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[Detail] Bill and Ellen Thomas, Ages 88 and 81

Folk Remedies and Beliefs

haunted house

House and steamboat at West Point, Arkansas. This "haunted house" was described in a ghost story told by Miss Effie Cowan.

The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress defines folklife as “The everyday and intimate creativity that all of us share and pass on to the next generation,”  providing a list of forms that folklife takes, from songs to crafts, childhood games, fairy stories, and religious, medical, magical, and social beliefs.  Louise Oliphant, a Georgia interviewer, compiled a list of what she designated “folk remedies and superstition” culled from interviews with ex-slaves in the city of Augusta. Read this compilation and consider the following questions:

  • Identify several folk remedies—medicines or treatments for pain or disease that are not based in medical science but in people’s everyday experiences. Be sure to find at least one remedy for hiccoughs (hiccups) and one remedy involving tea. How do you think these remedies came to be part of the ex-slaves’ folk wisdom? What do you notice about the materials used in the remedies? Are any of the remedies similar to remedies used today? What inferences can you draw from any similarities?
  • What is a superstition? Identify several entries in Oliphant’s collection that you would classify as superstitions. What makes these items superstitions (or magical beliefs)? Can you think of similar superstitions held by people you know?  What inferences can you draw from any similarities?

According to the Library of Congress American Folklife Center, “Folklife reflects and shapes our relationship with the world and others who inhabit that world.” How would the beliefs expressed in the Oliphant compilation “reflect and shape” people’s relationship with the world and with other people? Do you think your own beliefs reflect and shape the ways that you interact with the world?