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Folk medicine

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Indigenous medicine (or folk medicine) refers generally to healing practices traditionally used for alleviating illness and injury, or to aid in childbirth. It is a category of informal knowledge distinct from "scientific medicine", as well as more formal and systematic, but unscientific, medical practices such as Ayurveda. However, it may coexist with these in the same culture or society. Indigenous medicine as a system includes: home remedies; Indigenous aetiologies of disease; preventative medicine; reproductive techniques; medicinal properties of plants; anatomical knowledge, and healers. Indigenous medicine may also include elements from the history of medicine. For example the hot-cold concept of health and illness is absent in Spanish indigenous medicine and did not exist at the folk level in the past (Tan, 1989). However these beliefs are now widespread in Latin America and the Caribbean, and according to Foster (1953) were derived from the élite and scholarly Hippocratic-galenic traditions that were brought to the Spanish colonies by Spanish physicians and clergy. Spanish medical practice at the time of Cristopher Columbus was based on classical Greek and Roman medicine with diffusions from Arab medicine. Other Hippocratic principles are the oppositions of raw / cooked, hot /cold, wet / dry, sweet / sour. In addition, wellbeing is determined by a balance between different elements, bile, phlegm, and blood (Strobel, 1985).

Classical History

Early recognised compilers of existing and current herbal knowledge were the Greeks Hippocrates, Aristotle, Theophrastus (b. 370 BC), Dioscorides and Galen. Roman writers were Pliny and Celsus (Kay, 1996). Dioscorides (Pedianos Dioskurides) included the writings of the herbalist Krateuas, physician to Mithridates VI King of Pontus from 120 to 63 BC in his De Materia Medica (Codex Vindobonensis) (Blunt and Raphael, 1994). De Materia Medica was translated into several languages and Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew names were added to it throughout the centuries (Blunt and Raphael, 1994). Latin manuscripts of De Materia Medica were combined with a Latin herbal by Apuleius Platonicus and were incorporated into the Anglo-Saxon codex Cotton Vitellius C.III. These early Greek and Roman compilations became the backbone of European medical theory and were translated by the Arabs Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā, 980 - 1037), the Persian Rhazes (Rāzi, 865 - 925) and the Jewish Maimonides (Kay, 1996). Translations of Greek medical handbooks and manuscripts into Arabic took place in the eighth and ninth centuries. Arabic indigenous medicine developed from the conflict between the magic-based medicine of the Bedouins, the Arabic translations of the Hellenic medicine and Ayurvedic medicine (Slikkerveer, 1990). Spanish indigenous medicine was influenced by the Arabs from 711 to 1492 (Hernández-Bermejo and García Sánchez, 1998). Translations of the early Roman-Greek compilations were made into German by Hieronymus Bock whose herbal published in 1546 was called Kreuter Buch. A Dutch translation Pemptades by Rembert Dodoens (1517-1585) was translated by Charles de L'Écluse (Carolus Clusius, 1526-1609), and was published in English by Henry Lyte in 1578 as A Nievve Herball. This became John Gerard's (1545 - 1612) Herball or General Hiftorie of Plantes (Blunt and Raphael, 1994; Kay, 1996). Each new work was a compilation of existing texts with new additions.

Women's folk knowledge existed in undocumented parallel with these texts (Kay, 1996). Forty-four drugs, diluents, flavouring agents and emollients mentioned by Discorides are still listed in the official pharmacopoeias of Europe (Blunt and Raphael, 1994). The Puritans took Gerard's work to the United States where it influenced American Indigenous medicine (Kay, 1996). Francisco Hernandez, physician to King Phillip II of Spain spent the years 1571 - 1577 gathering information in Mexico and then wrote Rerum Medicarum Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus, many versions of which have been published including one by Francisco Ximenez. Both Hernandez and Ximenez fitted Aztec ethnomedicinal information into the European concepts of disease such as "warm", "cold", and "moist", but it is not clear that the Aztecs used these categories (Ortiz de Montellano, 1975). Juan de Esteyneffer's (Johann Steinhöfer) Florilegio medicinal de todas las enfermedas compiled European texts and added 35 Mexican plants. This Florilegio is still used by Mexican healers. Martin de la Cruz wrote an herbal in Nahauatl which was translated into Latin by Juan Badiano as Libellus de medicinalibus indorum herbis or Codex Barberini, Latin 241 and given to King Carlos V of Spain in 1552 (Heinrich et al., 2005). It was apparently written in haste and influenced by the European occupation of the previous 30 years. Fray Bernadino de Sahagún’s used ethnographic methods to compile his codices that then became the Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva Espana, published in 1793 (Heinrich et al., 2005). Castore Durante published his Herbario Nuovo in 1585 describing medicinal plants from Europe and the East and West Indies. It was translated into German in 1609 and Italian editions were published for the next century.

