Wednesday, December 21, 2005
Wart cures: Old wives' tales
In the Dark Ages, verrucae or plantar warts caused by a viral infection came in for their fair or unfair share of alternative treatments. Why this is, is not particularly clear? However the life cycle of the virus, which cause warts, is reasonably short and under certain conditions can appear to vanish as if by magic. In times gone past when people looked for signs of good and bad physical appearance was important and skin blemishes such as warts were associated with the dark side and many witches reported to have them. It is unlikely however viral infections were influenced by occult worship and they would appear equally on the righteous as they did on those from the dark side. The populous were gullible however and always prepared to believe the incredible when simpler explanations suffice. This may well be why so much mystique surrounds the occult cure for warts. Physiological changes do arise from the psychological state and the belief in the power of spells, voodoo, magic or even the odd concoction of animal, vegetable or mineral applied to the skin made for credible means of removing warts. Remnants of which are now collectively known as Old Wives’ Tales. What follows is a collection of occult practice given in good faith and in the interests of historical interest. The contents should not be taken as health care advice. If you have verrucae then please consult your physician.
Most occult cures involved one or all of four factors i.e. touch, transference, repetitive behaviour, and nocturnal activities. Touching usually by rubbing vigorously the surface of the wart with a variety of solutions was common. Old rags were recommended and soaks included the juice of milkweed, radishes, marigold flower seeds, and limes. Dandelion sap, cinnamon powder, caster oil, potato peelings and even the water used to boil potatoes were all thought to cure warts. If that failed blood, spit or menses were also commonly used. Another innocent variation on the touching theme was to rub the wart with a wedding ring for three consecutive mornings. More macabrely the wart was rubbed with the skin of a black snail or dead corpse.
Transference usually involved touching the wart with something like plant seeds then putting them into the ground. Regional variations included grains of corn, beans, grapevines, and even rotten apples. Sometimes these had to be fed to livestock in order for the remedy to work. Alternatively the juice of raw or baked vegetables in ash were commonly smeared on the wart before being thrown away (usually over the head or left shoulder) and without watching where it fell. Onions or potatoes were used for this purpose too. Perhaps the most bazaar cures involved twisting a chicken's gizzard above the person’s head before throwing it backwards. An alternative to this to bury a dead cat in a graveyard in the dead of night after passing a crossroads. More commonly bacon was rubbed over the wart before burying it. Beans too were commonly thought to rid warts and some people buried them whilst others left them under the front doorstep to decay. As the matter decayed, the wart got better, or so the theory went. One other common practice was to pick the wart with a pin then stick it into an ash tree, reciting:
"Ashen tree, ashen tree, pray take away these warts from me."
The warts will then be transferred to the tree.
A common belief of our forbears was they could pass the wart onto someone or something else. This may relate to the times when illness was considered to be the possession of demons. Righteous people could rid themselves of ailments by giving up demons to sinners. In small communities strangers was frequently viewed as sinister interlopers. Many people thought by selling the wart to a stranger and keeping the money blemishes would miraculously disappear. One of the mildest transference cures was to place a pebble, previously rubbed over a wart, into a bag of pebbles then leave it at a crossroads. Who so ever picked up the bag would inherit the warts. Seems rather rough justice but for those who believe in the occult, a crossroad was a magical place and not always white magic. One cure for warts was to write a wish on a piece of paper, presumably relating to the end of suffering, then taking it to a crossroads before tearing it up and throwing it to the four winds. Another was to bury a bag at the crossroads containing the same number of stones as the person had warts. Complete eradication would follow.
Repetitive behaviour such as cutting notches in wood was at one time thought to clear up warts. Several versions appear in folklore. A small branch of a peach tree was cut the same number times as there were warts to cure. Placed in the ground where water dripped the branch decayed and as it did, the warts vanished. A variation was to cut tree bark and as they grow over, the warts disappeared. Cutting notches in a matchstick before burning it still thought in some parts to have the same efficacious effect. The belief that gently stabbing the wart with a needle (sterilised, of course) would caused it to disappear particularly when the needle was burnt. Stopping the blood supply by tying a silk thread or horses hair around the wart before burning it was also a common belief. Many of these rituals were considered more effective when undertaken in the dead of night. Finally an old wives tale was to touch each wart with chalk before inscribing a cross for each on the back of the fireplace. As the crosses became obscured by soot, the warts vanish.
Psychological states do influence skin physiology as random controlled experiments undertaken to compare hypnosis and auto suggestion have verified. People suffering from verrucae were divided into two groups for treatment. Some were hypnotised once per week for five weeks, and told their warts would disappear. After three months, six of the group had lost all their warts, and three more got rid of up to 75%. In the control group, where they were not hypnotised, not one patient lost a wart in the same time span. A similar experiment using tap water was undertaken and the population was divided into Catholic children and non-catholotic children. Each group were told the water was Holy Water and the clear-up rate in Catholic children was significantly higher than in the group of non-catholic children.
Now if you suffer from warts, or think you do, I would recommend you see your podiatrist or health care professional.
Rinzler CA 1979 The dictionary of medical folklore London: Magnum Books