Folk Medicine

Folk medicine is a cultural practice that derives from a basic human need to heal and regenerate. In Mississippi the three main cultural pathways of folk medicine come from Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans. Members of each group acquired botanical knowledge from intergenerational contact with their elders. Beginning with an initial study of nature and proceeding to the transference of knowledge through oral traditions and into modern-day usage of folk medicine via written recipes, Mississippians have relied on each other for health care.

The migration of folk medicine among Mississippians occurred slowly and through necessity. White explorers valued Native Americans’ medicinal knowledge as well as enslaved Africans’ skills in faunal knowledge that kept both the planter class and the enslaved community healthy.

Folk medicine was administered as decoctions (an extraction of plant essence through boiling), elixirs or tinctures (infusions of plant matter in grain alcohol ointments of liniment containing animal fat), or infusions of plant matter or teas (simple plant matter with water). In addition, each cultural group believed that the quality of the medicinal product rested on a host of planetary configurations. Harvesting plant matter during a full moon or making an elixir under a waning moon either enhanced or depleted the remedy.

By the end of the nineteenth century, a shift occurred in public opinions regarding religion and medicine, and many Mississippians started to view folk medicine with suspicion and disdain. For example, the folk medicine ways of enslaved Africans once utilized by whites were now perceived as evidence of “African savagery.” Folk medicine became synonymous with superstitions and “backward thinking,” while medical physicians were becoming more respected. Nonetheless, many whites, enslaved Africans, and Native Americans lacked access to physicians and continued to rely on folk medicine, especially in the area of midwifery, well into the twentieth century and on into the twenty-first. Modernity brought with it the desire for consistent efficaciousness that skeptics of folk medicine claimed was impossible to obtain.

Further Reading

  • Kay K. Moss, Southern Folk Medicine, 1750–1820 (1999)
  • Phoenix Savage, “The Evolution of Hoodoo in Mississippi and Contemporary Black Health” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 2001)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Folk Medicine
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 2, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018