Charming Away Diseases, Saturday, November 21, 1835, pp.342-343.

[Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal Contents]


   THE London newspapers lately amused their readers with the account of an Irishman, somewhere in the metropolis, who tried to charm away the hooping-cough from his child, by passing it to his wife below the belly of a donkey. Whether this be an established usage in the practice of domestic medicine among the Irish, we are not aware, but we know full well that in Scotland it has long been a practice, in the case of any apparently unaccountable illness in children, for the father of the young invalid to pass it to the mother through the smoke of a fire, receiving a small coin in exchange. Although this very ancient custom of ‘selling through the reek,’ as it is called, lingers, like other superstitions practices, only among the most ignorant of the community, it is painful to reflect that instances of such gross delusion should still be found to exist among any class of people, in any part of the country, and the circumstance is, of itself, sufficient to justify the establishment of schools of general instruction on a scale far more extensive than has hitherto been attempted – for it is only by the proper education of the young, that we are to hope for the complete eradication of superstition in all its dark and humiliating details.  

   The practice of charming for the cure of diseases is of great antiquity, and is thus described at length by a writer in the Monthly Review, “In the beginning, medicine was of necessity a superstitious and an empirical, that is to say, an experimental art, while nature pursued her course with uniform regularity; and while her operations were uninterrupted by any obstacle, men enjoyed the benefits which she bestowed, without any desire to ascertain their cause and origin; but any deviation from this course, no matter how trifling it might be, was calculated to excite their curiosity and astonish their minds. These changes, being to them incomprehensible, were, readily referred to the agency of some supernatural power; and the infliction of disease was attributed to the wrathful power of an offended deity, from whom both the cure and prevention were alone to be obtained. This was the true and simple notion of the case; and it was abundantly fostered by two principles, which operate powerfully upon all rude natures – a fond desire to pry into futurity, and an eager anxiety to avert impending evils. The cunning among the people imputed the origin of diseases to supernatural influence, and prescribed or performed a variety of mysterious rites, which they declared to be of power sufficient to remove them. Credulity and reverence favored the deception, so that, among savages, their first physicians were a species of conjurors or wizards, who boasted of their knowledge of the past, and who predicted the events of the future. Incantations, sorcery, and mummeries of divers kinds, were the means which they employed to expel or counteract the causes of imaginary malignancy, upon the assumed efficacy of which they predicted with confidence the fate of their deluded patients. 

   Among the superstitious rites which were thus practised by the northern nations in particular, none was so horrid as that of offering up living victims as sacrifices to the demons who were worshipped. Of these sanguinary sacrifices, none were deemed so auspicious and efficacious as that of a prince. When the lot fell upon the king to die, the annunciation was received with loud and universal acclamations, and with every vehement demonstration of joy. In Denmark, it happened, during a famine, that lots were cast for a victim to be offered up, as a propitiatory sacrifice for its prevention. The lot fell upon Prince Domelder, who was accordingly sacrificed, to the manifest delight of his loving subjects. Olaus Tretelger, another mighty potentate, was burnt alive, as an offering to appease the wrath of an infuriated war-god. In this and similar sects originated a vast quantity of delusion and jugglery. The charming away of diseases by certain cabalistical words or sentences, became a favorite mode with many, and possessed of very particular efficacy. Sometimes a single word was used, sometimes a rhyme, at others, a moral apophthegm. These charms were often written upon papyrus, wood, or some other substance, and suspended as an amulet round the neck, or applied to other parts of the patient’s body. The remedy mentioned by Serenus Samonicus, for the cure of fever, consisted in writing upon paper the word Abracadabra in a particular manner, and suspending it round the neck by a silken thread. 

   The Jews attributed a similar virtue to the word Abracalan, used in the same manner; and the Turks inscribed words and sentences from the Koran. The Greeks, with, their accustomed ingenuity, improved upon this method of charming, by employing mechanical means in conjunction with their incantations. Thus Homer, speaking of Ulysses, when wounded on Parnassus by a wild boar, tells us – 

“With bandage firm Ulysses’ knee they bound, 

Then, chaunting mystic lays, the closing wound 

Of sacred melody confess’d the force – 

The tides of life regained their azure course.” 

This binding of the knee, by the way, was not bad surgery, as it was amply sufficient to restrain the bleeding, and close the wound; but this alone would have been too simple a plan for the imaginative Greeks, in whose estimation the ‘mystic lays’ were no doubt supremely restorative. 

