Folk medicine is a part of Lithuanian traditional culture. It contains information not only about illnesses, but also methods of healing, how to avoid illness, protecting health, healing wounds and care. Folk medicine contains much information about normal body changes – maturity, old age, pregnancy, body anatomy, physiology. Here we will find botanical, pharmacological and mineralogy information.
HEALTH AND CONCEPTS of ILLNESS
Ancient Baltic cultures know that Lithuanians understood and understand health to be the second part of the Soul. However, in cases of shock and sudden pain and great agitation it can leave the body making the person weak and weak to disease. A healthy person can become sick when frightened for long periods of time or fear becomes an everyday issue. Lithuanian ancestors tried to explain what is illness and its causes. They knew how to avoid illnesses and how to foretell the possibility of illness. Folk medicine information discerns illnesses as malfunctioning of internal organs, which can be contagious or hereditary and even due to influences of people and events that make you stressful or uncomfortable in life or not feeling respected or cared for.
Some illnesses are caused by water, earth, worms found in the body, from fleas, snakes, frogs or birds who had gotten into the body. It was believed that a person became ill after killing a snake. A snake can enter the body through the mouth while the person is asleep and make him ill. Fleas found on the body will make the person waste away. There is also a belief from ancient times that a person has a headache because his combed out and cut hair is thrown out and is collected by birds that build nests with that hair.
Cosmic and atmospheric occurrences were held as sources of illnesses. It was believed that man can become ill from moonlight and that solar and lunar eclipses are injurious to health due to fallout of dangerous mists. Man sleeping under the light of the moon would sleepwalk, climb over fences and even roofs. It was forbidden to awaken a sleepwalker, call to him, for when awakened he could fall and be killed. To keep moonlight out of children’s rooms, a doll was placed in the window.
The belief that wind brings illness remains throughout the country. A vortex can be responsible for very serious and varied illnesses, to people and animals as well. This wind causes dizziness and paralysis. Skin problems come from other causes. It was thought that carbuncles were caused by dog scratches and herpes occurred when crossing fields where horses rolled. Pimples appear from spring water florescence, thus one avoided washing in it.
Ancient beliefs show that Illness was given the image of a supernatural woman. Before the plague of Black Death, beings walking about resembling a women, bareheaded with narrow eyes, dressed all in white. They were seen near peoples’ doors, breaking windows appeared in dreams calling people by their names. Those who answered their calls, died instantly. Illnesses were visualized as driving around in wagons, chariots and troughs. We know today that our soul is this woman all in white and when we begin to have soul loss, the more she has left (selling our soul), the more likely we are sick either this life or others. It accumulates.
Evil souls can turn into dark dogs, mice, bats, and can cause illness in people by being in their dreaming environment, frightening and stealing from them vital life force. They ambushed by hiding in trees, soil and water. Evil souls, who took up residence in man’s body, were the cause of pneumonia, tuberculosis, heart problems, Black Death and cholera. By kissing people at night, they would make them ill.
The sources of most illnesses were varied, sorcery practices, giving and leaving bewitched foods, tying grain with bewitched knots. Different pains start when witches send shots into the body.
Witches can disturbed peoples’s sleep, also made them ill, frightening them and casting evil eyes. Evil eyes were also injurious to adult health. It was deleterious to step over a person, especially a child, for then he would not grow and would not be well. Lithuanian women were also dream healers. It was believed that if a woman dream of a man caressing and kissing her, it means that she will be caressed by illness. Seeing two moons in a dream means not only illness but also death.
If one heard an owl hooting nearby, a dog howling, both sounds forecast illness. Should a clucking hen be heard, cuckoos bird in a dry tree, a bird hitting a window, all these announce illness or death.
In Lithuanian folk traditions, healing was the duty and right of family elders. All healing information was handed down orally from generation to generation. Members of the household or relatives most often took care of the ill person. Only when one’s own people did not help then one turned for help from herbalists, charmers and sorcerers. Broken bones were set by bone specialists. Birthing was helped by old women. Significant healing methods and charmings were always kept secret and were used on carefully selected people, taking into account their moral and physical characteristics and their ability. A portion of folk medicine information was known and accessible to many society members.
