Carpathian folk medicine trail

“Health and good conscience is like rich property” 1). It is difficult to disagree with this folk proverb. The rural community perceived health of body and spirit as the most precious value. read more

The Carpathian folk medicine trail leads us through the places described and explored in this area by ethnographers. Let us begin our journey in the Gorlice district. In the monograph of this region, we may find interesting information on the occurrence of diseases and magic treatment2). It was commonly believed there that witches were able to cast charms on people. A “charmed” man suffered from headaches and became weaker and weaker. As the therapy, “charm removal” was applied.

“For example, in Bystra such a man had to wash himself in water in which three glowing small pieces of coal were put out and while washing, he had to say “one from a man, one from wind, one from a woman”. After washing, water was poured out onto a pole to prevent it from doing harm to anyone and the pot was turned bottom up, so that evil spirits left it. In Bartne, the charm removal procedure was a little different. Into water, which later on was given to the patient to drink, nine pieces of coal were thrown and counted backwards (9, 8, 7 ...)”.3)

If the regular methods failed, then people asked for help a witch doctor called by the Lemkos bacza or wróż. “The most recommended, by witch doctors, methods for charm removal were various types of warding off (...) and incensing or medicines they made using various, kept in the utmost secrecy ingredients in a form of herbs picked under special circumstances or miraculous ointments. In 1929, near Leszczyny lived a famous magician, who on the St. Paul’s day was going at the sunrise to bryżok (hill edge) and collected everything he “found alive” so moles, mice, frogs, etc. Then, he closed them in a pot and burnt them to ash, used as a medicine for various sufferings caused by charms”.4) In the Gorlice district, people knew peddlers from Bielanka and Łosie, who sold “birch-tar” i.e. tar mixed with herbs for incensing the patient. “Baczowie from Łosie (before World War I, there were about thirteen of them in the village) also carried with them small figurines made of dough or wax, representing various parts and organs of the human body (e.g. hands, legs, hearts, heads) which were supposed to be effective for conditions of those parts. It was enough that worożka whispered some spells over the heart made of dough and put it into fire and then incensed the person suffering from a heart disease to remove suffering “on the spot”.5)

The next place on our trail will be the Myślenice district. Just like in other regions, we may distinguish there two trends in folk medicine. One of them is medicine based on rational means available to all (herbs, compresses, baths), and the other is magical practices. “A magic method allegedly protecting against typhus was wearing silver earrings (Pcim, Tenczyn)”.6) Let us take a look at methods for treating eye diseases in the Myślenice district. “The most frequent mechanical injuries were foreign bodies falling into the eye. Visible contaminants were taken out using a hem of a clean linen handkerchief or washed out using spring water or lukewarm camomile infusion. In Jasienica, according to the old tradition, very helpful would be pouring into the contaminated eye some powder derived from dried and ground eyes of a crayfish. After this procedure, the eye was supposed to run heavily, during which a foreign body flowed out on its own. In Skomielna Czarna, in order to “lift” a contaminant onto the eyelid, from where it was easier to remove it, a compress with spirit was applied on the eye. In case of deep contamination of the eye, when all the above-mentioned home methods failed, people went to a specialist (such specialists were mostly women) able to remove foreign bodies through skillful licking them out with her tongue. According to materials obtained during field research, almost each village had such a village “oculist”. After the procedure, to relieve irritation of the eye, compresses with camomile infusion were usually applied”.7) Any inflammations of the eye were treated by instilling under the eyelid some breast milk, preferably from a mother feeding her firstborn son (Wiśniowa, Jasienica, Poręba). Also, cow milk derived straight from the udder was injected into the eye. Sick eyes were washed with water from forest springs regarded as miraculous (Skomielna Czarna, Jasienica, Tenczyn). The inhabitants of Jasienica believed that the spring is miraculous when it does not freeze in winter.

Now let us look in Podhale.

Massages or rubbing were and are very popular there. They are used to treat various diseases, for example, rheumatism, arthritis, hernia.

