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Twenty-Two Types of Folk Tales on Illnesses and Cures

If you want to understand about fairy tales and what they play upon, this page may serve you too.

Folktales on illnesses and cures, inaugural In the twenty-two tales referred to below, healing and health remedies are vital to the action (or plot). So this is a thematic sample. All the tales are contained in Norwegian folklore, and described sketchily by Ørnulf Hodne (1984) in one of the finest books about what themes and variants have been detected in Norwegian folk tales. The brief descriptions below are a bit changed from his book, but the titles and classification numbers of the tales are there, so that you may find the tales that deal with illness more conveniently. Various comments have been added.

Why do people tell tales about illnesses?

Illnesses and death form parts of the human condition in the long run. And besides, people tell each other about various illnesses rather naturally. Very often people are groping for help, succour, cures, and explanations, and sometimes come up with mad tales - "explaining" this or that by supernatural agents, magic, and so on.

However, illness tales can be of many sorts, and handed-over tales of illness may be interesting to tell and listen to. In the old days they hardly had newspapers and TV and the Internet, but had rumours and legends to put faith in, rather ... It is not out of the place to point it out.

The causes of illnesses have been surrounded by great lack of knowledge, and then people resorted to myths and superstitions out of fascination for the subject. And when people pondered on what caused this and that otherwise, they made up tales (ethiological tales) too, but that is another matter.

Earlier, many illnesses were harder to deal with than they are today. People hardly knew how to handle many of them at all - not medical doctors, leeches, either. They padded their careers by bleeding people and seldom made things better for patients by that. Little by little the art and science of medicine has developed over the centuries, and plausible causes of many diseases are detected to some extent. Thus, some Guide to Family Health, authored by brilliant medical expertise, may give help and assurance based on many averages. Standard treatments develop from averages, and further. Not that all treatments and medicines are perfect.

A Peep at Semmelweiss

The Hungarian-Austrian physician Ignaz Semmelweiss (1818-65) came to suspect that many of the women who died of childbed fever - the scourge of maternity hospitals throughout Europe - had been "infected" for it. He learnt that students who came directly from the dissecting room to the maternity ward carried the infection from mothers who had died of the disease to healthy mothers, and ordered the students to wash their hands well before each examination. It improved the mortality rate almost miraculously. He taught prevention of disease by hygiene.

However, "the establishment" meant he had better stop the nonsense about the chlorine hand wash, and humiliated him in many ways. They rejected his doctrine and the controversy undermined him till he got a breakdown and died from an infected wound in his right hand.

Only after Semmelweiss had died was he given due respect for his breakthrough findings. Today the mortality rates for women giving birth in hospitals have dropped from 20-30 percent of his days, and hence childbirth is not feared much any longer in most industrialised countries.

However, poor hand hygiene by hospital staff has been associated with the spread of organism that are resistant to antibiotics. The spread of such microbes is a new sort of trouble to be dealt with, among other things by better hand-washing, for they cause tens of thousands of troubles in hospitals. The truth is that there is a rise of hospital-acquired diseases nowadays. So far for progress; it is a long way from linear in this field. [Wikipedia, s.v. "Antibiotic resistance"]

As hinted at above, sound medical knowledge is quite a newcomer on history's arena.

Mass-drowning at a Party in France

There is a story about a party in a French castle. While the unwashed (they rarely washed), powdered and overdressed gentlemen and ladies were dancing along, the floor gave way and they drowned in the manure cellar beneath the hall.

French nobility at the time used to have holes in the corners of such rooms. There they relieved themselves. Rot had probably not been taken properly care of, you may add.

The newcomers on the "scene": antibiotics

In old days and not very long ago, many died from a draught that turned into a cold that turned into pneumonia, for example. That is a good reason for the proverb, "The air of the window is as a stroke of a cross-bow" [Fergusson 1983:120]. It warns against the dangers of draught from times when penicillin was not discovered by the Scottish bacteriologist Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) - some might say by accident - and put to some use as late as in World War II. Antibiotics have saved the lives of many.

Fantasized Fun at Last

Old folk tales reflect the mystery and grotesque helplessness of people facing unexplainable and mortal diseases of many kinds. We still have some, and presupposed uncurable diseases too.

The tales that go into origins and cures smack of superstition and lack of plumbing into causes. Many of the kind of tales here were probably circulated by word of mouth first, and that is a rich source of changes in the tales. Tales changes as they are told and retold, eventually to conform to some obscure pattern, it may be added.