From ancient times, women treated sick people. Women were familiar with many herbs, also knew how to cast lots. Men were charmers, they bled and more often healed dislocated, broken bones and also treated sick animals. Large part of Lithuanian folk medicine consists of information about healing methods. Folk medicine researchers think that Lithuanians knew more than 200 mineral, 500 animal materials, 150 lower and 2000 higher plant raw materials.
Illnesses were treated with yeast, mushrooms, lichens, mosses and lycopodiums. The most common method in folk medicine healing is using medicinal plants. This method has been in use for centuries. It is said that there is no plant that cannot be used medicinally. Lithuanians had ancient names for most plants and knew which plants to use for particular healings, body, work and house hygiene. It was also established which parts to use, when to pick, how to prepare, use and in what quantities. There were warnings that medicinal plants can cause poisonings. Herbal grasses were collected before noon, for they sleep in the afternoon and their medicinal activity is lower then. Buds were picked very early in spring, before they opened. Plants were collected into baskets, placed in single layers to dry in clean, dry and airy attics. Roots were washed, thick ones were cut up to speed their drying. Dried herbs were placed into linen bags and hung in dry, well-ventilated places. Medicinal plants were collected according to their healing properties and used for teas and cordials. There is a famous magical three nines alcoholic herbal extract used in Lithuanian folk medicine. Ointments were made mixing finely crushed herbs and roots with unsalted animal fats and butter, honey, oils and other materials.
Herbal remedies were drunk 2-3 times per day, on an empty stomach, at bedtime when all is quiet. Fresh herbs were placed directly on the painful spot. The patient was incensed with herbs and was bathed in herbal infusions. Illness had to be removed not only from the inside but also from the outside by washing away. Those suffering from head, joint or rheumatic pains slept on mattresses stuffed with healing herbs. Garlic and horse’s shanks were worn around the neck to protect from contagious illnesses. Analogous plants were used because their color, shape or odor reminded of the particular illness. Blueberries that reminded eye color, were used for eye problems. For jaundice, plants of yellow color were used, carrots, greater celandine and dandelion. Beans resembling kidneys were used for kidney problems. For hemorrhages, yarrow was placed directly on the wound. Comfrey infusion was drunk for broken bones. Periwinkle was used to increase men’s strength.
Animal source drugs, gall, milk, blood, urine, egg shells, ground insects, reptiles and mineral source drugs, stone, rust, salt, metals, chalk were used for healing. Honey and its by products, bee resins, bee’s milk, pollen and bee stings were widely applied.
Another healing product was dried snake, soaked in alcohol. Liver ailments were soothed using animal gall, for lung ailments dog and badger fats were used. Milk from goats, sheep and mares, calf’s liver were taken to strengthen asthenia. Often to treat certain illnesses, animal urine and dung were used. Others would use dried bees soaked in water. To heal from diphtheria a cooked toad was drunk. Sufferers from rheumatic pains either were washed in anthill water or were laid upon an anthill. Separate illnesses were treated with grease from rabbits, badgers and geese. Fresh and oxidized bacon was also used. If after a severe chill there was chest pain, a cloth soaked in salt water or cabbage leaves covered with butter were placed on the chest.
Clay, sand, mud, earth and ashes were the mineral healing products. Often areas that hurt were rubbed with stones, stone slivers and with flint. For headaches the head was rubbed with iron. Open sores in the head were washed with alum or lead water. Silver and mercury protected from spell castings. Water plays an important role in Lithuanian folk medicine. Spring water, window dew, water from a hole in a stone and charmed water were considered healers. Water drawn on Easter Sunday was very healing. Also getting soaked by the first rain in May, meant good growth for hair and for children.