Maria Mies linked the burning of female herbalists as witches in Europe to the rise of capitalism and the development of male-dominated medicine and law in the Middle Ages. This argument has been followed more recently by Silvia Federici who writes that the witch burning was designed to crush the economic independence of women. "The persecution and burning of the midwives as witches was directly connected with the emergence of modern society: the professionalization of medicine, the rise of medicine as a ‘natural science’, the rise of science and of modern economy. The torture chambers of the witch-hunters were the laboratories where the texture, the anatomy, the resistance of the human body — mainly the female body — was studied. One may say that modern medicine and the male hegemony over this vital field were established on the base of millions of crushed, maimed, torn, disfigured and finally burnt, female bodies.

There was a calculated division of labour between Church and State in organizing the massacres and terror against the witches. Whereas the church representatives identified witches, gave theological justification and led the interrogations, the ’secular arm’ of the state was used to carry out the tortures and finally execute the witches on the pyre. Mies, 1986".

Oral Traditions

Indigenous medicine is usually unwritten and transmitted orally until someone "collects" it. Within a given culture, elements of indigenous medicine knowledge may be diffusely known by many adults, or may be gathered and applied by those in a specific role of healer, shaman, midwife, witch, or dealer in herbs.

In indigenous medicine there are three factors that legitimise the healer: the subjective reality of the healer; the objective reality based on his/her successful cures; and the belief systems of the community [locally and globally influenced] which impacts on the first two (Laguerre, 1987). Laguerre (1987) claims that rejected knowledge [like some types of indigenous or folk knowledge] has three types of adherents. Those born and socialised in it who would be permanent believers, temporary believers who turn to it in crisis times, and those who only believe in specific aspects, not in all of it. There are also three types of transmission of indigenous knowledge or medicine: the society and community, the family, and the individual (dreams).

The calypso excerpt below gives and example of how oral tradition can be transmitted to the next generation: Calypso: Long Time Remedy by Willard Harris, (Lord Relator) 1971. Verse 1 Nowadays if you sick you in plenty pain, Because it ain't have good medicine again Nowadays people does be sick for a week, Long time, one day you sick, next day you on your feet, I living at my granny, so I bound to know, You can't beat a remedy of long ago Long ago, if the cold giving you trouble, 'bois canoe, black sage tea, or some soft candle, vervine, Christmas bush or shado beni, bound to pass the cold immediately, It is my belief, you could settle yourself with soursop leaf, I say we have a right to take example, and try to live like the old people, because, as a youngster, I realise, de old people way of living is really wise. It's only recently, look I find it strange, old people used to live to a hundred and change, 'cause anything gone wrong with their body, they could find a suitable remedy

Elements in a specific culture are not necessarily integrated into a coherent system, and may be contradictory. For example Caribbean indigenous remedies fall into several classes: certain well-known European medicinal herbs introduced by the early Spaniard colonists that are still commonly cultivated; indigenous wild and cultivated plants, the uses of which have been adopted from the Amerindians; and ornamental or other plants of relatively recent introduction for which curative uses have been invented without any historical basis (Morton, 1975). This invention would have been facilitated by the widespread introduction of plant species from all over the world for ornamental and medicinal reasons (Bayley, 1949).

