Witches and Magic in Medicine by Robert Chambers 1884
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Magic is a general name for wonderful effects produced in some mysterious way. The name is derived from the Magi, who were the priest-caste among the ancient Medes and Persians, corresponding to the Levites among the Israelites. The Magi were great astrologers and wonder-workers, and all such arts have since been designated as magic. Medicine, in its early form, is intimately allied to magic. It would soon be discovered by accident that certain plants produced powerful effects, both good and bad, upon the bodies of men and animals; and the reverence arising from their real virtues would lead to ascribing to them all manner of imaginary ones. The laws of nature being little known, one thing was not more incredible than another; and effects were assigned to causes in the most arbitrary and accidental way. The Rosicrucian physicians treated a case of wounding by applying the salve to the weapon instead of to the wound itself; and this may be taken as the type of magical, as contrasted with rational medicine. In modern times, drugs are mostly drawn from the mineral and vegetable kingdoms; but while the healing art was in the mystic stage, animal substances were most esteemed. If the juice of a plant could affect the living body, how much more must the life-blood of another animal! And the rarer the kind of blood, so much the rarer the virtue. The blood of an innocent child, or of a virgin, was believed to cure the leprosy; that of an executed criminal, the falling sickness. The hearts of animals, as being the seat of life, were held to be potent drugs. The fat of a hog had been found by experience to benefit a sore; what virtue, then, must there be in human fat, with the solemn mysteries of the grave about it!
In early stages of society, women are the doctors; while the men fight and hunt, the women gather herbs and decoct salves for their wounds; and the art would naturally become a sort of profession in the hands of the older women who had a reputation for superior skill of that kind. Mostly a blind groping—-a mystery to themselves as well as others-—their operations were looked upon with awe. The 'wise woman' with her kettle, cooking her mysterious broth, adding ingredient after ingredient (for the more, the rarer, the horribler they were, would not the compound be the more efficacious?), inspired not only hope but fear; for the art might be, and doubtless was, used to hurt as well as to heal. Roman matrons were often accused and convicted of poisoning by their decoctions; and during seasons of pestilence, these female druggists were persecuted with indiscriminate fury, as were witches afterwards in Europe. So much was the notion of poison uppermost in the Roman mind respecting them, that venefica, literally 'a poison-maker,' was the general name for a preparer of magic medicines, an enchantress or sorceress-—the corresponding character to our witch.
The word witch, Ang.-Sax. wicce, is from the Gothic root veihan (allied to the Latin facio), which means simply 'to do.' So important are all acts of a religious nature, that in most languages the word signifying 'to do' means also, without any addition, 'to perform sacrifice or religious rites;' and of this nature the brewings and incantations of the 'wise women' were considered to be. Shakespeare's' weird sisters' use I'll do, I'll do, I'll do, in this significant way. The heathen wicce, though looked upon with awe, had by no means the unmixed malevolent nature ascribed to her successor, the witch, in Christian times, whom the accusation of heresy and of being in compact with the devil converted into a sort of incarnate demon.
The operation of magical medicines was not, as is the case with those of the modern pharmacopoeia, confined to physical effects on living bodies to which they were applied; associated with incantations and other ceremonies, as they always were, they could be made to produce almost any desired effect-—raise or lay storms; fertilise a field or blast it; kill or cure a man absent as well as present; and give the power of predicting future events. How a belief in imaginary virtues of things may grow out of the experience of their real virtues, is indicated by Dr Livingstone, when speaking of the belief in rain-making among the tribes in the heart of Southern Africa. The African priest and the medicine-man is one and the same, and his chief function is to make the clouds give out rain. The preparations for this purpose are various—-charcoal made of burned bats; internal parts of animals, as lions' hearts and hairy calculi from the bowels of old cows; serpents' skins and vertebra; and every kind of tuber, bulb, root, and plant to be found in the country. 'Although you disbelieve their efficacy in charming the clouds to pour out their refreshing treasures, yet, conscious that civility is useful everywhere, you kindly state that you think they are mistaken as to their power; the rain-doctor selects a particular bulbous root, pounds it, and administers a cold infusion to a sheep, which in five minutes afterwards expires in convulsions. Part of the same bulb is converted into smoke, and ascends towards the sky; rain follows in a day or two. The inference is obvious.' The religion of this part of Africa may be characterised as medicine-worship.