Ethiopian Folklore and Folkmedicine
By Gary R Varner
An excerpt from a new book, Ethiopia - A Cultural History of an Ancient Land
“Folk medicine” is a term which encompasses the indigenous treatments and medicines contained in folklore. Herbal potions, the belief in many ritual or “superstitious” practices which are believed by a group of people to be useful in the avoidance or treatment of certain diseases and afflictions are all examples of folk medicine. Over time many of these practices have been shown to have scientific merit.
Ethiopia is a place where many of these beliefs are held to be valuable for the well-being of a people which does not have accessible or affordable mainstream medical care. There are clinics and hospitals available in Addis Ababa however Ethiopia is a cash only economy and treatment must be paid for in advance. Perhaps because of the inability to access modern medical care 80% of the Ethiopian population rely on traditional folk medicine. The use of herbs and traditional healers are easily accessible and affordable.
Ethiopians are very concerned about their health but believe outside sources, including the sun and spirits, are responsible for illnesses. Dr. Richard Hodes, a practicing physician in Ethiopia, wrote “health is a state of equilibrium within the body and between the body and the outside.” Alevtina Gall wrote “Most traditional medical practices in Ethiopia rely on an explanation of disease that draws on both the ‘mystical’ and ‘natural’ causes of an illness and employ a holistic approach to treatment.”
According to Hodes even the sun is believed to cause such illnesses as earache, eye disease and genital sores. Due to the complex nature of Ethiopian health beliefs with a large variety of causes there are 21 types of traditional healers—all specializing in either observable or magico-religious causes. “Amulet writers,” “seers,” and herbalist are all categorized as traditional healers.
Hodes recorded one instance when a woman requested a bottle for her baby and a transparent bottle was provided. The mother refused the bottle and instead asked for a translucent bottle. The reason behind this was very logical. Persons who can inflict the evil eye have the ability to look at a substance and to poison it. The translucent bottle can prevent this from happening.
Things as simple and normal as blowing wind are believed to be dangerous and to cause difficulty in breathing and fatigue. To combat this possibility many people keep their windows closed or drape towels over their head and neck.
Most STDs are believed to be caused by drinking sheep fat but cactus milk is believed to cure gonorrhea.
As noted above, illnesses are often regarded as manifestations of outside influence such as possession by evil spirits or witchcraft. Epileptic seizures are believed to be the result if demon possession or having an enemy cast a shadow on the individual. Other more innocuous conditions such as hiccups are believed to result when the individual is remembered by someone who loves him or her. Other illnesses are thought to be caused when an evil spirit rides the victim.
Spirits, both benevolent and malevolent, continue to be a widespread belief among all Ethiopians—regardless of their professed religion. Called “Zār”, these spirits, in both male and female form, are thought to be responsible for many misfortunes so are propitiated in the attempt to prevent such calamity. The Zār are similar to the minor demons or genii in the Arab world and to elves and faeries in Europe.
The Zār may affect the daily lives of people including illness, pregnancy, birth, death, changes in weather and the success or failure in financial transactions.
Nineteenth century Frederick Elworthy quotes a paragraph from the 1841 book, Amharic Dictionary concerning the Zār:
“They believe that these invisible beings are eighty-eight in number, and divided into two equal parties; forty-four of them being united under one chief, called Warrar, and the other forty-four under another chief whose name is Māma. In Shoa these Zārs are worshipped, we were told, by those who are in the habit of smoking tobacco, except foreigners; and we persuaded ourselves that very custom is, by those Shoa people who followed it, observed in honour of those imaginary beings. …we saw an otherwise intelligent and respectable woman alternately smoking and praying to the Zārs with great vehemence until she was mad, and then killing a chicken whose brain she ate and became quiet again…In the state of phrensy, into which they work themselves by vehemently smoking, praying, and shaking of the head, their language alters so as to call everything by names which are known only to the Zār worshippers.”
Persons suffering from mental illness are most often believed to be possessed by Zār. The victim may, in time, “become a life member of a Zār group, a form of group therapy society.” The leader of these groups has himself been possessed by a Zār but has come to terms with it and is able to negotiate with it. Many times the Zār may be appeased through means of bribery. Most often the goods used to bribe the Zār are coffee, clothes, beads, etc. but the evil Zār is rarely driven out of the victim.
Pregnancy and Child Birth
Ethiopian families typically have several children due to the high rate of infant mortality, which the 2012 CIA World Factbook estimates a rate of 75.29 deaths per 1,000 births (209 of 222 nations). This is an improvement over the 2011 rate of 86.87 per 1,000 births. In comparison the 2012 estimate for Monaco is 1.8 and the United States 5.8.
Typically men are excluded from the birth preparations and the delivery itself. Until the pregnancy is noticeable it is usually not discussed. Ethiopian women continue to take their household chores seriously up until the child is born believing that the daily activity will quicken the delivery. This is a common belief in most indigenous societies that are focused on agrarian principles. Female family members and friends will assist the woman through the pregnancy and many “first timers” will go to their parent’s home in the eight month to rest and prepare for the birth.
Various taboos exist during pregnancy including not buying things for the baby prior to its birth and not eating hot mustard due to the belief that it would cause miscarriage. After birth precautions were also taken to protect the child. Babies should never be admired because if it dies the admirer may be blamed for the death and accused of witchcraft.
Prior to delivery the woman will be given a “tasting day” which is similar to the American baby shower. A variety of food which the expectant mother will eat after delivery is “tasted” and special dances are enjoyed.
When the woman begins labor female friends and family members will gather for the coffee ritual and to burn incense. Men and prohibited from being present during labor but the woman’s mother or female friend may attend.
During delivery only the woman, her mother and a midwife are present. In Orthodox Christian homes women will gather outside of the home to pray with special prayers to the Virgin Mary given when the delivery begins to produce screams. The baby’s birth is announced with a series of loud noises, five times for a boy and seven for a girl.
After birth the mother stays home for 40 days and abstains from sex during that time. In fact her husband must stay away from her for that time period and is responsible for providing food and the other necessities for her comfort. Cold showers are encouraged to strengthen the body and to promote healing.
Seven to twelve days after birth the mother and child go outside for the first time to be in the sun. It not only gives the two fresh air and sunlight but allows for the neighbors a chance to clean the new mothers home. It is also a time for the mother to be pampered. New clothes and special food is given to the mother and she is tattooed with henna and is seated in a special chair. In addition her husband my give her gifts. It is on these dates as well that boy babies are circumcised. Christening is done forty days after birth for a boy and 80 days for girls.
The evil eye is a major concern during this forty day period and the newborn is kept in the same room as its mother, who is never left alone in an effort to protect them.
Newborns are most often carried by their mothers in leather satchels, or “binders” called ankelba. They are also fed butter in the belief that butter will give the child a soft voice. Often their eye lids are painted with a black paint made from ground lead to protect the eye from disease and to encourage the growth of beautiful eyebrows.
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