What do we think about when we talk about old wives’ tales?
We often use it to refer to the therapeutic methods practiced by the women of yesteryear, but which are rejected by modern medicine as being unscientific. In other words, they say they are superstitious practices carried out by ignorant women. In more general terms, however, all the so-called outdated medical practices that contradict logic and science are regarded as old wives’ tales. This expression is often also applied to traditional medicine and herbal practices.
Is this fair, though? Before answering this question, we will elaborate on the etymology of its Turkish counterpart “kocakarı” (meaning old wife). First, this therapy has nothing to do with men and is practiced only by women, mainly older ones. The word “Koca” has several meanings in Turkish. One of these is husband, which is irrelevant to us. The second meaning is “old,” which may hold more relevance. The third meaning, however, is “great, sublime, wise, respectful,” and we should concentrate on this, because in our upcoming jurney into the past, this meaning will be stressed again and again. Next, the term “karı” in the word “kocakarı” does not refer to a wife as such but rather a wise old woman. Based on this quick etymological study, we could say kocakarı means a great, respectful, wise old woman. In Anatolian mythology, kocakarı means great mother, mother of gods.
Now it’s time to board our time machine and travel into the past.
In ancient cultures, healing was believed to be a gift given to women. In other words, it was the everyday application of a privilege bestowed by the goddesses. In those days, the “mother of medicine” was mentioned, indicating that medicine and religion were closely related. Indeed, research into ancient and primitive cultures has revealed how medicine and religion were intertwined. Gods who decided life and death were also responsible for health and sickness.
In Sumer, Ninkursag was the goddess of health. For the Assyrians, Ishtar was the mother goddess but also the goddess of health. The great Ancient Egyptian goddess Isis was also a healer. Kubaba (or Kubebe) of the Hittites, Kibele of the Phrygians, Artemis of the Ephesians, and Demeter of Ancient Greece were all goddesses of life, abundance, and death. The Minoans, Mycenaeans, and Cretans hoped for cures from goddesses of health and life. What’s more, the goddess of death was also the goddess of rebirth. Gula, the Assyrian goddess of death, was also known as a great healer. Likewise, Isis used to carry the sign of death. Life and death were inseparable realities in existence.
In ancient cultures, while good deities were furnished with health-giving powers and made responsible for protecting vigor, wicked demons were blamed for disease and sickness. The Sumerians first described demons of disease, and this definition was also later used in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the northern nations. The belief that demons caused diseases was the basis for exorcism rituals in Christianity. The hope that “Cinci hocas” (exorcists) in Turkey could help treat various diseases was an extension of this belief.
For treatment, people begged the goddess for help and expected her to correct the demons. However, mere prayer did not suffice, and some practical precautions were also taken depending on the specifics of the particular goddess. Goddesses were regarded as healers and druggists, and priestesses of the temple often assumed the role of a physician for the temple goers. Prayer and practice were important factors in this therapy. While practical therapy gave relief to the patient and controlled diseases, prayer to the goddess was necessary to treat the mysterious and incomprehensible causes of the disease. In those days, being a servant of the goddesses was reserved for women, and men would sometimes cut off their penises to qualify. It is claimed that circumcision is a moderated form of this tradition in Jewish and Muslim societies. The power of therapy was therefore believed to come strongly from these clerical physicians and partially from medicines. It was therefore not enough for priestesses to know spells—they also needed to acquire vast knowledge about plant, animal, and mineral ingredients for medicinal recipes.
In the Sumerian, Assyrian, Egyptian and Greek cultures until 3000 BC, therapy was solely in the hands of priestesses. The Sumerians, Assyrians and Egyptians had developed strong medicinal recipes for certain diseases in the form of pills, suppositories, lotions, and creams, so priestesses were highly regarded in those cultures. For instance, in Sumer, various high-ranking priests influenced economic, political, cultural, and social factors. The temples were their work space, and they enjoyed strong links with religious and political leaders. In Ur, almost all of the high priestesses of the god Nanner were members of the royal family. In Assyria and Egypt, priestesses were recruited from royal or noble families. The relationship between high priestesses and emperors was so intimate that in ancient cultures, queens were also temple physicians. When the tomb of Queen Shubad (circa 3000 BC in Ur) was unearthed, not only food was discovered but also analgesic recipes and bronze and flint medical devices.
