During my studies this semester one of my goals was to research some traditional methods of preparation and perhaps compare and contrast them to my more modern preparations. To be honest, I haven’t found that things are all that entirely different. We still make infusions, we still use poultices and ointments and have strange bottles of unidentifiable potions lying about. Some of us are still drying herbs on the rafter in our attic. It seems the folk methods of herbal preparation have been passed down the age fairly accurately. Even the use of penicillin is not an entirely new concept. Scottish healers would allow mold to grow on the surface of milk to be used as poultices on ulcerations. (Beith, 2004, p. 179) Some ingredients have gone out of fashion. I’ve yet to meet a modern-day herbalist who is using earth from a mole hill to cure rheumatism, but I am sure I might come across something similar, someday.
What I did come across was this old Gaelic proverb: “An rud nach leigheasann im ná uisce beatha níl aon leigheas air.” which translates to “What butter or whiskey does not cure cannot be cured.” This simple proverb may well sum up Gaelic healing philosophy however it is likely that butter is referred to due to its frequent use in medicinal ointments.
In fact, the statement still holds true today. Irish American immigrants brought with them the folk medicine practices of “drinking hot whiskey with cloves and honey for coughs or colds and rubbing Vicks on the chest.” (Rapple, 2009) I decided to spend some time investigating the history of that proverb.
Source British Museum: Medieval Medicine
Legend has it that traveling Irish monks learned of distillation in the East and brought it back to Ireland as early as 1000 CE which is a plausible time frame.
It was used exclusively by monastery apothecaries for medicinal purpose well into the Middle Ages and probably a product of the distillation of barley beer. (McKeown, 2012) There are no Gaelic documents referring to early methods of distillation. The first written documentation was written in the 12th century by an Anglo Saxon visitor upon his return home. 1512, German Hieronymus Brunschwig’s “Liber de arte distillandi” also mentions these monks briefly when detailing distillation methods and the medicinal uses of alcohol.(Brunschwig, 1512)
Uisce Beatha meaning “water of life” was the Irish Gaelic translation the aforementioned monks assigned to the Latin aqua vitae. (American Heritage Dictionary, n.d.) It is pronounced roughly “ish-ke-ba’ha” The Scottish Gaelic is uisge beatha. It was reported to be “considered to be almost a panacea, given for a variety of ailments but believed to be specific for smallpox.” (Mitchell, n.d.) There has been some argument amongst historians if the peasantry would have had access to distillation equipment. I believe the answer to this lie in the long history of Irish hospitals established to care for the poor.
According to the mythological cycles, “Queen Macha Mong Ruadh (who died 377 BC) established the first hospital in Ireland called Broin Bherg (the House of Sorrow) at Emain Macha” (Wilkinson, 2008) Subsequently Brehon law codes, such as the Senchus Mór, governed these forus tuaithe (territorial house) which were to provide to all classes “sick maintenance, including curative treatment, attendance allowance, and nourishing food.” (Ellis, 1995, p. 215) By the Middle Ages, many of these hospitals were associated with monasteries. (Wilkinson, 2008) The fact that these establishments existed leads me to believe that the peasantry would have had access to uisce beatha as a medicinal preparation.
Now I shall turn my attention to the second panacea mentioned, butter. The Celtic obsession with dairy products would make me laugh, if it didn’t rule my life. In fact, dairy products have been such a ubiquitous part of the Celtic diet that it may have influenced our genetics. A recent geographical study published in the journal Nature, illustrated the British Isles as one of the few places in the worlds where over 90% of the adult population exhibit lactase persistence. (Curry, 2013, p. 21) That is their bodies produce the enzyme necessary to digest lactose
It makes sense then that many sources on traditional Celtic herbalism document the use of butter in making ointments. Beith mentions many such preparations including two ointment the first ” St. John’s wort, germander speedwell and golden rod cut small and mixed in butter and grease” (Beith, 2004, p. 220) and the second in which “golden rod was mixed with all-heal and fresh butter” both of which were used to mend broken bones. (Beith, 2004, p. 221)
Folklore is full of reference to the use of ointments by healers.
References can be found in the earliest myths. In the Tain bo Cuailgne a group of liaigh were said to accompany each army, each wearing a bag known as lés which carried the ointments that they would apply to injured soldiers at the end of the battle. (Ellis, 1995, p. 214) An old folk remedy for the plague involves invoking a charm three times and then “take butter, breathe on it quite close, and give to chafe himself therewith.” (Wilde, 1887, p. 85)
One of my favorite things about studying historical herbalism is that I am usually able to take a widely used practice and find some science to validate it. After all even leeches have their place. In this case it is the fact that lipids enhance transdermal absorption of medicinal herbs.
By Mikael Häggström, based on work by Wbensmith
The outer layer of the skin called the stratum corneum is comprised of “15 -20 rows of flat, partially desiccated, dead, keratinized epidermal cells. (See picture to the left) It is composed of about 40% lipids making it quite difficult for lipophilic healing agents to be delivered percutaneously. Modern pharmaceutical research has found that “transport of lipophilic drug molecules is facilitated by their dissolution into intercellular lipids around the cells of the stratum corneum” and concluded that lipid preparations achieved deeper delivery of medicinal constituent as evidenced by the fact that “oleaginous bases [ointments, butter] have proven superior to creams and water-soluble bases.” (Ratna Mehta, 2004)
Now granted today’s science has found chemical agents which work better than oils but they are generally petroleum products which I prefer not to use.
One can’t help but wonder what sort of trial-and-error process led the ancient folk healers to begin making their preparations with oils? Questions like these will likely never have an answer come to light, but I have a better understanding of why the original proverb became popular.
Beith, M. (2004). Healing Threads: Traditional Healing of the Highlands and the Islands. Edinburgh: Berlinn Limited.
Brunschwig, H. (1512). Liber de Arte Didstallandi. Retrieved from Turning the Pages Online: National Library of Medicine: http://archive.nlm.nih.gov/proj/ttp/flash/brunschwig/brunschwig.html
Curry, A. (2013). The Milk Generation. Nature, 20-22.
Ellis, P. B. (1995). The Druids. Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
McKeown, M. (2012, May 25). History of Irish Whiskey. Retrieved from History of Ireland: http://hubpages.com/hub/History-Irish-Whiskey
Mitchell, R. (n.d.). Celtic Medicine in Scotland. Retrieved from Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh: http://www.rcpe.ac.uk/library-archives/celtic-medicine-scotland
Rapple, B. (2009, December). Irish americans. Retrieved from Countries and their Cultures: http://www.everyculture.com/multi/Ha-La/Irish-Americans.html
Ratna Mehta, P. (2004, September). Topical and Transdermal Drug Delivery: What a Pharmacist Needs to Know. Retrieved from Archived Articles of INET Continuing Education: http://www.inetce.com/articles/pdf/221-146-04-054-H01.pdf
whiskey. (n.d.) The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. (2003). Retrieved November 24 2013 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/whiskey
Wilde, L. F. (1887). Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland Volume II. Boston: Tinker and Co. Retrieved from Sacred Texts: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/ali/ali152.htm
Wilkinson, S. (2008, November). Early Medical Education in Ireland. Retrieved from Irish Migration Studies in Latin America: http://www.irlandeses.org/0811wilkinson2.htm