Day 7: The Power Doctors


These are old terms for Ozark healers that I’ve talked about in the past before, but I thought I’d take a little time to mention them again. The Power Doctor and Goomer Doctor are often terms used interchangeably (although “goomer” often strictly refers to the removal of witchcraft or “goomering” from a patient) for the same sort of healer, that is, someone who heals using the power of verbal charms, Bible verses, and certain rituals and rites as opposed to the Yarb or Root Doctors who heal by means of herbal medicines. The domain of the Power Doctor is much like that of the British “cunning man/woman,” the Danish “kloge folk,” the French “devins-guĂ©risseurs,” the German “hexenmeister,” the Pennsylvania Dutch “braucher” or “powwow,” the Spanish/Latin American “curander@,” etc. The list goes on and on. The same sort of healer can be see manifested in pretty much every folk tradition on the planet.

The Ozark Power Doctors have their origin in a few different places. They were definitely influenced by the Scots-Irish cunning men/women and the fairy doctors. There are a lot of secret verbal charms that can be traced back directly to the British Isles and Ireland, as well as certain rites, and of course herbal knowledge would have been brought with the people as they crossed the sea.

We also have the influence from German immigrants, specifically those who would come to be known as the Pennsylvania Germans or Pennsylvania Dutch. Although we most commonly think of them as being in mostly the Northeast, many of these German families then moved south into the Appalachians, especially West Virginia. Many of these families stayed, but there were also those who moved west with other families to settle in the Ozarks. So for that reason the influence of certain German remedies and charms can be seen in the work of the Power Doctors as well.

The Power Doctors were also influenced by the African folk traditions that they would have encountered. Mary Celestia Parler in her “Folk Beliefs from Arkansas” has many examples of African folk traditions being used in the Ozarks by whites and blacks alike. For example we see people in the Ozarks using ingredients that are normally associated with African American materia medica, such as High John root, Devil Shoestring, Asafetida, and other animal and plant curios. Part of this is just interaction between the two populations. It wasn’t uncommon for white folks to go to a black Root Doctor for services. In the 20th century we also see the commercialization of African folk traditions which would have made them more widely available to people through mail order catalogs. While Vance Randolph and other folklorists would suggest that the relationship between the Ozark folk doctor and the black Root Doctor or Conjurer was only ever a relationship of supreme suspicion of each other, based upon the relationship between the folk remedies I tend to believe there was far more friendly interaction and exchange between the two groups. Harry M. Hyatt for example has many black interviewees who quote remedies that were heavily influenced by European and Native American folk traditions; likewise he has white interviewees that use remedies from African folk traditions.

Much of the herbal knowledge we have here in the Ozarks comes not from the European tradition but from the Native Americans who have been on this land far longer than any of us. Groups that would have influenced the Ozark people as they moved west would have been the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, Quapaw, Osage, and to some extent the Caddo, although the Caddo would have already been pushed south out of the Ozarks by the Osage by the time the settlers came into the area. Despite this much of the Caddo knowledge remains in the folk traditions of the Osage who would have interacted with them. The Ozarks represent a unique crossing of several types of land and climates. This is one reason why the Ozarks has a level of plant diversity unlike any other place in the country. There are healing plants that are only found here on this land. That being said, much of what we know about these healing plants would have come from the Osage who were living here. Interaction and intermarriage between the whites and the indigenous peoples wouldn’t have been unheard of. I myself am a product of many such interactions. Not only do we have herbal knowledge being passed around, but we also see Ozark people, who would have already had folk beliefs about certain plants, transposing these beliefs to the new plants that they found. For example, many of the protective and supernatural qualities associated with the European blackthorn tree were put onto the locust tree that they would have found in the Ozarks. The adaptation to the land is interesting to look at, and is reflected not only in how the land and its fruit was used but also how people used this new knowledge for folk healing. Its why Ozark folklore is so interesting to me, you start to see these unique traditions pop out, for example the associations of the pawpaw tree, that aren’t found anywhere else in the country.

The Power Doctor could also be called the Faith Healer, or Faith Doctor, and in many cases this was a much more appropriate title for them, especially among more religious populations. The first weapon of the Power Doctor is faith and prayer; everything else comes second to that. Working with the Bible was very common for the Power Doctor; in the South the Bible has been often considered the most powerful conjure book in existence. In most cases the Power Doctor will use prayer and their verbal charms which were often passed down through generations always from someone older than the person receiving the charm or prayer, and always someone of the opposite sex. Similar rules can be found in other folk traditions including Pennsylvania German braucherei and traditional French folk healing. These prayers and charms can never be said where someone can hear them, that’s a sure way of losing the power, there are also often rules about how many times they can be passed down before the power goes away for the original holder. These charms and prayers often make up the foundation of the Power Doctor’s work. I’ve talked to faith healers who only use prayers and certain verbal charms, and would consider anything else to be witchcraft.

Not all Power Doctors limit themselves to just prayers and charms, many others also incorporate the crafting of certain objects or the performing of certain rituals or rites into their healing work. An object may be something as simple as a knotted string, a ritual something as simple as blowing into the patient’s mouth, or moving your hands around the patient in a certain way. The thing I most often tell people when they ask me about folk magic is that in every way folk magic is the magic of the people, the people often meaning those who are too poor to go to the doctor for their troubles. Country healers use what they have at hand, or what can easily be found around the house or gathered from off the land. It’s a simple work, so when I say that certain objects are made or certain rites performed that should always be kept in mind.

The Power Doctor was at one time an extremely important person in the lives of Ozark hillfolk. They were viewed as an integral part of the community, someone that healed without charging their patients any money, and often stood against the travelling “snake oil” salesmen who consistently traveled through the South in the late 19th early 20th century. They represent the response of the people to the need for a healer of both body and soul, and find themselves among the ranks of healers, shamans, and wise folk from around the world. But as some of you might have noticed I use the past tense here, the Power Doctors “was” at one time extremely important. The Ozarks, much like the rest of the country and rest of the world at that, have changed over the years. The role of the Power Doctor has all but disappeared in most parts of the area. It would be wrong of me to say any different. I recognized when I started my journey to becoming a healer that I was one of only a few left. It would be hopelessly idealistic of me to think that I could revive these practices in any real way, but what helps me move on and continue along the path I’ve been set on is the fact that those who need the work I do have found me. Those who are interested have found me. And while I still have to explain this tradition to folks who have lived here all their lives, it’s not dead, it lives on in me, in the work I do and the stories I tell. I hope that these traditions go on, and I think they will. More and more people are getting interested in our culture and history, and while the outward traditions and beliefs might be going underground, the heart of the Ozarks still beats on in the people who are of this land.

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