“When he was sore, the masseuse applied butter or lard on him, from bottom to top, then, she wrapped him up and he did nothing for three days” (Mała Cicha 1910).8)

“Also water, applied internally and externally, played an important role in therapeutic treatments. Spring water, and sometimes also running water was used most often. All kinds of compresses, pouring with water and baths were applied. Water from a spring located at the Rusinowa Clearing, on so-called Wiktorówki, where there is a shrine and a statue of the Virgin Mary, is regarded as particularly therapeutic. At the foot of the Rusinowa Clearing, the village of Małe Ciche is situated. Water from Wiktorówki is also of priority importance there. One of the old informants from this village recalls healing of her son, who was six back then. “Various things happened in my life, Madam. My son was six when he fell ill with nuk (gastro-intestinal syndrome), he was bleeding, there was no doctor, he ate rusks and drank sour compote. He was sick for six weeks, was terribly weak. Once he called – give me water from the Virgin Mary. My husband brought water in a bottle, gave it to my son to drink it and applied it on his belly. Not even ten minutes later my son called: Mum, I am healthy and he sat down on the bed. The Virgin Mary and faith healed him (MC 1906)”.9)

The famous and reputable folk “doctors” in Podhale were:

Bronisława Bobak “Dożocka” from Ząb (died in 1993) – orthopedist, midwife, masseuse

Maria Galica „Dereciorka” from Ząb – midwife

Antonina Tylka „Sulejka” from Małe Ciche – midwife

Józef Grulak from Poronin – orthopedist

Jan Rusin from Bukowina Tatrzańska – orthopedist

Wojciech Bobak from Ząb – orthopedist

From Podhale, let us go to Beskid Sądecki.

Field research was carried out in Łącko, Obidza, Łomnica and Piwniczna in the years 1963-1980.10) As rational causes of diseases the following were mentioned: cold, inadequate food (too cold was harmful to the stomach, too hot to the teeth), the use of fertilizers, smoking cigarettes, physical injuries. The cause of the disease could be of cosmic nature (harmful action of moonlight and sunlight, lunar and solar eclipse, comets portending epidemics). The second category are nature-related causes – elements, world of plants, world of animals. Strong winds, bad air, improper water are adverse to health. The third category covers demonological-magical causes. A disease could be caused by witches through a verbal spell, touch, special things given to eat or buried under the threshold. A disease could be also the result of a charm, i.e. evil eye. Reportedly, one of seven siblings in the family, and especially the one who did not accept the sacrament of confirmation, always has evil eyes. Demonic characters such as południce, boginki or zmory could be the cause of a disease or death. Sometimes, a disease was considered a punishment for sins committed. Mental illnesses were the result of possession by the devil or serious experiences or inheritance in the family. “The cause of a disease could also be an inappropriate behaviour during certain annual holidays and especially on Christmas Eve. So, special caution should be kept during the Christmas Eve supper, because as a result of certain activities during this time one could secure health for oneself for the entire incoming year as well as develop a disease. People wishing to harm someone tried to put under the victim’s feet a bunch of key, a piece of chain, padlock etc., which was to cause serious diseases of the legs, severe pain and wounds. When eating supper, one had to be careful not to lean on their elbows because the consequence of such a behaviour was to be numbness of the hands and pains.”12). To prevent an epidemic, the village was ploughed around using a plough (Łącko, Piwniczna). The protection in the event of a charm was tying a red ribbon around the child’s wrist, cross one’s fingers into a fig sign, spitting three times – while saying the words “no charm”. A protective function was performed by carrying bryony herb. The root of Pimpinella – when eaten – protected against the plague. A clove of garlic was commonly worn as an amulet. On Christmas Eve, after coming back home from the Christmas midnight mass people washed themselves in running water, to secure health for themselves for the entire year (Łącko). “They washed themselves in water with coins, to be healthy and wealthy all year long” (Obidza, informant born in 1913);