A very popular folk medicine healing place was the bathhouse where seriously ill were steamed, bled, massaged and whipped with brush wood. Women also gave birth in bathhouses. Leeches and glass cups were placed on sore spots. Other healing methods were also used. When chilled a hot brick was placed near the feet; feet were also soaked in salted and ashen hot water. When one ran a high fever, ice was placed near the head.
Fire also played an important role in many healings. Holy candles had magic and healing powers. Surgical and mechanical methods were applied for fractures, sprains and carbuncles. Bleeding would be done by placing leeches or slashing veins. Often several healing methods were used at the same time. A separate healing group is made of casting lots, charming, holy places and plants with magical powers. Illness was chased out in many ways. It was considered as a being, inside or near the body. To remove it one brushed the body or wore smelly garlic to keep the illness away. If frightened by a dog, the fright can be removed by a dog’s bark. A person with high fever was driven about in an empty wagon, so that the fever would be shaken out. Illness could be washed away by bathing at sunrise and sunset on sacred days.
It was believed that illness can rot and burn, it can be vomited out. Illness was chased away to dry trees, to vacant houses and into bogs. Illness could also be sucked out. Often mothers sucked on ill eyes and spat three times, believing that there would be no more problems. Other illnesses were chased out by squeezing, shaking, blowing, whipping away or knotting. Some rheumatic problems were healed with magic means. If the wrist was hurting, a red yarn was knotted up to 81 knots, then tied around the wrist and remained on the wrist until it fell off. Sometimes fire and smoke were used to chase away illness. Taking magic birches and nettle stalks, illness was flogged. Healing was done using dead body’s bones, teeth and fingers. Fingers of dead body were rubbed on body moles, warts and herpes. It was believed that illness could be left behind at crossroads. Eating a snake, a person obtained the capacity to shed illness just like the snake sheds her skin. Snakes were also used to heal skin problems. It was said that after eating a snake, hair, nails and skin fall off, but after awhile all grow back.
Special powers were given to the wedding sash, which was used to gird the person after a snake bite; also to mother’s wedding band, by placing it on warts, erysipelas and various body moles; also to shirts worn during birthing, placenta and the umbilical cord. The latter two were dried and sprinkled on wounds, swellings and bleedings.
In many places to turn away approaching illness was tried by frightening, duping and deceiving it. It was believed that when there was danger of Black Death or other plagues, spun, warped, wound and woven in one-day linen fabric can protect people from this horror. This linen piece would be laid on the road leading into the village.
Often illness was linked to correct causes. After being frightened by a man or a dog, both their hairs was smoked over the frightened person. It was believed that nerve problems were caused by black evil souls and because of this, healing was accomplished by using black objects, often with black dog or cat, black hen. Healing certain illnesses, the actual behavior was caused by belief in opposite results. For example, preparing medication to stop bleeding, the tree bark was scrapped from bottom to top. To heal constipation the tree was scrapped from top to bottom.
Magic numbers (3, 7, 9, and 27) were very important in healing illnesses. They had to assure that the illness would not recur and not return. Healing herpes, the sore spot was encircled three times. Warts were treated with three peas. Those who stammered were tied up for 3 days in three rounds, containing 27 knots. To heal a terribly frightened person, 7 grains were used.
Incantations – charmings, made up a separate active, magic group. A special magic power was given to the particular spoken word. Christianity influenced incantations and many Christian elements are used.
Incantations were used to heal frights, erysipelas, snake bites, hemorrhages, joint problems, herpes, toothaches, hiccups and other ailments.
Different incantations are bound by special rituals. They are practiced at sunrise or sunset, while staring at the sun or at a full or new moon. Incantations are done on bread, flour, salt, honey, water, whisky and wind. Special words are spoken while pouring candles or lead into water. No breath should be taken while the incantation prayer is repeated, usually 3 or 9 times. Paper cards or ears of grain are also used in incantations and such items are either eaten, tied to parts that are sore, water is drunk or used to wash. Scent is released towards the ill person or is blown 3 times towards him. If the incantation did not help, it was said that the blood of both the charmer and the person charmed did not match or that there was no illness in the person charmed. There is also no help when one does not believe in incantations.