   In process of time, a further improvement was effected upon the mode of charming away diseases, by adding to it the use of certain herbs and plants, in the collecting and- administering of which, however, a great deal of mummery was employed. Thus the Druids, in gathering the plant solago, or black hellebore, would not use any sharp or cutting instrument; it was to be plucked with the right hand, which was carefully covered with a part of their robe, and then conveyed secretly into the left; and, lastly, it was considered indispensably necessary that the Druid who was delegated to this important office should be clothed in white, be barefooted, and previously offer a sacrifice of bread and wine. Of course the plant thus elaborately and mystically gathered was an undisputed catholicon. Vervain, a plant much used in magical operations, and even now occasionally employed as an amulet, was obtained with equal solemnity. It was to be gathered at the rising of the dog-star, or at the break of day, before the sun was above the horizon; an expiatory sacrifice of fruit and honey having been previously offered up. Persons rubbed with vervain thus sanctified, were considered invulnerable to the attacks of fever, and, indeed, to those of any other malady; it possessed also the miraculous power of reconciling the hearts of such as were at enmity – no matter from what source this enmity might have arisen. Pity it is that such a useful intercessor should be unknown in its effects to us, in these times of virulence and animosity! 

   Few of us are unacquainted with the solemnity of the ceremonies which the early priests and physicians of our own island employed in gathering the mistletoe, which was esteemed of such blessed value, that they believed the gods expressly sent it down from heaven for the advantage and felicity of man. It was considered as a specific for epilepsy, apoplexy, and vertigo; and a water was distilled from it, which was deemed, like Solomon’s Balm of Gilead, and some other nostrums that we could mention, a remedy for all maladies. Virgil has commemorated the gathering of the mistletoe, and the reader will find a fuller description of it in Pliny. The ceremony must, in truth, have been sufficiently imposing. First went the soothsayers, singing hymns in honor of the deity; next came a herald, with a rod in his hand, and he was followed by three Druids bearing the sacrificial apparatus. Last of all appeared the arch-Druid, clothed in a white robe, and followed by the people. Having arrived at the appointed place, the arch-Druid ascended the oak, and cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle. The attendant Druids received it with great reverence into the Sagum, or white cassock. Then followed the sacrifice of two white bulls, to which succeeded a feast, and prayers were offered up to the deity to endue the plant with its godlike qualities. Thus ended the ceremony, and the plant became the means of communicating benefits to all who were permitted to partake of it. 

   Numerous examples might be adduced of the prevalence and peculiarity of these medicinal charms in the rude and early ages of the world. Even now their existence is very common among the Indian nations yet uncivilized. In most parts of Africa, the priests, or marabouts, carry on a considerable traffic in vending charms, which are called Grigris, and which are made after the most approved priestly fashion, to answer every contingency. They afford protection from thunderbolts as easily as safety from sickness; they procure a multitude of wives, and insure the success of their accouchements; they prevent shipwreck and slavery, and are sure to be attended by victory in battle. There were two or three of these Grigris in the Leverian Museum; they contain generally a prayer to Mahomet, rolled up in linen, and were probably made in imitation of the phylacteries of the Jews, which were rolls or slips of parchment inscribed with sentences of Scripture, in obedience to the command – ‘to bind them for a sign upon their heads, and to be as frontlets between their eyes.’ But it is not only among the rude savages of India and the Eastern World that the virtue of medicinal charms is implicitly credited. The illiterate and simple natives of this enlightened kingdom, especially those in its remotest districts, repose all necessary faith in the same fascinating delusions; and there is not ‘a goody’ in any of our remote villages, who has not a specific charm for hooping-cough, ague, teething, convulsions, epilepsy, and every other ordinary disease. Every one is acquainted with the assumed efficacy of the ‘royal touch’ in cases of king’s evil, or scrofula; and scarcely a week passes by that we do not see in the newspapers an advertisement for the disposal of a ‘child’s caul,’ which has the miraculous power of preserving sailors from the perils of the deep, and from the affliction of faithless love – and which may be occasionally procured for the trifling sum of fourteen or fifteen guineas! 

   To many of our readers, the majority of charms in vogue among the vulgar most be well known; but as our object is to display at one view the delusions of medicine, we shall not scruple to transcribe the most remarkable. One method of obtaining a cure for the hooping-cough, is to inquire of the first person who is met riding upon a piebald horse, what is good for that malady. A friend of Dr Lettsom, who once went a journey on a horse of this description, was so frequently interrupted by questions about this disease, that it was with some difficulty he effected his progress through the villages in his route. He frequently silenced the importunities of his interrogators by recommending a toast in brandy. No disease has given rise to a more curious catalogue of charms than the ague. A common practice in some parts of the country, is for the patient to run nine times through a circle formed by a brier that grows naturally in that direction. The process is to be repeated nine successive days. A spider given, unknown, to the patient, is miraculously efficacious in preventing a paroxysm; and we have heard, on unquestionable authority, of the decided effect of the snuff of a candle. These, however, can scarcely be termed charms, for the beneficial result is entirely dependent upon the ammoniacal salt, or some other property in the substance administered, aided probably by some mental operation. 

