225: Breath and Blowing

Using the breath to cure or to carry a curing power to the patient is an interesting aspect of Ozark folk medicine that likely has European origins although the same idea can be seen across many cultures around the world. The fire in a burn can be blown out by an experienced burn doctor, or thrush, sometimes called “thrash” in Ozark speak, can be cured by having a preacher or someone who has never seen their father blow into the mouth of the child. Prayers or blessings can be blown over a patient in need of healing, or the sickness itself can be blown away like dust is blown by the wind.

Here are some other ways blowing or the breath have figured into Ozark folk healing. All these anecdotes are from Vance Randolph’s “Ozark Magic and Folklore”:

“When an Ozark child has colic, the mother squeezes a little of her own milk into a teacup. Then she takes a reed pipestem and blows clouds of tobacco smoke into the cup, so that it bubbles up through the milk. When the baby drinks this nicotinized milk it becomes quiet at once and soon falls asleep. Other people treat a ‘colicky’ infant simply by blowing tobacco smoke up under its clothes; I have seen this done several times, and it really did seem to relieve the pain or at least to distract the child’s attention for the moment.”

“Some yarb doctors treat earache simply by blowing tobacco smoke into the ear; if this doesn’t give relief, they blow the smoke into a cup of warm water with a reed or pipestem and put a few drops of this smoke water into the ear at intervals.”

“A gentleman near Crane, Missouri, has enjoyed a great success in relieving the pain from superficial burns. He just blows gently upon the burned place, touches it with his finger tips, and whispers a little prayer.”

“Mrs. May Kennedy McCord, of Springfield, Missouri, knows how to ‘draw out fire’ from a burn. She learned it from Harry N. Force, an old-time druggist who spent many years in Cotter, Arkansas. You just mutter: ‘Two little angels come from Heaven, one brought fire and the other brought frost, go out fire and come in frost.’ As you say the last word you blow gently on the burn. This ‘sayin’ is supposed must be learned from a member of the opposite sex.”

“To cure malaria, chills, fever, and ague all you need is a hickory peg about a foot long. Drive it into the ground in some secluded place, where you can visit it unseen. Do not tell anyone about this business. Go there every day, pull up the peg, blow seven times into the hole, and replace the peg. After you have done this for twelve successive days, drive the peg deep into the earth so that it cannot be seen, and leave it there. You’ll have no more chills and fever that season. If the cure doesn’t work, it means that you have been seen blowing into the hole, or that you have inadvertently mentioned it to somebody.”

“Any posthumous child can cure the croup simply by blowing in the patient’s mouth; one of my neighbors happened to be born several weeks after his father’s death, and although he ridicules the healing power himself, he is frequently called out of his bed at night by distracted parents who want him to save their children. The same treatment is used for sore mouth in babies, a white, cotton-like eruption which is called thrash or thresh.”

“In certain backwoods settlements in Arkansas it is believed that all one need do to cure thrash is to have a preacher blow in the child’s mouth. A preacher I know tells me he; has done this hundreds of times, although he has little faith in the remedy. ‘They git well, all right,’ he said, ‘but I can’t see as they git well any quicker’n them which I don’t blow in their mouth. But there aint no harm in it, an’ I aim to ‘commodate folks whenever I can.’”

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