Ancient Egyptian queens like Mentuhetep (circa 2300 BC), Hatshepsut (circa 1500 BC) and Cleopatra (circa 100 BC) were also famous physicians. Many murals on the walls of temples and tombs in Egypt depict women as priestess physicians. Likewise, the works of Diodurus, Euripides, Pliny, and Heredotus confirm such roles. Over time in ancient cultures, some distribution of duties among female healers occurred. Midwifery, for example, remained exclusive to women, but it became no longer necessary for a priestess to deliver a baby. Priestesses were limited in number and great in stature, so their numbers were insufficient to deal with all the patients going to the temples. Furthermore, delivery was a rather simple and mechanical process, so midwifery skills could easily be taught. Midwifery was therefore taken out of temples, although the Sumerians and Egyptians still trained their midwives. Midwives were required to have not just practical knowledge but also know about spells and magic, because they were not supposed to undermine the religion. Hence, for the first time, midwifery and the treatment of health problems passed from priestesses to other people. In time, the separation between midwives and priestesses weakened further, yet midwives never rivaled them openly. That would be an important development for the future.
The monopoly of priestesses over medicine was eventually lifted and women began to lose their authority as medical practitioners, instead becoming branded as peddlers of unscientific practices.
The first step in restricting the status of these women was to strip them of their religious functions. Their medical functions were eventually lost along with their religious functions. It’s not known exactly when this happened, but it may have occurred in between 3000 and 2000 BC, during the invasions of the Near East and Middle East by the Indo-European nations. The strong male-god dominance in Indo-European nations began to replace the goddesses of conquered nations. In Assyria and Egypt, creation myths were rewritten, and male gods attained an equal status with goddesses. Virgin goddesses, who did not before need a male to conceive a child, were then married to gods. Attis (a.k.a. Temmuz, Adon, Adonay, Adonis) was the husband of the mother goddess Kibele (Kybele, Cybele). He was birthed by Nana, the daughter of the river Sangarios, who conceived by pressing a white almond kernel into her tummy. Attis would die in winter and be reborn in spring. (Note that in Syria, Adon was killed by a wild boar, and this is why pork is forbidden among Semitic peoples.) Attis was therefore given a weak husbandly role by a goddess. Kibele the greatest goddess of the matriarchal society was meanwhile bestowed the honor of birthing Zeus (Jupiter), the greatest god of the Cretan patriarchal society. Kibele therefore became the chief god’s mother. Myths mention deep conflicts and struggles among the gods. In Greek mythology, Hera, the goddess of birth, worshipped as the savior of midwifery since Mycenaean times, loses the struggle with her brother and husband-to-be Zeus. We cannot be sure what caused this, whether it was invasions or ongoing societal transformation, but in the process of evolution and social worldview, the primary role given to women ended in favor of men.
The dismissal of women from the temples resulted in them losing their medical standing. Around 2900 BC, a man named Imhotep was appointed as court physician in Ancient Egypt. He was the first-known male physician appointed to the palace. Imhotep soon gained respect for his knowledge and authority in scientific methods, becoming the model for physicians. He was soon raised to a divine position under the god Ptah. The Greeks later adopted him as Aesculapius, their god of health. Aesculapius of Pergamon, the son of Adonis, had two daughters that were well known for their medicine: Hygiea (preventive medicine and hygiene) and Panacea (cure all). After 7 BC, Hygiea was depicted as an innocent, attractive woman carrying a basket full of herbs in her hands, sometimes with a snake, introducing patients to her father and treating them according to his advice. This reflects how a woman’s role in therapy was reduced from that of a physician to one of a nurse.
With the entry of males into medicine, important developments took place in Egyptian medicine. It began to develop separately from religion and lose its mystical facade. More importantly, the surgeon’s knife began to replace the curing spells and infusions of priestesses. Male dominance in Egyptian medicine developed with the art of mummification, which was perfected around 2300 BC. Embalmers were always male, and these men acquired a deep understanding of anatomy and surgery. Observations and findings were recorded and applied by both embalmers and surgeons. The causes of diseases were explained not through divine forces but rather the human body. “Male medicine” represented knowledge and new discoveries, while “Female medicine” was dismissed as superstition.
