Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/July 1891/Animal and Plant Lore IV

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1196582Popular Science Monthly Volume 39 July 1891 — Animal and Plant Lore IV1891Fanny Dickerson Bergen




ACCORDING to popular tradition, a surprising variety of physical ailments or discomforts may be relieved by human saliva, used in compliance with certain explicit rules. Such prescriptions abound both in our own day and in the pseudo-medical literature of earlier ages, varying more or less in different places and in different periods, but here an d there to-day we find some interesting survival that tallies exactly with a superstition two thousand or more years old.[1] Many of these popular prescriptions apparently are based entirely upon supposed curative virtues of human saliva, while others may more properly be said to be directions for working, by means of spittle, spells or charms, that are supposed to cure bodily disorders.

So general do I find to be the belief that human saliva has medical properties, that, desiring to be on the safe side before ranking as out-and-out superstitions many very common customs dependent upon this belief, I have consulted a number of trustworthy medical authorities in regard to the matter. The universal testimony is to the effect that there is not the slightest scientific warrant for any prescriptions in which relief of pain is promised on account of any specific remedial quality of spittle. Warmth and moisture may be grateful to a burn, insect-bite, or otherwise inflamed surface of the cuticle, but warm water would always do all that saliva could do.

One very queer notion which I have found in parts of Pennsylvania, northern Ohio, central Maine, and in Dorchester, Ontario, is that a pain or "stitch" in the side, induced by running or rapid walking, may be cured by lifting a stone, spitting on its under surface, and replacing it. In Chelsea, Mass., children who bring on pain in the side by running say that it may be cured by picking up a small pebble and placing it for a time under the tongue. In Cambridge, school-children in racing or in playing romping games may often be seen to stoop, pick up a pebble, and insert it either under the tongue or under the upper lip to prevent pain in the side. An eleven-year-old boy belonging to a cultivated family, and attending one of the best public schools in Cambridge, assures me that he believes a person could run all day without weariness or pain by adopting this simple precaution. The above-mentioned charm-cures become more interesting when compared with two Swabian beliefs recorded by Dr. Buck. One of these is that palpitation of the heart may be relieved by secretly lifting a stone from the ground, spitting on it three times, and replacing it; while a Swabian cure for toothache is to have the sufferer spit on the under side of a silicious stone.

In eastern Massachusetts and in parts of New Hampshire a very common practice, when one's foot is "asleep," is to cross the top of the benumbed foot with the tip of the fore-finger moistened with saliva. An Italian fruit-vender tells me that this usage is very common among the peasant class in Italy. In Lawrence, Mass., the same thing is done to the hand if it be "asleep." From northern Ohio a variation of the practice is sent me: if the foot or leg be "asleep," to spit on your hand or finger and rub under the knee on the hamstring is said to give quick relief from the unpleasant pricking sensation. An Irish servant-girl in Brooklyn, N. Y., recommended the same remedy. Among the people comprising a small Gaelic community on Cape Breton is found another variation of this remedy—the saliva-charm there used to relieve the discomfort of a foot "asleep" being, if the right foot is the one troubled, to wet the right fore-finger with spittle and rub the right eyebrow; if the left foot be "asleep," to moisten the left fore-finger and rub the left eyebrow. Pliny quotes from Salpe the statement that when any part of the body is "asleep" the numbness may be relieved by spitting into the lap or by touching the upper eyelid with spittle. Pliny also states that a "crick" in the neck may be cured by putting fasting spittle on the right knee with the right hand and on the left knee with the left hand.

The evident relationship between the last two old Roman cures and the Gaelic one above cited suggests an interesting problem, for the student of comparative folk lore. Both the Roman and the Cape Breton charm cures may be descendants of some older Aryan superstition, or the Cape Breton one may have been brought to Great Britain by the Roman invaders. But what theory of distribution will account for a custom similar to those just cited, which is very general among the Japanese, a people separated from western Europeans by the whole width of an immense continent, and differing ethnically so far from the Caucasian race?