On the one hand people envisioned or fantasised about great cures and remedies because there was a great need, and fears (and superstitions) were very many. Even in Norse times (Viking times) people said that gods had wonderful objects, and some of them were for curing people. On the other hand Norse people and later generations could poke fun with serious things too, including illnesses and how people react to them, both as healers and patients.

Fun is fun where you find it. There are alternatives to soap programs on the TV. That's about it.

Twig

AT 50. The sick lion (Reven og den sjuke løva)

The lion, the king of the beasts, is mortally ill. The fox announces to the other animals that he knows what can cure the lion: it is the wolf's skin. The animals kill the wolf, and the fox is saved. (It is an Aesop's fable).

  • Related: Rheumatic people in our times have tried cat skins and other skins to reduce the pains too.

AT 311. The giant and the three sisters (Risen og dei tre søstrene) - the same type of tale as ATU 311, Rescue by the Sister

Three sisters are bewitched one after the other by a troll who is eager to wed, when they are on an errand in the forest. He commands them not to enter a forbidden room. Two of the sisters disobey him and are slain. The third sister obeys the giant and continues to live in the cave. Here she discovers a magic ointment with which she brings her sisters back to life. Then she fools the troll into carrying them all home again, one after the other, in a sack/chest, which she frightens him off looking into. She leaves behind in the cave a dummy bride, and the troll bursts.

  • The supreme ointment brings dead folks back to life. To be helped and even brought back to life by a potent ointment is a theme in the Sicilian folk tale "Two Brothers" too - a tale collected by Laura Gonzenbach - and a potent motif in the type of tale called "The Rarest Thing in the World" (ATU 653A), for example.

AT 432. The prince as bird (Den grøne riddaren)

A princess has a secret lover ('the green knight'), who sends her a magic gift (a book, fan), which can bring him to her at any time. The wicked stepmother finds out, shuts her in, and wounds the lover severely. The maiden sets out to recover him, and on the way she overhears in a conversation how he may be healed. She follows the directions and heals him. The stepmother is punished with death.

  • The art of healing in not too remote centuries was also associated with witchcraft.

AT 461. Three hairs from the devil's beard (Rike Per Kremmar)

A rich man (Rich Per) is foretold that his daughter will marry a poor lad. He makes vain attempts to kill the youth and prevent the marriage. Finally the boy is promised the daughter in return for performing a dangerous and difficult task: Go to the world's end/hell and bring back three hairs from the devil's beard or three feathers from a dragon. On his way various questions are put to which the youth is asked to find the answers. He is helped to accomplish the tasks and returns with gold and silver. The envious rich man attempts to imitate the youth's exploits but he is compelled to relieve the ferryman in the other world, or is killed by the dragon.

  • One of the tasks the boy got, was to heal a princess so that she could talk again. A peculiar toad was the remedy for that condition.

AT 551. The sons on a quest for a wonderful remedy for their father (Ungdomslandet)

An old king has heard about the land/book of youth, and sends out his sons to find it. The two elder stop at an inn, the youngest is helped to the goal by a witch, whale, bird, horse, etc., and finds the elixir of life in a distant castle. On his way home he makes his old helpers young again. The brothers rob him and present themselves as true heroes. The swindle is cleared up when the princess in the land of youth arrives to marry the prince she has fallen in love with/to search for the father of her child.

  • The age-old wish not to get aged has formed its objects of desires - particular wells, water-sources - whatever. For example, for many centuries people looked for a fountain of youth in Florida. In Norse mythology the goddess Idun had wonderful healing apples.

AT 566. The three magic objects and the wonderful fruits (Underepla - Fortunatus)

A boy with magic objects he has obtained/inherited (a self-filling purse, wishing hat, horn that furnishes soldiers) wishes himself a princess/ proposes to her. She steals the objects from him and disappears. He finds and eats an apple that causes horns to grow on his head, or gives him a long nose. Later he finds another that removes them. He returns to the court and succeeds in causing the princess to eat the first apple. In payment for curing her he receives back the magic objects.

  • Some plants are for healing, others work in the opposite direction. Expert knowledge of these things is a great boon.

AT 590. The prince and the arm bands (Det blå båndet)

A boy travelling with his mother stays with an ogre, or a prince and his sister fleeing from their father, who will compel them to incest, come to a den of robbers. The mother/princess conspires against the boy and tries to kill him. The mother feigns sickness and sends him on a quest for medicine: lion's milk and magic apples. Instead of killing him, the lions become his true servants, and by means of them and a blue band (belt) which gives him supernatural strength, he overcomes his enemies and wins a princess.

