224: Measuring

Measuring is a common healing method in several folk traditions. In the Ozarks someone with an illness was sometimes measured with a string, most often around or along the afflicted area, then the string would be manipulated in some way so as to produce the healing effect e.g. tied around a specific tree, thrown into a river, put in between the pages of a Bible. I’ve mentioned some Ozark examples of measuring in my post on string, but here’s an anecdote from Vance Randolph to refresh your memory:

“’Tying off 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 into 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.”

There are also Cajun and Creole remedies involving measuring. Here are a couple from this Creole remedy book I’m translating:

For the Spleen
“You put your left foot on a paddle cactus pad and you measure it, then you cut it. Then you take it and hang it in your foyer. When it dries out the sickness will be gone.”

For a Sprain
“I put the foot on the grass, then measure all around it, then cut the ground that has the grass, and then turn it over. As soon as the grass dies underneath that sprain will heal.”

There are also certain supernatural qualities associated with the string or rods used to measure a dead body for it’s coffin. Vance Randolph mentions this notion in his “Ozark Magic and Folklore”:

“When a backwoodsman dies, in certain sections of the Ozarks, it sometimes happens that one of his male relatives cuts a hickory stick just the length of the corpse. I have seen a hill farmer carrying one of these sticks on the day of his brother’s death, and I have seen one tied to the wagon which conveyed a corpse to the graveyard, but I have never been able to find out what became of them, or what their significance was. I first thought that the stick was simply to measure the body for a coffin, but it is something more complicated than that, and there is some sort of superstition connected with it.”

In reading about the death traditions of the Swedish Romani people I also came across some beliefs regarding the measuring string as having some supernatural power. Here’s an excerpt from C.H. Tillhagen’s article “Funeral and Death Customs of the Swedish Gypsies”:

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