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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).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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