Charmers do not take money for their incantations because this ability is God’s gift to them. They keep their prayers and incantation methods to themselves, so as not to lose their powers. However, the charmer was prepared to pass on his incantation methods on his deathbed, to the youngest or oldest family member.
The ritual places of ancient religion were known to have healing powers. They were located on castle hills, in ancient settlements, village territories or in very remote places. The main elements of ancient ritual sites were forests, water, hills and fire.
With the arrival of Christianity, roadside chapels were built on the ancient ritual sites. Tradition still exists to visit these sites and ask for good health. People pray near springs, offer money and wash painful body parts in the water of the spring. They also pray near trees, hang holy relics on them. Prayers are also said near holy stones where offerings of money, flax and other items are laid.
It was believed that trees are live beings, like people, huge oaks, lindens, mountain ashes were worshipped because people believed in their healing powers and the gifts they give humans. In Nibūdžiai there was a holy pine tree with a branch resembling a hand. Near Šiluva there was another pine tree, with a branch resembling a pipe, whose bark was used to heal various illnesses. Historical sources tell how ill people were put through a hole in a tree formed by two branches, with the belief of total healing. In Nibūdžiai there grew a notched pear tree, near which people came to heal. In Vėliuva sick children were brought to heal under a tree whose branches had grown into a circle.
Historical sources tell of an ancient oak tree, which grew in East Prussia in the 16th and 17th centuries. Lithuanians came from faraway to heal physically handicapped, paralysis, bad eyes, hand and feet. They would climb on ladders, push painful parts of the body into tree openings or they would push the entire body through the tree opening and would walk 3 times around the oak tree. Each ill person hung an offering on the tree branches. Women offered their headdress; sashes and men offered money. Trees with healing powers were found throughout Lithuania.
It is noted in Lithuanian folk traditions that sterile or ill women tied beautifully embroidered aprons on special trees asking for children and health. Upon arrival of Christianity, such aprons were tied on wayside crosses.
Trees had other magic powers and everyone was aware of them. In Lithuania tradition exists on Palm Sunday to flog each other with osier branches, saying “ it is not I who is flogging you, the palm is flogging you, Easter is one week away, be healthy like a fish”, or they would say, “ illness out, health in”. There was tradition of shutting up illness in a tree. People suffering from epilepsy or from many warts, tied many knots on strings, went to the woods, drilled a hole in a large tree, stuffed the knotted string into the hole and closed the hole with a cork and ran away, not looking back with the hope of getting well.
There were wax statues depicting an ill person or any other part of his body. These statues were sacrificed under trees or in holy places. Even though Catholic priests were against this ancient tradition, they were not able to erase it. They finally allowed these statues to be offered in churches to Jesus and Mary, later they were hung in churches near pictures of saints.
Now Lithuanian folk medicine is researched thoroughly. All information is collected by complex ethnographic expeditions and is published. The folk medicine card index can be located at the History Institute, the ethnographic section of the Academy of Science. Since 1992, Lithuanian Folk Culture Center organizes expeditions, which collect, decipher and systemize all folk medicine information. Elements of folklore are investigated [K.Grigas, A.Jonynas], the meaning of folk medicine to medical studies and practice [E.Kanopka, E.Šimkūnaitė, K.Vaitkevičius, A.Vileišis], its view of psychic illnesses [J.Šarkus], aspects of dentistry [E.Prailgauskaitė], information about cancer [V.Kutorga], surgery [B.Siaurusaitis], compiling bibliography of folk medicine [E.Grineckaitė].
Parts of folk medicine are used in medical studies, while botanists, ethnographers and linguists investigate folk medicine information.
Written by Rita Balkutė translated by Giedrė Ambrozaitienė
Photos – Illustration for Latvian folk song collection “Dainas”, Ancient vertical bee hives made of logs, forests of Siauliai, Lietuvia, Charms of Lithuania, Dalia Stalauskienė