As the divide between religion and medicine deepened further, medical schools training embalmers were opened in Heliopolis, Sais, Memphis, and later Alexandria. The Prophet Moses is said to have been educated in Heliopolis. Sais and Alexandria were centers where physicians and surgeons from Egypt and Greece would meet. Surgery was applied for diagnosed diseases, while religious medicine was a last resort for idiopathic diseases. Such practices were carried out by priests in temples, where the removal of women also reduced their role in traditional medicine. Women, however, continued treating patients informally, and midwifery became a preferred medical field for women. Diseases that afflicted mostly women and children also became incorporated into midwifery. Midwives became responsible for treating female diseases, something that was previously under the control of the priestess physicians. While priests were primarily consulted to treat diseases and wounds, women were responsible for the at-home care of their patients. While there was previously no difference between a physician and a nurse, changes took place in the social role of women, so males then dominated the world of medicine, with the medical role of women becoming confined to the home.
The medicine schools founded in 460–377 BC by Hippocrates in Kos and Larissa were philosophical and speculative institutions based on reasoning and logic. According to this school of thought, the human body held no mystery. Bodily functions followed logical principles, and anatomy and surgery were heavily taught at these schools. Health was achieved through the four humors: blood, phlegm, bile, and black bile. Hippocrates is considered the father of modern medicine, and his efforts greatly contributed to separating medicine from religion and superstition, providing it with a scientific basis. He applied around 400 plants, such as scammony, castor oil, colocynth, and hellebore as purgatives; spurge, mezereon, cabbage, and melon as laxatives; garlic, onion, leek, cucumber, watermelon, and fennel as diuretics; opium poppy, henbane, and mandrake as hypnotics; oregano, thyme, mint, and celery as gargles for throat disorders; and macerated myrtle leaf, rose flower, and Madonna lilies as ointments for maturing a boil. The medical teachings of Hippocrates influenced European medicine until 18th century. It was one of the main medicine schools in Ancient Greece, but schools in Knidos, Rhodes and Cyrene were also famous. Yet women were never admitted to any of these medical schools. What’s more, only the wealthy could afford the high tuition fees for these schools. The therapy in temples, in contrast, was free for all. Heredotus mentions the Aesculapian health practice of Pergamon, which openly provided treatment. Poor patients would lie on the sidewalk and seek treatment from passersby, who would then supply them with advice, medicine, or even money. A similar practice is also mentioned in Sumer. Such behavior may be a first example of begging.
Women continued to treat the poor and other females informally at home. Their talents depended on their knowledge of medicinal plants and prayers and spells. Midwifery was in their domain, and they were good at it. Hippocrates admitted that he had learned gynecology and obstetrics from women. The wife of Pythagoras famously won a bet with a prominent physician on the viability of a fetus before seven months. Midwives used to deliver babies and perform abortions. They would nurse the baby and the mother for 15 days, receiving a piece of dry bread in return.
With the advent of Hippocratic thought in Greek society, the new physicians staged a war against female healers. The Athenian midwife Agnodice was prosecuted for practicing medicine in male clothes at a public court, but was not punished following pressure by other women. She was famous for performing very successful Caesarean sections.