   The perils of infantile dentition afford ample scope for the use of charms. These are chiefly in the form of beads or bands; and who is unacquainted with the ‘anodyne necklace’ of the celebrated Dr Gardener? which was thus touchingly recommended by its immortal inventor:- ‘What mother,’ he asks, ‘can forgive herself, who suffers her child to die without an anodyne necklace?’ Many charms are also employed for the cure of the toothache; and among others, that of extracting a worm from the diseased tusk is a profitable source of deception. An ingenious female quack realized in London, not many years ago, a very handsome income, by imposing upon the credulity of the public in the pretended extraction of this worm. This she effected in the following manner:- She contrived to introduce into the patient’s mouth the grub of a silk-worm, which, after certain manual operations, she pretended to extract, exhibiting the parasitical tormentor to the perfect admiration and conviction of the dupe. That she sometimes achieved a cure, we do not doubt; for the influence of the imagination on the toothache, and on many other nervous affections, is too well known to need support or illustration. For the care of epilepsy, or the falling-sickness, numerous have been the charms which have been invented, and marvellously mystical withal. A common remedy among the lower orders about London, and especially in Essex, is to cut the top of a black cat’s tail, in order to procure three drops of blood, which are to be taken in a spoonful of milk, drawn from the female breast; and this is to be repeated three successive days. If the patient be a male, the woman from whom the milk is to be taken must have lain in of a girl; and of a boy if the patient be a female; but if the patient be apprised of the period when this precious potion was compounded, it will assuredly lose its efficacy. Dr Lettsom met with three instances within a fortnight, where this plan had been strongly recommended. For a similar effect the patient is to creep, head foremost, down three pair of stairs, three times a-day, for three successive days. Let us remember that three is the root of the mystic number nine, and that it is still depended upon by freemasons. 

   Such were the delusive and barbarous absurdities which characterized the practice of the art of medicine, long after civilization had shed its softening influence over Europe. Who were the master-spirits to whom the medical art is indebted for its present proud perfection, founded, as this perfection is, not upon servile adherence to pre-existing dogmata, nor upon custom and precedent, but upon the safe, and substantial, and certain principles of nature, deduced from a close observance of her operations, and a more perfect knowledge of her mysteries? Who, we ask, have been the philosophers who have wrought this salutary reformation? The catalogue is not cumbersome. We have Cheyn, that blunt but honest man; and Cheselden and Pote, the first great improvers of modern surgery; and Heberden, the classical and learned Heberden; the Fordyces and Pitcairn; the two Hunters and Baillie. Others there were, perhaps, who might contribute their quota towards the improvement of medical science; but those we have named are the leading reformers, and their efforts, have been improved upon and expanded by their illustrious successors, till the art, in all its branches, has reached its present pre-eminence. Never, perhaps, was there an age in which Europe, and even England, could boast of so powerful a phalanx of professional talent as they now possess. It is supremely pleasing to see men, with an ardor at once untiring and extraordinary, toiling away with unceasing industry in the fertile but choked-up fields of science, clearing away the weeds and the rubbish, and planting such good and sound seed as shall grow up and multiply a hundredfold. Medicine had been too long clogged with the empiricism of custom, which was fostered in every conceivable manner by indolence on the one hand, and by bigoted pride on the other. Until John Hunter, than whom no man was more honest and independent, effected those beneficial discoveries which have laid the foundation of all subsequent success and excellence, the practice of surgery, as well as that of medicine, was exceedingly uncertain and fluctuating in its principles. Indeed, with a very few exceptions, and we have mentioned the majority, there were, in strict truth, no principles of practice at all; certain diseases occurred, and were valorously met with and combated by such specifics as the idleness or knavery of preceding practitioners had invented; as to the rationale of the disease, or the mode of operation of the medicine, these were refinements infinitely too sublime for the comprehension of our practitioners. Nothing, indeed, was so bad, nothing so abominably disgraceful as the practice of physic, even in an age comparatively modern. The majority of our living professional luminaries can, however, accomplish all that is necessary, and have done much by their upright and gentlemanly conduct, to purify the practice from the stains which blotted it.

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