FOLK MEDICINE (Ethnomedicine)
Common survival sense of humans anywhere on Earth have always looked for causal links to understand, shape and control the world around them. No one can argue that "common sense" is a core behavior for survival of a species. Historically, Aristotle described common sense (Latin: sensus communis) as a person's ability or power to judge or integrate the various impressions this person has gathered through his or her external senses in order to derive commonalities in them. In the 18th century, the Scottish School of Common Sense argued that common sense (folk) beliefs determine earliest our lives and are built upon a common understanding. Parents would help their children survive the elements by teaching them "common sense." Today's purist's meaning of the constructed term, yields what people in common would agree on what "makes sense", produces a "gut feeling". In this vein, Common Sense is equivalent to what people believe or are convinced they know. And yet, in the end we have to stay with Olson's Schooling that the transformation of common sense leads to a person of mental health. [Common sense: the foundations for social science. Edited by Van Holthoon F, Olson D. Lanham, Md: University Press of America; 1987:319-340] Numerous books have been devoted to common sense, but "Common sense is like sanity; everybody needs it, but nobody can define it". In Folk Medicine, we find one of its manifestations that has allowed humanity to thrive and survive.
Traditional medicine (also known as indigenous or folk medicine) comprises medical aspects of traditional knowledge that developed over generations within various societies before the era of modern medicine. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines traditional medicine as "the sum total of the knowledge, skills, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness". Traditional medicine is contrasted with scientific medicine.
I feel, however, Folk Medicine comprises its own subject fo study since Traditional Medicines are associated with systems we call Traditional Chinese Medicine, Aztec Medicine, Unani, Ayurveda, etc. Thus Folk Medicine is associated with earlier and less formulated modalities of medicine associated with all cultures adopting common sense survival. In the written record, for example the study of herbs dates back 5,000 years to the ancient Sumerians, who described well-established medicinal uses for plants. In Ancient Egyptian medicine, the Ebers papyrus from c. 1552 BC records a list of folk remedies and magical medical practices. The Old Testament also mentions herb use and cultivation in regards to Kashrut. But it was Folk methods that established these ancient uses of herbs long before. And more so than herbs for medicinal purposes, but also all objects and life were used as medicines - salts, rocks, leeches, maggots, honey, amulets, gemstones, waters, caves, dirt, excrements, eggs, insects, etc.
Folk medicine, proper, is thus a "A general term for any system of healthcare practised among natives of a particular cultural group, the effectiveness of which hinges on belief in chosen treatment (e.g., plants, rituals, charms and others) more than its actual proven efficacy." More definitively, it can be called an "Ethnomedicine":
1. medical systems based on the cultural beliefs and practices of specific ethnic groups.
2. Any of a number of traditional, often aboriginal, medical systems that use native plants and herbs, which may be administered by a medicine man, witch doctor, curandero or shaman. Ethnomedical practitioners generally receive their education through a long apprenticeship, and may administer the therapy in a ritual and evoke the help of a deity. Ethnic medical practice is waning in cultures influenced or colonised by Western civilisation. [Segen's Medical Dictionary]
Thus, a fascinating, historical study of folk ethnomedicine reveals that many"old wives' tales", soldier's first aid, a mother's helper, a father's fix, and herbal simples actually make good medical sense.
Has your grandma ever suggested that you treat a sty by boiling a tea bag and placing it on your eye for thirty minutes?
Well, the tea bag will absorb any pus or exudate while the tannic acids from the tea leaves act as an antibiotic!
Has your grandpa ever suggested that you treat your winter-chapped hands by urinating on them and rubbing them vigorously?
Yes, the urea in your urine will do the trick. Old time construction worker's will tell you, if you cut your hand or fingers and your miles away from a first aid kit, simply urinate on your hand in the meantime, it will prevent an infection! Urine is sterile in a normal, healthy person.
Did grandpa ever tell you how he used to go to the local apothecary shop and buy leeches to bring down the swelling of a contusion, bruise, or sprained ankle?
Did the old woman down the street ever encourage you to eat a bit of choice clay to take care of your morning sickness or diarrhea?
If you are like most people living in pop culture, you have heard about folk remedies such as these and your immediate reaction might be - "You must be kidding!"
The fact is, Folk Medicine is the mother of Herbalism! It started with ‘simples’, an herbal tea for an ache or pain, and then progressed to formulas of herbals as civilization progressed. In time, this would transform into a Humoral system, as I have reported on earlier.