Modern Connotations

Indigenous medicine is sometimes associated with quackery when practiced as theatrics or otherwise practiced fraudulently, and sometimes with witchcraft and often with shamanism, yet it may also preserve important knowledge and cultural tradition from the past. Practicing scientists sometimes go out of their way to suppress alternative medicine (see Angell and Kassirer, 1998 and BMJ 2007 September 29; 335(7621)). In a fertility survey (Anderson and Cleland, 1984) women who said they used herbs as contraceptives (93.5 % of women in Bangladesh) were placed in the category 'not using'. However unbiased scientific analysis requires that all knowledge claims be subjected to a minimalist standard of rationality that requires that belief be apportioned to evidence and that no assertion about indigenous medicine or 'theory' be immune from or rejected without critical assessment (see Hawkesworth, 1989). The International Council for Science (ICSU) was asked to carry out a study on the concept of 'traditional knowledge' (Dickson, 1999) in the context of the signing of the Declaration on Science and the Framework for Action at the 1999 World Conference on Science in Budapest, and the 26th General Assembly of the ICSU in Cairo, Egypt (Nakashima and Guchteneire, 1999). Prior to the signing debate took place on whether indigenous knowledge (IK) was scientific or not and scientists expressed surprise at seeing the issue on the agenda. Scientists suggested that including indigenous and traditional knowledge on the agenda might lend ill-deserved credibility to IK or open the door to anti- and pseudoscientific approaches like creationism and astrology. Nakashima and Guchteneire (1999) wondered whether the discomfort of the scientists might be related to their unwillingness to view science as one knowledge system among many. The debate led to a discussion on the nature of scientific knowledge itself; for example what makes the theory of natural evolution 'scientific' and thus distinguishable from astrology when neither can be replicated or reproduced? (Anon, 1999).

Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine is an aspect of indigenous medicine - the use of gathered plant parts to make teas, poultices, or powders that purportedly effect cures. There has been a Spanish Catholic contribution to indigenous medicine in Trinidad. Growers and sellers of culinary herbs in Paramin (north-west Trinidad) spoke of a belief that if someone dug up a clump of fowl foot grass (Eleusine indica) on Good Friday they would get a piece of coal below the roots. White/red physic nut (Jatropha curcas / gossypifolia), if cut on Good Friday would produce the blood of Jesus. Spanish-Romanic prayers called oracion are used during a healing ceremony called santowah (Bill Plander) that is the Spanish equivalent of jharay (a similar Hindu religious healing ceremony). Moodie (1982) claims that the oracion prayers were brought to Trinidad with the conquistadors. The santowah ceremony includes sweet broom (Scoparia dulcis) used to sprinkle holy water. A similar healing ceremony is conducted in Almería, Spain (Martínez-Lirola et al. 1996) . In Trinidad and Tobago red cloths are hung around the neck of young animals to protect them from the evil eye. This practice is also found in Tuscany (Pieroni 2000).

One problem in getting the attention of modern medicine is that most research is funded by those who hope to eventually make a profit from such research. For example, honey has been a part of many folk cures, but it is common and cheap (compared to pharmaceuticals), but it is difficult to fund any research of its effectiveness. Another factor is that scientists' reputations hinge on the validity of their research conclusions (Ikerd, 1993). To ignore the existence of something real means a scientist fails to make a discovery -disappointing but not harmful to the reputation, so scientists are more willing to do this than take conclusion risks. Replication and comparison are emphasized by scientists.

American indigenous medicine

In the United States, an old indigenous medicine field called apitherapy, in which bee stings or venom is used to aid victims of autoimmune disorders like arthritis or multiple sclerosis, is receiving renewed interest in recent years.

"Vermont indigenous medicine" was a supposed local form of indigenous medicine from which D.C. Jarvis claimed to derive his "cures" during the 1950s. Apple cider vinegar was a major ingredient in the mixtures prescribed by Dr. Jarvis. Jarvis' 1955 book, "Folk Medicine", is widely considered quackery by both allopathic doctors and herbalists alike, and Jarvis was incarcerated for a short time on the suspicion that the book was an illegal form of promotional prop for a product that he was selling. The book also contained dozens and dozens of patent untruths, such as the claim that sugar is alkaline. Mennonite and Amish European migrants in the 18th and 19th century brought their indigenous medicine with them to America. They utilized oral traditions, farm almanacs, manuals and handwritten recipes to preserve their knowledge.