„They looked for a silver coin and put it into water and washed themselves to be as healthy as a hard coin” (Łomnica, informant born in 1909). 11)

In Łącko, before the Easter breakfast, people drank holy water on Holy Saturday to be healthy. On the St. Błażej Day (3 February), apples and candles, which were to protect against diseases of the throat, were blessed. How were diseases diagnosed?Not always it required a direct contact with the patient; there were several methods: watching the eyes, visual inspection of the urine, visual inspection of the trauma, touch with the hands, watching the hands of the patient, their photography, clothes, possessions. Diseases were treated using rational (medicines of plant, animal and mineral origin) and irrational procedures. An example might be „warding off” thrush – children’s disease called in Beskid Sądecki żaba, studzienica, plugawka. “It consisted in saying secret prayers and formulas over the ill child and wiping its mouth with a red cloth. The texts of these utterances were generally kept in secret. (….) When the ill child was brought, the father took a red cloth and came out to the second chamber, so that no-one disturbed him, or went to the other corner of the chamber, where he crossed that cloth three times, saying the following formula:

I do not cross you with my power

but with divine help

With all Saints

And me myself, a sinful man following them

So that nothing did any harm to you

As to Christmas, which is once a year.

Then he said “Our Father”, „Hail Mary”, “Glory Be to the Father”, not saying “Amen” at the end of each prayer. When he finished, he approached the sick child and taking the red cloth, he wiped three times its tongue and oral cavity, saying “The frog had 10 frogs, of 10 there were 9, of 9 there were 8, of 8 there were 7, of 7 there were 6, of 6 there were 5, of 5 there were 4, of 4 there were 3, of 3 there were 2, of 2 there was 1 and of this one there was nothing”. He finished warding off by saying “I ward you off in the name of the Holy Trinity”, omitting, of course, the word “Amen”. As the informant recalls, her father had many clients and enjoyed recognition as a specialist in his field (informant born in 1923).”13)

For ulcers and wounds, the best medicine were ointments prepared at home.

„The most important component of these ointments is spruce resin i.e. tar. (....) you should melt resin in a pot, then pour it into another dish, leaving any dirt on the bottom, (...) add the same quantity of butter to it and half the quantity of beeswax. It is to simmer on very low fire until all the ingredients are blended and start unsticking from the pot, then pour it into a jar. Some add a small amount of spirit to this ointment. As they say, „it is better than penicillin” (Łącko, informant born in 1923).14)

In Beskid Sądecki, people were treated in the local specialists from Łącko, Obidza, Piwniczna, Kicznia, Zabrzeż, Zalesie, Stary Sącz, Szczawnica and from the village of Zawada near Nowy Sącz. The most famous folk doctors were orthopedists:

Maciej Dziedzina from Szczawnica (died 1960),

his disciple Jan Słowik „Korcipka”,

Wojciech Duda from the village of Zabrzeż near Łącko,

Józef Zieliński from Piwniczna.

A famous folk dentist was Pieter Kałużny from Kicznia near Łącko. „In the villages of Beskid Sądecki, the memory of Franciszek Gorczowski who lived in Kicznia (near Łącko) and used a magic therapy to a wide extent is still alive. People called him Gorczowski – the magician. He was said to have books on black magic and after talking with the patient, he went to the chamber, where he kept them. He also said some therapeutic magic spells there. The evidence of how much people believed in his extraordinary power of casting spells and contacts with supernatural beings was the fact that after his death (1951) his coffin was tied with chains, as people feared that the devil could jump out of it. In case of certain conditions, the inhabitants of the villages in Beskid Sądecki also made use of the help of the witch doctor from Harklowa near Dębno, called Grabinka, who also used irrational methods in her therapeutic activity” 15) The inhabitants of the entire area of the Polish Carpathians had extensive knowledge on herbal medicine. It regarded picking, drying and storage of medicinal plants and their use. People grew medicinal plants near their houses, in so-called herb gardens. Medicines, ointments, syrups, tinctures were made of them. The permanent life of highlanders with nature and exact knowledge of herbs made nature the best ally of people in the fight against diseases. At this point, we may not forget about Friar Cyprian – the monk living in the 18th century – botanist and herbalist – from the Red Monastery in Pieniny upon Dunajec. The herbarium he made is of “great historical value and (...) of not only botanic but also historical, linguistic, ethnographic and cultural importance”16). It is currently stored in the collections of the National Museum in Bratislava.