In Rome, like in ancient Greece, women lost their status in medicine because of the influential Hippocratic schools, yet they were still favored in poorer portions of society. In Rome, midwives were called various names, such as Medica, Obstetrica, and Saga. Pliny mentions Elephantis, Salpe, and Sotira as healers. These women were not just midwives but also healers who successfully treated various diseases using traditional recipes. A woman healer named Africana was famous for treating epilepsy and infertility around 1 AD. Octavia, the sister of Augustus, and Messalina, the wife of Mark Antony, were also talented in home remedies. However popular they were in the public eye, though, they were disdained by the Hippocratic physicians. Cato (150–230 AD) called them abortionists, while Tertullian (150–230 AD) ridiculed their practices. Galenus (AD 129-201) described their practices as old wives’ tales and Egyptian quackery. Many other authors named them as empiricists, poisoners, or prostitutes. After being branded as sorcerers, healers were executed. The early Christians also executed female healers as sorcerers. The first Christian martyrs—Theodosia, Nicerata, and Thekla—were female healers. Even after adopting Christianity, the execution of female healers continued in the Roman Empire, and Galenical medicine was rebranded as Christian medicine. Therapy from women was regarded as a form of paganism, since the existence of female healers threatened the Christian view of disease. As paganism was condemned, women were also condemned as practitioners of traditional knowledge about medicine and midwifery, and their status in society eroded. During early Christianity, disease was considered a symbol of strength and justice from God. Being sick was regarded as an honor that God awarded to his servants. Disease was considered a punishment for a sin, while recovery was symbolic of God’s pardon. Those who sought relief through means other than praying were condemned. In this way, the Church aimed to recreate the ancient monopoly of healing by the clergy in temples. People were stubborn in continuing their traditional and herbal therapies, however, so the Church tolerated it rather than lose followers. At least one widow in every society was informally appointed to perform midwifery or other medical practices that were accepted by the Church in the name of God. Pagan symbols like charms and amulets were tolerated if they were accompanied by the spells of saints and Christian prayers, while the healing and protective powers of holy relicts were adopted. Plants were considered as God-given cures, so treatment through something other than payer could take place in Christianity.
Pagan symbols were replaced during the conversion of pagan nations to Christianity. Old deities were replaced with statues of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints, as well as the crucifix. Artemis was worshipped in Ephesus during pagan times as a mother goddess, a goddess of gods, a supreme mother. Ephesians, on adopting Christianity, exerted pressure on the Christian council of 431 in Ephesus to declare the Virgin Mary as mother of God. Patriarch Nestorius objected by saying that the Virgin Mary was the mother of Jesus Christ, not the mother of God, and was excommunicated.
The universities of Oxford and Cambridge did not admit female students when they opened in 13th century England. Nevertheless, women continued their medical practices not just as healers but also as surgeons. Since surgery was not an accepted medical practice, surgeons were accepted into the Barbers’ Guild. A Surgeons’ Guild, established in 1389, later accepted women as members. Universities then submitted a petition to parliament requesting the banning of healers without a formal medical education from practicing medicine. A hundred years later, their wish was granted when a law was enacted in 1518 giving privilege to the College of Medicine. It mentioned “those ignorant women insolently trying to cure with sorcery, magic and some medicines and causing nothing but discontent of the God.” With a law enacted in 1563, capital punishment was introduced for sorcery. In such prosecutions, the experts were medical doctors, and 85% of those prosecuted for sorcery were women accused of healing with magic rather than drugs. Although thousands of women were executed for sorcery, the old wives and their system of medicine persisted to the middle of the 18th century. Social changes in the west during the 18th and 19th centuries, however, posed a bigger threat than sorcery accusations to the status of these old wives. These changes brought about radical transformations in societies that formerly favored old wives and their treatment, while the male-dominated medical profession gained political and social respect and recognition. The role of the old wives in society gradually weakened, while the influence of traditional medicine in many fields diminished or vanished. While treatment from the old wives was a popular alternative to a medical doctor at the beginning of the 18th century, by the end of the century, they had become a symbol of superstition and outdated ideas.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, however, those old wives continued practicing their methods, especially among the working class and those deprived of healthcare. They were even used by the middle classes when modern medicine was helpless to treat a disorder.
Some of the old wives’ medical practices continued to spread by word of mouth, from mother to daughter or to friends. This persists even today, and many recipes are still known and applied by modern women.
The main difference between traditional and conventional medicines is that conventional medicine sees disease as a mechanical failure in the body. However, in traditional medicine, disease is not only due to organ dysfunction but disruption in the balance between individuals and their environment. Conventional medicine therefore tries to cure the disease, while traditional medicine tries to cure the patient by strengthening the body, so it can work in harmony with its environment. Prayers and charms, along with medicines, can contribute to the healing process by enriching the psychological atmosphere around the patient. The treatment of warts through prayer, for example, is a widely accepted and harmless practice in Turkish society.