  • One may wonder if cat's milk will do the trick just as well (but don't try it at home). "Little, but good," said the wife, she milked her cat (Lite, men godt," sa kona, ho mjølka katten sin). (Norwegian proverb). Magic apples occur in Celtic myths (and other) myths too.

AT 611. The gifts of the dwarf (Tobakksguten)

A poor boy is adopted by a rich merchant, but is sent to sea when he falls in love with the merchant's daughter. In a foreign country he is rewarded with magic objects by trolls. He heals a sick princess and returns home as a rich man and marries his first love.

  • The healed princess helps her healer. The troll hag hardly ever does.

AT 613. The two travellers (Tru og Utru)

The one of two travellers (brothers) blinds the other in a quarrel, and leaves him alone. The blinded one puts up for the night in a tree and overhears a meeting of animals, and learns valuable secrets. By means of the secrets he restores his sight and performs many difficult tasks (cures a sick princess etc.), and becomes a rich and mighty man. The false companion attempts in the same way to try his luck, but fails.

  • Cures for blindness have been eagerly sought throughout history. Prevention of many sorts of blindness is of course far better.

AT 660. The three doctors (Dei tre doktorane)

Three doctors can remove a part of their body (eye, hand, gut) and replace it without injury the next morning. One night these parts are eaten by an animal and replaced with a cat's eye, a hog's gut (heart), and a thief's hand. The doctors acquire the corresponding peculiarities.

  • Now as then, specialists need to take extra care so that their skills are not thwarted and made fun of by common people.

AT 709. Snow-white (Snofri)

A childless queen gives birth to a daughter, but dies, and the evil stepmother wants to kill her, because the girl is more beautiful than she is. 'Snow-white' escapes and is adopted by some dwarfs/robbers living in a cabin in the forest. A magic mirror tells the stepmother that 'Snow-white' lives, and she seeks to kill her by means of poisoned gifts (comb, apple etc.). The dwarfs succeed in reviving her from the first two poisonings, but fail the third time, and lay her in a glass coffin. A prince sees her and resuscitates her. They are married, and the stepmother is killed.

  • Many poisons can be hard to detect and cure today as well.

AT 753. Christ and the smith (Meistersmeden)

Christ takes off a horse's foot in order to shoe him, and rejuvenates an old woman in the smith's forge. A master smith tries disastrously to do the same.

  • What surgery accomplishes today in many cases, belong to the domain of miracles and stories in earlier times.

AT-. Jesus cures his friend

Jesus is accused of having hurt a friend while playing. Jesus cures the boy on condition that he tells him who the guilty person is.

  • In many religious tales God and apostles do the healing.

AT 924. Discussion by sign language (Prosten og kolbrennaren)

A dean uses sign language to test the theological knowledge of an unlearned priest (a charcoal burner), and is convinced of his qualifications.

  • The tales makes fun of "academic and religious-ceremonial soap" of former times.

AT 1135. Eye-remedy (Blinde trollet)

The man says he can cast new eyes for the ogre. He blinds him with boiling lead.

  • Alas, there are risks involved in laser surgery of the eyes too, but the risk is not great.

AT 1137. The ogre blinded (Trollet blir blinda - Polyphemus)

The ogre gets something in his eye, and the man says he can cure it. He melts lead and pours it into the ogre's eyes.

  • Not all who say they are experts are good people. Not all who claim to be helpers, mean to help.

AT 1462*. Clean and tidy (Sju års gammal graut)

A suitor, who wants a cleanly wife, asks for seven-year-old porridge to use as medicine for a fictitious swollen finger. He gets a positive answer and departs.

  • The tale plays on and is fed by the common need to find suitable, effective life partners. To get stuck in matrimony with a bad one, was thought to be ill-fated (and is probably still). It could be a matter of life and death formerly. The medicine is a "decoy" in this tale.

AT 1641. Doctor Know-all (Kolbrennaren)

A poor man/charcoal burner professes to be a parson/prophet. Unintentionally he detects some thieves in the king's castle ('That is the first one (second, third')), gains a prophetic reputation in the church, and confirms his 'supernatural' powers by 'seeing' a crab in the king's mug ('Ah, poor crab that I am.'), and by prognosticating the queen's twins.