See also


  • Folk Medicine by D.C. Jarvis, 1955. (ISBN 0-449-20880-X)
  • Anderson, J.E., Cleland, J.G. 1984. The world fertility survey and contraceptive prevalence surveys: a comparison of substantive results. Studies in Family Planning 15, p. 7. In: Riddle, J.M. 1991. Oral contraceptives and early-term abortifacients during Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Past and Present 132, 3 - 32.
  • Anon, 1999. Caution: Traditional knowledge: principles of merit need to be spelt out in distinguishing valuable knowledge from myth. Nature 401 (6754), 623.
  • Angell, M and J.P. Kassirer. 1998. "Alternative medicine - the risks of untested and unregulated remedies." Editorial. The New England Journal of Medicine 339 : 839 - 841.
  • Eisenstein ,H. Book review. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2004)
  • Blunt, W., Raphael, S. 1994. The Illustrated Herbal. Thomas and Hudson Inc., New York. 190 pp.
  • Dickson, D. 1999. ICSU seeks to classify 'traditional knowledge'. News. Nature 401 (6754), 631.
  • Foster, G.M. 1953. Relationships between Spanish and Spanish-American folk medicine. Journal of American Folklore 66, 201- 217.
  • Hawkesworth, M. 1989. Knowers, knowing, known: Feminist theory and claims of truth. Signs 14 (3), 533 - 557.
  • Heaven, Ross. 'Plant Spirit Shamanism: Traditional Techniques for Healing the Soul'. Vermont: Destiny Books, 2006. ISBN 1-59477-118-9
  • Heinrich, M., Andrea Pieroni, Paul Bremner. 2005. Plants as medicines. In Prance,G. & M.Nesbitt (editors). Cultural history of plants. Routledge: Oxon and New York. Pp 205 – 238.
  • Ikerd, J.E. 1993. The question of good science. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture 8 (2), 91 - 93.
  • Kay, M.A. 1996. Healing with plants in the American and Mexican West. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 315 pp.
  • Laguerre, M. 1987. Afro-Caribbean folk medicine. Bergin and Garvey Publishers Inc. Massachusetts, USA.
  • Lans C: Creole Remedies of Trinidad and Tobago
  • Nakashima, D. and Paul de Guchteneire 1999. 'Science and other systems of knowledge' : A new impetus for indigenous knowledge from the World Conference on Science. Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor 7 (3), 40.
  • Martínez-Lirola, M.J., González-Tejero, M. R., Molero-Mesa, J. 1996a. Ethnobotanical resources in the province of Almería, Spain: Campos de Nijar. Economic Botany 50 (1) 40 - 56.
  • McGrath, William R. Amish Folk Remedies for Plain and Fancy Ailments. 1981.
  • Hostetler, John A. Amish Society. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980: 313-32.
  • Mies, Maria. 1986. Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale - Women in the International Division of Labor. Zed Books, 1986.
  • Moodie, S. 1982. Some supersititions and beliefs of Hispano Trinidadians. In: Myth and superstition in Spanish-Caribbean literature. Conference Papers: Fifth Conference of Hispanists. University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, 6 - 9 July, 1982. Pp 220 - 268.
  • Pieroni, A. 2000. Medicinal plants and food medicines in the folk traditions of the upper Lucca Province, Italy. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 70 (3), 235 - 273.
  • Morton, J.F. 1975. Current folk remedies of northern Venezuela. Quarterly Journal of Crude Drug Research 13, 97 - 121.
  • Slikkerveer, L. Jan. 1990. Plural medical systems in the horn of Africa: The legacy of 'Sheikh' Hippocrates. Kegan Paul International, London and New York. 324 pp.
  • Strobel, M. Baj. 1985. Book review of Alice Peeters Représentations et pratiques populaires relatives à l'environment et a la santé aux Antilles Françaises, I: La Martiniques. Paris: CNRS. Nieuwe West-Indische Gids 59 (3-4), 244 - 247.
  • Tan, M.L. 1989. Traditional or transitional medical systems? Pharmacotherapy as a case for analysis. Social Science and Medicine, 29 (3), 301 - 307.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Folk_medicine". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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