Monday, September 7, 2015

The Roots of Southern Folk Medicine

By Phyllis D. Light, 5-26-15

Meet Phyllis at the Natural Living Expo, November 14-15 in Marlboro, MA. She will be presenting two workshops and conducting private consultations.

By the time the Pilgrims formed the English settlement known as Plymouth Colony in 1620, the South had already been explored and settled by the Spanish for almost 100 years in present day Florida. Because the Spanish, then later the French and Irish, settled there, it is no coincidence that this southern land is where our only traditional American folk medicine — other than Native American traditional medicine — developed.

The roots of Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine are strong, deep and varied. The traditions that merged to create Southern Folk Medicine include humoral medicine, Native American plant use, healing knowledge brought from Africa by the slaves, and the folk medicine of the British Isles, especially from Scotland and Ireland.

In additional to soldiers, Spanish expeditions to the New World included healers and physicians who practiced the conventional medicine of Europe, which was based on the works of Hippocrates, Galen and Avicennia. This was known as humoral theory or Greek medicine, and held sway in medicine until the 19th century. Spanish expeditions also included botanists and naturalists to draw and describe the exotic plant and animal life of the New World, historians to chronicle the exploits and adventures of the expedition, and Moorish slaves to do the physical labor required to build a colony.

Particularly influential on the development of Southern Folk Medicine was learning from the Creek and Cherokee Indians the uses of plants for both food and medicine. First Nations people have occupied the South for more than 10,000 years. Their relationship to the land determined their survival. The importance of these healing plants cannot be overemphasized.

From 1490-1603, England was making a firm effort to rid the land of the Irish. In the early days, whole clans left Ireland to avoid either death or slavery and took their healers with them. By 1652, over 300,000 Irish men, women and children had been shipped to the Americas for labor. From the Caribbean plantations, the Irish came to the United States via the Gulf and settled in the Deep South. Later waves of free Scots-Irish arrived in ports in the Northeast and made their way down into the Appalachian Mountains during the late 1700s and early 1800s.

From northern and western Africa, people were brought to the American South and Caribbean to work the plantations. Africans who were taken or sold as slaves could not bring their medicine, their plants or their healers with them, but they could and did bring their spiritual framework, rituals and customs, and their innate intelligence.

The last strong influence on the development of Southern Folk Medicine was the Christian religion. The Spanish initially brought priests with their expeditions who believed that Native populations should be converted and brought into the fold. Later evangelical Christians from Europe followed suit with the slaves. Since the Bible was the only book many people owned, it became a reference book for daily living, a guide to good health and spiritual law.

Other influences allowed the fledgling Southern Folk Medicine tradition to develop, evolve and grow unimpeded. These included the plantation system, the Civil War and the Great Depression.

The plantation system was developed in Ireland by the British and brought to America. Each plantation was like a small fiefdom with little or no interaction with the outside world other than neighboring plantations. Here Southern Folk Medicine was used to fight illness, birth babies, take care of wounds and injuries, treat chronic illnesses and nurse children through childhood illnesses. It was the folk medicine — the only medicine — of poor whites and slaves.

The Civil War found the South in a blockade, including a medical blockade. Nothing got in and nothing got out. Regular physicians returned to using herbs as first line medicine at home and on the battlefield. Some of the most useful herb books ever found were written by Civil War physicians.

The Great Depression saw little change in the South because the people and the land were still recovering from the impact of the Civil War. Southern Folk Medicine continued to be the primary tool of mothers and physicians alike during this time of economic depression.

My Beginnings Made Me Who I Am
Growing up in a certain time period in the South meant, amongst other things, living in poverty. This was the time of President Johnson’s war on poverty and Appalachia was viewed as a third world country and ground zero in the struggle. My family could have been on a poster for the program in every sense of the word from the raggedly clothes to the animals hides stretched and tacked on the wall of the house under the front porch. But, when all is said and done, there can be no sorrow or regrets for this was my beginnings and made me who I am. It was this poverty that also helped preserve the only folk medicine, other than Native American Medicine, to develop on this soil.

My grandmother, my father’s mother Rosie, was an herbalist and midwife in a community that didn’t have a doctor nor could afford one. In general, most folks in the area knew enough about herbs to tend to the normal injuries of daily life such as aches and pains, bruises and wounds, and the general malaise that might follow childbirth or the flu. But my Granny knew about herbs as she had been taught by her mother and grandmother and on back to the Civil War. Her family was Creek Indian. My unique upbringing and the type of education I received from the long-dead relatives of my childhood is far superior to the formal education I’ve since attained.

My Granny and other Southern folk herbalists, such as Tommie Bass, viewed the earth quite differently than most people today. To them, the earth, the land, was the source of all that was good and everything we needed to stay alive. Because of the interconnectedness of people and land, we were not separate. The earth gives us food, water, shelter and medicine. If we damage the earth, then we damage ourselves. I am in awe of this simple philosophy that is at once earth-centered and practical, spiritual and mysterious.

