Day 53: Sweeping the Body

“Curandera” by artist Carmen Lomas Garza
“Curandera” by artist Carmen Lomas Garza


Sweeping sickness off of the body has been a healing technique used by many different traditions throughout the world. I first learned about sweeping from one of my curandera teachers, Doña Maria. In Curanderismo the body is swept with a bundle of herbs, usually basil, rosemary, or rue (or other herbs depending on where you are), or a combination of all three, from head to foot along with prayers. This sweeping is meant to detach any illness that may have stuck onto the body. The herbs are used to “sweeten” the skin and protect it from future attachments. After the body has been swept the herbs are then burned as a way of cleansing off the sickness that was collected. There are many different traditions within this tradition depending on where the curander@ may be from. It’s common in areas of Central and South America to use a variety of healing herbs to sweep the body. Most often in areas that are more influenced by European traditions the plants that are used are of the “kitchen” variety like basil and rosemary. These are the traditional sweeping plants of American Southwest and most of Mexico. In Oaxaca where my teacher Don Jorge was from, it’s tradition to use flowers in limpias, or cleansings. Other places that have more influence from indigenous groups of people may use native plants to the area. Basil and rosemary, after all, aren’t native, but were healing plants introduced by the colonizers.

Curanderismo isn’t the only tradition that uses sweeping. In Cherokee traditional medicine the body is often swept with herbs and grasses as a way of ritualistically “cleaning” off the skin. It’s often used in conjunction with scratching, which will be the subject of a future post.  In the African healing traditions of the South it’s common to sweep a persons body with black chicken feathers or a chicken’s foot. The idea is that the chicken scratches up bugs out in the yard so therefore they are great at scratching up illness from off of a person. Feathers are also used in Ozark healing to sweep the body, sometimes used in conjunction with eggs (as in Curanderismo) or corncobs to take illness out of the body. The egg or corncob would then be destroyed, thus destroying the sickness.

I’m sure there are other traditions that use sweeping as well. It seems to be a cross-cultural association we have between sweeping a house in order to clean it and sweeping a body in order to clean it of illness. In folk healing and folk magic there are a lot of these associations, mainly because healers would first and foremost be healing the members of their household, so using what’s on hand to heal is an important aspect of the tradition. Healing herbs and plants would have come from the garden or woods, black chicken feathers from the chickens you killed and ate. There’s an intimate connection between the objects of healing and the home, or the ordinary life of the healer. Even in cultures that produce distinct instruments of healing, for example in Nepal where the drum is an important (or vital) part of the Jhankri’s toolkit, even this object is made from trees on the land where the healer lives, and from the skin of one of his/her goats. When we look at these folk traditions we start to see how they wove themselves into nearly every aspect of the people’s lives. There is no separation between household objects and tools of healing. The tools used around the home give their actions to the healing work, sweeping is only one example, others include cutting with knives or scissors, boiling in pots, hammering, burning, etc. These will be discussed later.

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