It naturally happens, from the Japanese national custom of sitting with the feet doubled under on a mat, that one or both legs will become numb. A Japanese scientist has kindly communicated to me the following particulars in regard to the saliva cures for this numbness:

"In the province of Suwo (southwest part of the main island of Japan) a person picks up a piece of straw, wets it with saliva, and then sticks the same on the middle part of his forehead. The piece is left there till it naturally comes off. In Tokio, after a piece of straw is placed on the forehead, as in the above process, a person wets his index-finger, with which he first touches the tip of his nose and then he rapidly moves his finger up toward the forehead (without touching the latter or the straw). This is repeated three times, accompanied by a saying, 'Shibire Kyo ye agare' which is of course also repeated the same number of times. The phrase means literally, 'Numbness, go up to Kyo.' Kyo is an abbreviation for Kyoto, where our emperors used to live for many centuries till 1868, and which was then the recognized center of Japan. People always spoke of going up to 'Kyoto' I do not know the origin of the phrase addressed to the numbness, neither do I know its true significance; but one which strikes me as very probable is, that it was meant to entice numbness out of the lower members of the body, as every one was right glad to obey such a command at any time. In the province of Echigo (northwest part of the main island of Japan) I heard that straw is not used, but a cross is drawn on the forehead with a finger wet with saliva."

Since the cross is not one of the emblems of the old Shinto or of the Buddhist religion, the signature of the cross in the last charm is undoubtedly a survival from the introduction of Roman Catholicism into Japan by Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth century.

Pliny states that a boil may be cured by wetting it three times with fasting spittle. We still find various kindred remedial charms extant in the United States. From a village near Portland, Maine, comes the notion that pimples may be removed by moistening with saliva. In central Maine I find the belief that ringworm may be "killed" by moistening the finger in the mouth and rubbing around the diseased spot, taking care to move the finger in the same direction in which the sun moves.

This is only one of many survivals which I have found, in our own time and country, of the old withershins superstition, of which I shall treat more fully in another place.

In County Kent, England, W. G. Black says, in his Folk Medicine, there is a belief that a wart may be removed by wetting the fore-finger with saliva and rubbing the wart in the same direction as a passing funeral, meantime repeating, "My wart goes with you." In eastern Massachusetts and in central New York I find the notion that warts may be removed by rubbing them with spittle. A working-woman from Boston tells me that if one rubs a corn with spit upon retiring, four nights in succession, the center will come out of the painful callosity.

We have all seen how involuntarily people moisten a slight burn with saliva. As above suggested, the application of moisture, and consequent evaporation, no doubt afford some relief to the pain of a burn, and if it be on the hand or wrist the quickest and easiest way to moisten the inflamed spot very likely may be to carry it to the mouth; but if the burn be on the arm, and a pail of water be at hand, or a faucet over a kitchen sink, it certainly can not be to save trouble that the finger is wet with saliva and the latter carried to the burn. And yet the latter process is often resorted to even by persons who disclaim any belief in charms or superstitious usages. A Worcestershire charm for a burn, quoted in Black's Folk Medicine, is to keep the burn a secret, spit on the finger, and press it behind the left ear. We frequently see bruises as well as burns treated with saliva. It is almost an instinctive act with many individuals instantly to raise a knuckle that has received a sharp blow to the mouth to moisten it with spittle. Or a mother or nurse often wets her finger with her own saliva and smears with it a bump on a child's head. This suggests an interesting custom found in parts of Japan, of which the Japanese gentleman, above quoted, has told 'me. "When a child hits his head against a hard object, he at once applies his own saliva on the painful spot to prevent a lump from being formed, repeating, ' This is parent's saliva, this is parent's saliva,' thus showing the reverent belief in the efficacy of his parent's saliva."

