Myths, Old Wives’ Tales, and
Ancient Remedies – Do They Actually Work?
Was Ancient Medicine Actually Effective?
How Has Medicine Changed Since Ancient Times?
I had an interesting experience the other day. While going through some stored boxes I came upon a cookbook belonging to my late mother-in-law. In the back pages, after all the lovely handwritten recipes, were some old time remedies. Whew! Those folks must have been tougher back then than we are at present! In those days home remedies and food myths were plentiful and to read about them now is a source of humor and head scratching.
Consequently I decided to do some research and find out more.
How effective was ancient medicine, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of traditional medicine?
Firstly the myths and old wives’ tales. One of the most popular and most adhered to in ancient times was that of the groaning cake or Kimbley. In some places the tradition is still carried on at home birthings but in past times it was considered an essential during the birthing process. The scent of it baking was believed to help ease the birth pain. If the laboring, soon-to-be mother broke the eggs into the batter, the labor would be of shorter duration. (I repeat – tough ladies).
In order to be assured of prosperity and future fertility, it was necessary for the new father to pass pieces of the freshly baked groaning cake to family and friends at Mom and Baby’s first outing. If you are interested you can go online and find several variations of the recipe.
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A Few Additional Samples of Old Beliefs:
1. Craving citrus while pregnant meant a baby girl was on the way. Spicy food cravings meant it would be a boy.
2. Dangling a threaded needle over a pregnant woman’s distended belly was supposedly a sure way to identify the gender of an unborn babe. Depending on whether the needle swung one way or the other decided whether boy or girl.
3. Having trouble conceiving? Plant parsley seeds.
4. Making a wish while burning onions would make the wish come true.
Old-Fashioned Health Cures:
1. Potatoes appear to have been very popular as a sort of miracle cure. Allegedly they healed infections, boils, arthritis, burns, and sore eyes. Applied to warts and held in place by a bandage for a week would remove the wart.
2. Slicing onions, placing them on the bottom of a fever sufferer’s feet, and holding them in place with socks overnight would draw the fever from the ailing patient.
Side note here: Laugh if you will but as a child I had this remedy applied many times and I am here to attest that it really worked. The following morning the onions would be limp and almost looked fried while my fever was completely gone. Just sayin’.
3. Eating a tomato helps prevent sunburn.
So, discerning readers, are they myths or do they have merit? You decide.
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Many ancient medicines and procedures continue to be used today with just a bit of refining:
1. Back in ancient Greece it was discovered that the bark of the willow tree was used for pain relief. It was then used over 3500 years ago by the Egyptians for the same purpose. This bark contains one of the oldest medicinal remedies in human history. In its modern form we call it aspirin.
2. The first account of a surgical suture (on record) was around 3000BC. in ancient Egypt. The oldest actual one is in an Egyptian mummy dating from 1100 BC.
3. The first cataract surgery was called couching and was documented in the 6th century BC. This involved poking a sharp instrument into the eye to dislodge the cataract. This horrific procedure was the only method
of cataract removal until the mid 18th century. As I write this I am waiting for cataract surgery. Sure am glad they have streamlined the process!
4. Tracheotomy is one of the oldest surgical procedures in history and is attributed to a Greek physician of the 2nd century BC. The next reported use of the operation was in 1833 when Armand Trousseau performed the operation 200 times and saved more than 500 children with advanced diphtheria.
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Native Americans Introduce Their Healing Herbal Medicine:
For thousands of years native Americans have used herbs to heal the body, purify the spirit, and bring balance into their lives. Countless herbs and plants were utilized in the healing process and most of them are used today,
albeit often in a different form.
1. One of the most sacred was tobacco and was smoked pure with no added chemicals like what we use today. It had numerous medicinal uses.
2. Sage was also very important and was used to heal multiple problems of the stomach, colon, kidneys, liver, lungs, and skin.
3. Additional herbs most often used were Boneset or American Ginseng for the common cold, wild black cherry, pennyroyal, and hops for aches and pains, dogwood, feverwort and willow bark for fever.
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4. For abdominal pain and cramps there were cattail, galangal, and saw palmetto.
5. Aches were administered to with black cohosh and osha.
6. Cat’s claw, lavender, mint, sarsaparilla, witch hazel were used for acne.
7. ADHD, although not actually named back then, was still an issue and the best known aid was gingko biloba, one of the most ancient trees in existence.
8. Alzheimer’s was also a malady said to be cured or slowed down by gingko biloba.
9. Antiseptic herbs were horsemint, pinon, prickly pear cactus, and stiff goldenrod.
10. Hops, lemon balm, peppermint, St. John’s wort, and wild lettuce were used for anxiety and depression.
11. Stiff goldenrod has been used for centuries to stop bleeding as has yarrow.
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So, was ancient medicine actually effective, and how has medicine changed since ancient times?
This should be a pretty good indication that herbs and plants used for healing is a “science” older than time. As we have seen, many ancient remedies are still used effectively today, and even seem to be becoming more popular in recent years.
I find it fascinating that these naturally grown substances have been used successfully for thousands of years for the healing of wounds and curing of disease. Nowadays it is all about pushing synthetic pharmaceuticals. Is this really an improvement? You must decide and we would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
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6 thoughts on “Was Ancient Medicine Actually Effective? | Olde Time Remedies”
Hopefully we are in one of those evolution stages now. I believe we are.
You are fortunate to have been raised the way you were.
Thanks for your insightful response. I am curious to hear more about the Ayarveda.
It is a well-worth medical topic connecting the new to the old. I am happy to see this article on the Web.
There are evolutions over centuries and not surprisingly modern medicines and procedures are improved.
However, the core of good medicine is from willow bark-Aspirine is a prime example-The bark of white willow contains salicin, which is a chemical similar to aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid).
If you have heard of the ancient Guru of Medicine by the name Acharya Charak: Father of Medicine (Asopa Hospital), you would comprehend how powerful the Ayurveda was, now ancient and in modern India.
I come from a family where we practice Ayurveda and homeopathy. My late grand Ma has medicine and therapy for every symptom I may think of. We never go to stores when I was young until I moved to the United States. If I go back for a visit and fall sick-there is always something at home.
We have a herbal organic garden and it has numerous trees. It is amazing how it helps people at home and around. So the ancient herbs cure medical conditions now also.
I don’t know about the superstitions and I have come across many without paying much attention to them so far though. Maybe in the future. I loved and truly enjoyed this article.
Yes, it seems people were quite superstitious back then!
What a delightful article on ancient medicine and old wives’ tales. Some of them are indeed humourous such as burning onions to make a wish?
Some are more common for determining the gender of a child, such as craving citrus fruits (girl) or spicy foods (boy), and the threaded needle over a pregnant woman´s stomach is an all-time classic.
Hey, Pasindu. I think “alternative” medicine is going to come back.
Thank you very much for such a comprehensive and valuable post about Ancient medicine. Posts about this kind of stuff are really few and far between. I think ancient medicine should be used more. Because even diseases that cannot be cured by pharmaceuticals today can be found in cases where they have been successfully cured by ancient medicine. I think we should use both. Because we cannot discard ancient medicine at all.