Herbs and Simples | North Carolina Ghosts

Herbs and Simples

Magic and medicine were, for a long time, very closely related disciplines. Across the world, folk medicine traditions have evolved making use of materials available to the culture, and shaped by the beliefs and ideas of that culture. In the mountains of North Carolina, and throughout the southern Appalachians, a tradition of folk medicine closely aligned with magical beliefs developed out of seeds sown by different patterns of settlement. This tradition consisted on relying on the knowledge of men and women who knew how to work herbs and simples. Herbs, often pronounced yarbs, was knowledge of local plants and their medicinal uses. Simples were charms and potions and other remedies that were outside of the realm of doctor's prescriptions. Simple remedies.

The ingredients and the ideas that shape these folk medicine traditions can be said to cause them to develop in much the same way that a cuisine does in cooking. Available ingredients and cultural ideas shape the forms and delivery methods of the medicine. Just as many cuisine have a staple ingredient that becomes the medium of delivering food — as rice serves in Chinese cooking, or pasta for Italian food — so do folk medicine traditions. In the Appalachian mountains, contributions fro different cultures formed to create a fusion cuisine of folk medicine, a magical jambalaya. The influences of the different cultural contributions can be seen in the legacies of those folk medicine mediums, the dominant ways that medicine was used in its native territories. Speaking very roughly, in Appalachian folk medicine there are three root mediums that combined to form the tradition: Fat from England, blood form Germany, and plants from Africa.

Goose fat s at the root of much of Folk medicine in Northern England and from along the Scottish border counties. A goose produces a prodigious amount of fat, which is long-lasting and easy to store. Rubbing brown paper with goose fat and a few other ingredients and applying it to the chest of someone suffering from a cold or other ailment is still the Vicks Vapor Rub of Northern England. It was from this region that the colonists we call the Scotch-Irish primarily came, bringing with them their traditions of goose fat and brown paper. Only geese were less easy to keep in America, and by the 19th Century the chicken was the preferred farmyard poultry, a much less fatty animal. Gradually, turpentine took the place of goose fat as the preferred medium. Remedies such as turpentine-soaked cigarette paper applied to a wound to stop bleeding retain the form of the old goose fat and brown paper formula.

Settlers from the German Palatine states came into the Appalachian Mountains working their way south from Pennsylvania. Texts such as The Long Lost Friend spreading the influence of the tradition even further brought with it a medicine focused heavily on blood and the state of blood. This is more of a metaphorical theory of how blood operates within the body than a knowledge of the actual circulatory system. The tradition of states of blood — high, low, thick, and thin — which could be found in the North Carolin mountains and throughout the region seem to have their origins in this tradition.

What shapes the popular idea of traditional medicine today, herbal and plant-based medicine, is less common in European tradition before the 19th century. In medieval Europe, plants were more likely to be used allegorically than medicinally. But herbal and plant-based medicines were very common in Africa, and using plants to treat illness seems to have been heavily shaped by the traditions and knowledge of Africans brought to America. This may have also been shaped by sharing knowledge with Native Americans, who in the Southeast had traditions which were complimentarily similar to those brought over from Africa.

In the mixing bowl of the Southern Appalachians, these traditions merged and adapted to native ingredients to produce a unique folk medicine tradition, one heavily complimented by the use of spells, charms, and prayers. It's magical cuisine that developed in the Appalachians, and one whose tastes and traditions are undergoing a renewed interest and revival today.


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