Folk Medicine is also the mother of First Aid.
Many books citing the history of acupuncture cite that ancient man learned how to use pointed rocks and stones to stimulate topical sites on the skin for relief of pain. Military men saw the wisdom of splinting and bandaging for battlefield wounds. A 5,300-year-old deep frozen hunter apparently used moss as a primitive form of first aid. Glasgow University researcher James Dickson discovered that an Otzi Neolithic iceman had six different types of mosses in his stomach when he died. One called sphagnum imbricatum, is a natural antiseptic and could have been used to heal wounds that were found adhered on his back and hands.
Making a sincere study of old books and manuscripts of earlier times, people who took the waters at Bath or Lourdes or Baden-Baden and claimed that their liver or kidney complaints or their palsies miraculously disappeared were true accounts. In the 18th century, many famous doctors recommended such visits to the healing the springs, and 'taking the cure' of world famous waters in Europe.
Physicians throughout history have put together poultices of herbs, oats, honey, yeast, milk, moldy bread and similar ingredients and asserted their healing benefits on gunshot wounds, cuts, burns and ulcers. Does any of this make any medical sense at all?
Remember, people in medieval times may not have been able to read, but they were not stupid, they had common sense. They survived and their legacy is our very civilization that survives!
There are a litany of folk therapies measuring up to scientifically sound clinical trials and making a comeback in modern hospitals as accepted forms of treatment. In some cases, treatments as old as history itself are out-performing the latest technological advances in trauma centers and surgeries around the world. Consider some examples.
Maggots and most people cringe and shudder, just like snakes, an almost universal fear. Maggots are the worm-like larvae of flies found with rotting garbage and decay. The very idea that maggots could be used in medicine is almost unthinkable in today's world. However, there is lots of evidence that the ancient peoples, Mayans and Australian Aborigines, amongst others, used maggots for infected wounds. Its simply nature, as flesh rots, mother nature takes back that which is hers (dust to dust). And so did a few American surgeons used maggots during the Civil War and World War I. Even today, some hospital physicians use them. As long as healers, whether in the past or the present, have used the right species of fly, the larvae will only eat dead tissue and the bacteria it contains. At the same time, they excrete sterilizing chemicals. Maggots do not eat living tissue, they stop eating, leaving the wound clean of contaminating material and well on the way to healing. In essence, they do a good job of surgical debridement.
Leeches inspire a similar disgust as maggots but they are part of folk medicine. The leech has been in folk and humoral medicine for centuries as a natural bloodletting tool. Doctors, surgeons, and folk healers in the past and around the world have used them whenever the removal of blood from the body was medically indicated: to lower fevers, to ease chest pain associated with angina, to treat high blood pressure, and to reduce contusions, bruises, and sprained ankles. These particular uses have been medically validated.
Maggots and leeches are not the only remnants of past medicines:
- Honey was used by ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Indians, and Africans for treating amputations, ulcers, burns, and other major wounds. Physicians in trauma clinics in the U. S., Europe, and Latin America have rediscovered this ancient practice and use honey or sugar pastes to cure infections when modern surgical techniques and antibiotics have failed. Some surgeons even lower the risk of infection after open heart surgery by packing the heart with sugar!
- One of the best-selling drugs in the world derived from a concoction of female hormones used to
treat post-menopausal problems coming from urine. The Chinese were
distilling urine to treat infertility and hot flashes a
thousand years ago. Today we routinely test pregnancy by a urine sample.
- Taking a close look at urine, there are many uses.
Urea, a major component of urine from your body's protein metabolism,
is a primary component of age-old use as an antiseptic and skin
conditioner. Rubbing your chapped
hands or a cut finger in urine is not as crazy as it sounds have a long and valid use. At one time, urea was used to treat cancer.
- Even dirt has medicinal properties. Thousands of years ago, people ate various clays to treat intestinal distress, nibbled a bit of the soil around Magnesia in Greece to settle their stomachs, or ingested pottery-like material called kaolin to treat a poisoning. We still do these things. Kaopectate contains kaolin, a white clay from which we also make fine china clay. Milk of magnesia is literally the same chemical stuff that used to be mined in ancient Greece. And Fuller's earth, a special soil is still used to treat people who become poisoned with various insecticides or to stop diarrhea.
Even before Shamans, we could say, FOLK MEDICINE is the mother of all medicines, while Shamanism is the father of humoral medical systems.
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