamins, and so-called health foods and organic foods free of chemical pesticides and other pollutants. As a result the production of such foods became a growing business enterprise. A new surge in the sales of herbal remedies to treat minor ailments and enhance health took place in the 1990s. See also herbal medicine.


See D. C. Jarvis, Folk Medicine (1985); C. Meyer, American Folk Medicine (1973, repr. 1985).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Folk Medicine


popular empirical information about remedies, medicinal herbs, and hygienic practices and their use in the preservation of health and prevention and treatment of diseases. This information, transmitted by word of mouth from generation to generation, is reflected in folk customs, proverbs, sayings, and traditions and is recorded in a number of written sources (books on healing, herbals).

Under the primitive communal system, folk medicine was the only form of medicine. Primitive people knew how to set fractures and reduce dislocations; they had some knowledge of plants that had analgesic properties, and they understood the curative value of water and the sun’s rays. With the division of society into classes, folk medicine was widespread mainly among the poor; it was considerably influenced by superstition and mystical ideas, which led to quackery.

In the ancient world folk medicine was practiced extensively. Thus, the physicians of Mesopotamia used a rich arsenal of medicinal substances in various forms (mixtures, liniments, compresses). The Egyptians used opium for medicinal purposes. Tibetan Buddhist medicine used natural remedies as the basis for therapy; according to the Tibetans, “there is no substance in nature that cannot be used for medicinal purposes.”

Folk hygiene, the most ancient branch of folk medicine, laid the foundation for the development of scientific hygiene. Hygiene measures that had been empirically derived under the slaveholding system later became part of the legislation of certain countries. Thus, the Babylonian law of the “seventh day,” on which all work was prohibited, was a significant achievement in the regulation of labor and rest. Ancient Indian literary works contain numerous facts about the influence of climate and season on health and body hygiene; these works assert the value of physical exercise and proper nutrition for maintaining health. Tibetan medicine emphasized the effects of pure air and the sun’s rays on the body. Chinese folk hygiene stressed sound sleep, cleanliness, and moderation in eating.

The information accumulated by folk medicine is reflected in the works of the greatest physicians of the ancient world, namely, Hippocrates and Galen, and subsequently in the works of Avicenna. Scientific medicine has used and continues to use many methods of folk medicine, such as acupuncture. For hundreds of years East Africans customarily treated progressive paralysis with a febrile state (syphilis patients were sent to marshy places, where they contracted tropical fever). Caesarean section was successfully practiced by Central Africans.

In Russia, wormwood was used for fever, birch sap for treating purulent wounds, tar as a disinfectant, and cowberry, cloudberry, and mountain ash for scurvy. Many Russian customs and folk proverbs promote hygienic measures, for example, “Live wisely and medicine won’t be needed” and “From going to the bathhouse, the body lives purely.” Prohibitions that were regarded as “sins” in Rus’ and by many peoples as “taboos” often expressed hygienic requirements. Thus, the custom of eating apples only after their “consecration” on the Transfiguration feast in essence cautions against the eating of underripe fruits. The fear that the newborn might be cursed by the “evil eye” led to the prevention of hypothermia or infection of the infant when it was examined by strangers. Russian customs and proverbs that have hygienic significance were collected by V. I. Dal’ in the anthology Proverbs of the Russian People, who includes the separate section “Health and Illness.”

The classic figures of Russian medicine M. Ia. Mudrov, F. I. Inozemtsev, S. P. Botkin, G. A. Zakhar’in, and their students studied folk medicine and applied some of its methods. Medical historians L. F. Zmeev and G. I. Skorichenko did original research on folk medicine. Traditionally, Russian medicine has shown respect for the rational foundations of folk medicine, but it has waged an uncompromising struggle against the false bearers of folk medicine, who include quacks, shamans, and “witches.”

Scientific medicine in the USSR takes all that is valuable and rational from the thousand-year-old tradition of folk medicine. A research institute has been created for the study of medicinal herb therapy. At the same time, the illegal practice of medicine by persons without medical training is forbidden by law in the USSR.


Charukovskii, A. Narodnaia meditsina, primenennaia k russkomu bytu i raznoklimatnosti Rossii, parts 1–5. St. Petersburg, 1844–47.
Skorichenko-Ambodik, G. G. Doistoricheskaia meditsina. St. Petersburg, 1895.
Zmeev, L. F. Chtenie po vrachebnoi istorii Rossii. St. Petersburg, 1896.
Popov, G. Russkaia narodno-bytovaia meditsina. St. Petersburg, 1903.
Rossiiskii, D. M. Istoriia vseobshchei i otechestvennoi meditsiny i zdra vookhraneniia: Bibliografiia: (996–1954 gg.). Moscow, 1956.
Chin Hsin-chung. Kitaiskaia narodnaia meditsina. Moscow, 1959.
Bogoiavlenskii, N. A. Drevnerusskoe vrachevanie ν XI-XVII vv. Moscow, 1960.
Petrov, B. D. Ocherki istorii otechestvennoi meditsiny. Moscow, 1962.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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