The application of saliva to sore or inflamed eyes is in accordance with a widely distributed superstition. I have myself known several persons in Massachusetts, of considerable education and great refinement, who faithfully resorted to this popular mode of treatment in slight ailments of the eye. In Woburn, Mass., the confervaceous vegetation, commonly found floating on the surface of pools and sluggish streams, and known by the vulgar name of "frog-spit" is used as an application for inflamed eyes, no doubt in the full belief that, as a kind of spittle, it possesses all the healing powers of that substance. I remember, when a child, in northern Ohio, hearing older people say that sore eyes could usually be cured by anointing them with spittle upon awakening for three mornings in succession. Among the Gaelic community on Cape Breton, above mentioned, I find that a popular cure either for a sty or for ophthalmia is to wet one or both eyes, as the case may be, for nine mornings in succession with fasting saliva. Dr. Buck reports that the Swabians also believe in the efficacy of fasting spittle for sore eyes; and our never-failing Pliny records the Roman belief that ophthalmia may be cured by anointing the eyes every morning with fasting spittle. From Black's Folk Medicine I quote: "Hilarion cured a (blind) woman in Egypt by spitting on her eyes. Vespasian so cured a blind man of Alexandria." Many other examples could be quoted to show the general occurrence of this mode of treatment of disorders of the eyes, both in earlier times and at the present day. It will be noticed that in a majority of the instances just mentioned it is morning or fasting spittle that is recommended to be used in order to accomplish a cure. A belief in the specific qualities of fasting spittle ranges far and wide. Besides the general recommendation of morning or fasting saliva for ophthalmia, Pliny states that the Romans generally considered that a woman's fasting spittle was highly efficacious for bloodshot eyes. If the woman had abstained from food and wine the day before, better results were to be expected. Scot, in the Discoverie of Witchcraft, records an accredited method "To heale the kings or queenes evill, or any other sorenesse in the throte: Let a virgine, fasting, laie hir hand on the sore and saie: Apollo denieth that the heate of the plague can increase where a naked virgine quenchith it, and spet three times upon it." Fasting spittle is popularly supposed to have both curative and poisonous properties. Black quotes the following from a correspondent: "Two old-fashioned ladies we know (they are Scotch, by the way) hold firmly to the belief that it is very hurtful to swallow the saliva that is in the mouth on first waking. They would not do it on any account." In Madagascar the first spittle in the morning is called "bitter or disagreeable" saliva, and it is thought to have medicinal virtue in healing diseases either of the ear or of the eye.

It is a very common habit throughout the United States and New Brunswick to moisten a mosquito-bite, a slight bee-sting, or the bite of a fly or other insect with saliva. Dr. Buck says that the Swabians also treat fly and bee stings with saliva, morning or fasting saliva being esteemed most efficacious. This popular mode of alleviating the pain caused by the injection of the usually acid secretion of insects is no doubt often made use of as being the easiest or most convenient way to moisten and cool the smart, and if the wound be instantly sucked with the lips, very likely the poison may be in part withdrawn and relief thus obtained; but I am convinced, as the result of a good many inquiries among people of various occupations and nationalities, that there is a popular belief that human saliva is effective in palliating irritating bites or stings of insects. It would not, perhaps, be easy to prove, but I strongly suspect that there is some historical relationship between our common custom of moistening such stings with saliva and an ancient belief that human saliva had power to antidote many animal poisons, and by its mere contact to destroy serpents and various other dreaded and repulsive creatures. A few superstitions that I have found show that this old belief still survives. In a previous paper I mentioned the New England notion that if a snake should spit into a person's mouth it would surely kill the latter; and now from Maine comes the converse of that superstition, viz., that if a human being spit into a snake's mouth the reptile will quickly die. Quaint old Sir Thomas Browne, in his Vulgar Errors, a book remarkable for the exposure of so many fallacies current in the age in which it was written, expresses a doubt, founded on experience, "as to whether the fasting spittle of man be poison unto Snakes and Vipers," thus showing that this was an old English belief. Pliny recommends fasting saliva as a preservative against the poison of serpents; and in another place he writes: "But the fact is that all men possess in their bodies a poison which acts upon serpents, and the human saliva, it is said, makes them take to flight as though they had been touched with boiling water. The same substance, it is said, destroys them the moment it enters their throat, and more particularly so if it should happen to be the saliva of a man who is fasting." Pliny cites Marcion of Smyrna as authority for the statement that the sea-scolopendra will burst asunder if spit upon, and that the same is true of frogs and "bramble-frogs." Human saliva is popularly believed by the Japanese of to-day to be a deadly poison to centipedes. W. G. Black says that Galen believed that a scorpion could be killed by a person's spitting. A gentleman whose childhood was spent near London, Canada, recalls a superstition of that neighborhood to the effect that if one should spit on a toad's back the creature would split open, precisely the same as the belief which Pliny quotes from Marcion, save that in the Canadian form of the fable the toad takes the place of the frog. In the same locality in Canada children held that if a toad should spit on a person warts would be the result, and this notion is to be met with in various parts of New England. This is only one of many outgrowths of the old superstition regarding the "venom" of the toad. The Swabian folk medicine, according to Dr. Buck, credits toad-spittle with being very poisonous, and mere contact with a toad is said to cause a limb to swell, especially if the animal has first been made angry. Levinus Lemnius speaks decidedly of the poisonous character of these really harmless creatures; but it is needless to multiply quotations to show how general has been the belief that toads and all pertaining to them were poisonous to man.

