We’ve already seen how string can be used to “tie off” warts, but it can also be used in a lot of different folk remedies. One example to start us off comes from Vance Randolph:
“’Tying of chills’ was still practiced in Christian County, Missouri, as late as 1934. You take a string and measure the patient’s girth at the chest, then go to the woods alone, never looking back, and find a tree of exactly the same measurement. First tying one knot in the string for each chill that the patient has had, you fasten the string about the tree at the height of the patient’s chest. Do not look back at the string after it is tied around the tree, and do not tell anybody about the matter until you are sure that the patient has fully recovered.”
“Tying off” sickness with string is a common theme in several different folk magic traditions. One remedy is to measure the part of the body where the ailment lies, for example if it were a hurt arm you would measure the arm from shoulder to wrist. If it were a hurt knee you would measure around the knee itself. For a chest cold you can measure around the chest, and for a headache measure around the head. The idea is that in measuring these parts of the body you are somehow capturing a bit of the patient so that it can be manipulated. In other words you’re working on a representation of the person, not the actual person.
The length of string is then disposed of or manipulated in various different ways. Most of the time the string is either buried or burned, and usually when it’s buried it’s in a place where water will run over it, like in this example from Randolph:
“Here is another way to cure chills: take a piece of silk thread, tie a knot for each chill that the patient has had and bury the string under the drip from the roof of a barn. This must be done secretly, and the healer must not be a blood relative of the patient, or of the same sex. If the patient has another chill after the string is buried, somebody must dig it up and tie another knot. Some healers make a great show of using silk string for infants but claim that a piece of woolen yarn is better for grownups. Others tie the knotted string around a persimmon tree, instead of burying it.”
Knotting strings is also common. Sometimes the healer will have their patient blow through a certain amount of knots tied in a string in order to capture their sickness. Sometimes the knots represent a certain number of things being cured, such as a certain number of warts, or hurting teeth.
Here are a few more examples of how strings are used in folk healing. The first section below comes from a bunch of Louisiana Creole remedies that I’m working on translating, and the second set comes from none other than Vance Randolph.
For Cutting Teeth and also for Toothaches
“You take a string that’s not paired , and you say the same treatment that you said with the sunburn . Say the prayer on each knot, make thirteen knots. Put that around their neck.”
For a Snakebite
“You take a string of nine strands, you make eight knots in it while you repeat, ‘Jaumbe, jaumbe, majaumbe, jaumbe, jaumbe, giri.’ Then you take black tobacco and some salt and you make a poultice and put it on the snakebite. You can make a poultice with cocklebur leaves and some salt, that’s good too.”
“You tie three knots in a string. While you tie the knots make a prayer. Then the person ties that around them. They keep the string until it falls off.”
“Put nine knots in a string of four strands. Put that under your left shoulder and tie it on top of your right shoulder. You have to make a prayer while you tie the knots.”
From Vance Randolph:
“Another method of treating toothache is to tie knots in a string, one knot for every tooth which doesn’t ache.”
“Many backwoods women wear red yarn strings about their abdomens. Some say that this is in order to prevent cramps. I am not sure that this is the true explanation, but it is a fact that red woolen strings are worn, particularly by young unmarried women.”
“One way to cure boils, according to an old neighbor, is to rub a greasy string on a rusty nail and then throw the nail away where it won’t be found. Hang the string on the inside of the cabin door, and touch the boil with the string several times a day.”