Shamanism was the religion of the old Turkish nations. The Uryankıts tribe inhabiting the northern forests were representative of primitive shamanism. This tribe is mentioned in the Gokturk monuments as being grandchildren of the Kurıkans and the fathers of the Urenha and Yakut Turks of today. Odachi, one of the lords of Genghis Khan, was an Uryankıt. Odachi is synonymous with otaci, meaning a pharmacist in Uygur and other Turkish dialects. In primitive shamanism, a physician or pharmacist and shaman were the same person.
According to the Altay shamanists, the supreme God is Ülgen, who has seven sons and nine daughters. The daughters do not have specific names, and all are named Akkızlar (white girls) or Kıyans. They were sources of inspiration for the shamans. In the shamanist pantheon, beside Akkızlar, there are a few good female souls, such as Umay, Ana Maygıl, Ak Ene in Altays, and Ayısıts in Yakuts.
Some shamanists consider female shamans to be the most powerful. There are indications that in the old days, shamanism was an art performed by women. In Yakuts, male shamans do their rituals in female dress in the absence of special robes. Special shaman robes are decorated with round metal objects symbolizing the breasts of women. Nine small puppets on the collars of the robes symbolize the nine daughters of Ülgen, with the little robes representing their clothes and the iron or metal objects their earrings.
In the old shaman prayers, good female souls were prayed to by saying something like, “O’ my queen, o’ my mother the fire, you are created from elm…You appeared from the sole of mother Ötüsen…You are flicked with the light of those living in the sky and gifted with the hands of Uluken Khatun to bestow health and security on our nation.”
On adopting Islam, the eastern Turks introduced the names of prophets, angels, saints, and sheiks into shamanic prayers.
The Therapeutic Methods of the Old Wives
The old wives used symbolic rituals during therapy. For instance, the following is prescribed for the treatment of warts: “Steal a piece of meat, smear it on the wart, and bury it in soil. As the meat decays, the wart will also disappear.” Here is another alternative, “Touch the inner side of a bean shell to the wart. Burn the bean shell secretly, and the wart will vanish.
For rabies, “carry the hair of the dog that bit you” or “remove the heart of the mad dog, cook it on the fire, and have the bitten person eat it.”
Running water is considered one of the three main elements of life. When warding off evil, the virtues of streams and well water are esteemed. Salt was also believed to ward off evil. The cleansing and antiseptic properties of water and salt are appreciated even today.
Color therapy has its roots in old mystical beliefs. The principles behind the use of color for therapy is reminiscent of sympathetic magic. A red color symbolizes fire, and red fabric was used to reduce fevers. Red flowers were used for blood diseases, while yellow flowers were applied for liver disorders. Red is also sacred in Christianity because it symbolizes the blood of Jesus. Blue is the color of the Virgin Mary and has almost no healing properties. However, brides are often told to wear something blue on their wedding day. Nursing mothers are recommended to wear blue ribbon or wool rope around their neck to avoid getting sick. Blue is used as a precaution against evil in Anatolia, while blue beads are believed to protect the body from evil souls and wicked thoughts.
Numbers were also believed to play an important role in therapy. Threes, triples, and sevens were renowned for their strong power. A remedy for whooping cough in England went as follows: Pass the child around the tummy and back of a three-year-old donkey for nine times. Take three spoons of donkey milk and leave three hairs taken from the back and tummy of the donkey in it for three hours. Have the child then drink this milk in three sips. Repeat the same process for three successive mornings.
Such a strange practice would obviously cause nausea and give the child some temporary relief.
Repeating the numbers of spells and magical words were associated with their effectiveness. Furthermore, astrological elements were considered valuable symbols in therapy. The collection times of herbs were also decided according to lunar movement, with the third day of a new moon being preferred for harvest. A full moon was deemed unsuitable for plant collection. The reason given was that drying would be difficult since water would move to the air due to ebb and tide effect of the full moon. Nevertheless, the importance of timing the collection of plants is even appreciated today. For instance, the morphine content in opium is four times greater when it is collected at 9 a.m. than it is when collected after noon. The codeine content, on the other hand, reaches its peak at 12 a.m. and its minimum at 7 a.m. The highest alkaloid content is observed during the flowering stage in belladonna leaves (Atropa belladonna). In the Ephedra species, twice as much alkaloid is obtained in fall and winter than in spring and summer. In foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) leaves, cardiac glycosides are biosynthesized during daytime and broken down at night, so collecting leaves in the afternoon is recommended.