Footnotes

1) O.Kolberg, Proverbs – Warsaw 1977, p. 526

2) Upon the Ropa River - outline of the folk culture of the Gorlice district - Wydawnictwo Literackie Kraków

3) Upon the Ropa River - outline of the folk culture of the Gorlice district - Wydawnictwo Literackie Kraków, p. 304

4) Upon the Ropa River - outline of the folk culture of the Gorlice district - Wydawnictwo Literackie Kraków, p. 305

5) Upon the Ropa River - outline of the folk culture of the Gorlice district - Wydawnictwo Literackie Kraków, p. 305

6) M. Brylak, Folk medicine in: Monograph of the Myślenicki district, vol. 2 Folk culture, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków

7) M. Brylak, Folk medicine in: Monograph of the Myślenicki district, vol. 2 Folk culture, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków, p. 321

8) D. Tylkowa, Folk medicine in: Podhale, traditions in the contemporary rural culture, Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Library of Polish Ethnography, p. 400

9) D. Tylkowa, Folk medicine in: Podhale, traditions in the contemporary rural culture, Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Library of Polish Ethnography, p. 398

10) D. Tylkowa, Folk medicine in: Studies on the folk culture of Beskid Sądecki, Polish Academy of Sciences, Branch in Kraków, Ethnographic Commission 1985, pp. 33-51

11) D. Tylkowa, Folk medicine in: Studies on the folk culture of Beskid Sądecki, Polish Academy of Sciences, Branch in Kraków, Ethnographic Commission 1985, p. 39

12) D. Tylkowa, Folk medicine in the rural culture of the Polish Carpathians, tradition and contemporaneity, Polish Academy of Sciences IHKM, Ossolineum, p. 25

13) D. Tylkowa, Folk medicine in: Studies on the folk culture of Beskid Sądecki, Polish Academy of Sciences, Branch in Kraków, Ethnographic Commission 1985, pp. 41-42

14) D. Tylkowa, Folk medicine in: Studies on the folk culture of Beskid Sądecki, Polish Academy of Sciences, Branch in Kraków, Ethnographic Commission 1985, p. 49

15) D. Tylkowa, Folk medicine in the rural culture of the Polish Carpathians, tradition and contemporaneity, Polish Academy of Sciences IHKM, Ossolineum, pp. 37-38

16) Z. Radwanska-Paryska, Friar Cyprian of the Red Monastery and his herbarium in: Podhalański Yearbook vol. 3, p. 256

The route of the trail

The trail follows the ethnographic monographs, which I selected, from the area of the Polish Carpathians, where research was carried out on medical knowledge of folk medicine. These monographs are:

1. Upon the Ropa River - outline of the folk culture of the Gorlice district - Bystra, Leszczyny, Bartne, Bielanka, Łosie

2. Monograph of the Myślenice district, vol. 2 - Folk culture of the village - Pcim, Tenczyn, Jasienica, Poręba, Skomielna Czarna, Zawada, Wiśniowa.

3. Podhale, tradition in the contemporary culture of the villages – Małe Ciche, Rusinowa Clearing, Wiktorówki, Bukowina Tatrzańska, Poronin, Ząb

4. Studies on the folk culture of Beskid Sądecki - Folk medicine in the rural culture of the Polish Carpathians

Villages – Łącko, Obidza, Piwniczna, Łomnica, Kicznia, Zabrzeż, Harklowa, Zalesie, Stary Sącz, Zawada, Nowy Sącz, Szczawnica

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