Books resource: Herbal and Magical Medicine

About > James Kirkland, et al., eds. Herbal and Magical Medicine: Traditional Healing Today. Duke University Press, 1992.

When I sprained my ankle in high school football, my Grandmother offered the following cure: “Wrap the ankle in bacon fat, put the ankle and bacon fat in a plastic bag and then wrap this in a brown paper bag. Sleep with this on and in the morning, the ankle will feel better.” Laughing, I thanked my Grandmother and opted for ice, a more conventional treatment to my way of thinking. The important aspects of this anecdote, however, are two: 1) my Grandmother believed this “cure” would work, and 2) it was presented as such a creative and aesthetic “cure” that I remembered the advice and have been able to recount it here. Herbal and Magical Medicine: Traditional Healing Today, edited by James Kirkland, et. al., takes seriously the influence of such folk cures in American society and argues that traditional or folk medicine is often utilized by many in conjunction with mainstream biomedicine. This knowledge is not only useful to the contemporary health care provider, but also serves as an expression of the adherents sense of cultural identity. With an increased understanding of the patient’s beliefs regarding healing, the health care provider can better understand potential conflict and how best to overcome it to reach a point of mutual agreement.

Defining traditional/folk medicine as those beliefs and practices relating to disease which are products of indigenous cultural development and are not explicitly derived from the conceptual framework of modern medicine (1), the authors of this well edited compilation seek to fill-in the gap in the literature of North Carolina and Virginia folk medicine. They do this in a very interdisciplinary way that distributes information in a manner accessible to a wide audience of contemporary biomedical health care providers and those with a general interest in folk medicine. Their writing not only serves as a paradigm for interdisciplinary work, but also becomes a resource for health care providers that can be used to better understand and improve the relationship they have with their patients. An improved understanding of how and why patients access both a conventional biomedical system and a traditional medical system assists in conflict-resolution.

The progression of the argument is logical and well integrated, allowing the chapters to be read on their own or as an essay that builds upon the essays which surround it. After an introduction to the structure of the book, David J. Hufford provides an excellent overview of folk medicine in contemporary America. This is followed by a rather redundant chapter by Richard Blaustein which appears to be more of a book review than a piece of work that contributes constructively to the argument. Next, the reader encounters a series of essays that deal with the nuts-and-bolts: taking out fire; the parallels between magico-religious healing and hypnosis; roots and clinical examples of a pluralistic view that utilizes both traditional and conventional medicine; and spiritual-heart trouble which shows how religious ideology can influence health. The last three chapters address different concerns: Edward M. Croom’s essay on the herbal medicine among the Lumbee Indians seems more concerned with the scientific study of herbs than with the people using the herbs. C.W. Sullivan’s contribution on pregnancy and childbirth shows how education has failed to eradicate the impact of folklore on the understanding of birth among the educated. The final chapter by Karen Baldwin focuses on the aesthetic agency of folk medicine and how the conviction and artistry by which something is said, contributes to its longevity over successive generations, an observation which helps to explain the introductory example of a Grandmother’s “cure” for the sprained ankle.

There is no concluding chapter to summarize the points made by the authors or to highlight the way the central thesis of the book – traditional medicine is often utilized in conjunction with mainstream biomedicine and is not only useful, but can serve as an expression of the patient’s cultural identity – is reinforced by each successive chapter. One solution to this is to read Blaustein’s essay at the end. With moderate alterations his essay would serve quite well as a summary or concluding chapter. This structural point should not be enough to deter the reader, for on the whole the authors have joined together to create a very strong and informative work. The bibliography is quite impressive and a useful and extensive resource for the individual interested in folk medicine. Upon reading the book, health care providers are more likely to realize that healing is not a monolithic art perfected and correctly practiced only by those entrenched within the tradition of Western biomedicine. This health care provider will begin to appreciate the conviction with which traditional medicine is practiced and the importance of recognizing a balance for many patients between folk and scientific medicine. It is this understanding which will aid in improving the healer/patient relationship and it is because of this focus that Herbal and Magical Medicine is a useful contribution to all studies of medicine.

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