The Ancient Turks believed that God was created from elm, so this tree was deemed sacred. Likewise, the Vikings believed that Odin was born from an ash tree. A popular therapy for rickets and hernias was to pass the patient through a hole in the trunk of an ash tree with his head turned to the rising sun. The tree would then be wrapped stiff, and as it healed, the patient would also be healed. Ash also used to be tied to the bed of nursing mothers, while newborn babies would be given a drop of ash sap.
Deities were not the only actors controlling therapy, though. In some special cases, people could also acquire powers. The seventh daughter (or son) of the seventh daughter (or son) would acquire healing and divine powers unless the order was broken by the opposite sex. Angina was believed to be healed if the second twin blew into the mouth of the opposite sex three times.
In pre-Christian times, it was believed the soul, which comprised the basic principles of life, was distributed more or less equally to every individual. Dead babies and infants would still contain life energy, and this could theoretically help those patients who seemed to lack it. Therefore, many old wives’ remedies involved dead body parts. Hangmen used to get a fee for dead shock, and patients would gather around the gallows. The heads of executed persons were used in some recipes. The healing powers of the dead have resulted in visits to the tombs of saints and mystics, as well as the holy relicts of Christianity and Islam.
Death was also used in rituals. Some magic rituals were based on a symbolic death and healthy rebirth. Passing the patient through the arch or trunk of an ash tree symbolized rebirth. Another ritual for whooping cough was to “lay the child face down on the grass, cut the ground in the form of a coffin around the child, remove the child from the grass, and turn the cut ground upside down.” As the grass dried, the whooping cough would disappear, but this needed to be performed secretly.
The first thing that old wives tales bring to mind is therapeutic recipes, meaning practical precautions taken for treating diseases. Herbal remedies play a major role here. In the early days, people used to just use herbs that grew locally, but then trade in herbs took place between neighboring countries. Nowadays, the trading of herbs has no boundaries. Cinchona bark from South America eradicated malaria from Europe, while the narcotic properties of the cocaine from coca leaves has affected countless people. The Dioscorea plant growing in Mexico, meanwhile, laid the foundations for the steroids industry.
Despite the numerous developments in modern synthetic medicines, the fact that 80% of the world’s population still uses herbal medicines shows that plants are still an important source of medicine. The strange practices described in old wives’ tales have no place in traditional or folk medicine, which are practically plant based without resorting to rituals or spells. Although these systems use many of the same plants that were used by the old wives, only the effective ones have retained their place to this day. Scientific research into these plants is gradually proving their efficacy.
Some examples of herbal raw materials are contained in pharmacopoeias and codices, the basic books of pharmacists. These include gum Arabic, which has been used for at least 2,000 years as an excipient in making pills; senna, aloes, and rhubarb as laxatives; belladonna as an antispasmodic; foxglove as a cardiac tonic; dill to alleviate gripe in children; ergot to facilitate birth and combat migraines; ipeka root as an expectorant; licorice root as an antitussive and antiulcer agent; male fern as an antihelmintic; colchicum to treat gout and leukemia; and salix bark as an antipyretic. The list goes on.
As we learned during our journey through the past, old wives have transformed their status over time from health-giving mother goddesses who used to rule society to unconventional healers secretly practicing their art. However illogical and irrational their practices may seem, old wives and their knowledge are a valuable legacy from the past. I believe that by filtering their knowledge through the sieve of science, many new medicines and therapeutic methods could be developed for the service of humanity.
1. M.Chamberlain, Old Wives’ Tales. Their History, Remedies and Spells, Virago Press, London (1981)
2. New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, Hamlyn (1981)
3. Halikarnas Balıkçısı, Anadolu Efsaneleri, Bilgi Yayınevi (1985)
4. B.L.Bolton, The Secret Powers of Plants, Abacus (1974)
5. A.Sayılı, Mısırlılarda ve Mezopotamyalılarda Matematik, Astronomi ve Tıp, Atatürk Kültür Merkezi Yayını-Sayı: 47, Ankara (1991)
K. Hüsnü Can Başer