  • This tale reveals the gains that can be got by academic credentials (formal qualifications), and that the need to diagnose unborn babies is nothing new. The charcoal burner became rich and famous by his academic-religions facade and tricks.

AT 1843. Parson visits the dying (Den døyande skomakarkjerringa)

A shoemaker fetches a parson for his dying wife. The parson confuses the wafer with a patch of leather and the wine with a bottle of powder The powder explodes and strikes senseless the parson and the shoemaker. The woman believes it is the devil leaving her body in a hurry and she revives.

  • As long as it cures the dying patient, there should be something of value in it -

AT 1845. The student as healer (Ein heldig kur)

A clergyman/doctor teaches another to practise medical art according to a magic formula. Later the clergyman feels that his throat is sore, and 'the magician' is going to cure him in the same way. Then the patient laughs so much that the boil bursts or the fishbone loosens.

  • Most people in former centuries were superstitions and believed in magic, including Cyprianus. Often, humorous tales is deeply linked to or takes the edge of some fear.

AT-. The cat's eye

A skipper has had one eye knocked out by a flying fish and replaced by a cat's eye. When he goes to sleep, the cat's eye is always open, watching for mice.

  • A moral: Mismatches fail, at times in unforeseen ways.

AT-. The quack

A quack 'cures' a sick farmer's wife in return for a cheese. Afterwards he brushes aside her enraged husband by saying that it could not occur to him to claim two cheeses for such a labour on one and the same farm.

  • Where there is profit in healing, quacks may enter the scene too, unless hindered. Laws help against bad healers and doctors, in fact.

Further Comments

The outlook of the comments above is pragmatic, that is, relating to tales from a practical angle. It is possible to interpret fairy tales from many angles. Here is more about what I mean by 'pragmatic':

'Pragmatic' stems from the Greek pragma, fact, activity, cause, and is related to do and act. What is pragmatic builds on knowledge and sticks to the matters at hand and to facts, and is substantial-practical in its main orientations. (Cf. Caplex, s.v. "pragmatisk"). 'Pragmatic' suggests a preponderance on attaining practical results, finding practical, usable, tenable solutions etc. There are strivings to account for causes and effects of happenings, and to learn lessons fit for the future.

Einstein on Fairy Tales

A concerned mother once visited Albert Einstein to get his counsel on how to help her son become really good in maths. Exactly what was she to read for him to help him evolve into a prominent scientist?

"Folk tales," said Einstein.

"Okay," said the mother, "and after that?"

"More folk tales," said Einstein.

"And after that?" the mother asked again.

"Still more folk tales," answered Einstein. [Zipes 1992:1]

MENTIONS

If recited and written fairy tales cultivate the building of inner images (imagery), it can assist mental development in time. It comes by stages, says the Swiss Jean Piaget. In short, it should be good for childen to imbibe fairy tales that suit their ages or "fancy levels", as long as they don't get tense or overly scared.

Further, some fairy tales tell of (indicate) a "way out", that is, ways of behaving or conducting oneself to gain favours and profit greatly. There is a chance that many of those ways are obsolete now. How many princesses are there to marry, for example? A way around that problem is to interpret the admired princess as something else - to think the princess in the tale is a good girl, for example. The proverb "My home is my castle" is related to such a transposing train of thought.

And in Transactional Analysis (TA) from Dr. Eric Berne a princess is a nice girl too, a "good Child" that is sane, for most part. [Berne, 1973; James and Jongeward, 1971]

Contents


Folktales on illnesses and cures, Literature  

Aarne, Antti. The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography. Translated and Enlarged by Stith Thompson. 2nd rev. ed. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia / FF Communications, 1961.

Ashliman, D. A Guide to Folktales in the English Language. New York: Greenwood, 1987.

Berne, Eric. What Do You Say After You Say Hello? The Psychology of Human Destiny. New York: Bantam, 1973.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica 2016 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD. London: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2015.

Fergusson, Rosalind. The Penguin Dictionary of Proverbs. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

Hodne, Ørnulf. The Types of the Norwegian Folktale. Bergen: Universitetsforlaget, 1984.

James, Muriel, and Dorothy Jongeward. Born to Win: Transactional Analysis with Gestalt Experiments. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1971.

Uther, Hans-Jörg. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. Vols 1-3. FF Communications No. 284-86, Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2004.

Zipes, Jack. Breaking the Magic Spell. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 1992.

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