From these old-timers, these amazing herbalists and healers of the backwoods, I learned about Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine. It is a practical system, developed by people who lived in close harmony with the land but were ever mindful of the dangers the land could also present. Its language is land-based, filled with metaphors and similes taken from the Native American, European, and African cultures that originally settled the area.

Southern Folk Medicine Blood Types
Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine is a constitutional system based upon assessment of blood types and elements. The blood types and elements are in pairs of opposites; once you understand one aspect of the pair, you automatically understand its opposite. There is also a range within each blood type based on excess and deficiency. When the type/element is healthy and in balance, the person has good blood. When the type/element is out of balance then there may be excess or deficiency.

The four elements — fire, water, air and earth — influence the four Southern blood types of bitter, salty, sour and sweet. Each of us is born with all four elements and types within us. It can’t be otherwise because we are the children of this earth and each of these elements is present there. Generally, one element is more outstanding than the other three and is considered the dominant constitution, although sometimes a person might have two elements that are of equal strength.

Although this may sound a bit complicated, it’s really quite sensible and easy to understand. There are no large vocabulary words to learn, because Southern Folk Medicine was conceived in the common vocabulary of its time. It developed, grew, and evolved in the common language of the settlers in America, specifically the Southern states. That means you already know the language, the vocabulary. It is inherent within you and I’m just bringing this to your attention.

Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine is mind/body/spirit centered, dualistic in nature, and functions within a holistic framework. In addition to assessment of blood types and elements, it also explores the personality. Disease can be self-induced or originate from cold, damp, heat, dirt, pathological invaders, spiritual transgressions or magic.

In Southern Folk Medicine, the body is likened to a tree with a direct correlation between the flow of blood in the body and the flow of sap in trees. In the fall, blood begins to thicken as the weather grows cooler. It sinks downward and pulls inward to nourish, warm, and protect the vital organs during the cold winter. This is why circulation is diminished in the extremities and the hands and feet feel colder. In the spring, the blood thins and begins to rise, moving upward and outward in order to keep the internal organs cooler.

The Qualities of Healthy Blood
Blood is the most important indicator of disorder and imbalance in the body. It is the river of life, carrying nutrients and oxygen to nourish and fuel our cells. In our blood resides our genetic inheritance. Just as importantly, blood can also carry the elements and invaders producing sickness and disease. To be healthy, you must have clean or good blood, and a combination of good inheritance, environment and actions. Blood can also be affected by environmental factors, age, diet, gender and nerves, and influenced by such natural phenomena as the weather, seasons, and the moon and stars.

Blood flows in tune with nature, ebbing and flowing with the seasons. The moon also has an effect on blood much as it does the tides, causing shifts and changes in the flow with each phase of the moon. The moon is an important influence on the folk astrology used by herbalists, farmers, and midwives.

The Earth gives us food, water, shelter and medicine. If we damage the Earth, then we damage ourselves.

In the spring, impurities and pathogens that the body has been harboring over the winter can rise, causing illness in the spring. Summer or fall illnesses may also be contained over the winter when the blood is thick and then manifest in the spring when the blood begins to move again. Spring cleansing of the body is an important aspect of this healing system for moving out illness and helping thin the blood and get it ready for summer.

Blood possesses variable characteristics that can have a marked effect on health. It can be hot or cold, expressed both in temperature or qualities of these states. Blood can rise and fall, be high or low. It can be thick or thin depending not only upon season but many other factors. It can speed up or slow down. Blood can be simultaneously thick in some areas of the body and thin in others. This causes accumulation in areas of the body where the blood is thickened or congested. Blood can be clean or dirty, good or bad. Its flavors are bitter, salty, sour (acid) or sweet.

Blood qualities and flavors change continually throughout life in keeping with our actions, our environment and our attitude and spirituality. Though we may be born with a basic blood constitution (type and element), it may change and flow over the course of our lives, just as our blood does. Understanding blood is all-important — spiritually, psychologically and physically — to the study of Southern Folk Medicine. I wish there was enough space in this article to really convey all the characteristics of each element and blood type, but there’s not. Which element is prone to weight gain? Which element is flighty? Which element is most courageous? Which element can keep a secret? Which element is most prone to high blood pressure, diabetes, or rare and unusual illnesses?

Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine is a system that developed to define, explain and remedy illnesses in a new world that was being settled by different cultures who all needed to survive in a strange, new land. It is a folk medicine that is as viable as Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, or any folk tradition from any other land. Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine is uniquely our own, providing cultural roots that help define us as herbalists and as a society. It is a truly unique form of healing.

Meet Phyllis at the Natural Living Expo, November 14-15 in Marlboro, MA. She will be presenting two workshops and conducting private consultations.

Phyllis D. Light is a practicing herbalist and health educator with over 30 years of herbal experience. She is traditionally trained in Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine, beginning with her Creek/Cherokee grandmother in the deep woods of North Alabama, and continuing with her father and other Appalachian elders, including Tommie Bass. She is the director of the Appalachian Center for Natural Health in Arab, Alabama. Visit



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