Occurring in great abundance in summer upon the young shoots of many plants, and especially upon the culms of grasses, the little flecks of froth in which are concealed the pupa of the frog-hoppers or spittle insects (Cercopidæ) are not popularly known to be the exudation of an insect, but are supposed to be the spittle of some animal, and hence the substance has received a variety of common names. I find the name "toad-spit" given to this exudation in eastern Massachusetts, parts of Maine and northern New Brunswick, and the same name is applied to it in parts of England and in the Isle of Jersey. In Jersey the old notion of the toad's venomous character obtains and its spittle is thought to be poisonous, "to poison the blood," as the peasants say; so of course the "toad-spit" upon the plants, being thought to be veritable saliva of toads, is avoided. A woman from Bathurst, New Brunswick, tells me that the so-called toad-spit is frequently found on wild strawberry plants, and the berry-pickers are careful not to gather any fruit on which is to be seen any of this much feared pseudo-spittle, for, as she says, "you know the berries would be rank poison, for toads are very poisonous; they take all the poison out of whatever they touch. If they are in a well, they suck up all the poison out of the water, and so, when they spit, of course, this poison will be in their spit." In Reading, Mass., the exudation of the tiny creature, lurking unsuspected, within its frothy covering, is called either toad-spit or snake-spit, and barefooted children fear to let it touch their feet, as the saying is that it will blister the skin. Snake-spit is the name applied to the excretion in many other localities in New England. In Ipswich, Mass., children say that if you make a wish and then break off a certain number—twenty-five, I believe—of grass-stalks without losing the snake-spit on any one of them, your wish will surely come true. In parts of the Maritime Provinces of Canada and in Staffordshire, England, frog-spit is another name for the foamy masses. When a child, in northern Ohio, I remember to have often seen the grasses along the roadside besprinkled with the spit-like substance. I never heard any one speak of it, and I carelessly concluded that it was blown upon the grass by passing horses that had the "slobbers" as the farmers there say. But I am told that on the north coast of Prince Edward's Island the name "horsespit" is one in common use for the substance; frog-spit and cuckoospit are other synonyms in the same locality. This last fanciful name is also to be met with in England and Ireland. A native of County Kerry, Ireland, has told me in considerable detail the popular theory, in that region, of its origin. The cuckoo-spit, she said, is found only on the leaves of sorrel (Rumex acetosella). Any one who looks inside the little bunches of spit will find a very small green bug, and this bug is the last thing the cuckoo ate before she went away for the winter. So, when she comes back, she must spit this out before she can sing at all. And therefore, when people see this spit on the sorrel leaves in the morning, they say, "Now the cuckoo's come back again," or "The cuckoo's been here in the night."

