Today’s post is only indirectly associated with Ozark and other American folk healing traditions but is, nonetheless, of interest to those who study folk healing and folk magic traditions. Origin stories can be found in almost every culture on this planet, and it’s interesting for me to not only look at these stories, but how the culture may manipulate the origin myth as a way of healing sickness. The Finnish healing tradition is a good example of this sort of manipulation which can, I’m sure, be found in other cultures as well.
The idea behind this healing practice is that by knowing the origin of an illness or foe the healer is able to change the origin of the sickness thereby releasing it and healing their patient. There are several Ozark charms that follow this model that I call the “go back” charms for healing. A modified example of this would be saying something like, “Sickness you’re from [insert town name] so go back to [town name].” It’s not always a town name that’s used. I’ve also seen mountains named, rivers named (there’s the added lore here that sickness or evil is said to not be able to cross water so sending it back across the river would mean it couldn’t return), and even families named as the originator of the sickness. Sometimes the sickness is even sent to a neighboring town, or the family of your enemy can be named.
Many of the Finnish “origins” that we have come from John Abercromby’sMagic Songs of the West Finns. In this work Abercromby lists around thirty different “origins” or “births” for everything from sickness, to animals, to minerals and forces of nature. Again, the idea is that by knowing the origin of a thing, you are able to have power over that thing. Many of the origin stories come from ancient folk beliefs and poems, others are more “modern” being taken at least in part from the Kalevala and still others were likely born out of dreams or trances. Here are a few of my favorites to conclude this post:
The Origin of Wasps
A maid was sitting on a stone, on a rock a woman (kapo) had set herself, she is brushing her hair, is arranging her head. One of the maiden’s hairs fell down, one of the woman’s (kapo) hairs broke off, a wind then carried it away to a meadow without a name; from that a wasp was made, an ‘evil bird’ was caused to dash with a copper quiver on its back; its quiver is full of poisoned stings.
The Origin of the Elk
Where did the elk originate, was the son of Kari reared? There did the elk originate, was the son of Kari reared; on the surface of a windy marsh, in a dense bird-cherry clump, in a thick grove of willow-trees; its back was made from a bent birch tree, its legs from railing stakes, its head from a root of ash, the rest of its carcass from rotten wood, its hair from horse-tail grass.
The Origin of Cancer (Whitlow)
Cancer was born at Cottage Creek at the river Jordan’s mouth. Harlots were rinsing their linen caps, at the river Jordan’s mouth, then afterwards was cancer bred, then the biter of bone appeared, the eater of flesh, the biter of bone that sucks the blood quite raw without being cooked in a pot, without being warmed in a copper one. The ‘dog’ set off to run, the ‘worm’ began to crawl, went off to corrupt the bone, to macerate the flesh, to make it suppurate, in whitlows to make it swell.
A woman, old and furious, with the movement of the wind and water, with the movement of all the fish, was carrying a heavy womb, a bellyful of suffering, for thirty summers and for as many winters too; she finally got a malignant boy, an eater of flesh, a biter of bone; into a cancer she fashioned him. She reared her son, her offspring she covered round with bloody clothing, with gory shirts. Then she sent him away to devour, to gnaw, to lacerate a christened man, and destroy a man baptized, to rot his flesh and to gnaw his bones.
The Origin of Salves
Johannes, priest of God, plucked herbs, by the thousand tore up plants that in these countries do not grow, in Lapland’s wretched border lands, nor in luckless Bothnia where they do not know or see the growth of every herb. All summer he boiled salves, all winter concocted fats on the side of a speckled stone, on the flank of a bulky flag, nine fathoms in circumference, and seven fathoms wide; the salves are reliable, efficacious is the remedy with which I anoint the sick, I heal a person that is hurt.
A girl was born on a field run wild, a young maiden—on a grassy spot, without being carried she grew up, without being suckled she was reared; exhausted she sank down to sleep on a meadow without a name, lay down to sleep upon a knoll, on a honeyed-meadow fell fast asleep; she slept for long unwittingly; sleep deceived her, she expired. Between the furrows a herb grew up, it was a three-cornered herb, water was in it, honey too, in it was a splendid salve to rub upon a wound, to pour upon a hurt.
The Origin of Colic
Colic is a groaning boy, the second boy is an awkward lout, the third is like a bar [v. the third has a pole-like throat], he is not made of aught that’s good, or of special worth; he is made of swamp, is made of earth, composed of sacking-needle points, wound up from women’s spinning whorls, scratched up from heaps of twigs, from heather was broken off, from grass stripped off, was collected from a rapid’s foam, was poured from the froth of the sea, out of feathers was roughly botched, from the inward parts of Syöjätär, from under the liver of Mammotar.