Very generally throughout the United States the spittle of an angry dog, if introduced into the circulation, is thought to be a deadly poison, and the bite of a dog that is enraged is feared almost like that of one having hydrophobia. The same belief is held to a less extent regarding the saliva of an angry man. In Swabia, says Dr. Buck, not only are both of these kinds of spittle deemed to be highly poisonous, but the most dangerous of all is reckoned to be that of a person who has been tickled to death! Some interesting superstitions brought here by Irish immigrants, concerning the dangerous character of the spit of the weasel, have been recounted elsewhere.[2] With us the saliva of an angry horse is also dreaded. The saliva of the rat, both in the United States and in England, is pretty generally endowed by the popular imagination with venomous properties, whether the rat which inflicts the bite is especially irritated at the moment of biting or not. In the rat's case the poisonous character attributed to the bites of the long, chisel shaped incisors is sometimes ascribed to a specific poison existent in the saliva, and sometimes to the teeth being covered, as it is thought, with the remains of the garbage on which the animal feeds. Frank Buckland, one of the best of authorities on such matters, asserts positively that the bite of the rat is not poisonous, and that bad effects follow from rat-bites only when the patient's system is in such a condition that any trivial wound might cause serious consequences.[3] Several skilled physicians, to whom I have addressed inquiries in regard to the nature of wounds inflicted by the teeth, either of man or of such domesticated mammals as are likely to attack man, have all stated that, contrary to the popular belief, these bites are no more dangerous than like injuries inflicted by other weapons than the teeth. It is true that the bite of certain animals—a squirrel, for example—often suppurates and heals very slowly, but this is to be ascribed to the depth and laceration of the punctures inflicted by its powerful teeth, which are usually made to meet in the finger of the person bitten. Of course, in what precedes, it has been assumed that the animal which inflicted the bite was not rabid. There is a rather wide-spread belief among uneducated people that, if any one is bitten by a dog, the latter should at once be killed, lest at some future time he go mad, when the person bitten would also become rabid. This baseless fear seems also to be common in Ireland, according, to Lady Wilde.

Equally irrational with the general ascription of hurtful powers to mammalian saliva is the popular belief in its healing powers. Not only is it usual to hear people say that the dog, for instance, in licking his wounded paw, is making a most efficient vulnerary application, but the dog is encouraged to lick the hand of his master to cure a cut finger or other slight injury. No doubt the cleansing effect of constant licking would be most salutary and would promote healing by the first intention, but in the popular mind a specific healing virtue is attached to dogs' and to cats' saliva—a virtue which is, however, purely imaginary.

Would it be premature to suggest, as a provisional explanation of many saliva cures, especially those of a surgical character, that they are survivals of primeval surgery; and that this, in turn, had its origin in our inheritance from the lower animals, which so often apply saliva to wounds and ulcers by lapping them with the tongue?

But to trace in detail the genealogy of saliva cures and saliva charms is a task as yet impossible. It would surely not be easy even to show how the Mandingo negroes, the South Sea islanders, the American Indians, and the Japanese have come to share with the Aryan and Semitic races in beliefs concerning the magical efficacy of saliva.[4] For the solution of such problems as this the young science of folk lore must wait, on the one hand, for a general advance in the field of anthropology, and, on the other, for the accumulation and collation of data exceeding a hundred-fold those accessible to the folk-lore student of to-day.

Data, collected in Switzerland by Mile. N. Iwanoff go to show that mortality from organic disease of the heart decreases as the altitude of the habitation rises. As a secondary result of the inquiry, it was found that this mortality is higher in towns than in the country.
  1. The present paper, which deals almost entirely with the uses of saliva in folk medicine, forms only a part of a somewhat extended treatment of the subject of American superstitions in regard to saliva which the writer hopes, at some future time, to present in a more permanent form in connection with other folk lore.
  2. Article III of this series.
  3. Curiosities of Natural History, popular edition, first series, fifth edition, pp. 107, 108.
  4. Some details in regard to the geographical and ethnical distribution of certain saliva charms were given in a paper of mine, Some Saliva Charms, read before the American Folklore Society, at its Philadelphia meeting, November, 1889.